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Climbing Mont Ventoux - Part 1
 
By Locutus
Date: 6/7/2006
Climbing Mont Ventoux - Part 1
 

Climbing Mont Ventoux Part 1
"As Ben Edlund put it so well, gravity is a harsh mistress. This is especially true when riding your bike up some God-forsaken mountain like Mont Ventoux. I'm not sure who thought it was a good idea to build a road up that monster of Provence..."

It was mid July of 2004, on a rest day of the Tour de France I was with a group who rode Mont Ventoux. The group was lead by a few retired pros of Yellow Jersey Tours owned by Bingen Fernandez Bustinza of Cofidis... on Thursday Bingen and the pros will be racing up Ventoux in Stage 4 of the Criterium Dauphiné Libéré so here is the article out of the archives of the Daily Peloton with a look at what it's like for mere mortals to challenge the steeps of the volcanic monster of Provence; and a salute to the Bingen and the warriors who will challenge her slopes. "Good Legs" Mates! (Part one)

Rest Day Journal
Route for the day: 60+ miles from Montpellier to Mont Ventoux.
Principal difficulty: Mont Ventoux (13.1 miles at 7.6% gradient).
iPod inspirational and appropriate song of the day: Curve, "Chinese Torture"

As Ben Edlund put it so well, gravity is a harsh mistress. This is especially true when riding your bike up some God-forsaken mountain like Mont Ventoux. I'm not sure who thought it was a good idea to build a road up that monster of Provence; I'm sure that there is a well-documented history of the Mont Ventoux road project, but I'm too tired to care about that at this point. As I was climbing Mont Ventoux, I came up with my own story about who came up with the idea for this road and why he put it there.

In my mind, the person who designed this road was a man named Jacques, a cruel, petty man who kicked his dog, never tipped his waiter, and always threw things at cyclists when he drove by them. This latter activity - harassing cyclists - was Jacques' true passion, and he was constantly looking for ways to further abuse them. In my story, Jacques worked his way up to the head of the French ministry in charge of roads, and hatched a master plan: build a road up the most horrific mountain he could find to provide cyclists with an irresistible challenge that will put them through pure torture. To top it off, Jacques built a tower at the top of the mountain to serve a giant middle finger to mock the cyclists as they go through hell.


Mont Ventoux looms above the farmland that surrounds it. Photo © Patrick Sharp.

Our ride today started nicely enough. We rode a relatively easy pace with a few stops for the first 47 miles of the ride. Then, when we hit the bottom of Ventoux. Lance Armstrong said recently that Mont Ventoux is the hardest climb in France. I can see why: it is steep, hot, and over thirteen miles long. Up the climb we had a net altitude gain of over 4800 feet, and the average heat on the climb was 94 degrees (with the high mark being 98 degrees near the bottom). The gradient is constant, with no letups anywhere; it's just steep, steeper, and steepest. The only reason that the climb gets such a low 7.6% average gradient is because the first mile or so is very shallow. Then, it kicks up and fast.


        Into the forest of Mont Ventoux. Photo © Patrick Sharp.

At the bottom of the climb, I was pretty tired already from the 47 miles; sure, the pace wasn't that high, but it was 47 miles. The pack of triathletes in the group went charging up the mountain and left me in the dust. My heart rate was at 170 early in the climb, and as I can't hold that for long without bonking, I kicked it into my 39x28 climbing gear and stayed there. I was hurting, of course, but I got my heart rate low enough to set a steady pace that I thought would get me to the top. On the climb, our support vans were great. At one point, I even had our guide, former Tour Polka-Dot climbing Jersey wearer Igor Flores, dropping back to get water for me from the vans.

When Igor handed me the bottles, he gave me some encouraging words (he speaks little English; he speaks mainly Basque and Spanish), and then bolted away from me up the climb like I was standing still. I watched the ease with which he climbed the mountain and meditated on whether I felt better after his visit or not. Our masseurs Danielle and Ishmael were also handing out water on the side of the road (I lost track of how much I went through; something just shy of ten bottles on the day), and Ishmael, a Basque man used to seeing people climb much faster than me, would hand off my water bottle and then jump behind me to give me a running push to get me flying. That would last for about twenty meters, and then it was back to grinding, but I appreciated it.


Self-portrait of happy misery, as I wind up past the castle into the barren part of the climb. Photo © Patrick Sharp.

Eventually the heat and miles caught up with a lot of the guys. A few of them had to pull over to rest, puke, or bum some water. I was able to keep going the whole way without stopping, though I finished long after the hammerheads like Ben, Ray, Joe Sr., Reed, and Joe Jr. Most of us made it to the top, eventually (my time on the climb, if you're interested, was 2h 17' 35"; not exactly threatening Iban Mayo's record). There were other cycling groups all over the mountain, and I both passed and was passed by several other people. But I was too tired to really care.

Towards the top, I was really out of gas; my legs felt fine, but there was just no more power there. The final four miles, which come after the treeline, are barren, rocky, and completely desolate. Even though the gradient was a bit easier there, I was so worked by that time that I was in pure, unadulterated misery. Igor dropped back to ride next to me and provide encouragement up the final three kilometers (I think it was actually quite hard for him, as he had to go much slower than he is used to), and I finally crested to see Ben, Ray, and few of the others yelling and screaming encouragement (these people do ironman triathalons, so they still looked like they were waiting for the swimming and running portions).


The view from the top down the last four miles of the climb. Photo © Patrick Sharp.

Reed, a car dealer famous in Nashville for his Saturday morning live commercials with Woody the Wonder Dog, was the only one echoing my sentiment. Reed was shaking his head, and repeating Apollo Creed's words to Rocky Balboa at the end of the first "Rocky" movie: "There ain't gonna be no rematch." Yeah, it was an awesome climb, and it was an unparalleled experience. Still, I wasn't going to be doing it again soon; not until the memory of the pain had faded and all I remembered was the beauty, the grandeur, and the happy guys at the finish.

Locutus had joined long time Daily Peloton sponsor Yellow Jersey Tours for one of its Tour de France cycling tours. YJT is owned by Cofidis rider and Daily Peloton favorite Bingen Fernandez Bustinza. Locutus will be filing reports of his experiences with Yellow Jersey Tours this week at Le Tour

 
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