When thinking of iconic Tour de France climbs, three mountains immediately spring to mind – Alp d’Huez, Col d’ Tourmalet and Mont Ventoux.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of riders flock to France to test their mettle against those three mountains and the ghosts of Tour riders past. On Bastille Day, July 14, the pro riders will race up Mont Ventoux during stage 15 of the Tour. Ten days earlier, it was my turn.
When I learned I would be climbing Ventoux during my trip, I was immediately intimidated. Although it’s considered to be in the Alps, Ventoux is far enough removed from the mountain range that it stands virtually alone on the horizon, rising nearly 2,000 meters from the ground. The steep climb has humbled better cyclists than me; riders have actually died attempting to reach the summit.
Days before the ride, Keith, one of my Sports Tour International teammates, recounted the two nonstop hours of pain and suffering he’d experienced on the mountain years earlier, calling it the hardest thing he’s ever done as a cyclist. The night before the Ventoux ride, his words continued to ring in my ears as I tried to fall asleep, with little success.There are three roads up the mountain, but we chose the “classic” route, starting in the town of Bedoin, about 22 kilometers from Ventoux’s summit. (Malaucène and Sault are the two other start locations.) The first five or six kilometers are relatively easy, averaging about a 4 percent grade. But as you reach the forest, the road kicks up to nearly a 9 percent grade.
Heading into the forest, I clicked into my easiest gear, where it would remain during most of the climb. In the days leading up to Ventoux, my right pedal had developed an annoying squeak, but as the climb passed the first hour, the familiar sound became almost comforting, allowing me to bang out a steady rhythm as I continued up, up, up.
Pedaling up, I recognized the look of concern as I passed riders and riders passed me. We were all wracked with doubts. Am I fit enough to make it to the top? Does my bike have the right gearing? Will this suffering ever end?
Ironically, Keith’s warning made the climb easier mentally. I waited for the road to go from merely steep to monolithic, but it never did (much to my relief). As I passed out of the forest, I knew I had the climb beat.
After the forest, the landscape turns almost desolate. The top third of the mountain is completely devoid of trees. Only a few man-made structures can withstand the brutal wind – sometimes reaching up to 200 kilometers an hour – and winter cold. In the distance, I spied the famous observatory that spelled the end of my journey about six kilometers away.
The first four of those kilometers offered a slightly respite, as the grade shifts to between six and eight percent. But in the last couple of kilometers, the road kicks up a bit, offering you one final test before you’re able to crest the top and coast into the parking area.
A few kilometers from the summit, I passed the Tom Simpson memorial, which honors the British Tour de France rider who passed away during this climb in 1967. It’s a stark reminder of just how dangerous the climb can be. Traditionally, Britons leave a small memento at the monument, whether it’s an empty water bottle or a trinket from home.
The last two kilometers were the hardest of the day, as the road jumped up to nine and 10 percent grades, with a steep kicker during the last switchback heading into the parking lot. My legs screamed as I rose from the saddle and put forth the extra watts needed to crest the summit. It was finally over.
A few minutes after my arrival, other STI riders followed suit. Di, a delightful Aussie who’d been fretting the climb even more than me, was overcome with emotion as we embraced.
“I made it,” she said, her eyes nearly welling with tears. “I didn’t think I could do it, but I did.”
I snapped her and her friend Gillian’s photo underneath the famed summit sign, 1911 meters up. The queue for the coveted photo opp can last several minutes, but riders are quick to get out of the way as soon as the shutter snaps, knowing how hard everyone worked to get there.
Pros can climb Ventoux in about an hour – former pro Iban Mayo holds the record at just under 56 minutes, although there’s no telling what he may have been on when he did that – but amateurs are going to take nearly twice as long. If you’re a relatively fit enthusiast cyclist, expect to finish the climb between 90-150 minutes. The fastest rider in our group did it just shy of two hours. Even in my relatively beefy state, I finished in about two hours and five minutes.
After picking up a small souvenir from the gift shop, I swung my leg over my Cannondale’s top tube and began my descent down. I was glad that I’d put on a wind vest and arm warmers at the summit, as the cold wind cut through me. I concentrated on navigating the tight switchbacks, but my eyes kept creeping back down to my Garmin. During one long straight stretch, I let my speed creep up to 72 kph, but spent the majority of the descent squeezing my brake levers for all they were worth.
It took me more than two hours to complete the climb, but less than 30 minutes to make it back down to Bedoin. Once back in the village, I found the rest of my teammates, where we devoured pizza and recounted our experiences on the mountaintop. We’d taken on a giant of the Tour de France and won.