Ventoux, seems to challenge, “No trees can grow on my summit – what makes you think you can survive?”
Mont Ventoux is a legendary mountain in Tour de France circles. Part of its notoriety comes from the difficulty of the climb, boasting an average grade of 7.43% from the Bedoin side (the final 16k having an average of 8.9%) and a maximum of 11%. If the incline isn’t enough challenge, add the nice advertisement of “expect the last kilometers to have strong, violent winds.” (Venteux means windy in French.) So as not to disappoint, the mountain delivered the day we rode.
Ventoux became known worldwide when it played a role in claiming the life of British cyclist Tom Simpson. Tom died on the mountain in 1967, during the Tour, at the hands of heat exhaustion, dehydration, amphetamines and alcohol. From Wikipedia:
He began to wildly weave across the road before he fell down. He was delirious and asked spectators to put him back on the bike, which he rode to within a half mile of the summit before collapsing dead, still clipped into his pedals. Amphetamines were found in his jersey and bloodstream.
This year, Ventoux was touted as the decisive stage of the Tour and we weren’t about to miss it.
We left Baronnies and headed toward Bedoin, the most famous and difficult ascent. The first part of our ride was pretty relaxed. As we got closer to Bedoin, we encountered more and more cyclists.
Bedoin was bustling, with people on foot and on bikes. After filling our bottles in central city fountain with cold, delicious water, we headed toward the summit. Our plan was to summit and then descend to a good viewing location.
I thought that climbing Romme and Colombiere was humanity madness. Really, that day was light training for Ventoux. The road on the lower part of Ventoux was crowded with people riding and walking. It was at least twice as crowded as Romme and Colombiere.
At one point low on the mountain, a few Gendarme (select the word and then select “speak” for pronunciation ) set up a couple of barriers and began asking cyclists to turn around as no more cyclists would be allowed on the mountain. This particular effort, at this time, was fruitless as cyclists and walkers flooded past the inadequate barriers.
It was at this barrier that our group got split up and I’m not sure what happened to everyone else. I made a decision to attach myself to guide David Cooper’s wheel for two reasons:
1) He speaks excellent French.
2) He is an excellent cyclist and can navigate a crowd on a road bike as if it were a technical mountain bike trail.
As if it isn’t enough of a challenge to ride through a sea of cyclists, pedestrians, kids and dogs the Tour adds vehicles to the mix. Constant vigilance was critical, in order to navigate the people and keep an ear out for honking horns (cars, tour busses – the big ones, VIP vans) and the occasional sirens of emergency vehicles heading to who knows where.
About half way up the mountain, I asked (insisted) that David leave me and ride at his own, faster, pace. I would meet him at the top, where we would try to collect the group.
Ventoux is similar to Mt. Evans in Colorado in that you can see the tower of your final destination for quite awhile. While treeline on Evans is caused by elevation, treeline on Ventoux was caused by the systematic stripping of trees for shipbuilders. Erosion of the soil after the trees were cut down removed any chances for new trees to grow and exposed a stern, angry look.
Both mountains, Evans and Ventoux, seem to challenge, “No trees can grow on my summit – what makes you think you can survive?”
While we were struggling against the winds, trying to summit, Phil Liggett was telling television viewers that the gusts on Ventoux were 70 miles per hour. Within a few miles of the summit, the Gendarme were again setting up a barrier. This time they were allowing cyclists to pass through one side of the gate, until a bus load of reinforcements arrived. I suspect there was a certain time cut-off.
The new Gendarme (also Gendarmerie) now stood a line, arm-in-arm, and would not allow any more cyclists to pass. One cyclist in our group was not able to summit due to the cut-off.
Already past the barrier, it was one of those rides that I became steel-willed about doing. Coming this far, there was no way I wasn’t going to summit – even if it meant dismounting and walking because of high winds. Thankfully, I didn’t have to walk and found David and the rest of the gang, sans one, at the top. Below is a shot of David and I at the top.
I think someone else got group photos at the top, but somehow I managed not to take a group shot. We didn’t spend much time at the top because it was cold and windy. We descended to Chalet Reynard, where we would spend the rest of the day near the VIP area, food and a big screen feed of the race. Perfect!
The gang is resting in a spot that we would eventually have to move from. Note the big screen in the top left corner. During the race, yes during, the riders later in the peloton would pause to look over their shoulders at the screen to see how the race at the front was unfolding.
For us, it was a long and hard day on Ventoux. After the riders passed and the course was clear, it was the completely chaotic trip back to Bedoin. Navigating the storm of people, bikes, cars, etc. post-race was more challenging than the trip up and one of our group accidentally took a wrong turn ending up in Sault.
After collecting the lone rider (I’m still convinced he was aiming to get more miles riding than the rest of us) we started back to the chalet. Unfortunately, the rental van broke down. Remaining calm and collected, Julie got the rental company to send a mechanic to fix the problem. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I would have had to deal with this on my own, had I tried to do a self-designed tour.
Ventoux, and the entire trip, was such a great experience that no one allowed a mechanical problem to spoil the day or the end of the trip. We were able to drive the van back to the chalet and enjoy an excellent final group dinner before packing our bikes and heading our separate ways the next day.
Ride time on the Ventoux day was 4:05, “out” time with bike in hand (not counting the van break down) was 10 hours, 7,272 feet of elevation gain in 47.5 miles of riding.
A big thanks to the Ride Strong team of David, Julie and Rob for making the trip a memory of a lifetime.