June 23, 2010
Chill Week was never meant to be a totally-relaxed-sit-by-the-pool kind of holiday, but if ever there was an anti-Chill event, it is a ride up the legendary Mont Ventoux. For many years I had wanted to cycle this climb, one of the icons of the Tour de France. I knew of the great racers who had fought their way up this extinct volcano, rising above the plains of Provence. It was here that Ferdy Kűbler, the mighty Swiss champion and Tour de France winner, completely blew apart, and quit his professional racing career; where Eros Poli, a huge Italian domestique who looked like he would have had trouble climbing a highway overpass, rode away from the peloton and was never reeled in; where Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani clashed; where only last year Alberto Contador climbed as if on a Sunday outing with the Schleck brothers. And, of course, it was here where former World Champion Tommy Simpson of Great Britain fell on a hot July day in 1967, never to rise again.
As our gite was near Carcassonne in Languedoc-Rousillion, it was never going to be the easiest matter to arrange the logistics to get eleven people and bicycles to Bédoin, the traditional departure town for the “hard” side of Mont Ventoux. In addition to two passenger vans, we rented a small cargo van and carefully loaded it to the gills with our bikes. I had first calculated the drive to be somewhat over three hours, but with pastry stops, bathroom breaks and getting somewhat lost in Orange, it was closer to four and a half hours by the time we rolled into Bédoin, in perfect sunshine and low wind conditions. Coming off of the autoroute, we had a clear view of the looming Mont Ventoux and could easily see the weather observatory at the top that was our goal today. Parking our convoy in a big field outside of the village, we put the bikes together, got a group photo, and, around 12:45, rolled out.
Clearly many others felt the way we did about Ventoux, as Bédoin was abuzz with cyclists, many of whom had clearly already finished their ride and were keeping the cafés going. We quickly sped out of town and the climb began as we rode up the D974. I tried to keep my spinning as smooth as possible, concerned that if I pushed too hard and got cramps in my abductors it would be the end of my ride. Things went well but the smooth spinning soon enough turned to slow grinding as my RPMs dropped and dropped down to 45-50 instead of the usual 70 or so. The road was relentless as it took us through dense wood, with no flat recovery places. The heat was also becoming difficult and I soon followed the example of many of the European riders and took off my helmet for the climb. At one point, one of our group asked how far we had to go, and a Dutch comedian riding by said: “Just one more kilometer ,” which was funny because it was obviously untrue.
I had only taken off my helmet on a ride once before, on the Albula Pass in Switzerland, but it was definitely cooler. Our group was spread all over the mountain, and I took some photos en route, catching up with Dr. Chef and with TriMolly, who was actually riding the climb on her P2C time trial bike.
A brief break at the Chalet Reynard restaurant for some canned ice tea was welcome relief, and we were now above the tree line. I felt refreshed and actually was able to increase my speed for the second part of the climb, the famous stone landscape of the upper reaches of Ventoux. I passed a rider on a red Trek who was wearing toe straps and who looked quite miserable and felt quite zippy. The road was not as steep as through the woods and offered fantastic vistas below. I stopped to photograph Dr. Chef and get in some of the famous striped poles that are used to guide snowploughs. And I soon passed the red Trek rider again.
Although I was sore and tired and hot, I was enjoying the ride immensely. The weather tower was getting closer all the time and soon I reached the point, on the right side of the road, where Tommy Simpson, full of amphetamines and cognac and burning up in the intense heat, collapsed on the road. Famously demanding to be put back on the bike, he wobbled a few feet further before collapsing again, then succumbing in the helicopter on the flight to the hospital. A monument to Simpson has been erected on the spot and on the steps are offerings from cyclists—small mementos, a bottle of English beer, a plaque from a Belgian cycling club. When the Tour passed this way again in 2007, the 40th anniversary of Simpson's death was marked in a low-key fashion. It is part of the Tour de France's mixed legacy: perseverance against the elements (it was surprising to me how close Simpson got to the top of Ventoux), mixed with the dark side of drug use and cheating.
Only three more turns and the last bitter steep climb took me to the foot of the observation tower and the hordes of visitors. I felt a real sense of accomplishment as I joined the other Lost Boys. Some photos were taken, including some by an enthusiastic Frenchman who had seen me climbing below and was very excited that I had actually made it to the top. Then on to business: the purchase of a miniature Mont Ventoux milestone, and on with the armwarmers and off down the other side of the mountain. I was joined by Greg, Terry and TriMolly as the others elected to return to Bédoin the way we had come up.
The descent towards Malucene is wonderful. It started off very twisty and steep and then opened out to wide curves as we accelerated. I am a perhaps over-cautious descender and I was using the brakes a great deal but I was still hitting speeds of 65 km/h as we rocketed onwards. Traffic was light, and when it appeared the drivers gave us plenty of room.
After plunging downhill for 14 kms, we reached Malucene and began the final 12 kms towards Bédoin to complete our big loop. The road rose and fell (aargh: more climbing ) and passed through gorgeous landscapes and past orchards of cherry trees ripe with red fruit. I even took a photo of Terry at the Col de la Madelaine which, at 448 m ASL, is not the famous one The final descent, under the shading boughs of roadside tress and smelling of sun and pine, was lovely as we dropped into Bédoin, the last of the group to return for a well-earned beer and some food, and the chance to watch Team USA defeat Algeria in World Cup action.
The ride back was long but not eventful. Unless you count our going the wrong way for 15 kms on the A7, or our attempt to drive a French highway interchange. Going from the A7 to the A9 in Orange requires getting off the highway, paying the toll, and then going around a traffic circle, getting another toll card and getting back on the highway, one of the stupidest arrangements in traffic engineering I have ever seen. But after driving in light traffic past many famous southern French cities (Montpellier, Nimes, Bexiers, Narbonne), we reached the right exit and drove the lovely, and empty, D135 from Trebes to Laure-Minervois and the gite. Mission accomplished.
Well, perhaps not entirely. Van No. 3 made it back to Laure-Minervois eventually, but Van No. 2 went on a rather lengthy excursion as the occupants seemed determined to discover parts of France not on our itinerary, ending up in an industrial park outside of Marseilles. Thanks to some helpful, and voluble, Algerians at a kebab shop they eventually ended up back on track and somehow managed to return to Laure-Minervois by 1:30 am, making for an exceptionally long day but providing some entertaining stories.
The Mont Ventoux ride distance was 55 kms in all, with 1900 m of climbing. Of that, 1600 m were in the first 22 kms, a truly relentless climb. Check out the crazy profile below. I feel like Eros Poli...
55.53 km | round trip
Altitude range: 1,600 Meter (300 Meter to 1,900 Meter)
Total climb: 1,951 Meter Total descent: 1,931 Meter