Conquering The Famed Tour De France Climb, Mont Ventoux

Rob Annis

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.

Nabbing Free Souvenirs At The Tour De France

Rob Annis

So you’ve promised all your friends and family you’d bring them back souvenirs from your Tour de France trip. Although buying everyone a €20 T-shirt will help solve the lingering effects of the European financial crisis, it’s also going to put a bigger dent in your bank statement than those $1,300 plane tickets to France.

Before the start of each stage, a massive convoy of vehicles called the publicity caravan travels the day’s stage route. Imagine a massive carnival on wheels, filled with water-spraying acrobats, comically oversized plaster bike riders and lots of students throwing out free candy, hats, laundry detergent and more to the fans waiting for the race action to begin. Depending on the number of stages you see, you could easily fill an extra carry-on bag with the trinkets.
Advertisers pay tour organizers more than €150,000 for three or more spots in the caravan, which numbers in the hundreds. But with millions of people lining the route over the 23 days of the Tour, it’s probably a solid investment.

An estimated 11 million items are given away during each year’s Tour, and I managed to snag more than a few of them. But there’s one thing that stands out more than any of the others.

Standing on the side of the road leading up to the Col de Portet-d’Aspet, I desperately tried to nab one of the more prized freebies of the day, a green T-shirt modeled after the Tour’s sprinter jersey, but came up just short. When a couple of candy packages landed at my feet, I handed them to the excited young boy standing next to me rather than stuffing them into my jersey pocket (and later, my mouth). His happiness was contagious, and as more items kept landing next to me, I, in turn, handed them to him.

As the caravan began winding down, I began walking away when I felt a tap on my shoulder. The boy’s grandfather held out one of the T-shirts I attempted to grab earlier, the boy standing behind him with that same smile on his face. I held up my hands, attempting to decline the offer – after all, it didn’t seem like a fair trade – but the grandfather put the T-shirt in my hand and clasped my fingers around the fabric. I offered a heartfelt merci, and the two walked away to rejoin their family. I was grateful for the shirt, but the boy’s generosity will stay with me forever.

The Best Way To Experience The Tour de France? From A Bike Saddle

Rob Annis

The cyclists get the glory, but it’s the fans who make the Tour de France arguably the world’s greatest race. During my recent trip, I was able to experience this firsthand.

Starting from our hotel in Nice, our group of riders wanted to ride the 75 kilometers to the village of Fayence, where the professional riders were scheduled to pass through around 4:30 p.m. (Race organizers use the difficulty of the terrain and the average race speed to make their estimations.)

The first 10 kilometers were mostly on a well-traveled bike path leading past the airport and out of the city. For most of that leg, we fell in behind a well-dressed young French woman, probably riding to work. The scene might have been humorous to drivers passing by: a woman in a skirt, pedaling a casual townie bike, leading out a dozen or so “serious” riders in full kit and helmets.

Arriving in Cagnes-sur-Mer, workers had just closed the race route to automobile traffic, leaving the roads open for the next few hours to spectators and cyclotourists. The next few hours would become some of the most treasured memories I’ll take away from this trip.Our group quickly splintered into smaller factions as the faster riders pedaled away. About six of us were in the front group, averaging 35 or so kph – not fast by pro standards, but decent for amateurs with careers and mortgage payments. As we rode through towns like Biot and Valbonne, the crowd clapped and cheered as if we were the riders they’d been waiting several hours to see. Riding by, hearing the repeated screams of “Allez!” – the informal cheer of the Tour de France – made my hair on my neck stand up.

French fans appreciate passion, effort and suffering. When they see it, whether it’s a world-famous pro or a pudgy Hoosier travel writer, they react accordingly.

After about 20 kilometers, we were mistakenly ushered off the route by a slightly confused police officer. For the next 15 kilometers, we attempted to navigate back to the race route, stopping every few kilometers to study the map. By the time we found our way back, we were in a race against the clock. We needed to make it to Fayence to meet up with the rest of our group before the publicity caravan rolled through.

Our small group would splinter again. With the others within our sights, a British rider named Keith and I battled to catch the wheels in front of us. Just outside of Fayence, a French police officer called a gendarme leapt out in front of us; we were the first riders to be ushered off the course. In mangled French, we pleaded with him to let us through, but he stood firm and offered us a detour.

“Two kilometers that way,” he said, pointing vaguely at a narrow road behind him. After several climbs already that day and a massive one slated for the next, we both were looking forward to an easy shortcut into town. We didn’t get one. The road seemingly became a wall, easily a 20 percent grade. We cursed our luck, before cursing the geological nightmare that birthed this wicked climb. At the top of the first hill, the asphalt gave way to stone as we rolled into a small medieval village. We stopped a passing car, driven by a tourist from Liverpool here for the Tour. He graciously offered to lead the way to Fayence, which, as our luck would have it, up another hill, albeit one that wasn’t as steep.

Five minutes later, we were descending into the town, eventually coming across the publicity caravan. We would find several other members of our group in an outdoor café, sipping drinks. Two hours later, I’m standing on the edge of the road, camera ready. Nearly a minute before I can see the breakaway riders, I can hear the crowd’s reaction to them.

I’ll likely never experience what it’s like to climb a beyond-category mountain in less than an hour or outkick Mark Cavendish to the finish line, but as the cheers grow louder and louder, I know that feeling. And no one can ever take that away from me.

Australia’s 2013 Great Victorian Bike Ride Heads Down The Ocean Road

The Great Victorian Bike Ride on the Great Ocean Road
Great Victoran Bike Ride

We’ve noted before just how popular cycling holidays have become in recent years as active and adventurous travelers look for new ways to explore their favorite destinations. Few of those holidays can rival Australia’s annual Great Victorian Bike Ride, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year by riding the Great Ocean Road, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful routes that you could ever hope to pedal.

The 2013 edition of the GVBR will get underway on November 23 and run through December 1. The nine-day tour will set out from the spectacular Blue Lake, located near the town of Mount Gambier in South Australia. From there, the route will wander for 610 kilometers (379 miles) along the Great Ocean Road and into the Otways, a lush and ecologically diverse rainforest punctuated by dramatic rock formations and towering waterfalls.

Tickets for the 2013 GVBR went on sale a few days ago and are already moving fast. The ride is limited to just 6000 participants, which sounds like a lot but previous years have actually sold out quite quickly. Anyone interested in joining in on the fun should book early to avoid getting completely shut out. Organizers say they have already seen a record amount of interest in the ride this year with entries going quickly.This is a fully catered camping tour that provides riders with such amenities as luggage transport, a medical team, traveling cycling repair facilities and a cafe. That frees up participants to just climb on their bikes and enjoy the ride, which should be a spectacular one along a very scenic route. It also gives the riders an opportunity to interact with the local Aussies and experience the hospitality that they are so famous for.

Entry fee for the GVBR is $895 AUD for adults, $655 AUD for children ages 13-17 and $330 AUD for kids 6-12. Riders who are 5 and under can join the tour for free.

If you’ve been considering a cycling tour but weren’t sure exactly where you’d like to go, the Great Victorian Bike Ride may be just what you’re looking for. It is a wonderful blend of adventure, scenery and Australian hospitality that shouldn’t be missed. For an idea of what to expect on the road, check out the video below.

Gadling Gear Review: Cannondale CAAD8 5 105 Road Bike

Cannondale CAAD8 Road BikeOne of the fastest growing segments in adventure travel over the past few years has been in the area of cycling tours. Many active travelers have discovered that rolling along on the back of a bike provides a unique and personal perspective to the places they visit. A cycling tour gives riders a chance to travel at a measured pace, allowing them the opportunity to savor the environments they pedal through while interacting with the locals on a completely different level. Each of these elements has helped to contribute to the rise in popularity of these types of tours, which are now offered on six continents.

Unlike many other types of travel, a cycling tour is the kind of trip that you actually have to physically prepare for long before you actually embark. For instance, you’ll want to ensure that your body is up for the long days in the saddle and capable of pedaling for extended distances. You’ll also want to be sure that it is actually something you’re going to enjoy, otherwise the trip will quickly turn from a relaxing experience into endless days of misery.

One of the key elements that can sway your decision in either direction is the quality of the bike you train on. You’ll want something that is lightweight, properly sized for your body and just plain fun to ride. Take for example the CAAD8 5 105 from Cannondale, a bike that is designed with beginner and intermediate riders in mind that offers a refined cycling experience at a surprisingly affordable price.Cannondale was generous enough to loan me a CAAD8 to test drive for a few weeks and as an avid cyclist, I can honestly say that it has been a blast to ride. It features an aluminum frame that is both tough and incredibly lightweight, and the included components are of a higher quality than I would have expected for a bike that falls into this price range. Those components include a Shimano gear set, Tektro brakes and plenty of Cannondale’s own proprietary equipment. The CAAD8 has even inherited some design elements from Cannondale’s more expensive, upscale models, giving it a premium feel without breaking your bank account.

All of those technical specs don’t amount to much if the bike doesn’t perform well out on the road. Fortunately, over the past 40+ years Cannondale has learned a thing or two about putting a great bike together. The CAAD8 handles extremely well, hugging corners like a sports car and accelerating along straightaways with impressive bursts of speed. The gear system was quick to respond when shifting either up or down and the breaks brought the bike to a halt quickly, smoothly and quietly.

Of course, a lot of bikes handle well when they aren’t put under too much pressure, but add a few decently sized hills to your route and you’ll quickly gain a better understanding of just how well they truly performs. With its lightweight and nimble frame, I found myself effortlessly pedaling the CAAD8 up some challenging slopes that looked a lot more daunting when approaching from the bottom. The bike’s ability to climb so well will be much appreciated by beginner cyclists who are still learning the nuances of riding as it provides for a more forgiving approach on longer and steeper hills.

I’ve mentioned several times throughout this review that the CAAD8 5 105 offers great performance for the price. This really can’t be stated often enough as this bike does deliver a surprisingly great value. While putting it through its paces on a variety of roads I was continually amazed at how smooth it rode and how well it handled. If I hadn’t already known the price tag on this bike you could have told me it cost twice what Cannondale is charging and I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least. The fact that this bike can compete with bikes in an entirely different price class says a lot about what has been delivered here.

And just how much does this model of the CAAD8 cost? The MSRP on this bike is $1450, which puts it well out of the range of those who would typically buy their bikes at Walmart. But that price is actually quite affordable for a someone who is serious about cycling or is hoping to get into the sport more fully. Cannondale hasn’t skimped on the extras either as the bike ships with a basic pair of pedals, a fairly comfortable seat and even a water bottle cage. Some of those items will actually cost extra on a lot of bikes from the competition. That said, you’ll probably want to upgrade the pedals at some point, as I found myself missing the clipless models on my personal bike while I test drove this one.

So, just how well does the CAAD8 perform as a training or touring bike? In both cases, I’d say it does a remarkable job. The bike is fast, agile and just plain fun to ride. That is the magic formula that makes you actually want to take it out on the road, which is just what you need when you’re prepping for a cycling tour of Italy or France. And should you decide to take this bike on one of those tours, I think you’ll find that it is more than up to the task.

Beginner cyclists will love the CAAD8 for its forgiving ride that allows them to build their skills without crushing their new-found love for the sport. More experienced riders will find the bike more than exceeds their expectations for the price. Those poor saps are apt to wonder why they paid so much for their bike without getting an appreciable gain in performance.

[Photo Credit: Cannondale]