Thursday, June 18, 2009

Le Geant de Provence

Mont Ventoux, June 17, 2009

The day after the Caen Marathon de Liberte, set out for Provence.
Train to Paris, pouring rain, no elevators to get up and down platforms so 3 trips each, cursing my suitcase banging on my knee, wondering if lugging Davey around was worth the trouble, got off the TGV in Avignon to tropical heat, grateful to see the tanned and fit forms of my friends Robin and Toby (the Ironmen).

We drove in their van, Big Ethel, to Vaison-la-Romaine, a scenic vacation town with Roman ruins, chalets, and Provencale beauty. Ate at a restaurant called La Belle Etoile run by a guy who turns people away from a half-empty restaurant to give personalized service to each customer for the sake of his craft.

Tuesday, easy 5 mile run through rolling countryside at 6:30 AM. Toby finishes putting Davey together, then breakfast in town, followed by stroll through farmer's market. Then 30 mile ride, first to Malaucenes to the Ventoux bike shop where I purchased a mont ventoux jersey, bad luck perhaps prior to the climb.

Wide, luxurious bike lanes and views you cannot believe. Rode to a beautiful chalet, shared 2 bottles of wine, and took a dip in the private pool.

There are tons of cyclists, as Ventoux is a mecca for cyclists. We met a group of Belgian cyclists who rode from their homeland with the goal of summiting Ventoux as many times as possible in one day. The bike shop guy himself does it 2-3x/week, and heard of someone who climbed it 11 times in 24 hours.

Wednesday feeling nervous. This is it, the big time, Mont Ventoux, which you can see from just about any viewpoint in Provence.

We first ride to Bedoin and catch a 2nd breakfast with large coffee and fluffy croissants, this leg already 1000 ft of climbing. Bedoin is considered the most difficult of the 3 paths to the summit. It is a mere 3,9% grade over the first 5.8 km, but averaging 8.9% grade over the next 16 km. Only 6100 ft climbing over 22km, how bad can it be?

First, a quick pee in the vineyards. “la terre est votre toilette” (no photo).

I lost Robin early on- as soon as the grade went above 8% I could no longer keep up. She only stopped twice to make sure I didn't get lost, and to give me half her water. I didn't see Toby until the summit; later learned he did the entire climb in 2:04, using a double crank and not stopping once.

I had purchased a Garmin 705 2 days before I left for France, how did I ever manage before without it?
What the numbers do not convey is what a relentless climb it is. You cannot call it hairpins, as it never really flattens out, you never see the top of the hill, because the hill is 22 km long. The average over 14 miles was 9-10% grade, occasionally dipping up to 12%. On the rare occasions the grade went below 7% you felt as if you were on flat land. I realized early on I wasn't going to make it to the top without stopping, so kept my eyes open for the "flat" segments of 8% so that if I stopped I can get back on the saddle without falling off.

What they don't tell you? You're a bug magnet. It was like being surrounded by a cloud or paparazzi of flies and bees. That it does not feel shady despite going through woods. Luckily it was only 80 degrees and not 91 like today. Started fantasizing about water, which tourists in their cars would be most likely to give me water, marvelling in awe that some riders only carried 1 bottle (in fact, Robin and Toby only used 1 bottle each, I used 4). By 3880 ft, I got so overheated I was dizzy, could taste vomit and was over halfway through my water, chose to stop for what felt like 20 min to cool down rather than run out of water.

Also noted with amazement that the Garmin would shut off periodically when my speed dipped below 3 mph- is it possible to be still vertical at that speed? Previously if I went below 6 mph I was embarrassingly slow (picture heavyset old bearded guy on mountain bike with panniers zooming past me on Cougar Mountain), but now it’s a struggle to keep it above 4 mph. Was passed by scores of men, but only 3-4 women (there were virtually no women on this side of the mountain). I only passed 2 people the entire time to the chalet,

le chalet Reynard? an oasis 6 km from the top or a mirage? Robin had waited for me, probably over 30 min or long enough to wonder if I was going to make it, gave me 2 bottles of water. I swear once again to lose 15 lbs and live a better life, a promise that lasts usually about an hour or until the next beer.

Now I can see the top, it’s a teaser because there’s still 1400+ feet of climbing over 5 miles. They warn you about the wind, which is why I carried the vest and arm warmers, but it’s a welcome wind, cooler, and there are a couple spots of luxurious flattening for about 10 pedal strokes of 3-4% grade, one short killer 13% into headwind

Au sommet- saucissons and biscuits. Nothing you want more after a tough climb but sausages that have been sitting in the sun all day, except perhaps a big chunk of camembert.

Time? Who cares, but about 3:25. The record is 55:51, and most Tour riders go 1 hour- 1:15. Just about everyone I spoke with were very experienced cyclists who say this is the hardest climb they have ever done.
Descent? A descent to end all descents. Wouldn't you like to descend 14 miles straight? Even clamping the brakes continuously I hit 41 mph. It is hot down at the bottom. The biere was magnifique.

The jersey I bought was no poser jersey. I may have been the 2nd slowest person that day, but I got up. Later we visited Sault, and I was sure glad we took the hardest way up.


  1. Congrats! All killer - no filler.

  2. Nice work! You're ready for the TdM now!

  3. You are my hero. I love to see all three of you representing with your WAC vests at the 'sommet' Ha!