La Ventoux Grand Trophée

Posted on July 25th, 2010 by Tim Bell in Cycling in France, French Cyclo Sportives, The Road to Tourmalet

Le Mont Ventoux

Instantly recognisable by its profile, infamously unrelenting, ‘The Giant of Provence’. Having made L’Etape du Tour the target in my first year of proper cycling, I’d lined up a couple of long sportives by way of preparation: a bit of practice at mass rollouts and some basic endurance fitness.

Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux

The King of the Downs came first and nearly finished me, but in so doing fired a useful warning shot that treating La Ventoux Sportive as a leisurely training run would be something akin to taking a bucket and spade into the Sahara. I was aware of the Ventoux’s status as an icon of the Tour de France. I could remember Pantani and Armstrong forcing each other to the summit in 2000, and the Italian’s indignance at the imperious American’s claims to have handed him victory. I could remember Virenque flying solo in 2002, Wiggins finally giving up the podium during the Great British Summer of 2009, and everybody knows about Tom Simpson. Even Eddy Mercx needed oxygen treatment to stave off collapse during his 1970 stage win, so my only goal was to get around the 170km course in one piece, hopefully ahead of the broom wagon.

View from the top of Mont Aigoual

Mont Aigoual Panorama

I booked my entry through La Fuga, with whom I am also riding the Etape. They seem to be cornering the niche for high-end cycling packages around individual events, longer tours (e.g. Rapha Randonees), and bespoke biking holidays. But before joining the group I gave myself a week to prepare in the hilly French terrain around my house in the Gorges du Tarn, including a trip up the Mont Aigoual which featured in Tim Krabbé’s classic cycling novel ‘The Rider’. Instead of following  any kind of systematic training method, I am so far learning by trial and error. A week before the King of the Downs I had gone for my first 100-mile ride, then done practically nothing for the next six days in the mistaken belief that total rest was the best preparation. After hitting the wall hard, my brother set me straight and pointed out that the pros ride every day, even during their ‘off days’ in the Tour de France, just to keep the legs moving; they just don’t push themselves to any extremes – I believe it’s called active recovery. So I had a beautiful week of exploration and discovery, in pursuit of the perfect descent, with a smorgasbord of mini-Ventoux to choose from. If anyone knows what the plural of Ventoux is, feel free to keep it to yourself.

Le Chateau de Mazan

Chateau de Mazan facade

Chateau de Mazan

It was a three-hour drive to our hotel in the charming Provençal village of Mazan, which I was hoping to reach in time for a warm-up ride ahead of the next day’s main event. Heading along the A9 past Avignon on a sunny, hazy day, Mont Ventoux reared into view, dominating everything in its gravitational field. Although the foothills of the Alps lie to the east, there is a vast flat plain to the west, adding to the mystique of the mountain. La Fuga’s selection of the four-star Chateau de Mazan has to be applauded. This was the former residence of the Marquis de Sade, but thankfully the only sadism I experienced was on the unrelenting slopes of the Ventoux: Le Chateau was simultaneously relaxed and elegant, a fact not lost on the Ferrari owners club of Switzerland. The hotel car park was brimming with prancing horses and their owners commandeered the terrace, apparently fuming that a bike race would block their way up the Ventoux. I was perfectly willing to negotiate; these guys could have easily afforded the amount it would have taken me to pull out and spend a day lounging by the pool, but I was the lone voice of reason.

Team Ventoux

Lunch at Sault

Lunch at Sault

La Fuga were represented by Claire Scrutton, who guided my group of friends around Nice back in March and has recently set up a business out there (www.cyclecotedazur.com), and the Italophile Ian Holt, one of the guys behind La Fuga who stepped in at the last minute to cover a colleague. The Ventoux Sportive had been shifted back a week, causing a few riders to drop out and leaving just me, Ben and Adrian in the race. Ben, originally from Florida, and Adrian had successfully built up and sold a software business the previous year, wisely taking this opportunity to slither down the slippery slope of cycling obsession. We set off for a gentle pedal along the D942 then joined the D1 ‘Route de Carpentras’ which gave us a little over 10km climbing, up to 10% in parts, and pushed my heart rate a little beyond plan, hitting 175bpm at times (my maximum is 188). We had a nice, flowing descent towards our lunch venue at Sault which would be the starting point of our second ascent of the Ventoux during the race, and was a good spot from which to size up that task, given its perfect views of the mountain.

Gorges de la Nesque

The Depths of Gorges de la Nesque

The Depths of Gorges de la Nesque

Shortly after lunch it became obvious why we had been lugged over that climb, as we started back towards Le Chateau de Mazan via the breathtaking Gorges de la Nesque.  Being something of a Gorges connaisseur, Ian was keen to know my opinion, but I was a little too tired to think of one at the time. Like most of them, the Gorges de la Nesque start gently then gradually unveil the drama. Compared to the Gorges du Tarn it is less green, because it rains more in the Cevennes than in Provence, and its softer rock formations suggest geologically older origins. The descent is gentle but fun; flowing corners through lots of  short tunnels, not unlike the Tarn where the steep stuff all happens on the way in or out of the valley rather than travelling alongside the river. We ended up riding 46 miles and climbing 3,600 feet, and it was worth every one of those 2,559 calories; I’d give them again.

Back at the hotel I took some time to wander round Mazan while the crew picked up our race numbers, spotting the Rue des Ortolans – named after the dish Jacques Chirac famously requested for his last Presidential meal, a tiny bird eaten bones and all with the head under a towel to cover shame – and the tiny Musée de Mazan with its collection of farming tools, hunting implements and stuffed prey. All that remained was a delicious meal, a spot of wine, some Ferarri-owner-baiting, and an early night.

La Ventoux Grand Trophée

Mont Ventoux Sportive start line

Ventoux starting pen

Race morning. Mingling with other cyclists as we made final preparations, Adrian and Ben’s bikes were attracting some admiring attention; a Cervelo S3 and an ‘assymetrical’ Pinarello Dogma respectively. Some Italians even asked Ben to move his Pinarello into the sunshine so they could get a proper leer in. The starting area for the King of the Downs was small, releasing bunches of 20 riders at a time, but the Ventoux Sportive was a proper mass rollout, giving it a real sense of occasion. I enjoyed the challenge of staying upright as roughly 2,000 cyclists swarmed out of Beaumes de Venise, finding a reasonable pace on the gentle beginnings of what was basically a 40km climb from the start line to the summit of the Ventoux, 2,000m above. Despite the incline, and a pre-race plan to take it easy, I was being sucked along at well over 25mph during the early stages; partly because of the peleton slipstream, mostly because of the adrenalin. After 17.4km we reached Bédoin, the official start of the hill. We had climbed 210 metres but 1,609 remained until the summit, just over 22km away. I can’t imagine a more tempting invitation for a naive novice cyclist to over-exert himself than this; an iconic climb, early in the day, plenty of cyclists to overtake and fresh legs to aid in the attempt. I wasn’t so churlish as to refuse the invitation and, in trying to hold Adrian’s wheel during the early stages, put a parcel of pain in the post for later.

Mont Ventoux from Bédoin

Mont Ventoux Bédoin profile

Mont Ventoux Bédoin profile

The first part of the climb was just a warm-up, varying from 2% to 6% until we reached the 7th kilometre, at which point things got interesting. The only forgiving aspect of the climb from this point on was that we spent the next few km under the cover of forest which, given temperatures over 35c, came as welcome respite. The next 9km were all 9% or above and had some riders faking mechanicals just to get a break part-way up the hill but I had a brief moment of clarity, holding back slightly and letting Adrian escape to avoid blowing up so early in the day. The moment would have developed into a full climb of clarity had it not been for Adrian’s cycling coach, Dan, who I’d been talking to before Bedoin and now found by my side. He fancied catching Adrian and my inner racer couldn’t resist the temptation to join the chase, which we completed with a couple of km to go before the drinks stop at Chalet Reynard. I had just spent over 50 minutes pedalling with a minimum heart rate of 170bpm, over 90% of my maximum effort, which I’m pretty sure is the single biggest aerobic effort I have ever made. Dan seemed to be in the same boat and dropped back a little. By the time I’d refilled my water bottle and had some cake, I was keen to continue climbing before my legs forgot what they were supposed to be doing, and so set off for the final 7km to the summit alone. Chalet Reynard marks your emergence from forest cover and delivery into the lunar landscape for which La Ventoux is famous. It is a large patch of limestone which, from a distance, looks like a snow-capped peak, but which up close really does feel like the moon – you can’t breathe and motion is suddenly slow – although one key difference is that you feel every ounce of your weight, unlike the two Armstrongs; Neil and Lance.

Mont Ventoux Summit

Mont Ventoux Summit

There was some respite over the next 5km with a forgiving gradient around 7% increasing to 8%, but a glaring sun ensured this ‘recovery’ section didn’t feel too easy. You tend to get one of two things on this section in summer; sun or wind. Wind can cool you down but, direction depending, might also slow you down, so on balance I was happy enough dealing with heat alone. Incidentally it is a common misconception that the mountain gets is name from the French ‘vent’ for wind. Despite the fact that this is the world’s windiest place, the Mistral having clocked 320 k.p.h. just a few months before Tom Simpson’s last stand, the name actually derives from Vinturi, Ligurian for mountain. But back to the action: Adrian, who I’d left at the drinks stop, caught me with a couple of km to go but by now I was only interested in getting to the top as soon as possible. My vague target had been to get to the top in under 2 hours, and running the mental arithmetic on this was one of the many numerical tasks I was using to draw attention away from the suffering. Ian had pointed out the gradient readout on my Garmin Edge 705, which kept me engaged at various points up the hill, and I could always rely on feet to metres conversions for additional distraction.

You can see the weather station at the summit with 7km to go, and now with just 2km left the gradient ramped up to 9 and finally just over 10% for the last stretch. Knowing this would be my only victory of the day I got out of my saddle for the official race photographer and sprinted for the line. 1 hour 42 minutes of pure effort, and as Louison Bobet, first over the top in the 1955 Tour, said: ‘A son at the summit of Mont Ventoux is not a sight to show his mother.’ But what goes up, as they say, must come down. Adrian was just behind me getting to the summit and I set off on the sumptuous descent to Malaucène just behind him. I was barely able to appreciate the views, given the blinding combination of utter exhaustion from the climb and concentration on the corners, but this is undoubtedly one of the great cycling experiences; 13 miles of pure descending, fast and flowing corners and spectacular views over the vineyards which coat the slopes down to Avignon.

The Middle Section

Beautiful though that descent was, it just gave my legs an opportunity to seize up before the deceptively rolling middle section. The official race profile suggested a day of two climbs up Ventoux, the second one being more forgiving than the first, and coming after a 50km middle section of incessant but very gradual climbing at a consistent gradient. Time to stock up on fuel, find a rhythm and recuperate before taking on the final challenge of the day. I should have learned from the King of the Downs that steeling yourself only for big, obvious efforts in the day leaves you thinly covered in between times. I hung onto Adrian’s wheel for a few miles of flat but needed to refill my bidons at the Malaucène drinks stop while he sped on, and so set out on the long, slow drag towards Sault alone. We would start our second ascent of Ventoux from there, this time only going up as far as Chalet Reynard before a nailbiting descent down the steep side. There was nothing to really focus on until then, and therein lay the problem. I tried to find groups to ride with, wary of sticking my nose in the wind, but they never stuck together long. Everyone was pushing it to the limit, and the blow-up that had been in the post for me since climbing the Ventoux finally arrived by special delivery. It was impossible to find a rhythm, and, glancing at my heart rate stats, they look like a pattern drawn by a pogo stick rather than the smooth, even-paced effort I should have been making. French country roads are never going to be consistent in gradient, whatever the official profile suggests. By this stage I had noticed two new types of pain; my jaw muscles were aching since my mouth had gaped so wide all the way up Ventoux, and my eyelids were burning from the salty sweat they were drenched in. On and on I grovelled, past a small place called Reilhanette (inspiration for Tim Krabbe’s character Reilhan in The Rider?) and towards the appropriately-named Sault and the final drinks stop before Ventoux part two.

There was a drinks stop in a small town, but it didn’t seem to be Sault. Wherever it was, I spotted something that will guarantee my future participation in this event. Having briefly chatted to Adrian before he set off again, I needed a few minutes to eat some food, stretch the legs and sit in the shade for a while. There was an old stone water fountain where everyone filled their bottles, with a large basin a few feet high underneath it. Like everyone else I splashed my face and filled my bottles before getting ready to remount the bike. Dan turned up at this point, like me needing some time to regroup. But just as I was setting off, I saw someone much older and wiser than the rest of us remove his shoes and fully dunk his legs in the icy trough. To know how good that must have felt is, above everything else that made the weekend wonderful, the thing that will bring me back.

Ventoux II

Those last 50km really took it out of me, and spending some time below maximum effort was now essential if I was going to reach the finish. Although we were only going up to Chalet Reynard, and the gradient would never exceed 7%, this was still 20km of solid climbing when I was suffering badly. I resolved to keep my heart rate below 150bpm for the first 15km, which I managed for the most part by seeing what is was like to peel my nose off the handlebars long enough to appreciate the lavender fields, forest-covered picnic spots and views up to a certain weather station. The last 5km are the easiest part of the climb, and I planned on speeding up then before settling in for the fastest descent of the day. What I didn’t anticipate was Ben flying past me just as I was sitting behind an old guy and idly turning my bottom gear (he was my shirt twin, so it was only proper), evidently having adopted a rational pacing strategy that I will endeavour to use in the future.

Ferarris at Chalet Reynard

Ferarris at Chalet Reynard

Whatever plans I may have had to up my tempo at this point, they would never have driven me to the effort that latching onto Ben’s wheel inspired. The guy was flying, and some combination of energy recouped from my slowdown, reduced gradient, and naked competitiveness – as well as Ben’s slipstream – kept me hanging on in there. He finally looked over his shoulder about 4km later and seemed surprised I was still doing the limpet thing, given the pace I had been riding when he passed me. We reached Chalet Reynard together and found the Ferrari guys had decided to take on the bikes and drive up the mountain despite our race. At least I could get all of them in the same photo for once. As this was the final feed stop, I stocked up on cake and fruit jellies – which taste a lot better after climbing a mountain than after Christmas lunch – and set off down the slope we had conquered that morning. I had expected this to be quite hairy, very fast and with tight turns, but it was much more pleasurable than that, until I got stuck behind an ambulance. When its alarm went on and it sped off down the hill, the alleviation of frustration was only slightly tempered by my suspicion that someone else had come unstuck further down. Ben had crashed a couple of times on recent rides and was generally more cautious than me on the descents, but seemed to get into a groove on this one and we were riding together again soon after it flattened out.

The Final Stretch

With roughly 30km to go, this was another one of those sections designed to catch the casual profile-skimmer off his guard. True, there were only two big climbs in the day, but a closer inspection revealed some nasty undulations on the run-in. My speed chart in the section from Bedoin to Col de la Chaine looks like a lie-detector test result – Virenque protesting his innocence – a high of 37mph, a low of 7.3mph, not the smooth spin I was looking for. I reached the final drinks stop still hanging onto Ben’s wheel, a gift I was only just beginning to realise the value of, with a meagre 10km remaining. The genial Frenchman handing out the plastic cups to us smiled as I instantly poured the first two over my head, and while slugging the third I just about gathered from him that there were a couple of km to climb but it was mostly downhill to the finish. The official profile, of course, was a straight line downwards, but we were used to ignoring that by now.

Somehow I was still on an upward curve after my almighty mid-section bonk, and as we hit the first of the last climbing sections I had a surge of energy from somewhere – possibly the cheese and ham sandwich I had stowed at breakfast to eat after the first Ventoux climb – and pinned my ears back, nothing to save the legs for now. I found a companion passing through Suzette (what price a crepe now…) and dropped him soon after. My heart rate looked like the Ventoux profile for the final 7km, and with about 3km remaining I caught the only attractive girl I’d seen all day who had passed me going up Ventoux for the second time during my ‘recovery’ phase. Time to repay the gift of a wheel, nose in the wind, clawing for the line. We re-entered Beaumes-de-Venise, following the finger-waggling volunteers to twist and turn our way back to the Place de Marché and over the finishing mat on vapours. I offered a felicitatory ‘chapeaux’ to the lady, who came back with ‘grazie’ and then, perhaps showing this wasn’t mere politeness, delivered a second thank you; the gift of a wheel is a powerful thing. So is language, and an adrenalin-addled ‘de nada’ left me cursing my absolute absence of Italian – where’s a ‘prego’ when you need it?

Aftermath

Beer at last

Beer at last

La Fuga’s post-race service was outstanding; this is where a 2:3 rep to rider ratio tells. Someone to spray cold water in your face and take off your shoes, another to shovel glistening beers and salty crisps into your still-twitching paws. Adrian had been there around 25 mins, Ben arrived about 2 minutes after me, and some 15 mins later Adrian’s cycling coach wandered over to swap war stories. I think Adrian needs a refund. As we watched a thinning field limp over the line, we wondered whose was the greater achievement; those who had got themselves into a position to finish quickly, or those who – for whatever reason – were out there suffering for 10 hours plus.

The team bus took us through sunwashed vineyards, Saturnian rings around the planetary mass of Ventoux, back to the Chateau de la Mazan in time for a cold dip in the pool before dinner. Bumping into one of the Ferrari drivers, we got to comparing notes on our respective journeys up the mountain. He of course insisted that driving up the Mont Ventoux was better than cycling, I couldn’t help correcting him. “Easier, not better”. We celebrated in that evening in a perfect village called Crillon le Brave, watching the sun set over the Ayers Rock of Provence, a fitting end to an epic day. The weekend, though, was not quite over. Waking at around 5am out of sheer hunger, two hours before breakfast and with nothing but power bars and gels to consume, I was at least able to look forward to a day of rest.

Claire and Ian of La Fuga

Claire and Ian of La Fuga

Or so I thought. Apparently it is customary to go for a gentle spin the day after a huge ride, just to help it out of the system. Never scratch an itch, I was always told, but scratch it we did. Back to Bédoin in fact, start point of the previous day’s horror climb, for a coffee and croissant, building up a reasonable bead over 7 miles of gentle climbing before one of us spotted in that day’s paper that a local maniac was setting a record for consecutive runs up and down the Ventoux; he was on his 15th go as the paper went to press. There’s always someone who has to go and spoil it for you. The ride back to checkout at the hotel, though, was a revelation. Someone has to figure out what to call a reverse false flat; a normal false flat is when the road in front of you looks flat but is in fact a slight climb, so you’re getting tired and feeling bad and you can’t figure out why. But when you’re topping 55km/hr and don’t feel like you’re trying, just glad to be on a ‘reverse false flat’ with the sun shining, a bellyfull of caffeine and a tailwind on top, you realise why people go on about this cycling thing. To all the friends and family who have willingly humoured my wide-eyed descriptions of two-wheeled experiences, that’s a little bit of why.

The Stats

So how did I do? I came 279th out of a field of around 2,000, and was 71st in my age-group category in a time of 08 h 04 min 43 s, with an average speed of 21.04 km/h and heart rate of 150. This was good enough for a Brevet d’Argent, or silver medal, and I have to admit I’m pretty chuffed with that. “Though you play football or rugby, cycling is something you do… if you lose the ball it is a mistake to be forgotten… if you weaken on a hill, it is a sentence that the next hill will only confirm. It is so hard that it is too late to take it up at 18.” So wrote Jean Bobet, the intellectual French cyclist and brother to three-time Tour winner Louison. Au contraire, Monsieur.

4 Comments on “La Ventoux Grand Trophée”

  1. l’Etape du Tour 2010 | Tour Climbs

    […] and follow some kind of systematic training plan. By trial and error I had surprised myself on the Ventoux Sportive six weeks earlier, having got over initial knee problems by incrementally building up my distance […]

  2. Western Saddles

    Thank you for your help!

  3. Gregory Misasi

    Dank voor de info.Eddy merckx is the best.

  4. Player Profiles

    You you could edit the page title
    La Ventoux Grand Trophee;Tour Climbs to be more catching for your blog post you make. I loved the writing however.

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