“We didn’t conquer it, but we gave it a good slap in the face”.
In truth, I’m not sure anyone conquers Mont Ventoux. It’s a brute of a mountain. The mistral produces vicious winds; scorching sunshine and then there are the 12% inclines to tackle. We were lucky. The day prior to our attempt the summit of Ventoux was in the clouds, buffeted by 60 kph winds. For our attempt at three summits by the three different road routes we were blessed with no wind and no scorching sun. That just left the 12% climbs.
Staying only 11k from Malaucene we tackled this route first. Stamping our ride card in the Boulangerie at 07:50 we started, climbing slowly and at a pace we felt we could sustain over three climbs. The first part of the climb is relatively gentle, through a spectacular forest gorge that lulls you into a false sense of security. The road winds its way up through a forest on the northerly side and the height gained becomes very real with far reaching views across to the Alps; a pleasant distraction from the climbing. Other than the summit signs you have no perspective on where the summit is. That soon changes when you enter what can only be described as a gladiatorial amphitheatre. Up in front is an immense wall of loose, white scree with the Observatory perched on top. It truly is frightening.
The first summit reached at 09:45 and we were met with a blustery, cold wind. This was the first time I felt the affects of the slightly ill fitting bike. A sharp pain on the top of my right knee was the price to be paid. Now the descent onto the Bedouin side, past the memorial to Tom Simpson and onto Chalet Reynard. The descent was freezing. By the time we reached the sanctuary of the chalet, some 6km down, we were shivering uncontrollably. I’m not sure I fully warmed up even after a jambon sandwich and a cafe au lait.
The descent to Bedoin from Reynard was crazy. By this time every man and his dog seemed to be climbing up. The road was narrow, steep and fast. To make things worse, oncoming cars avoiding those climbing up would cross onto your side of the road, often leaving tiny gaps to squeeze past. This continued for approx 10km before the road eventually opened up above Bedoin. A refill of bottles at the town’s fountain, cards stamped at the tabac and it was back up.
Those of you who have watched the Tour de France on it’s visits to Ventoux may be familiar with the Bedoin route. It’s the route the pros do for a reason - because it’s the hardest. Shorter than Malaucene and Sault, it’s much more direct. In truth the climb through the forest above Bedoin to Reynard grips you and never lets go. My thoughts of the summit had gone. At this point I became focused on just getting to Chalet Reynard. My sanctuary only an hour or so before would be my sanctuary again. A flat area to give my legs some respite before the final 6 km to the summit. However, it wasn’t much respite. The final 6km is the longest 6km you’ll ever cycle. The road is the infamous shot of Ventoux, snaking its way through the barren, lunar landscape. The summit, in full view, teases and tantalises. So near but so far.
I couldn’t stop at the Simpson memorial. I was giving everything just to keep moving - all out at 4.5mph. Ventoux doesn’t like to make things easy for you. Just before the summit there is a 10% ramp over the last 150m. Needless to say the summit feels ever the sweeter for it. Except, for those looking to do three summits there isn’t much time to savour it before thoughts turn to the third ascent and you drop, off the edge, down to Reynard again.
The road from Reynard to Sault was at first a relief. In contrast to Bedoin it was a shallow gradient and at parts I needed to pedal to descend. It was living up to it’s reputation as the easiest of the ascents. A welcome relief. However, after what seemed like an endless descent, where was the town? Perched on a small hill in the distance was Sault. We’d need to climb up into it. Lunch would be well earned.
Lunch stops are no good for sore knees. Getting back on the bike and starting the climb was agony. I needed to get my right knee moving by gentle spinning up the climb. Greg did a fantastic job of pacing me up. Yet again, my thoughts turned to just reaching Reynard. By tweaking my position on the bike, I had learned from my second ascent, that I could get the knee roughly over the ball of my foot and lessen the pain. It coincided with the gentler inclines and suddenly we were able to blast along at 14 to 15 mph to Chalet Reynard.
Having done the final ascent from the Bedoin side once, I took the conscious decision not to be tantalised by looking up at the summit. I would climb head down. I was feeling fresher and was able to climb at 6.5 mph. This time I paid my homage to Simpson and on to the third summit. The final stamp. After the descent to Malaucene we would join the Club des Cingles.
The first 6km or so of the descent from the Summit was awful. Constant switchbacks and the alps gleaming from the setting sun in the distance as a distraction. A distraction you don’t need with sheer drops off the side. Thoughts turned to just getting down. It wasn’t until lower down, in the depths of the forest gorge, that I could finally relax and enjoy it. We stopped the clock at the boulangerie where we had started. 18:45.