Yesterday was one of those great days. My family, friends and I are camping near Vaison la Romaine, 10km or so from Malaucene. Mount Ventoux is towering over us – you often see cycling enthusiasts slowing to a stop on the way to the pool, simply standing staring at her sheer slopes and the weather station like a lighthouse on the top. It’s a mythical mountain, steeped in history and it calls to you throughout the day.
Yesterday morning I set off pre-sunrise with two friends. The three of us have completely different cycling backgrounds. I consider myself a ‘cyclist’ with many years of hard training behind me. Jonny has a couple of ascents of Ventoux on his palmares and whilst not an out and out cyclist, he is light and has a very solid fitness base. The final member of the triumvirate, Luke, is a Ventoux virgin, new to cycling and how shall I put it, someone with a few more years’ life experience than myself and Jonny. In other words, this was going to be a great challenge for him. This is what is so wonderful about this sport: three people spinning along the road, each with a different goal ahead yet a shared experience.
There was a lot of excited chat as we left the campsite. Spirits were high as we cycled through Faucon with the sun rising to our left, the first warm rays of light hitting our sides. We descended into Mollans, headed up the D40 to the Col de Veaux then wooped our way down the other side before the ride up the valley through the famous lavender fields. Ventoux always towered above us to the right, her bald limestone slopes from Chalet Reynard just about visible. The short windy ascent up to Aurel showcased the beauty of Provence and then we found ourselves heading down the final 5 km to Sault. It wasn’t quite how Eddy Mercx once described the approach to the Ventoux when he said, ‘you could hear a fly buzz through the peloton’, but we were all starting to feel a little nervous as we approached the foot of the climb. We decided that a coffee and pain au raisin was required. We enjoyed these in a bar overlooking the valley below and the summit away in the distance. We very nearly settled in before heading back to camp: why ruin such a lovely day by riding up a mountain?! However, as the caffeine hit the spot we decided to get on with it and before long we were clipping into our pedals and heading off.
I wanted to go hard up the climb and see how fast I could do it. I was treating the ascent as an hour-long time trial with an extra 10 to 15 minutes at the end which I was planning on getting through on adrenaline/excitement as the summit got closer and the cycling traffic swelled. I was on my TT bike due to a problem with my road bike and the 42-tooth inner ring would not allow a nice spin anyway! I went off hard, keeping an eye on my power and heart rate. I have been told that the climb from Sault is incredibly picturesque, but I can’t really comment. I tried to catch the odd glimpse of the view but was more often looking at the 2 metres of tarmac in front of my front wheel as I buried myself. Fortunately, the French tarmac is infinitely superior than the British equivalent so it wasn’t all bad. In fact, a pot hole in Provence is a talking point. Unlike in England when a nice stretch of road is worth mentioning. Behind me, Jonny was setting himself a hard, but doable pace. However, in the excitement, he had forgotten how challenging the section from Chalet Reynard was and later realised he was working far too hard – the final push to the summit was going to be tough! Luke was spinning his way up, having the odd stop to enjoy the view and leaving enough in the legs. The sun beat down, 37 degrees according to the local weather forecast and when we emerged from the shade of the forest and entered the moonscape at Chalet Reynard we were hit by irrepressible heat. When the strong wind – this is the ‘windy mountain’ after all – was at our backs it was incredibly hot but easier to pedal. When the orientation of the road changed and the wind was in your face it was refreshingly cooler but incredibly hard work to turn the cranks. I’m not sure what I preferred. Both were tough. I had really pushed hard and the plan to empty the tank in the final 3km did not materialise. According to my heart rate I had more to give but the legs were not willing and I plateaued in the 150s. I couldn’t get into the 160s for love nor money! Passing Tommy’s grave in the final km is always a poignant and inspirational moment which enables you to find that little bit more to get to the top and eventually I made it to the famous final right hander, got out of the saddle and danced, or more accurately, grinded the cranks for the final few metres to then collapse over the aerobars. After a few minutes I descended back down, gave Jonny a shout of encouragement as I whizzed past him in the other direction, then pulled into Chalet Reynard for an extortionately expensive but incredibly satiating Coke before finding Luke having a rest before the final push to the summit. I warned him of what was to come, gave him a cheery good luck and then set off myself back up from Chalet Reynard, this time keen to soak up the scene a little more.
The road from Chalet Reynard to the summit was littered with cyclists of completely different standard: some ascending it for the first time, some completing the toughest physical challenge of their life, others time trialling up for training, and others in the midst of the second or third ascent of the day as part of the ‘Cingles du Ventoux’ Challenge. The variation in cadence, kit, quality of bike, riding style and level of fatigue from rider to rider was stark as ultra-lean elites and rather less lean, sharing the same tarmac. But whatever the rider’s story it is a shared experience – the heat, pain, suffering, relief, elation, adrenaline. The final few kms in those conditions are tough for anyone and it is always an achievement to reach the top, whoever you are. The summit is a mass of excited cyclists and support crews, talking animatedly about their experience, the endorphins raging, the feel-good-factor off the scale. The impressive array of sweets on display on the pop up stalls on the tiny area of flat tarmac beneath the imposing wannabe lighthouse added to the colour, but did not seem to be doing a decent trade. I presume this is because most of the cyclists had had their fill of sugary gels and bars on the way up. Jonny had already summited and begun his descent to Malaucene to get back to his family so I sat on the wooden barriers waiting for Luke, soaking up the scene around me. I observed the contrasting bikes, level of leg hairiness, listened to the hubbub of different languages and stared at the incredible panoramic view with the Alps visible on this clear day. After a while, I could just about make out Luke down below in the final 500m or so. He was hunched over his handlebars battling the ever-increasing wind – it looked painful – but the end was firmly in sight. After a short time – which no doubt did not feel short to him – he turned the final corner and made an impressive dash for the line. The satisfaction was incredible. Despite the pain and suffering he broke into a broad smile. What an achievement! We had the obligatory photos beneath the newly refurbished Mount Ventoux summit sign and sat down to discuss our ordeals.
We then descended down to Malaucene, the temperature steadily rising from cool to warm to hot to sauna setting. We caught the odd evocative smell of pine needles in the heat as well as burning brakes on the cars that we shot past at high speed, the adrenaline putting paid to any thought of cautiousness. After 20 minutes or so we zoomed into Malaucene, its cafes full of satisfied cyclists tucking into their lunches, amazing bikes lining the roads outside various high-end bike shops and cars having to make way for the dominant mode of transport: the bike. We road through the village side by side talking animatedly about the scene around us then rode back to camp along the smooth D938 to Vaison la Romaine with the help of a strong and much appreciated tailwind. Luke turned off to the new Macdonald’s just before the campsite. He claims that it was for the superior wifi from which to upload his data to Strava (the campsite’s wifi is no more than average) but we all know it was because he wanted a Big Mac meal. Quite frankly, who can deny he deserved it!
Written by Ben Price. You can follow Ben’s adventures over on Twitter.