The Giant of Provence - defying the Ventoux

Believe everything you hear about this mountain. I'm just back from climbing it via the East from Bédoin: 21 km over 1610 m. Here's how the Wikipedia entry puts it:

"This is the most famous and difficult ascent. The road to the summit has an average gradient of 7.6%. Until Saint-Estève, the climb is easy, but the 16 remaining kilometres have an average gradient of 10%. The last kilometres have strong, violent winds. The ride takes 2-3 hours for trained amateur individuals, and professionals can ride it in 1-1.5 hours."

I did it by entering a randonnee called "Le Défi du Ventoux" which you can read about here. It seemed more fun (and safer) to do it as part of an organised ride. As previous posts will have shown I have only brought to France my Colnago fixed wheel which would never get me up this mountain so I borrowed a mountain bike from a friend of our hosts called Toto (thanks Toto!) to do this ride.

So there I am at seven in Villes sur Auzon (11km away from Bédoin) to register along with Susanna (my wife), Robert (one of our hosts without whose kindness this visit to France and this ride in particular would not have been possible - so a huge thanks to Robert and Carol-Leigh his wife) and Chippie the dog. Six Euros did the job and I was handed a free bottle of wine (really - a Cave was one of the sponsors) and a dossard (a label for the back of my shirt). Then I started to look around at the other cyclists arriving . . .

To be quite frank what I saw began to instil in me a growing sense of fear. Not a single mountain bike to be seen - everywhere lightweight state of the art road bikes and folk in multi-coloured lycra. Now the brochure (article 10) says quite clearly that "Le Défi du Ventoux is not a competition but a permanent randonnee designed to give each person pleasure on a legendary journey" but the general vibe spoke of something different. They repeated that sentiment over the public address system but it didn't quite chime in with the way young guns were warming up in the car park itching for the off.

8.30am and away we go. The first 11km (a warm up) were decidedly speedy headed up, as we were, with motorbikes and behind us a voiture-balai (a broom wagon for sweeping up failed entrants) and a couple of ambulances. Scary.

We hit Bédoin at 9am and, after fifteen minutes faffing around, we finally get off but not before I had a chat with a cyclist from a nearby town who told me he had done this run three times before on a mountain bike but this time opted for a road bike. However, his words about it being possible were of some comfort to me.

The first three or four kilometres were actually fine but then the incline begins to increase noticeably and from then on the scene is set for the rest of the ride which is just relentlessly up and up and up. Every corner you turn there is just more up and more up. This psychological aspect to the ride was for me the most difficult barrier to overcome - you really do begin to think it is never going to end. For about the first 8km of the ride I was certainly not the last in the group but, eventually, I had the voiture-balai behind me. After about half a kilometre of that I stopped and had a word with the driver telling him that I really couldn't ride with that kind of pressure. When he ascertained that I wasn't in any physical distress and that I was simply going to do this climb very slowly he relented and went on ahead. From here on in I felt "comfortable" just going at my own pace.

Shortly after this (at the 10km point) there was the first refreshment station. I was pleased to learn that I was not, after-all, last! Hurrah! I ate some dried fruit and was offered some more to put in my pocket. I accepted. When they said to me to take some more I caused some laughter by pointing out that this was no picnic.

The next 5km to Chalet Reynard were for me the most difficult of the ride. All I could think about was that I was not even half-way up and round every corner was just more of this endless climb. Add to that the fact that every five minutes or so I was passed by another cyclist (the place is swarming with them) just led to me thinking that I was never going to make it.

However, as you leave the forest and just before you get to Chalet Reynard (on this route at least) you catch sight of the summit for the first time. Even though there were still 6 gruelling kilometres to go all of a sudden it seemed possible to keep going. When I got to the refreshment station Susanna, Robert and Chippie were there to greet me. A great additional boost.

I realised, however, that I couldn't stop here for long because, if I did, the will to keep going would just evaporate and, by now, the sun was getting very hot. So, allez, out into the shadeless moonscape that is so characteristic of the mountain's top for the final push. God that was hard too - especially since, by now, I was also beginning to realise that the altitude was effecting me a little. I took to staring at the road and counting off the dotted white lines at its edge to just to take my mind off the whole thing. Somewhere on this stretch the guy I had spoken to at Bédoin whizzed down the hill in the opposite direction and shouted at me "Courage! Allez, allez." It helped. In the video below that's me in the white shirt toiling up the final few hundred metres to the summit.

Then came the blessed realisation that the summit really was within my reach and very soon I saw Susanna and Robert waving me on. Another five minutes of grindingly hard peddling brought me round the final hairpin bend and to the short 100m final pull to the summit. So concluded the most ball-breaking three hours and twenty-three minutes of my life.

A few photos, a cold Orangina, a quick look at the view (not good because of the heat haze but still spectacular) and then immediately off for the descent back to Chalet Reynard to get my certificate and an aperitif. When I got there I discovered I was the last to finish, oh well - but I also discovered that a few had dropped out along the way so - not quite last. And the young guns? Well, one of them did it in just under an hour and a half.

All in all mad, quite mad but somehow strangely satisfying . . . The flatlands around Cambridge will never seem the same again


jUUggernaut said…
Glad you made it up! I once bypassed it while on a Provence bicycle tour (with 25kg of gear so I was not tempted one bit). And my aunt who lives 30 miles away in St Pantaleon Les Vignes west of Nyons drove us up there. What I could hardly believe: cyclists ride up and then have their wives pick them up by car on the top!
We were back this past summer and also visited Cassis on the coast: lovely!
You made a wise choice - an extra 25g would have finished me off let alone 25kg! And the wives still go up by car. Man, after that climb who'd want to loose the thrill of the descent? - You find yourself ecstatically muttering (sometimes quite loudly) "I climbed the Ventoux, I can't believe it." Still, it takes all sorts to make a world.

PS: I liked your blog site. A kind of perfect simplicity! Alors! On y va!