Kurt's Bike Trip in France - Part VIII: Mont Ventoux

Today was the last day of riding for the trip. With Alpe d’Huez as the first big climb of the trip, the trip organizers did a great job of bookending the week by making Mont Ventoux the last climb on the itinerary.

Whereas in the Alps, the high mountain peaks were both plentiful and beautiful. In Provence, though, there is but one high peak, and it is Mont Ventoux. For sure there are small mountain ranges and hills in this region, but this mountain is aptly referred to as Le Géant de Provence (The Giant of Provence)… it towers over everything in the area. It is striking not only for how it stands alone among other geological features in the area, but it also has a bald summit that, from a far, almost looks snow covered due to the sun hitting the light colored rocks. Basically, there is no mistaking it.

Prior to the start of the ride, the guides passed along some information about the day and the climb. The weather, while projected to be mostly sunny with a few clouds, was also going to be windy. We were told we’d be largely protected while going up through the forest on the side of the mountain, but to expect strong winds once above tree line. The other information was to not be fooled by the first couple of kilometers… they are gradual, but once we reach “The Turn” the gradient goes up considerably, and stays at a higher pitch the rest of the way, with maybe just 200-300 meters of “false flat” about 3.5 miles from the end.

My hotel was not too far away from the “official” beginning of the climb (i.e. the line the TdF organizers use as the start point for the climb), so rather than bike right over to it and begin the 13.5 mile ascent, we rode around the outskirts of town for about 20 minutes to warm-up the legs some. We stopped at the start line when we got there to take a group picture, and then began our climb.

As advertised, the incline for the first 3.5 miles averaged a relatively gentle 3.9%, and my heart rate average was 142 bpm. It was a completely different story beginning at “The Turn” and lasting for the next 5.5 miles… the average gradient increased to 9.2%, and my average HR adjusted accordingly to 162 bpm. As steep as it was though, I enjoyed it *immensely*… there were cyclists from all over on the road climbing this thing (one tour guide said that, on average, 1,200 cyclists climb it every day), I was able to get in a steady cadence, I was joined by tour guide Julien for a good portion of it, and it was through a pine forest that smelled wonderful.
The last 4.5 miles were, for the most part, less steep… the average was “only” 7.6%. But what was lost in gradient was more than made up for in wind speed. We popped out about tree line at Chalet Reynard and the aforementioned “false flat” section (an area of gradual incline that, often times due to the steepness of the preceding section, seems flat) and immediately noticed the strong, cool wind blowing. Now, to be honest, sometimes it *was* at my back and pushing me up the hills. But, other times – and this was the prevailing situation from this point onward – it was a brutal cross- or headwind. It was just a little over 6K (3.5 miles) from Chalet Reynard, and even with the wind, I felt like I was ticking off the “x kilometers to go” signs at a decent pace. That all changed in the vicinity of the “1Km to go” sign… oy, did it get steep! And windy! That last kilometer averaged over 10.5%, and the last quarter-mile was 12%. The steepness I could deal with OK (though my legs were definitely getting tired from not just today’s climb, but the culmination of the last several days of riding); the wind, though, nearly knocked me over as I came around the last switchback. Julien, who was in front of me, looked back and saw me riding towards a lower summit road and said “No, no, no!” I nodded my head to say “I know” but the wind was blowing me that way. I was able to make my way to the correct side of the barrier that divided the summit roads and pushed my way the last 50 meters to the finish line. It took me 1 hour, 42 minutes to do it, but I climbed The Giant.

After the requisite pictures and handshakes, and after the adrenaline and elation subsided some (it would take most of the rest of the day for both to subside considerably) my mind began to notice how cold it was. When we left the start line in Bedoin, it was a comfortable 75 degrees; at the summit, it was 53 degrees, but that strong, cool wind which was blowing made it feel much, much colder. We were thankful to see Patrick arrive in the van so that we could jump inside and put on some “cold weather” gear. Once my tour mates reached the top, it was time to celebrate a little with another group picture before descending. The wind made it a touchy descent for sure, but once in the trees, it was easier to let go of the brakes some.

Eleven miles below the summit we stopped along the side of the road and we’re treated to a lunch that had not just another great view, but also some celebratory food (mussels, fine chocolates) and drink (wine and champagne). We lingered there for a while, enjoying the sun and sustenance, before continuing our descent down. It was during this portion of the ride where the olfactory senses trumped anything my eyes were taking in. First, there was another pine forest, with fragrant white pines all around. And then immediately upon exiting this forest, I was greeted by lavender fields… hillside upon hillside of lavender fields. The aroma was *amazing* and fortunately we were able to ride in this lavender-rich area for several miles.

It wasn’t too long until my eyes regained control as we began riding alongside the Gorges de la Nesque, a canyon in the shadow of Mont Ventoux. I stopped at a viewing platform near the entrance to the canyon from which I could see not just the depth and breadth of the canyon, but another glimpse of Mont Ventoux as well as some of the 12 curving-and-gently-descending miles of road along this canyon that will take me back towards Bedoin. I arrived back at the hotel around 5:30p, having done nearly 62 miles of riding with over 6,400 feet of elevation gain for the day.

Here’s the link for the map and elevation profile.

Misc. Tidbits –
- On the climb up to Mont Ventoux, I noticed a man on the side of the road with a video camera who was apparently looking to film a family member or friend in the course of the ascent. A couple of minutes later I saw him again on the roadside with the video camera out and pointed downhill, so I blurted “Greetings from Colorado!” into the camera, which made him smile. Several minutes later, further up the hill, he saw me (he was back in the woods a bit and not as noticeable as before) and, with video camera pointed at me, got my attention by saying “Hey, Colorado!”
- The descent off the upper portions of Mont Ventoux weren’t fun, and I and the others wanted to get down into the trees as quickly and safely as possible. Even with that in mind, I did make one stop… at the memorial for Tom Simpson. He died while climbing Mont Ventoux in the 1967 edition of the TdF… the autopsy showed that he apparently thought using amphetamines and alcohol were good things for pre-race nutrition.
- End of week totals: 209 miles; 27,900 feet of elevation gain.

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