I hope you enjoy this guest post from Leanne Phillips.
My husband and I decided that as part of our European holiday we would spend a week cycling in Provence. We decided to do a ‘self guided’ tour, meaning we had a cycling company give us ride routes on a GPS and move our things each night to the next hotel, but that we could cycle at our own pace and stop when we wanted.
I thought Provence was flat. How wrong I was. The second day of our cycling tour included Mont Ventoux, an iconic Tour De France mountain often called ‘The Giant of Provence’. I did not know it at the time, but it is a HC climb, meaning so hard, it is past categorisation.
Now I am not the strongest rider nor the fastest, but I was yet to find a hill or mountain I could not get up. Having said that, Mont Ventoux scared the living life out of me. Mont Ventoux is 21.4km long and has 1,639m of climbing. No switchbacks just straight up. Not something you just decide to go ride one day when you get up.
I had studied the gradient, looked at reviews of people who had climbed the mountain and from all this was scared. I was in two minds…. I was praying the winds would be so bad on the day that we did not have to climb it (sometimes they close Ventoux as winds can exceed 300km/hr) but then the other part of me was saying ‘you have done the training (a program set by Emma Molloy from Fusion Cycle Coaching, which included more climbing that I had ever done before) you are as ready as you will ever be, and you know you would be disappointed if you don’t do it’. Plus I knew my husband, Rom, was dead keen on doing it and I wanted to deep down as well.
Mont Ventoux was the second day of our cycling adventure in Provence. The first day included a 120km ride with just short of 1,000m of climbing in nearly 40 degree heat. For the second day, just to get to the start Mont Ventoux we had to ride 40km with 400m of climbing from Orange to Bedoin.
We arrived in Bedoin around 10.30am, refuelled with coffee and cake, then set off just before 11.30am. It was another scorcher of a day with temperatures around the 40 degree mark. Aside from the heat, the weather was perfect to conquer Ventoux.
Everything I had read said that the Bedoin side of Ventoux is the most difficult! Knowing this made me feel even more apprehensive. The Bédoin side starts off easy, surrounded by vineyards. The first 6km the gradient ranges between 4% and 7%. However for the next 10km, through the forest section, the gradient hardly drops below 9% and never gives you time and space to recover. It is at this point you reach Chalet Reynaud. Then for the next 5km or so the road is totally exposed. However, the gradient eases off to around 7%, until the last 1.5km which goes back up to 10%.
I knew I would have to pace myself from the start otherwise I would have no chance of getting to the top. I think I was in my lowest gear before the end of the first 6km. This did not make me feel great about the rest of the climb as I knew what was coming. I had initially thought Rom would be way ahead of me and that I would not stop (mainly as I find it hard to start again on such a gradient). However, Rom rode with me the whole time. This was mentally fabulous for me as I knew he was there to give some moral support. My intention of not stopping was also thwarted, as I realised I could not eat easily on that type of gradient and actually stay upright.
I decided to stop just before the end of the first ‘easy’ bit at around the 6km mark to eat. Believe me, this section itself was not easy and had taken just over 30 mins to do. The heat of the day did not help either. Rom was a bit angry with me for stopping so soon…OK maybe I should have eaten more in Bedoin but I think nerves were getting to me and I just wanted to start the climb. Once I had started the nerves settled down, but then I had the fear of getting hungry and losing energy. Anyway we stopped, had a banana and drink, and started off again.
The gradient picked up big time. It was like I had hit a brick wall. I just kept telling myself, turn the legs, spin…well as much as you can on that type of gradient anyway, and keep going. It was hot with the temperature already at 40 degrees. We passed a few cyclists on the way and many passed us. There were people on both road and mountain bikes, some old (like me) and some young. There were a few that I thought were heart attacks waiting to happen with the amount of weight they were carrying. There was even a guy running a half marathon up Ventoux!!! I know right. There was forest surrounding us, but to be honest I don’t think I actually ‘saw’ any of this as I was concentrating too much on just turning the legs over. I don’t think my heart rate dropped below 160bpm!!! for the entire climb.
Our next stop was at the 11km mark…only 5 km on from our first stop. Rom had taken a backpack with our lunch in it…we had thought we would get to Chalet Reynaud and eat lunch. However, this last 5 km had taken us 40min to climb and I think we both needed to stop and ‘rest’ and drink, so we thought we would eat lunch on the side of the road. We sat overlooking the valley and forest and had our cheese and ham rolls.
At this point I was thinking…OMG I am only just half way over the ‘really hard section’, am I going to make the next 4km? Well I can tell you the answer is: yes I did. It took 30min to do the next 4km. I think stopping and sitting for the 20min to have lunch was the best thing we could have done. Not that the next 4km was easier, but it gave the legs a bit of a break.
When we reached Chalet Reynaud we again got off our bikes and I went in and bought some sugary based lemon drink for Rom and we ate again!!! I don’t think I have ever eaten this much on a 21km ride ever.
After 30 min we looked at each other and thought…OK time to get back on the bike. So off we went. The next 6km was totally exposed. White granite all around. Nothing pretty to look at here. But you could see the Mont Ventoux flag in the distance. I think mentally this helped a lot. The legs did not think so, but I knew I would make it at that point. The only thing that really concerned me was the last 1.5km at that 10% plus gradient. I had read an article that said by this time though you won’t care as you are nearly there….and they were right.
We rounded the last bend (not a switchback just a bend) and could see the end. I thought at that point…I am never going to get there and OMG what if I don’t make it. I had passed people walking their bikes at this point. Well I thought walking is harder than cycling, so legs you just have to keep going. AND THEY DID. Rom and I had conquered the beast. I have never been so happy in my life to get to the top of any mountain/hill. The view from the top was amazing.
We waited our turn to get our photo in front of the sign and then got someone to take our picture in our ‘conquer a mountain pose’. (Many couples copied our pose after we had had our photo taken…it was quite amusing). Runner dude arrived shortly after and we had a ‘high five’ with him….he was a lovely guy…old enough to be my son!!!! We stayed on the peak and walked around for about half an hour in a euphoric state…we had made it!!!
Then we thought, OK let’s start the descent. A lot of friends have said ‘bet you enjoyed the descent’. The answer is no! I am a conservative descender at the best of times. Here was a constant 21km down at fairly high gradients. One wrong move and well…you know what the result could be. As it was, on the way up the ambulance came up a couple of times to attend to riders on the side of the road. I don’t know what happened in these cases, but I was not willing to take any risks. From the time we left the top, I had my brakes on. We had hired very average bikes and from about two minutes in the brakes started making funny noises, and all I could think was ‘OMG I hope the brakes don’t fail’. It was a lot quicker coming down than going up though! Less than 30 minutes for the descent. The big problem was just the constant steep gradient and sometimes you could not see what was around a corner…like one corner we came around and faced a truck just metres from us taking up the whole road…that was scary. Needless to say we made it down…and safely.
For anyone contemplating Mont Ventoux…I would say go give it a try. The feeling you have once finished is amazing…but do your training…it is not something you just get up one day and think…yeh let’s do Ventoux!
And then a well earned vino pre dinner!