Cycling up Mont Ventoux and around the hills of Provence
The first thing I noticed about Mont Ventoux was its strange white headed peak poking out of a dense forest. You could be forgiven for thinking that it's snow-capped (which it is during December-April) but in fact the peak is covered in bare limestone without vegetation or trees. I was soon to find out that this moonscape was about to become a hard task master.
My boyfriend Andrew came up with the idea of cycling up a mountain this summer and whilst he had done the Etape du Tour last year, my climbing experience really only extended to a few UK hills and so I was keen to conquer something big and something iconic.
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Climbing Mont Ventoux, taking the Bedoin route (the village sits at 300m) is a 21.5km journey that covers 1612 metres of ascent and with an average gradient of 7.5%. I deliberately didn’t read the stats before I left but sitting here now, I can put it into perspective by saying that Box Hill in Surrey, a climb that I based most of my training on, is 2.5km long and with an average gradient of 4.9%. To summarise further, and in language I understand, it was a bloody long way to cycle uphill.
We rented bike boxes and took an early flight out to Marseille at 5am on a Friday morning. Although the Autumn was settling in back in London, on landing in France, it was a glorious sunny day and was forecast to last the weekend which meant that we wouldn’t have to battle headwinds or sheeting rain as well as a monster climb.
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I am fortunate to have French family and a family home in a tiny village in Provence, near(ish) the town of Greoux-Les-Bains and therefore that was our base for the weekend although I know that a lot of people climbing Ventoux are able to find accommodation in Bedoin and other neighbouring villages within close proximity.
We wanted to cover a good 60 mile distance as well as scale a mountain that day and so mapped a route from a village called Monieux that according to Garmin was a round trip of that exact mileage (it was actually 80 miles).
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Andrew and I were a little concerned as we set off from home that we had left it quite late in the day to leave. Delays of bike building and being generally exhausted from London living meant that we weren’t en-route to our starting destination until about 9:30am and didn’t begin cycling until at least midday. I would certainly recommend leaving earlier and taking bike lights if you get caught short (something we forgot which proved dodgy trying to find the car later that day).
The route to the foot of the mountain was absolutely stunning and some of the best riding conditions I have ever come across. The scenery is so dramatic that you feel like a tiny bird zooming in and out of the mountain roads with breath-taking sheer drops on one side. We could see Mont Ventoux looking enormous and faraway in the distance and it did seem like we would never reach it.
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Eventually we got to the foot of the mountain and I said goodbye to Andrew as we had agreed to go at our own pace. As I watched him pedal off I suddenly contemplated what exactly was in front of me.
I have had a fairly active summer and completed a good amount of distance but I can say now that I could certainly have done a bit of extra climbing practice before Ventoux.
When you are continuously cycling up a gradient that although has a 7.5% average, also has spikes of around 11 and 12%, for over two hours, your body begins to show the signs!
The infamous forest section from St Esteve to Chalet Reynard at 1,417m was a bit of a mental battle with its 9% gradient. You are surrounded by thick trees and can’t see your way out. Each bend leads to more road and you are constantly aware that your legs are quite literally burning.
I wasn’t wearing a heart rate monitor but by the sounds of the blood thumping in my ears, I’m pretty sure it was through the roof. I tried to mix it up a bit by doing a few metres out of the saddle every now and again to work other muscles.
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Psychologically it was pretty tough watching people whizz down the mountain and give me a wave, especially at one point when I looked down and saw I was doing 3.5 mph!
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My mood slightly lifted when suddenly the trees disappeared and I approached Chalet Reynard which was now only 6km from the summit. I could even see the white peak in the distance and believed I was on the home straight. Little did I know that this would be the hardest battle of all.
About 1km into the final push, I was in the hurt-locker. My legs were dangerously weak and I was feeling dizzy. I compensated by glugging continuously from my bidon and popping Shot Bloks and just kept inching forward. I was grateful for each turn but the summit never seemed to get closer.
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Eventually I entered the final climb, passing the memorial of Tom Simpson who unfortunately never quite made it to the summit and died of a heart-attack at that exact spot during the Tour de France of ’67.
I crawled to the top and was greeted by Andrew who had got there about 20 minutes before. Rather than beaming with happiness and all the other good emotions you’re meant to feel at the top of a mountain, the misguided administration of energy food and the build up of lactic acid meant that moments after my arrival, I threw up ceremoniously on the floor! I felt very queazy for a good hour but managed to pull it together for a green-looking summit photo but promptly ran off to be sick straight after. (I decorated a couple of spots on the descent too!)
Like most physical challenges that are hard, once you are back at home with a beer in hand, all you can think about is how amazing it was. The endorphins and sense of a achievement last for ages and I was very proud for completing what I’ve heard is one of the hardest climbs in France.
A couple of days later, fully recovered from my nauseous show down on the summit, Andrew and I jumped back on our bikes went for a ride down to the Gorges Du Verdon where he surprised me with an engagement ring. Apparently he had planned it for the top of the mountain but whilst being mid-vomit, thought it wise to wait until I was a little more with it!