Friday was the day we had chosen for our “assault” on Mt. Ventoux. Dawn came with light showers that turned heavy as the morning progressed. Undaunted, we headed to Bedoin to pick up the bikes and climb the mountain. By the time we arrived at La Route du Ventoux, the bike shop, the skies had cleared and we had reasonably cool conditions for the ride.
The folks at La Route had the bikes ready to go when we arrived. We had previously sent them detailed measurements of our own bikes, and they found the best matches amongst their inventory and made the necessary adjustments. After installing the pedals and making some slight adjustments to the seat heights, the carbon fiber Scott bikes were ready to go and the ride was reasonably comfortable.
Now it was time to put the last week of the French bike climbing training to the test. With one week of too much wine, mass quantities of rich food, little exercise, and two packs of cigarettes a day, we were ready to go. OK, maybe we participated in most, but not all of the French training method, so it wouldn’t be the perfect test.
La Route du Ventoux is at the exact bottom of the formal climb of Mt. Ventoux that starts from the town of Bedoin (there are three road routes up Mt. Ventoux). The overall ascent is 22 km long or a little over 13 miles with about 5,200 feet of altitude gain. For the Tour de France and other cycling races, the climb of Mt. Ventoux is rated as HC or beyond category. It is legendary as one
of the most difficult ascents in competitive cycling. Along the way, there are mileposts (uhh, kilometer posts) pretty much every kilometer, though some of the posts are missing, perhaps removed as souvenirs. Aside from marking the distance, the posts also indicate the gradient of the upcoming segment particularly when the segment is steep.
The climb starts with a gentle 2.3% gradient as the road winds through rocky, red dirt, hillside vineyards with gnarled old vines loaded with ripe fruit nearing harvest. As the road passes through small hamlets, Mt. Ventoux looms in the distance standing alone as the only big peak around. The top of Mt. Ventoux is above the tree line and is capped by a radio tower and support
buildings. For the first few kilometers, the climb is gentle and the pace is brisk but you know that you are losing road distance and still have almost all of the climbing left to go. Soon the road moves amongst a forest of oak and pine and the climb turns viscous. This was the hardest portion of the climb with a continuous 5 kilometer-plus segment in the middle averaging around 9.5% and maxing out at 10.5%. Couple this with swarming bugs in the air that we could not generate enough speed to escape, it was a suffer fest.
Eventually, we emerged from the forest as the road gradient dropped to 6.7% and we approached Chalet Reynard. After the extended section of steep climbing below, the 6 to 7% gradients felt like level ground! Chalet Reynard is a bar and restaurant at the base of a ski lift at the intersection of two roads coming up the mountain. It is a popular place for cyclists to hang out and marks the beginning of the final portion of the ascent.
From Chalet Reynard, the final 6 kilometers start with a 6.3% 1 km segment, which then rolls into a 7.1% segment. At this point, the altitude starts to become noticeable and the vegetation is rapidly decreasing on the mountain. The slope continues to be moderate until kilometer marker 34.
On the portion of the climb below Chalet Reynard, we were passed by many riders and passed only a few ourselves. For the four kilometers immediately past Chalet Reynard, we did the passing. Our sudden surge relative to the other riders, we figured, was a reflection of the route we took up the mountain. Many of the riders that we had met on the higher slopes had taken the easier route to Chalet Reynard. The route from Bedoin that we took is considered to be the hardest way up. We ended up on the Bedoin route
not because of a particular masochistic tendency but instead because Bedoin was where the bike shop was located. Thus, we were only seeing riders on the lower mountain who were seeking the particularly nasty challenge of the Bedoin route to Chalet Reynard. These riders were generally very strong. Or perhaps our improved performance above Chalet Reynard was the result of our strict adherence to the French-style training regiment for the last week.
We reached the start of the last two kilometers feeling pretty good. The mountain was devoid of vegetation of any significance at this point and last two segments of the climb were steep again with a gradient of 8.9% for a kilometer followed by the final kilometer with an eye popping 11.1% (we think the 11.1% on the last segment might be the result of a couple of super steep switchbacks). We passed by the memorial to Tom Simpson at the point that he popped and died during the Tour de France. It was not exactly inspiring. The last 2 kilometers did not seem as bad as the gradient would have led us to believe, perhaps because we stopped a couple of times (the Simpson Memorial and to take pictures of the kilometer posts). In fact, I couldn’t even convince Becky to turn back 200 m from the top just to make the story better.
At the top below the buildings and antennas, we found loads of recuperating cyclists, tour buses, vendors selling sweets and candies, and the prerequisite souvenir shop. It is hard to imagine what the chaos would have been like at this spot at the end of a Tour de France stage. In all directions, there was a view of the haze-covered plains of Provence from what is the highest point in the vicinity. Interestingly, the signs noting the height of the mountain report different altitudes. At the bottom, the mountain is listed at 1909 m. On the summit, the sign has it as1910 m. On another sign (and the T-shirt in the picture), it is 1912 m.
After taking pictures at the summit sign, we started to go back down the route we climbed. The road was racetrack smooth and super clean with banked turns and minimal traffic making it our favorite road descent ever. We were taking it easy being on unfamiliar rental bikes and with the occasional gusty crosswind, but we still topped out above 40 mph and averaged over 25 mph for the drop. We were going fast enough that we had to pick the bugs out of out teeth after we descended through the buggy portion of the climb. The overall descent lasted less than 30 minutes.
The ride took us about 4 hours to complete. The saddle time for the climb was 2 h 16 m; the actual time with stops to take pictures of every kilometer post we found, at the top, at the Simpson Memorial, and at Chalet Reynard was significantly longer. Certainly, even with riding through the breaks, Iban Mayo’s sub one-hour record time was not in danger at any point! For us, this was easily the hardest climb that we have done.
At the end of the plunge down the mountain, we loaded up the bikes, purchased a souvenir miniature “kilometer” marker (easier to carry on the plane than the real thing!) and headed out. We were pretty much hungry enough to stop and eat road kill. We even started to compare recipes. Nevertheless, we blasted back to the gite for the communal meal. With some creative GPS rerouting along the way onto what had to be the narrowest road in France to avoid gridlocked Friday evening traffic in Avignon, we were still able to make dinner in time.
Along the way we stopped at the rest area along the freeway for a bathroom break. I was introduced to the French rest stop self-cleaning toilet. It was a not entirely friendly encounter. The toilet basically consisted of a porcelain tray on the ground with two raised footprints and a hole. Not so odd in Europe, in and of itself. And I’m sure everyone can imagine how this might function. What was surprising (to me, at least) is that the toilet was self-cleaning. When a button on the wall was pushed, water came streaming out of spouts on the floor, spouts on the walls, and spouts everywhere I looked, as it seemed. The water from the spouts flooded both the tray and most of the stall. As I quickly dashed for the door of the restroom to avoid the deluge, I could see water approaching in a wave from behind. On the road again, I could have sworn I saw water coming down the highway towards us. Or maybe I was just bone tired from the climb.