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Cycling Mount Ventoux


Rising from the Rhone valley  below, a real mountain standing alone and crowned by its bare white summit, Mont Ventoux has such striking physical presence and historical significance in the world of cycling that I could do nothing but look up at it with great respect.

I had spent a couple of weeks cycling across Southern France as part of an organised tour.  The trip was any cyclists dream ride – quiet winding roads,  vineyards, chateaux, honey coloured villages, local markets, prehistoric caves, long lunches with carafes of rose, medieval pilgrim towns, sunflower fields and indulgent dinners.  But one of the most anticipated days was the ride up Mont Ventoux.

The mountains and mountain passes of the Alps and the Pyrenees have become the Holy Grail for cyclists since they were added to the route of the Tour de France in 1910, 7 years after cycling magazine editor Henry Desgrange organised the first Tour in 1903. 

Mount Ventoux

The mountain stages in the Tour de France are often where the race is won or lost, and they have come to define the event that is France’s national sporting obsession.  The mountains are legends in themselves, and names such as Tourmalet, Col d’ Aubisque, Alpe d’ Huez, Col du Galibier and Mont Ventoux create feelings of awe and respect in cyclists.

Mont Ventoux is the last bulge of the Alps before the Mediterranean 100 kilometers to its South.  Its 1902 meter high summit can be seen from hundreds of kilometers away throughout Provence, rising up from the flat dry planes and vineyards that surround its base.  Mt Ventoux is considered by many cyclists as the toughest mountain to cycle in the world, due to its 22km length, harsh climate and steep gradient.

The top of the mountain is a treeless lunar landscape that provides no relief from the weather.  On a hot summer’s day, the last 7 kilometers can be brutally hot and still.  The sun bears down oppressively from above, reflects off the bare white rocks from the side and steams up into the cyclists face from the tarmac below.  It can make any cyclist feel like they are pedaling in a solarium.  But when the famous mistral (strong North-West wind) gets going, it can blow a cyclist off his bike!  I had heard stories of cyclists pinning themselves to the ground and pulling their carbon frames tight to their chest to stop them blowing away.  Record speeds of 320 km/hr have been recorded at the summit, the windiest place on earth! 

The locals are superstitious about the mistral (‘the master’ in Provencal), and claim they can predict it by feelings of dejection and depression.  But it is also attributed to part of the beauty of Provence, blowing away the coulds and smog and bringing rich colours and crisp air.

Prudence..

On a blisteringly hot day in July in 1967, Mt Ventoux climbed the life of one of Britains most famous cyclists.  Tom Simpson was nearing the top on the stage of the Tour de France on a blisteringly hot day, when he fell of his bike out of exhaustion.  The crowd rushed to help him and his final words were “Put me back on my bike.” – he cycled a few more meters and had a massive heart attack.  Partly attributed to amphetamines but undoubtedly confounded by the harsh climate on the treeless mountain and the absolute exhaustion any cyclist feels to ride it, let alone race it.

So, after an energy laden tart au framboise in the township of Bedoin at the mountain’s base, I set off on the 22 km climb.  The initial 4 kilometers are relatively easy, and then the road takes a big turn at the last village and immediately kicks up at about 9 percent as it enters the forest. And it stays that way, with a few kilometers greater than 10%, peaking at 17% for a short distance!  There is a short section in the forest where it flattens out for a few hundred meters, but basically it is 10 kilometers of hard, hot, knee-breaking work.  Sweat flying off me, face full of heat and jersey drenched it was only stubbornness that kept me pushing, my speed dropping to 7 km an hour for a lot of it.  I felt like I was standing still, my tires just sticking to the ground, the next bend never getting any closer.

I tried to think of things other than the burning pain in my legs and lungs, to get into a rhythm to the tunes on my i-Pod.  FINALLY I emerged at a few wooden huts and then the restaurant where the tree line officially ends and the road begins to zig-zag its way up through the bare white rocks to the huge summit tower that looks like a space station.  There are brilliant views to a misty valley below, although I was mostly too tired to look.  I made a pilgrimage to Tommy’s memorial and pushed through to the Summit in a little under two hours.  I’d done it! I’d cycled the Giant of Provence. A killer, but a ride that is an achievement just to get there!

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