Ventoux Challenge

Overall Distance 120 kilometres Time Taken 4:34
Height Climbed 2,300 metres Position 83rd
Distance Climbed 60 kilometres Brevet Gold
Date June 2005 Country France
Entrants 1,000 Region Provence

It's a week since the "Debacle of the Dauphine" and we're now ready to see how much I've paid for my mid-week excursion to Alpe d'Huez.

Orange Alert
On Wednesday we arrive at Orange and book in to the Ibis.  It's 50 metres from the autoroute exit and 30 kilometres from Mont Ventoux.  Guess which looked closer!  The hotel also had a pool and the best restaurant a cyclist could ever wish.  Luckily we picked up a room on the ground floor right outside the pool.  Job done.

I was going to go out for a "bit of a ride" but it was 36 degrees and the Mistral was in full force.  It was like standing in front of a giant hair-dryer.  It's okay, I'll carbo-load with French pastries and chocolate, read Cycling Weekly and try to blend my cycling tan lines into the rest of my body.  I can ride tomorrow.

Red Alert
Thursday dawns; 80 kilometre Mistral winds + 38 degrees heat = pool.  Picking the furniture up from around the pool for an hour was becoming boring, so despite the raging furnace it's out on the bike.  Before you say, why didn't I wait for it to cool down; it's 10:30 in the morning.  It's only going to get hotter.

Spin the legs and feel the heat on your back, what better way to start the day.  I decide to ride to the foot of Ventoux.  The closer I get the more intimidating the mountain looks, then I remember the immortal words of my mate Gozzee when we did the Marmotte; "Mountains are like breasts, they always look bigger from underneath!".  Except he didn't say breasts.

In the heat, my power bars melt to mush and my gels become water.  And speaking of water I run out on the way back.  Three pints gone in 90 minutes, a stop at a garden centre gets me a full bottle and a shot of Baby Bio.  Trust me, it's the future.

Now it's official
Friday called for signing on.  A short drive to Beaumes de Venise and carry out the obligatory formalities.  In the centre of town there's a nice start village which is the Gendarmerie car park.  The police had two spaces reserved for themselves  everything else was given to the cyclists.  Sign on, get a free bottle of plonk and do some cycle shopping.  It's like real shopping but you don't buy anything.

A drive up the mountain to "check it out" is called for.  I drive up the side we'd be descending to recce the dodgy corners.  Looks good.  On the way up are four disguised cars towing each other.  Being a sad git I realize they're BMW's.  I overtake them and see the boot, rear and passenger seats are covered in telemetry and computer equipment.  They look and smell very hot.  If anyone tries to sells you a low mileage, black, 1 series bee-em; pass.

Race Day
Thankfully the Mistral has stopped.  You could drop a feather and it would land at your feet, the temperature has even dropped. It's only 32 degrees and feels fantastic.  Dianne's not doing this one as there is no "decouvert" ride so it's just me and a thousand others on the start line which includes some Cycling Weekly staffers. 

We set out from Beaumes for a 17 kilometre warm up to Bedoin, already a full on race has started and I've decided not to take part.  After the Dauphine, and still unsure of my form over distance at altitude, I decide to cruise to the Ventoux and ride tempo all of the way.  Others seem more committed but, for once, I stick to my plan.

Chattering Classes
The atmosphere seems remarkably relaxed.  You meet a better class of person mid-field.  For most of the other events I've been at the sharp end, and it's all hold a wheel or get bumped off.  Some people take their cycling far too seriously!  But not today, convivial it is.  Then we reach Bedoin and in the words of the great Murray Walker, I "stop my start watch".

Bedoin sits at 300 metres and 21.5 kilometres (believe me those 500 metres make a difference) from the top of the 1912 metres high "montangne tragique".  We're just through Bedoin when the talking begins to die down.  Didi has left his devils trident marks all over the road but he's nowhere to be seen.  This raises a few remarks and giggles but it's more nerves than anything else.  The first few k are at a modest 3%, not a problem, yet.

As you look to your left you can see the summit and the red and white tower.  It's still very warm but the mountain next to Ventoux, probably called Ven~one, is covered in cloud.  It feels around 25 degrees but I'm glad I've brought my gilet!  As we ride towards St Colombe the top disappears behind some trees and you can concentrate on the road ahead.  Which at this point climbs at a steady 5% until you get to St Esteve at 6 kilometres in.

Silence of the Lambs
Okay, we're at 550 metres as we turn a hairpin left and the road goes from up, to very up.  It's another 10 k to Chalet Reynard, through the Forest of Bedoin and it's a 10% average until we get there.  Like lambs to the slaughter we head up to the clouds. 

You can hear a pin drop!  The only noises are from gears, heavy breathing and the birds.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, has stopped talking.  It's one of the most surreal sights you will ever see, or to be pedantic, sounds you won't hear.  A thousand people climbing in total silence.  Until it's broken by a scouser!  At about the 10k mark I was passed by Robin Garbutt and Phil O'Connor from Cycling Weekly.  I shouted encouragement as they seemed to be flying.  Appearances however, can prove deceptive!

Altitude Alters Ability
As you leave the steepness of the forest, Chalet Reynard appears as an oasis on the horizon.  I never, ever, ever stop on climbs.  But, (you knew that was coming didn't you?) it's 6k to the top and my bottle's are empty.  It's still very hot and no real cooling breeze to speak of.  So I decide, for the sake of survival, that rule one is abandoned in favour of rule two; never leave a feed without water.  A quick pit stop to fill my water bottle then away; 30 seconds maximum. 

As a delightful young French maiden filled my bidon I see the Cycling Weekly boys heading for the cafe.  I could also hear an accent behind me that was only too familiar.  A vet Mank (an older person of a Manchester persuasion) was doing his best Liam Gallagher impersonation, spinning a tale to his mates about how he couldn't catch his breath and climb in his usual fluid, gazelle-like manner.  He said "it's like I've caught asthma". 

He thought he had his mates convinced when I, unable to keep my gob shut, said "it's age and altitude, mate".  Recognising that his cover had been blown, and by a scouser at that, he gave me his best Mank Paddington Bear Stare, hoping to intimidate me into silence.  I stared back back, smiled and said, "or it could be your just crap".  He fumed, his mates smirked and I rode off into the distance; all fluid and gazelle-like. 

Pain, Suffering & Death
The distance I rode off into had become very lunar like and typical of the classic Ventoux photo-opportunity.  We're now at 1475 metres and the wind is beginning to pick up.  Anyone who saw Jean-Francoise Bernard's Tour de France time-trial victory in 1987 will remember the pain, anguish, agony and suffering on his face.  Well that's me that is.  Except about 10 kilometres an hour slower.  I've got the vid if you want to watch it!

My head is dropping towards my stem as I crank out the final kilometres and I enter that "zone" where you internalize the pain hoping it will go away.  I almost miss Tom Simpson's memorial, which is closer to the top than I realized; He almost made it.  It's remarkable but it does inspire you to push on, the suffering I'm taking is nothing compared to his.

The last two kilometres are at 9% and the last corner is a beast.  But I make it to the 1912 metre summit in a respectable one hour forty-five minutes.  I only remember about six people passing me on the climb and as a reward I think of buying some sweets from the stall-holder at the top.  Instead I stop and put my gilet on. 

The wind is howling in at God knows what speed and the temperature has dropped to around 10 degrees.  With the first few corners of the descent being tight, steep, in quick succession and with massive drop offs, I'd rather lose time stopping to put my gilet on than try my usual stunt of dressing while descending.

Dive Dive Dive
If the climb is the climb from hell the descent really is heaven sent.  After the first few switchbacks you enter a really long, smooth and more importantly, visible, descent.  If only six overtook me climbing I pull back easily a hundred places descending.  Some stay with me for a corner or so but once I hit 50 mph, all drop back.  People seem to impose set limits on themselves.  Why 50 mph?

For minute after minute I stay at over 50 then it creeps up and up to around 54-55.  At which point I decide it's better to look where the road goes.  When I get back and click through the computer I find we maxed out at 57.2 mph.  With some fast bends and some tight hairpins it's probably one of the fastest descents around.  Although not as technical as Alpe d'Huez it's just as satisfying.

Once we're back on level ground it's time to pick up a group and head for the next feed and the next col.  On a rolling road that seems more up than down we head for the Col de Veaux.  Not the biggest mountain in the region but one that makes the legs sting.  After that it's a straight run to the finish. 

We hit a small, long climb and I'm with about twenty riders.  I recognise where we are and how technical it's about to get.  So I go to the front and push hard over the last 500 metres as I know there are three roundabouts and some twisty descents on the run in to Beaumes. 

At the crest a group of six of us break clear with me sweeping through the roundabouts and the bends on the front.  I go to the front because it's the safest place to be. I'm not comfortable behind riders I don't know; sometimes I'm even less comfortable behind riders I do!  As the road opens up I wait for someone to come through to help drive us to the finish. 

No one does then I realise why.  We pass under the 25 K banner.  I'd forgot the last climb.  We've been climbing so much that I'd lost count and had no idea how much distance we'd covered.  We take a sharp right and head up the 472 metre Col de la Chaine.  My five buddies drift past me but I latch on and hold my position at the back.  Then others begin to join us.  The group's a little too big now so I ease my way forward and within a kilometre or so I find myself on my own off the front.  Once more my bottles are empty, but it's okay there's a feed at the summit.

I enter the feed just as the two Cycling Weekly boys are leaving.  We pass pleasantries about the descent and they're away.  I fill one of my bottles as I'm thirsty and take a comfort break because my bladder's exploding!  So how does that work?  You'd think your body would compensate and suck the fluids back up!

As I leave the feed I begin to wonder how the Cycling Weekly boys managed to beat me there?  The last time I saw them they were entering Chalet Reynard.  Again another fantastic, technical at the top and sweeping in the middle, descent is on us.  I catch a slip of a lad in a polka-dot jersey.  He stays with me for a few corners then drifts back as my superior bulk and gravity take over.  Nothing to do with skill or technique you'll notice.

After ten minutes or so descending I see the Cycling Weekly boys in the distance and press on taking probably too many risks on too many corners.  At the 10k to go banner I reach them and we begin a through and off.  At 6k to go my polka-dot friend joins us.  Bloody good effort I reckon as we weren't hanging around.  I give him a nod to acknowledge his skill, technique and superior ability then we settle down for a finish.

Through and Through
As we get nearer the finish the work ratio seems to be drifting into a less is more type-scenario.  They're doing less and I'm doing more!  At the flamme rouge it's me on the front and no one is coming through.  Now, I've done my homework and I know the finish.  With 150 metres to go it becomes a left-right-left, downhill (off-camber) left, sharp right, finish. 

As we enter the town with 300 metres to go, and the crowds build, someone tries to go through.  I think not.  I just ease my speed up which means they'll have to go the long way round.  The marshals are blowing whistles and waving like mad trying to slow us down. 

It's like the last lap of a crit but for once I'm on the front and no one is coming past.  I may not be the fastest but I've got the line and I'm keeping it.  Everyone falls in line astern as I back them up then jump out of the off camber section.  As we come out of the last tight right, a sprint develops behind me. I ease out of the saddle give a final 50 metre kick and I'm first to the funnel that takes you to the line and the electronic mat.  The CW photographer is on my shoulder and ain't coming through.

The polka-dot kid is all smiles, Robin Garbutt the CW editor is stoic about the sprint and Phil O'Conner the photographer looks seriously upset and rides off in a huff.  But seeing as he hasn't said a word all ride ~ good.  Then Dianne came along and upset Garbutt twice.  Once when she said only four women beat us in and again when she asked him if he was Tony Bell!  He said he didn't know what to be more upset about.

Cheese and Cake?
What a fantastic day.  At the end you return your chip and get your time and position.  I was well pleased with 83rd place.  Hardly anyone overtook me going up hill, which is a stark contrast to the previous week.  And not only did I get my gold position for a vet I beat the gold medal time for scratch by 10 minutes.  How good is that?  I was so pleased I had steak and chips for tea and destroyed a cheesecake at the dessert buffet.  As I said, you need to reward yourself.

Dianne, although not having an official ride, rode to the bottom of the mountain and back to get some training in for the Ardechoise.  The 50k she rode entitled her to help me with the cheesecake.

One thing that did perplex me was being overtaken on Ventoux by (in my opinion) a very strange person.  Remember it was over 30 degrees at the start.  This bloke was about 13 stone.  He was on a Giant ONCE lo-pro, no bottle cages, wearing a full ONCE skin suit (no pockets), full leg and arm warmers and with more hair than Jerry Hall.  He passed me, climbing, in the tri bar position on the big ring!  This was in the forest at about 10%. His legs were going VERY SLOWLY.  I saw him again sitting under a tree just before Chalet Reynard.  What the hell was he thinking?

All I need to do now is hold my form for my next two events.  The Ardechoise and the Luc Alphand.  The Dauphine was to be the first week of peaking which was to be built upon at Ventoux.  It seems I was out by a few days!  I feel great now and need to develop and maintain it for the Ardechoise and Alphand.  Should be an interesting few weeks!

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hotel Ibis Orange