I never thought that cycling up Mont Ventoux three times in a day was going to be easy. After all, I’ve done it once before and that was difficult enough. But I’m not sure I really had any idea about how tough it would actually be. In fact, I know I hadn’t. I’d have probably not bothered trying.
This could be a very long post, because it was a very long day. I’ll try and keep it short(ish), but will fail.
In summary, the mighty Mont Ventoux in Provence – the giant mountain that has featured Tour de France battles aplenty and taken the life of British pro cyclist Tom Simpson – has three paved roads all the way up to its summit at 1,912m high. Ride them all in one day and you get to join the Club des Cinglés. It’s a ride that in total measures 136km along but, significantly, includes 4,443m of vertical ascent. Throw in the unpredictability of Mont Ventoux’s weather and it’s a recipe for, well, a decent story at least.
I was joined by five good men of Les Veloistes Gentils: Matt, Mark, Beev, Typo and Jon. We were riding in the memory of good friends and fellow LVGs, Tim and Nuts. You can find that back-story here on my Just Giving page.
So, here we go. We started in Bedoin, and we started early. Bedoin, because that route up is known as the most difficult and we fancied getting it out of the way first, and early, because (a) it’s the middle of July and not unlikely to be roasting hot by mid-morning and (b) we thought we might need every hour of daylight available! So, at a shade after 6.00am we got our cards stamped at the machine outside Office de Tourisme and set off on what was a beautiful morning, though with the summit of Ventoux slightly worryingly obscured by a big dollop of cloud.
The route to the summit from Bedoin is the one a few of us had done before and which is probably the best-known, being the traditional route used by the Tour de France. Essentially, it’s a gentle roll out of Bedoin for about 6km before a sharp turn into the forest where the road kicks up sharply for a very tough 8km until the large sweeping turn at Chalet Reynard and the final famous moonscape of Ventoux’s upper slopes for the final 6km run to the summit.
I’ve made that sound easier than it is. Basically it’s 21km uphill and some of it is very steep. But knowing that the climb was the first of three that day meant that we all tried to keep well within our limits (not that it felt it, to be honest) and it was relatively straightforward. ‘Relatively’ because about 3km from the summit the cloud closed in and it got pretty damn cold. And the last kilometre feels long and very steep when you can’t see the top.
Still, we all got there. Being just after 8.00am the shop wasn’t open and there was nobody around (in fact we’d had the mountain to ourselves) so none of us was hanging around and we dropped over the other side for the glorious (but again, pretty cold) descent into Malaucène to get our cards stamped and to down much-needed hot chocolates (weird for mid-July in Provence to be honest).
Now, I’ve ridden up quite a few mountains in my time and loved almost every descent that’s been the reward. And I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy the run down to Malaucène, because I did. It’s just that, well, bombing downhill for 20km knowing that you’re almost immediately going to have to turn around and cycle back up them isn’t quite the same thing…
But that’s what we did. And it was very, very hard. There are 3km in the middle of the climb back to the summit which nearly did for me. I had to have a serious word with myself. There the ones that are 11, 10 and nine kilometres from the summit. And, respectively, they’re 12%, 11% and 11%. That’s tough going. So tough, in fact, that when I saw that the marker for 9km to the summit and that its average gradient was only (only!) 8%, I very nearly cried with joy. I’m not joking.
The cloud still obscured the summit of Ventoux, but ascent number two was in the bag not too long afterwards (just after noon if you’re keeping tabs). The shop was open this time and I had a Coke and a Snickers, which were very nearly the best things I have ever eaten.
We bombed down to Chalet Reynard and took the fork towards Sault, which is a fantastic road. In comparison to the route from Chalet Reynard to Bedoin, the Sault road is shallower and more sweeping. It’s also got a brand new super-smooth surface. You fly through the forest and come out to ride across the valley floor through lavender fields (where you might, as I did, have a head-on collision with a bee which then stings you on the bridge of your nose) and up a little 1km 5% kicker to Sault. But no matter…you’re 2/3 of the way there and lunch beckons!
I’ve had rides before where I’ve reached lunch absolutely famished and made the huge error of stuffing myself so full that the afternoon’s riding has felt dreadful. Determined not to make the same mistake on this trip, I only polished off half the very welcome spag bol and half the equally welcome doughnut Beev bought us all. Cards stamped we found someone to take this happy picture and we were off yet again.
The ascent to the summit from Sault is regarded as the easiest (if that’s the right word). You start at a higher altitude so with it being long at 25km, the average gradient is less. And with the top 6km being the same steep ones that you cover on the run from Bedoin, the first 19km or so from Sault are, in relative terms, pretty pleasant. In fact with a tailwind and the lovely surface, we covered the last few into Chalet Reynard at an average of 30 km/h. Nice.
We gathered and decided to stay together for the final run up to the summit. We also decided that we’d stop at the memorial to Tom Simpson for a moment’s reflection and to pay our respects to Tim and Nuts, which we did by leaving one of the original LVG caps which Tim had designed.
After that it was just the long last kilometre up to the (still cloudy top). Quick photos and hugs and then a very fast descent all the way into Bedoin for the final stamp. It’s amazing the turn of speed the promise of a pint can give you, even with three trips up Ventoux in the legs.
As it happens and just for the record, in the sprint for the Bedoin sign I pipped Jon. So, effectively, I won.
So, that was that. We got back to Bedoin more than 11 hours after we left, and had been in the saddle for nearly nine hours of that. Which is why my bum was sore.
I won’t be hurrying back to Mont Ventoux. But I do love the place.
It was one of those days on a bike when nothing else seems to matter. When the surroundings, the weather, the route and – yes – even the company cannot be bettered.
The kind of bike ride you sometimes had as a kid in enjoyment terms, only so much better amidst the majestic Alps.
We felt alive, even if our bodies were sore and legs wearing weary.
A day to cherish, and that the #LVG is all about.
It went like this. Straight off the bat, climbing 19km up the Cormet de Roselend. That might sound tough and it stretched the legs, but what a climb. An average of 6% but it soon slipped below that as we wound up through woodland past old watermills.
It then perked up with 8 and 9% hairpin stretches as snowy Alpine peaks came into view again. There was little let-up and my burning legs were feeling it.
And then as if my magic, the next kilometre marker showed 1%. Soon we were freewheeling through a stunning lush valley, hidden on both sides by rocky outcrops. A welcome breather.
It went from the sublime to the ridiculous though. We heard the bells first, then came around a corner to be greeted by hundreds of stinking backsides. Not the lycra kind, but a huge herd of Alpine horned cattle being moved to new pasture. Too many to squeeze past, so we sat behind them at about 0.5kmh for a good kilometre.
Cows behind us, it was back to 7 and 8% for the final 6 or 7km, flattening a little towards the top. All the while there were waterfalls everywhere, meadows, snowy mountain tops and Mont Blanc looming beyond. Not the hardest climb by some stretch, but all the points for beauty and variety.
We descended to the pretty town of Beaufort, as in the cheese. Coffee stop, JL consuming his body weighting cream cakes.
And then on the further descent to Albertville, near-disaster. One of the scariest moments I’ve had on a bike in a long time. Steady descent through trees, and it was hot. The road felt like it was melting in places but it was an oil trail down the middle. Going into a corner, my front wheel hit it and lost traction. No time or point in braking, I was going down or off the road. As down most likely meant taking everyone behind me with them, I just let it run across the other side of the road, in front of an oncoming car. It missed by 10m or so and I went up a bank without a scratch. You should see me do the same thing one-handed.
From there we made our way via a long and shady cycle path for about 40km to Annecy, with a lunch stop. When the lake finally came into view, more superlatives. A turquoise green and inviting for a quick swim, but we had the finish line ahead of us so pressed on.
And then it was all over for another year. Eight riders set out, seven returned, one is wished a speedy recovery ahead of the Mt Ventoux trip next month.
Five days, some 645km, many laughs and some industrial bottom-numbing cream later, it’s back to reality.
Thanks one and all, but especially Matt, Jon and Howie, for making it what it was.
Bell to the safekeeping of Lee, by the way.
Stage four was all about the Col de la Madeleine.
After upping sticks we had a run-out of about 45 minutes until we started up the north side of the Madeleine. It averages 8% and is 20km long, so no-one thought it woud be easy but the stifling heat made it worse. The 10% stretches soon came, without much shade. Quick lemonade and then up the second half, just as steep as the first.
The views were stunning again, high meadows after the ski resort and the big peaks all around. Those last few kilometres were a long time coming, but eventually they did as I ground my way up, the sun still beating down even at nearly 2,000m.
The descent was equally beautiful, clinging in part to a mountainside overlooking a valley before winding around the other side. The afternoon was then a long, dusty and gradual ascent to the ski area of Bourg St Maurice.
Some mishaps on the road, including JL’s Oakleys being crushed by a truck and my chain hopping off whenever it felt like a rest.
Dinner at an old auberge was the stuff of LVG legend – enormous, with extra chips, terrine and ice cream.
Four down, one to go.
Day late with this. The usual excuse, made myself ill. Today I learned that strong coffee and sunshine and cycling up hills don’t agree with me.
It was hot yesterday (Wednesday). Fantastic descent from Vars, then a long main road drag to Briancon, great coffee break then up the steady but long Col du Lauteret. I ground pedals while coffee ground my stomach, the sun beat down and I beat myself up. Cracked a few kilometres from the top, then hopped in the van. No worries, I never pack shame for these trips anyway.
Enough sob stories. Lunch on the Lauteret then up the shorter side of the Galibier. Matt up first, via some short damage (ask him). Big applause to Sam for making it and stomping the last bit.
Then the long descent to St Michel de Maurienne, where no-one seems to live but we still found a place to eat called the Savoy Grill. Slap-up feed.
Typing this on Thursday. Report on today to come tomorrow.
Day 2 took us from Valberg to Ste Marie de Vars via the mighty Col de la Bonnette and the steep south side of the Col de Vars.
Forget the cycling for the moment though – the day shall be remembered more for Gabbi turning up at lunch with his arm in plaster beyond his elbow. Nasty injury, whacking great cast. And I should point out (because he told me to) that he rode on for a good 75k after doing it yesterday. Hero. Slightly bonkers hero, but hero.
Back to the Bonnette, which is a huge climb but something of a con. It bills itself as the highest paved route in Europe, but only if you do the steep extra loop at the top that resembles a Doncaster slag heap. We didn’t. It was a long, tough, windy climb and I hated most of it. Great views, harsh on the bottom. And Typo insisted on calling it the Bonnette de Douche all day. This was no shower cap, more a mountain of misery.
I should point out the amazing descent as we made our way out of Provence this morning. It went on and on, past perched villages, waterfalls and enough rock formations to make a geology teacher sweaty. Pictures to follow.
The day ended with an initially steady but then gruelling ascent of the Col de Vars. Windy again, thunderstorms threatening and fairy long sections of 9 and 10%.
Top hotel tonight in Vars with a roaring fire.
Tomorrow: long drag to Briancon then the Lauteret and Galibier. Or the Motorway and the Glib-ier. But no shower caps needed, we hope.
What do you get if you ride 140k through Provence on a route that looks like the profile of a stegosaurus?
There was a lot of uphill today. And quite a bit of downhill. Which meant even more uphill. And not much flat. And a long day in the saddle, topped with a 13k climb to the ski resort of Valberg with a thunderstorm thrown in
The only way I survived it was to sing Madonna’s holiday out loud, to remind myself that that’s what this week is.
Not very Rapha Cent Cols eh?
So much uphill I forget what was what. It’s a long way from Antibes to Valberg, and what goes up must come down. And then go up again. Lots.
Highlights and lowlights:
-Gabbi took a bad tumble and soldiered on on the Route Napoleon before getting in the van. And no shame there.
-Lee got sunburned.
-JL carried the new Zebedee bell with distinction
-And we had stunning views, which I can’t upload from here.
Tomorrow, Cols de la Bonnette and Vars. Both uphill apparently.
The only way is up.
So sang Yazz And The Plastic Population in 1988. As we look ahead to this week’s Les Veloistes Gentils 2014 ride, let’s hope that doesn’t stick in our heads the way Toto wormed its way into our tiny minds en route to Aprica in Italy last summer.
We can but hope.
Which might be four words that sum up the trepidation and anticipation with which eight souls approach the Antibes to Annecy route set out for our mutual enjoyment. We can but hope that the forecast thunderstorms in the mountains tomorrow and on Tuesday hold off. We can but hope that there might be even a few level kilometres between those soaring Alpine peaks. We can but hope we arrive in Annecy next Friday afternoon all in one piece and with a cold beer waiting. And we can but hope that anyone room-sharing with Typo doesn’t forget the golden rule of never light a match.
The #LVG is always special. This year it’s doubly-special and sombre, given the passings of Nuts and Tim, both taken cruelly and far too young. With their names on the jerseys this year, they’ll be with us.
Preview and prologue then. Prologue? Yes, in a depature from tradition, this year’s ride starts with a Sunday evening prologue on the Cote d’Azur this evening. Providing there’s not too much fannying with the bike building of course. We’ve brought lights.
Then the stages (well, days really, but let’s stick with the ‘stage’ brand in honour of Cap’n Jack, who may not be present this year but whose “Stayjwynne” proclamation will no doubt be echoed at some point.
STAGE ONE – ANTIBES to VALBERG – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4532336
STAGE TWO – VALBERG to VARS, ST MARIE – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4532389
STAGE THREE – VARS, ST MARIE to ST MARTIN D’ARC – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4855064
STAGE FIVE – BOURG ST MAURICE to ANNECY – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4735997
Many kilometres and many smiles ahead of us.
Including the Col de la Bonnette:
And the Col d’Izoard:
And the Col du Galibier:
And the Col de la Madeleine:
And finally, the Col’d Lager:
More soon, tinpot hotel wi-fi and stubby tablet fingers permitting.