Stage Distance: 245km
Total Distance: 2504km
Stage 15, Mont Ventoux, stuff of legends. The day I had been anticipating and dreading in equal measure.
Mont Ventoux is one of the hardest climbs the tour ever attempts, so hard in fact that it took the life of Tom Simpson whose memorial can bee seen at the side of the road where he collapsed on his bike. It is one of the crowning achievements of any cyclist. The climb itself is 21km long at an average gradient of 8% peaking at about 12% in sections. It rises out of the town of Bedoin, first through vineyards, then forest and finally above the trees in what has been described as the “moonscape”.
Today was also to be the longest stage of the tour, as if Ventoux was not hard enough in its own right. There was also the small matter of three Cat 4 and a Cat 3 climb to deal with on the route also.
The first choice of the day was how to tackle the stage; take the first 220km easy in order to conserve as much energy as possible for Ventoux or make good time to give a long break at Bedoin before Ventoux. Knowing that I was slow at climbing anyway I opted for the latter, keeping pace with the faster groups when I could on the flat sections in order to arrive at Bedoin as quickly as I could, though obviously without finishing myself in the process. My plan worked well and I rolled into Bedoin well before 5pm (Phil had set 7:15pm as the cut-off time for attempting Ventoux that evening). This gave me good time to relax and refuel before my ascent, though with the temperature at about 35C it wasn’t the most comfortable place to relax.
And then it was time, time for me to start my ascent, I set off alone just wanting to concentrate on my own ride rather than see others and be tempted to keep pace with them. The first section was very nice, the ride out from Bedoin then starting the ascent through the vineyards. It wasn’t long though before Ventoux hit back. Entering the forested region the gradient rose sharply to over 10% and I was quickly in the easiest gear available to me. Easiest gear or not, my cadence slowed, my speed slowed and I was struggling. This came as no surprise to me however, this was my cycling life in the mountains and I slowly crept up the mountain just trying at points to keep moving. At a couple of places however I had to stop to rest, again not a problem, Phil had advised us to do this if necessary.
Mont Ventoux gives very little once it has you, a single “easy” kilometre at a mere 8% and a couple of hundred metres of flat at Le Chalet Reynard. My long progress up the mountain eventually got me to our water stop, just in time as I had been worrying about my shortage of water, especially as I had been feeling cramps start in my legs. Refilling and eating, I resigned myself to the continued effort I faced and set off again.
On the net section cramp began to affect me badly, causing me to stop several times. The weather was also beginning to look somewhat threatening at this time too, what had been about 35C sharply dropped as the sky darkened. The rain started, as did the thunder and lightening. This wasn’t UK type heavy rain however, this quickly became a full on mountain storm deluge. Water was running down the road in rivers, washing dirt, rocks and pine cones onto the road with it. Though I was riding up in this my thoughts turned to the dangers faced by those descending and I hoped that everyone would make it down safely. I had already decided that I was taking advantage of the offer to be ferried back down the hill.
It was here that things got somewhat strange for me. It started when I again took cramp. Getting off my bike I started to try stretching it out and rubbing it to get the blood flowing again. Taking on some more electrolyte drink I prepared to set off again through the deluge when it actually got worse. The rain was joined by hail stones. Hail, in July, in France, less than an hour after I’d been riding in 35C heat. I couldn’t believe it. I took shelter as best as I could, figuring that it wouldn’t last long. I was soaked through and shivering with the cold, not something that often happens to me, I’m fairly good at dealing with the cold. My waterproof jacket was in my bag at the top of the mountain. At this point the wife (and support crew) of the rider doing all three grand tours solo, who had passed us almost every day, stopped her car beside me saying that I’d taken the “sensible” option and sheltered. After she drove off I thought that it wasn’t really sensible. I was cold, soaked through and the storm didn’t seem to be getting any better. I knew these could last some time in the mountains and tended to go almost as quickly as they arrived. I had two choices, to continue up or ride back down to the water stop and shelter in the back of the van. I elected to continue up, as much to avoid a downhill in the wet as much as anything else. As soon as I got started (always difficult trying to clip your feet into pedals on a steep slope, with no speed and still keep your balance) I became quite determined that having made the decision I was going to make it. I regressed into that state when I didn’t think about much apart from keeping the pedals slowly turning, trying to keep a steady tempo regardless of how slow that was, only just aware of the peculiar sound of hailstones hitting my helmet and becoming less and less aware of the rain (I couldn’t get any wetter). It did however remind me of the Tour o’ the Borders sportive that I had done as training which had been in similar conditions. I had found it strange that I had enjoyed that so much in such bad conditions, and here I was, starting to enjoy Ventoux now that conditions had become so bad.
As I cycled upward, through the gloom, rain and hail I approached a bend in the road and saw a group of our rider sheltered under the awning of one of the many caravans and mobile homes claiming their viewing space for the following week. I immediately recognised Doctor Col, not difficult given how tall he is, amongst what I thought was maybe ten of our riders. For an instant I thought about joining them before dismissing the idea and continued on past. It wasn’t brave or heroic, as it was portrayed by others later, I was just stubbornly wanting to get to the top and get it over with.
As I continued up some riders again began to pass me, riding alongside for a bit then shooting off ahead. It later transpired that many of these were those huddled under the awning minutes earlier. I had inspired them to get out from shelter and continue their journey, whether that was up or down the hill.
Getting to Le Chalet Reynard I knew I was going to make it. It flattens out for a few hundred metres and gives you a chance to think. The terrain changes to the famous rocky “moonscape” but the gradient doesn’t get any easier once you start climbing again. However, you feel as though you have broken the mountain, just keep pedalling, keep your legs moving and you are going to make it. So that’s exactly what I did, kept my legs moving, slowly but steadily, trying to push circles rather than heavy down strokes. Constant cadence instead of changing speed depending on the slope. I was however getting more and more tired. I watched the km markers decrease, then to my horror realised that the 21km was not to the top, but to the Col. There was still a couple of km left to the summit. Feeling somewhat cheated and a little angry I continued on. The last little bit didn’t take long however, and one of the descending ‘better’ riders had turned around to chum me up to the top. Sorry I can’t remember who you were but it was hugely appreciated.
Then it was the final kick to the car park. I stood in the pedals and fought the steep last section, then it was over. I arrived to find the van, minibus and a whole bunch of riders huddled in blankets. A couple of quick photos (I wish I’d taken more time getting photos) and I quickly joined them, blanket around me, can of Coke in hand. The journey back in the minibus seemed to take forever and it was sitting there that what we had just done really began to sink in. We had conquered Ventoux.
At dinner each evening (or on rest day following a big day), Phil presents an award for an outstanding ride of the day. This is followed by the ‘Chapeau’ award, given by the current holder to another rider for doing something good on the bike that day, whether a particularly good ride, helping other riders, or other such acts that merit a “well done”. Finally, the ‘Rocket’ is awarded, similarly by the current holder, to the rider who has committed a “crime against cycling” or some other idiotic act on a bike.
Dr. Col had been awarded the Chapeau the previous evening and as he started to talk about what had happened on Ventoux, I realised he was talking about my ride past them while they sheltered from the rain and the hail. His story was told so much better than I remember it, I wish I had recorded what he’d said. I thought as he spoke though that this was the customary “worthy mentions” that went before the actual award. I was so shocked when he awarded me the Chapeau for grit and determination. I so pleased and shocked as everyone seemed happy that I got it. That means a lot when you come into something wondering if people wonder whether you should even be there. It confirmed the inclusiveness that I had been feeling as part of the Tour de Force, something that had become increasingly important to me.
Pleased as I was, I didn’t feel that it was entirely justified. I did however feel I could correct the balance the following evening. As part of the Chapeau and Rocket awards, you ask around for nominations for moving the award on. It was Marianne’s suggestion initially, which struck me as my favoured option. It seemed a favourable idea when I discussed it with others. So, when it came my turn to present the Chapeau, I presented it to Elton, who had been the first up Ventoux. The Chapeau moved from late gutsy ride to early brilliant ride, a fitting reminder of the varied challenges faced by riders of varied abilities in the ‘tour bubble’.
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