Which is not to say the Giant of Provence is somehow less taxing than its reputation would suggest. What takes professionals around an hour and fit amateurs around two hours, took me nearly four, a couple of sizeable rests and the offer of a push from a truly heroic Frenchman whose kindness impressed me so greatly that our short chat on a stretch of 9% gradient was enough to make me think of him with the fondness usually reserved for an esteemed uncle.
I’ve said before that I’m not a cyclist; rather, I’m a fan of what Paul Sherwen would undoubtedly call “the sport of professional cycling.” I do own a bike, a 15 year old steel-framed Peugeot that gets semi-regular and very enjoyable spins round the pancake-flat perimeter of Bushy Park. But if you added up the hours I spent on a bike, it would take months’ worth of rides for me to put in the hours that a lazy club rider does in a day. More importantly, a survey of my local area would make it clear that I never even use my two biggest sprockets, let alone my two diddiest chainrings.
Despite all that, it seemed wasteful to spend a fortnight at the foot of Ventoux and not see what it felt like to ride on it. At kilometre zero, there’s a cycling shop and rental joint named La Route Du Ventoux where 30 Euros obtained a days rental of a Trek Alpha 15 and a stern but not unfriendly warning that “six means six. You bring it back at 6.15 and you pay another day.”
I was particularly excited at the prospect of riding a swanky bike. I’m often a little bit sad that the old Colnagos, Bianchis and Pinarellos have been swept aside by mundane sounding Treks and Giants, with their fat tubes and pig-ugly curves. The tubes on this aluminium Trek were only mildly porky, and dead straight, which was nice. What got me disproportionately excited was the Shimano Tiagra groupset. When I bought my Peugeot back in the mid-90s, the brake- and-gears combo was still comparatively new. Little Marco was still signalling his intention to dash up hills by pulling on a downtube shifter. The cheapest Shimano or Campagnolo STI groupset was still three times the cost of my whole bike. Not only was I about to set off up on Ventoux on a bike that weighed about a third of mine, but when I changed gears, I’d be changing them like a professional. It was a small point, but an exciting one.
Not that I got the gearing right, mind you. Like Americans and Daily Mail journalists, I reserve the right to have judgemental opinions about things of which I know nothing, and one of my pet peeves is cyclists using easy gears on non-existent slopes. When I see someone pedalling along on the flat at 200 rpm and moving about three inches for each turn of the pedals, I have to restrain the urge to tell them that I can smell their knee cartilage melting. It’s this prejudice that made me tackle the lower slopes of Ventoux, the long drags at 1 or 2%, on a middle sprocket. By eye I can barely tell there’s a slope there, I thought, so I’ll just ride it as if it were flat and push a bit harder if I need to.
Within minutes I was being breezily overtaken by seasoned lycra-clad chain gangs and casual cyclists alike. After the first few bends and corners I was panting, and by the time the road had begun to lift me above the vineyards I was gasping for air and my heartbeat seemed to be trying to bludgeon inwards through my eardrums from a starting point somewhere outside of my body.
I pulled over to a tree-shaded picnic table in a gravelled rest area and slipped my feet from the straps. Everything I looked at was bright and twinkling, the world was heaving and swaying like a slowed-down fairground ride, and if my stomach had been full I’d have been sick in a slow but definitive fashion. I’d been riding for twenty minutes.
Technically the ascent had begun several kilometres back, but I hadn’t even hit anything that you’d recognise as Mt Ventoux yet. The rental bike was mine until the end of the day, but it seemed likely that I was going to have to hide my weak-lunged shame by sitting in a litter-strewn rest area beside a barely tilted road for the next six hours. I hadn’t even brought a book.
Unpacking The Metaphorical Suitcase
Over the next half hour, I drank half of my first bottle of water and sent some humorous text messages back to Ventoux base camp: “This mountain is beautiful, but it respects nothing, least of all spirited optimism.” said the first, as if I had seen anything of the mountain. “My suitcase of courage may be insufficient to the task. I believe I need my suitcase of other people’s legs” said the second. “I’ve got twenty more gears to try, maybe one of them will be magic.” said the third, and having had a good half hour of rest, I decided that it might be true. I stood by the roadside for a while, eyeballing people’s gears as they rode past, clunked mine down to the middle chainring and set off again.
Gears really help you get up hills. Who’d have thought it, eh? Although still very early and very gentle, the slopes leading up to Ste Colombe and St Esteve were steeper than the foothills that had nearly finished me, yet I flew up them at a steady pace, at an effort I felt ready to maintain for hours.
Just beyond St Esteve, over a little bridge and past a French child’s excellent treehouse, comes the first bit of road that you’d genuinely describe as mountainous. A short, steep ramp topped with a tight hairpin leading into another brief but fierce straight and a second tight curve. Popping out of that first hairpin I felt like Charly Gaul. A Frenchman once said “European law? It is for the English.” At this point I felt like replying “The law of gravity? It’s for everyone else.”
That second bend brought me back down to earth. It was a right-hander, and the growling squadrons of motorcycles that had torn past me up the mountain had rattled my nerves until I was unwilling to swing wide into the middle of the road. Hugging the steepest, innermost part of the curve I found myself pushing harder and harder whilst going slower and slower, until I stalled.
It seemed pretty early in the climb to have been brought to a halt by anything other than my own choice, but my poor positioning was at fault, so I listened carefully for traffic, tacked out into the middle of the road and continued climbing. It was just a blip, clearly.
Pressing on, I started hitting long straights with perfect gradients: steep enough to make me feel proud to carry on, but not steep enough to scare me off. For the better part of the next forty minutes I rode a slow but rhythmic ascent through the forest and around gentle bends, my pedalling slow and smooth and indistinguishable from the other riders I occasionally saw around me. At one point, I even overtook someone. He had a puncture.
Six kms into the climb, things started to look daunting again, as I passed the first waystone to warn me of 9% gradients. I put my head down and persevered, sure that it would level off soon. A kilometre later, the next waystone also said 9%. As did the one after that. Everything hurt. Even my eyeballs hurt. It felt like someone was squeezing them in their fist. All of my (admittedly inconsiderable) muscles ached, and somewhere beneath them in my lower back, it felt a little like my internal organs were starting to ache as well. I had to stop. Again.
I was in a steep part of the forested section where the long straights are replaced by a series of sharp S-bends, tightly piled atop one another and cutting through the rock of the mountainside. There was nowhere to pull in, so I was forced to climb up onto a low rock shelf and pull the bike up with me for a rest.
Now, I am allergic to alcohol, but I have manfully refused to bow to my booze-related hayfever, and my skull is now riddled with polyps. I can rarely breathe through my nose, and it’s been four years since I last smelt anything (a lengthy course of steroids combined with a flower stall in Marylebone Station to give me a brief whiff of what I’d been missing.) This explains how I was able to spend fifteen minutes resting next to a rotting deer carcass so far past its best that I initially thought it had been dumped there in a bin bag, before I realised what all the black filmy stuff really was. At this point, I should probably make a joke about how the deer still looked like it was having a better time than me, but I’d be lying. Pained and exhausted I might have been, but I was riding up Mont Ventoux (albeit slowly and disjointedly) and it was still proving to be one of the biggest thrills of my life.
Snickers Really Satisfies
Although I resumed my climb, things were starting to become very difficult. I’d finished my first bottle of water and the only food I’d brought with me, a Snickers bar. Not being a professional, and with no real belief that I’d ever approach the summit of the mountain, it had seemed slightly silly to pack energy bars and gel sachets. I didn’t want to be that guy who turns up for a Sunday kick around in Nike Predators and insists on doing a fifteen minute warm up for his twenty minute game.
With hindsight, I doubt it would have made much difference, but as I passed yet another 9% stone even the psychological reassurance that I was burning proper energy to turn the pedals would have been comforting. As it was, I seemed to have no power in my muscles at all, and it was all I could do to keep going until I was out of sight of the Frenchwoman who was cheering and applauding my efforts. I didn’t want to take a breather right after she’d spurred me on. It felt ungrateful.
I stopped again at the next picnic area and quaffed yet more water. Frenchwoman pulled her car in alongside me and began unpacking a selection of bottles and treats for French hubby, who toiled up the hill a few seconds later, dressed in a Liquigas kit and looking like he’d taken inspiration from Ivan Basso. He couldn’t go uphill fast, but he could go uphill forever, long after everyone else had quit.
I waited till they’d moved on, and set off again. Every time I re-started the hill, I’d find that my legs felt fresh and fast, and I’d get a glorious forty-second grace period in which my computer would tell me I was climbing at a very reasonable 11kph. I’d wonder if I’d got through the worst of it. Perhaps the Snickers and the fruit water had somehow combined to make a high energy fuel source previously unsuspected by food scientists? 9Kph. 8Kph. 6Kph and holding. Just.
I was nowhere near the famous bare slopes that start at Chalet Reynard, but the road was starting to rise out of the trees, giving me a longer view of the climb, and more sun.
Labouring again, and starting to wilt during one of the brief sunny spells, I was overtaken by a female cyclist who made a concerned but inarticulate noise as she went past. At this point, I had slowed to barely more than a crawl, and was expending as much strength to keep the bike straight and upright as I was to keep it moving. The distraction of being overtaken was too much and I pulled my feet from the pedals again, lowered my sweaty face onto the stem and began heaving vast gasps of air onboard. The woman’s road buddy, a wiry Frenchman with iron-grey hair who must have been nearly twice my age, stopped beside me, looking very concerned, and said something in French.
Not wanting to waste newly-acquired oxygen by speaking, I smiled, nodded and gave him a limp thumbs up, whilst simultaneously doing the famous Gallic shrug and an exaggerated exhalation to make it clear that I wasn’t offering false bravado, that I knew what a tough time I was having. It must have looked like I was having a fit.
“You ok?” he asked, looking very worried and having worked out that I’m English. I must have got the Gallic shrug wrong. Dead giveaway, that. “You ok? You need me to push you for a while?”
Let me be absolutely clear here in case you missed it. We’re on a f*cking MOUNTAIN. We’re on the mountain that killed Tom Simpson, the mountain that reduced Jean Mallejac to pedalling deliriously at thin air whilst lying by the side of the road, long after they’d taken his bike away from him. French Superman is offering to push me up it. He’s also glancing at what little water I have left and is offering me his Bidon. I could weep. Seriously, the French can burn 50,000 British sheep per year at the roadsides of Calais if they like; after this I will forgive them anything.
I had to pull myself together. He was clearly capable of reaching the summit, and I wasn’t even trying to. The slim risk that I might scupper his chances by taking his water was too much to bear, so I took a deep breath and, with some gestures at my chest and thighs, said that my lungs were fine, it was just my legs that were tired.
He looked reassured by the fact that I’d formed a sentence and some coherent gestures, and asked me where I was heading. I didn’t have the French to say “Oh I’m just pootling on for as long as I can manage”, and I didn’t dare freak him out by saying that I was aiming for the summit, so I said I was aiming for Chalet Reynard. He told me it was another four or five kms, mimed a variety of gradients that all looked pretty unhealthy, then shot off up the road with me yelling “Merci, bravo” at him.
I got my feet back in the straps and made for the next waystone. Unsurprisingly, it said the gradients would continue at 9%.Of course, those gradients are averages for the kilometre, and there can be some pretty fierce variations making up those averages. Shortly after passing a strange building on the left that appeared to have been neatly painted a vibrant orange and then promptly abandoned, I swung around a 90 degree left hand bend, pedalled another ten yards and confronted a hairpin bend so preposterously steep that even as my tyre hit its entrance, its exit appeared to be nearly at head height. By now heedless of the infrequent traffic, I swung into the middle of the road. If I’d gone right to the outer edge and ridden up on the wrong side I’d have made it, but even in the middle of the road it was too much. I stopped again. I now felt like I’d reached the tipping point. I seemed to be spending as much time stationary on the climb as I was riding it.
Using that miraculous burst of strength that follows a pause, a burst which was now tending to last about ten seconds instead of forty, I pushed up through the bend and was lifted completely clear of the forest for the first time. I pulled in alongside a dirt track and pondered the mouthful of water left in my bottle. I was guessing that Chalet Reynard was perhaps 2k or 3k further upwards, but there was apparently something called Petit Moutet 1.4KM away along the side of the mountain. I texted home for a translation, hoping that Moutet meant something along the lines of “gorgeous shop which sells refreshing iced water that will reinvigorate you for further climbing and is well worth a 2.8K round trip.” Apparently not. The best we could come up with was that it might have something to do with sheep. Upwards it was.
At the next stone, another kindly Frenchman offered to take my picture, and told me that after Chalet Reynard it would only be windy, not steep. It was all very encouraging, but by now I was stopping every hundred yards, and spending longer on the resting than I was on the cycling.
I saw my reassuring photographer again at the next stone, and knew that the game was up. My own sense of time had become a little elastic, but I was suddenly aware of my ascent through his eyes, and how long it must have been since we’d spoken a kilometre before. There was no way I was even going to make it to Chalet Reynard at this rate. The next stone, a hundred yards away, would be the last.
I was relieved to see that the 9% gradients would continue - if it had suggested a sudden reduction in severity, I might have wavered. I’d done 11k of a 21k climb. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was really pleased with myself, and already wondering what I might manage if I actually did some training. Nonetheless, and with apologies to Robin the frog, halfway up the climb, is the stone where I quit.
Mont Ventoux still had some things to teach me.Barely a fortnight ago I was scathing about Andy Schleck’s timorous descending. I described his complaints about the descent on stage 16 as petulant whining. I’m not going to be one of those keyboard warriors who claims to be infallible whilst standing in front of a hundred deleted messages. I said it, and I was wrong. If climbing up Ventoux was difficult, riding back down it again was terrifying.
Physics tells us that falling objects accelerate at a speed of 20 feet per second per second until they reach terminal velocity. I don’t know if there’s also a terminal velocity for objects that are rolling, but if there is, I never seemed to come anywhere near it. On the rare occasions when I could uncurl my bloodless knuckles from the brakes I simply got faster, and faster, and faster, until the bike seemed to weigh nothing at all, until merely glancing sideways seemed enough to make the wheels float alarmingly across the road, and still I’d be accelerating.
Unwilling to discover where my speed would max out, I’d squeeze the brakes, only to discover that I’d reached speeds where they initially seemed to have no effect, and that even when I’d squeezed hard enough to drastically cut my speed, I’d still be going too fast to feel capable of controlling the bike. Wrist-crunching brake clenches were required to avoid overshooting the corners and taking the short, fast and painful route off Ventoux, and eventually I decided to just hit the brake and keep it hit the whole way down. Even then, I still lost control at that first hairpin, skidding the back wheel gracelessly round the corner that had made me feel like Charly Gaul several hours before.
Finally, I was back on the flat. Although flat was, by this point, a subjective term - I was still hitting speeds in the 50s without actually pedalling. It was at this point that the fatigue of the climb and the fear of the descent had abated and I finally noticed the pain of the arse. I’d just figured out why cyclists deem it necessary to wear lycra even when they aren’t actively competing. It’s not the aerodynamics, it’s the padding.
Ok, I only got halfway up. Maybe I should be ashamed of that, but I’m not. Not even a little bit. I’m proud of my 50% ascent of Ventoux, and looking forward to trying for the summit next time. Just in case you’re wondering why I’m so proud, have a look at this photo of Mont Ventoux. Up a bit. Up a bit. There it is, above the clouds.