|Our Belgian friend heads towards TGoP|
Dr Matt and Dr Doug successfully climbed Mont Ventoux, The Giant of Provence on Saturday, 26 July 2014, riding over the top side-by-side despite Dr. Doug's best and most devious attempt to take full points for himself in the final meters. It's the spirit of working together and frivolous undermining of one another that keeps the TroisV ticking. I'm sure it's in the club constitution somewhere.
Our ride--from one point of view, the third stage in a series the TroisV has cycled parallel to the Tour de France--began at about 7:35am from our hotel on the southern outskirts of Avignon. The weather called for hot hot heat and a light breeze, so we thought getting out on the mountain early would be a good idea (it was). We followed a route from village to village through the Provence countryside, keeping a pretty steady 25kph pace--not too fast, nor a crawl. The route was flat, with the occasional gentle drag and one steep descent that we mentally filed away as a brief yet unwelcome climb on the way back. A few other cyclists were out on the road, though only a couple--one, a friendly Belgian with whom we chatted for a few minutes before he zipped on ahead ("Have you climbed Ventoux before?" Matt asked. "Once, two years ago." "Is it easy?" "No.")--heading in the direction of Mont Ventoux, which loomed ahead for pretty much the entire approach.
We arrived in Bédoin, the village at the bottom of the most famous ascent route, in just under two hours. We stopped to refill our bottles with cold water (the fact that all the other cyclists whizzing through town were fresh, unsweaty and nonstopping suggests most people start from a closer launchpad than your intrepid pals at Vraisemblablement Votre Veloclub). Matt sucked down a caffeinated energy gel that started him jabbering in a manner I hadn't heard since a rainy day in Wales several years and a different bike ago.
Anyway: let's do what we came here to do and discuss the ascent of Mt. Ventoux. Cycling in general is, and cyclists in particular are, prone to melodrama, exaggeration and occasional (if not more regular) out-and-out bullshit, and no mountain lends itself more to these inclinations than Mt. Ventoux: it sits there by itself, looming over Provence; this guy died racing up it; Merckx and Froome both needed oxygen when they won at the top; you start to get the idea. Most of what you read or watch about climbing Ventoux plays all this stuff up, as though it needs playing up, and goes on about hell this, sacrifice that, which makes the successful ascent seem all the more amazing, but does very little of value for the cyclist planning for and contemplating climbing it. Throw in the fact that while Dr. Matt has climbed various Alpine and Pyrenean mountains, the longest climb I'd ever done is four or five km (not even enough for the house style to go into digits!), and I really didn't have any idea what to expect from the challenge, other than difficulty.
Difficult it was. I suppose it's important here to lay out that different cyclists have different goals that suit their different abilities, etc. My goal here was to get up the mountain, and I figured if I did it between two and three hours I could be happy with my effort (context: the fastest ever ascent, in 2004: 55:51 Iban Mayo 23.10 kph). I had no interest in "digging deep" and going into oxygen debt to get up a little faster, or to feel like a better man, though I think it's all well and good for those who cycle more than I do, and have different notions about what they want to do on a bicycle, to do exactly that (I honestly do); also, we had 50km to cycle once we'd gotten up and down the mountain, so thinking about the climb in the context of a longish ride readjusts one's attitude as well (I might've tried to outpace Matt from earlier in the last kilometer, for example, if we'd only had a short ride at the end). Anyway, the first few kilometers, up from the village and past a vineyard, are gentle enough to fool you into thinking you're not climbing the mountain yet, though the knowledge that it will double in steepness (steepitude?) is sobering. These first few kilometers are out in the sunshine, which had me looking forward to the shade of the forest once we made the left-hand turn I knew was coming up.
The forest was awful. The road kicks up to the 8%-10% that you know will stay that way all the way up to the top (where it goes up to 12%). Pollen was dropping in clumps from the trees: fuck you, hayfever sufferer! I settled into a rhythm fairly quickly, though, and climbed at about 10kph, dropping down to 8kph after the first of the tough kilometers. Matt dropped behind me, but I knew he'd eventually find his cadence and catch me up (he always does, even on our shorter climbs, and I figured his experience would pay off here, which it did); keeping my own pace seemed the best policy. The second thing that made the forest awful was the dappled mix of sun and shadow--the temperature would drop noticeably in the shade, and my sweat would make me shiver, only to pop back into the sunshine and an increase in breezeless temperature.
Matt caught me up, and we pedaled on together for a few more kilometers before taking a short rest for a pee and a breather. It's very hard to eat on a climb like this, your mouth gaping open to suck in oxygen, so I was basically biting off a chunk of energy bar (or shot blocks) and letting it turn to paste before swallowing; as a result there were a few times where my energy really dropped, before the next wave of slowly ingested food had time to kick in. After the short break, Matt started out stronger, stretching about 20 meters or so ahead of me, and remaining at that distance all the way to the Chalet Reynard. Again, if my goals and experience had been different, I probably could and would have made the effort to bridge that gap, but when I realized it was a steady distance, I couldn't see the point in wasting energy that I might want up above the treeline.
Chalet Reynard is a cafe, and though Matt expressed a preference for pushing on, I insisted on a break. I could feel myself hitting a limit (though I'd just eaten a bunch more, so likely would've recovered if we'd simply pressed on) and wanted to face the final push with my best chances of climbing well (just because my only real goal was getting up, doesn't mean I didn't have the pride of wanting to finish strongly, rather than limping over the line). Also, I'd run out of water again. After a brand-name cola and bottle refill under the sink in the men's room, we pushed for the summit, 6km above the chalet.
The sun on the upper section is brilliantly bright, beating down on the white rocks (it really does seem lunar), and there's a gap between one lower ridge and the peak, through which the wind howls (at one point it pushed me sideways into the road). The rest did me good, as did the slight decrease in gradient (yeah, steepitude isn't a word). The average speed jumped to about 11kph, and remained at 9-11kph the rest of the way. Photographers line the road from about 5km to the top onwards, taking photos, shouting encouragement, and handing you a card so you can buy the photo online later. They make the final kilometers into even more of an event, as does the fact you can see up to the top, and the lines of riders on the switchbacks ahead of you (all of which look so much steeper than the one you're on).
The sight of the weather station I found inspiring. It always seems in touching distance those last 6km, which clicked off a lot more quickly than I expected them to, and there's no visual trick that keeps it looking the same distance away or anything, so you always feel like you're pulling it in. The Tom Simpson memorial at about 1km becomes all the more moving in light of this observation. You can see why he wanted to be put back on his bike: it really is just right there, the summit, one final, short push away.
One final push: Matt and I rode across the peak side-by-side (see the top of the article). Somebody has a license to sell every kind of candied fruit, gummy sweet, nougat and sugar-loaded item on earth from vans at the top. I climbed off my bike and walked over to the short wall next to the sweet vans and looked across Provence. I didn't feel relieved, though the climb was very difficult and tiring; I didn't feel elated, though certainly I'd accomplished a new feat. The best word to describe my feeling on top of Mt. Ventoux is happy. I felt happy. I'd cycled up one of the hardest mountains in France, and I'd done it well, with my friend, and could now look back on the painful and difficult kilometers behind me with a little pride, and again: happiness. I suppose that's why I ride a bike in the first place.
Also, I was really looking forward to the descent.
This is where Dr Matt takes over. The best way to describe my feelings after reaching the top: firstly, satisfaction that I had the tactical nous not to let Doug slip away (you could just see his cadence increasing as we turned the corner, and the slower lady in front almost blocked my route), quickly followed by peckishness. For this is the sight that confronted us:
Neat, huh? Acres and acres of nougat, candied sweets - and facing them an array of saucisson. For a moment, I considered stuffing my rear jersey with a selection, but the heat that Doug mentions above, and remained a pretty intense presence for the rest of the day, suggested that would be a very, very bad idea.
Instead, we gileted up (Doug proudly wearing the Tour de BL garment), told the Garmin to send us home, and turned round our bikes. We had considered the Malaucene descent, but it seemed both of us had independently come to the conclusion that we should stick with what we knew. Turned out this was a good idea.
|The Tom Simpson memorial. Note the cap and BMC bidon, the possible subject of a future post. In lieu of Jon, and partly at his instruction, we placed a Wiggle/Haribu fried egg as a small votive.|
I don't like descending. It's scary. I'm clumsy. And I tend to sing or whistle as I hurtle off the summit, which is no good for anyone. However, I've been paying attention during the limited descents we'd done during 'training', and felt a little better about the whole braking, leg lifting, knee pointing, looking, not braking, powering out of the apex business.
Doug of course, was still about 50 metres head, descending well, held back by a camper van, and only minorly inconvenienced by a tall, flappy rider undertaking us.
Oddly, I began to enjoy it. Somehow I rolled past Doug, and appreciated the brilliantly engineered French road. The curves were pretty fluid, the surface great, and the views spectacular.
Quickly, we got into the woods, with the small rocky walls either side. At this point, it sounded like a mountain bike was descending, with the usual squeally brakes. 'Matt, Matt!', I eventually heard, as Doug bellowed above the screeching noise, 'We've got to stop'. And stop we did, joined by a German, who was clearly concerned. We examined the Italian and French engineering of Doug's derailleur and wheels, as the rear mech was springing forward when Doug freewheeled, something he was required to do often during the descent. At this point the chain dangerously loosened, rested on the stays, and vibrated, causing the increasingly loud noise (and potentially jumping into the spokes). Initially wondering if the Campag spring had failed, we put the blame on the French Mavic freewheel, suspecting it was not engaging, or over engaging, and forcing the mech forward.
We returned to the still finely engineered road, a bit more gingerly this time. No more 70kph descending, but a more gentle spin down, as Doug pedalled around the bends. It was still fun to see the route spiralling back in reverse.
Finally we were at the foot of the great mountain, where a fine bike shop had sensibly set up business, and began to repair Doug's hub (the discussion was a great example of Franglais and sign language). Even better: the cafe opposite sold some of the best milkshakes consumed since the Dunwich Dynamo, and a fountain was on hand for the dunking of cycling caps -- a tip reinforced by George on the Tour de BL. Again, the beers being consumed by our fellow cyclists suggested that for many, Mt Ventoux is an abrupt ride up and down.
Our short break over, we collected the bicycle from the mechanic, who presented Doug with the Mavic freewheel's shattered little plastic innards with a smile. Doug had destroyed them with the sheer manly power of his ascending, as our remote live-texter, Jon, neatly put it.
And so, we were back on our return trip to Avignon. A discovery: it was a gentle downhill road most of the way, with Doug taking an epic turn on the front as the warm wind began to blow in our faces just when the legs were most weary.
A final climb at St Saturnin-les-Avignons and then we were pretty much back. Avignon roads were negotiated, the mercury continued to rise, and finally, our little hotel (with a pool) was right in front of us.
All that remained was not to take a swim, and for me to consume some cold pea soup from a Martini glass. Delicious!
We had made it. One crash (minor: Matt, a stone's throw from the Gare du Nord into the back of a car, thereby doing a 'reverse Sagan'), one HC climb, 4 beers (at that point), and one Tour de 40 completed.