I like to think that I am not a cycling geek, despite my ever increasing enthusiasm for it, and what is probably in danger of becoming a series of boring blog posts! Of course, along with my bike, on this trip we have been carting around a box the size of a domestic oven containing all sorts of cycling guff – spare inner tubes and tyres, cleaning potions, energy products and a decent amount of tools, many of which I have no idea how to use. But I swear I’m not a cycling geek!
My reasoning being that I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ of things to do or achieve on the bike. I simply take the opportunity to do things when they are presented and can be conveniently slotted into my life(style).
So a tour around the south of France spanning several weeks seemed like a convenient opportunity to borrow an item from many a cyclist’s bucket list, and attempt to conquer the notorious Mont Ventoux, a ride that holds mystique and prestige in cycling folklore. Particularly convenient in fact with a scheduled stop in nearby Avignon as we travelled across from the north of Spain to the French Alps.
But it’s not quite as near as I initially thought though! Once set up in our Avignon campsite I started planning my route out to the mountain and which path to take to up. I was slightly worried to realise we were in fact 28 miles from the official start of the climb. But on the other hand I reasoned that this would at least add to my training base for L’Etape du Tour at the weekend (not that you will find climbing Mont Ventoux just five days prior to one of the world’s toughest amateur bike races in many training manuals).
It was a beautiful clear morning when I set off, though I was quietly pleased to see the cloud cover slowly building over the mountain peak in the distance, but I sensed it would be a fine line between a high cloud cover that keeps the heat off and the more sinister clouds that would make it cold, wet and windy by the time I was half way up.
By the time I reached Bédoin, the start of the official climb (and the route which is generally considered to be the toughest), the weather was close to perfect – warm, but the sun had gone in, and just a cooling breeze sailed through the air. So I took a quick photo of the signpost at the bottom for posterity and off I set.
The first few kilometres are actually relatively easy, but I tagged along with a friendly bunch of Aussies for a little while to prevent me from going off to fast, which I was sure was likely to be my biggest downfall.
As the gradient stepped up, I moved away from them with a friendly “see you later”, which I hope they didn’t take in the arrogant way it sounded, and got into my own rhythm. By this time I had done about a quarter of the distance (though not the elevation gain) and was feeling comfortable as the mountain forest engulfed the narrow winding road. In my mind I thought to myself “get past the halfway mark; that’ll put you on to the countdown then”. I don’t know why, but in these kind of things, half way has always been a huge psychological milestone for me.
But halfway took a long time to arrive. The kilometre markers that I had found so helpful on the previous climb in the Picos de Europa Mountains were a real bitch today – they took so long to turn up and to add to it they had the gradient of the next kilometre painted on them. 13%? Surely not.
I was really starting to struggle as I passed halfway, but I was consoled by passing numerous fellow challengers on the way up. There were literally hundreds of cyclists about the area and it occurred to me that not many were coming past, so I must be doing alright. That said, maybe some of these people had it a little harder than I did. For every fancy road bike, there was someone attempting the challenge on a massive mountain bike, or in flat trainers. There was even a guy in sandals. The biggest respect must however go to the guy running up!
I then quickly found myself three quarters of the way up as I passed Chalet Reynard, a significant check point as the road emerges out of the forest and the barren mountain rock opens out either side of the road. Five kilometres or so to go. I was now not feeling any worse and instead growing in confidence.
From this point on I was always knew that I would get up there in one go. Not stopping on the way up was my main aim; I wasn’t too fussed about how long it took. But my god the last three kilometres took some time and effort. The one kilometre to go marker was an extremely welcome sight, but I was still hurting, but I’m sure I had done another kilometre by the time I hit the 500 metres to go marker. And then that last 500 metres seemed to go on forever, and it was particularly demoralising to effectively cycle past the mast on top of the mountain that you’ve been targeting all day, only to have to switch back and up again for the final short but steep ramp up to the summit.
But I made it in one piece and although it was undoubtedly tough, I was pleased that it hadn’t really come close to getting the better of me. At the top there were probably a hundred other cyclists milling about also revelling in their moment of achievement atop Mont Ventoux, taking selfies with the summit marker and panoramic shots of the views, which were sadly compromised by the cloud and haze.
After a bit of a breather it was time to head back down. I had decided in advance to use a different route back down, which the guides I had read suggested was a safer option due to straighter and wider roads with better sight lines. I hadn’t reckoned with the cloud being somewhat thicker on this particular aspect of the mountain though. The first few kilometres of the descent were actually pretty slow due to the extremely restricted visibility – at points I was thankful for the brilliant white of the freshly painted road markings as the only means to guide me through the mist.
Once beneath the cloud though it was great fun as the speed increased and the thrill of the descent took hold, and having climbed the mountain in 1hr 48min, I was back down in less than 28 minutes. It makes you wonder why you bother when the painful bit takes so much longer than the fun bit – surely it should be the other way round?
I then had two hours to gently roll back to the campsite on largely flat ground in increasingly broken cloud as the sun came out. Just shy of 90 miles added to my preparation for L’Etape at the weekend was a good effort. Not that I’m keeping track of course. I’m no geek.