Climbing Mt. Ventoux (and living to tell the blog tale)

Fear is a funny thing. The thought of my upcoming race over Mt. Ventoux has been nagging me since I finished with the last one in St. Tropez, which took more out of me than I had hoped for. My fear forced me to ask myself whether I was woefully unprepared for this type of climb, regardless of the hundreds of hours in the saddle this year. Then yesterday my fear thought it might be a good idea to take the train over to Avignon, ride 40 km to the foot of the Giant of Provence, then the 21 km climb up, down, and back to my train station. Fearless might have been easier…at least I’d only have to climb that beast once!

My 40-k warm-up proved to be rewarding, since the route runs through pretty Provence.

While munching on my morning pain au chocolat, I took this shot of what is either a hobbit church or a chapel that ran out of financing after the nave was built. Something is definitely missing.

It was hazy when I started and I could vaguely see the outline of Ventoux for much of the way. Clouds hung over the summit, making me shiver just thinking about how frigid it must be up there. But the mist lifted, along with my spirits, and she came into view.

I have to say that, from a distance at least, Mt. Ventoux looks fairly un-menacing. It lacks the craggy sharpness of an Alpine mountain and its gentle slopes (from this angle) belie its height – nearly 2000 meters. If it weren’t for its fearsome reputation (plus the fact that I’d been up by car and motorcycle a few times) I might not have had the respect I did riding up to its flanks.

This is at the roundabout before entering into the village that is considered the start of the climb.

A few roads flow into this roundabout and I joined a steady trickle of cyclists coming in from all sides. At least I wasn’t going to be alone in my suffering! Here is a group of Belgians that I would see from time to time on the climb.

And the village – Bédoin.

Ventoux can be climbed from 3 sides, but Bédoin is the most popular. This is the side that the Tour de France nearly always attacks Ventoux from, having been used 13 out of the 14 times the Tour has gone up. The 2nd route, starting from the north, begins in the village of Malaucène and is the same length as the southern route, and just about as difficult. The last route, from Sault, starts pretty high already, so is not as hard. It joins the southern route at the Chalet du Reynard (photo below).

Once you are in Bédoin there is no mistaking which direction Ventoux is, even if you might secretly wish you can’t find the way!

The Climb

You ride through the village, turn right, then you’re on it. Luckily, it is very gentle for the first few km and the scenery is deceptively bucolic.

But you are never far from a reminder of what is coming. These markers happen every kilometer, I think. You can see that the road is starting to rise a tad, with still 19 km to go.

But sorry, 4% is not what this climb is about. After passing a couple of tiny villages the road takes a dramatic turn to the left and then looks like this.

I’m not sure if you can get a sense of the steepness – I know it’s hard even from TV coverage. But your legs don’t lie, and I won’t either when I tell you that shortly after hitting my first stretch of 9% I wondered if I could make it. This is what I had been dreading all along – a climb that would beat me down like the pretender I really was. Cycling is humbling. Somehow though, I found my rhythm and slowly, steadily made my way up.

The climb does drop down to under 7%, but only after something like 10 km of nearly 10%! It’s horrendous. Or it’s fun. It really depends on who you are, I suppose. I was good and truly dropped by a (very thin) lad on that first 10 km, dancing up the mountain as if nobody explained to him how much pain he should be in. On the other hand, I passed a few myself and I can tell you that there is definitely a correlation between pounds and performance when you climb a monster like Ventoux.

At some point, the trees start to thin and then just disappear altogether. Near the border of this transformation is the famous Chalet Reynard, welcoming shattered souls since 1927.

From the chalet it’s 7 km and 500 meters (up) to go to the summit and, worst of all, you can see it from most of the way up. It looks much nearer than it is, I can assure you. Here it is, from a few rest stops on the way.

If you are worried about water, like I was, there are at least two natural fountains on the way up; one in the forested bottom half and this one (see map below), a while past Chalet Reynard.

At only a kilometer or so from the summit you pass this monument to British cyclist Tom Simpson, who collapsed and died here during the 1967 Tour.

You’re almost there at this point, but one thing that makes this climb so evil is that the last kilometer is the steepest part of the mountain – more than 10%. It was grueling, at least for this mortal.

But I made it, and even stood on the pedals and danced the last tight hairpin to the parking lot.

I wasn’t feeling like doing much more dancing when I got off the bike though, except maybe to keep warm. It was around 5 degrees at the summit. This is before I slapped on my fleece headband and long gloves – extra weight you won’t regret hauling up the mountain!

Predictably, the descent was fast and fun, but I had been so consumed with the thought of the climb I hadn’t considered going back down. It. was. exhilarating. Suddenly, I found myself singing Free Bird (well, the parts I remembered…) and passing cars. Great, great fun.

So fear, thanks for taking me up there. At least now I know what I have to do again in 3 weeks…at racing speed. Shudder.

Tips

1. I did the climb in May and it was already crowded with cyclists. I would think the shoulder seasons are the best (May/June – Sept/Oct), since the summer is sweltering hot.

2. Having said that, the top can be cold at any time. Come prepared for the descent (at the very least a windbreaker). Also, the wind can be very, very strong above Chalet Reynard.

3. If you want to avoid crowds, climb from the northern side (Malaucène). It also has a nice cycling lane.

4. Bédoin has a couple of fountains with drinking water, as well as at least two more on the way up.

5. If you come, stick around a few days. The area around Ventoux is picture-perfect and great for cycling. Sault, for example, is a major lavender region and riding there in June or July is heaven.

6. Come fit and light. I’m only speaking from my own experience, but I had the feeling that any extra weight I was carrying was recognized by the mountain and I was punished for it!

7. There are usually guys up there taking photos of everyone during the climbing season. Ventoux Photo and Sport Photo are two that are consistently there taking pics of you, then offering them up for sale on their sites soon afterwards.

8. Check the wind conditions. Ventoux can be evilly windy .

Since this first attempt I’ve climbed Ventoux two more times, with vastly different results. Here’s the sportive I did shortly after this article was written, the next, most satisfying climb, in June, and one more from the north side in July.

If you’d like to climb Ventoux, or any other ‘mythic’ mountain, you might like Tour Climbs: The complete guide to every mountain stage on the Tour de France. For the definitive biography on Tom Simpson, try William Fotherington’s Put Me Back On My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson

Finally, my favorite Ventoux quote, taken from Need for the Bike, by Paul Fournel (2003, University of Nebraska Press), an excellent little book on one man’s love of cycling.

“The Ventoux has no in-itself. It’s the greatest revelation of your-self. It simply feeds back your fatigue and fear. It has total knowledge of the shape you’re in, your capacity for cycling happiness, and for happiness in general. It’s yourself you’re climbing. If you don’t want to know, stay at the bottom.” (pg. 98)

2014 Update: Lots has happened since this first fateful climb nearly 4 years ago. I have now climbed Mont Ventoux 40 or 50 times and have a cycling tour business based around the mountain. If you’d like to have a little support on your ascent, or maybe a cycling holiday in the area, here are a couple of pages from 44|5 Cycling Tours – born in a way, of this blog article!

29 thoughts on “Climbing Mt. Ventoux (and living to tell the blog tale)

  1. Wow, I am very impressed and what a great read! You must be exhilarated! Your photo’s have brought back so many memories of when we were there, and how I said to Julia, I want to climb this on a bike…..which is why I got back on it properly again. Awesome. 8 weeks to go woo hoo!

  2. Love to read your Bike experiences. Wish I would have had that energy when I was younger. Keep us posted. Awesome photos…
    Hope we will see you this summe..

    • Thanks, Nadine. And what’s this about ‘younger’? I just got an email from a guy who did the same climb for his 60th birthday! Hope I can get my leg over the top tube when I’m there…not TOO long to wait 😉

  3. What….climb it this year???? Are you kidding. Thanks for the invite, but how about we book a time NEXT year! haha! Only thinking of you not wishing to climb it a 3rd time 😛
    I will hit you up for a more genteel ride this year though!

  4. What a great story Gerry! It’s always a good plan to ride the route before the race. I sure wish you were going to be around this summer when I come over and sweat my way up the Ventoux. I can hardly wait. How hot will it be in early August?

    Funny how we cyclists have a “Love/Hate” relationship with pain. By the time I do Ventoux, I will have climbed a number of the famous Tour climbs in the Alps including the Col de Telegraphe, Col de Galibier, Alpe d’Huez, Col de Madeleine and possibly Sestrieres in Italy if I have time, before doing the Ventoux. I’ll either be really ready for the big climb, or dead. I think ready!! Hey, not that I’m competitive, but what was your time up the big hill???

    By the way, Nicole and I are staying at this place in Provence. They say it’s close to Ventoux: http://www.chateau-du-martinet.fr/diaporama_gb.php

    • Shoko and I have been drooling over the château you’ll be staying at. At least you’ll a nice place to ride back to, no matter how hard Ventoux ends up being. And really, from what I now know of your threshold for pain, (not to mention your fitness level) I’m guessing you don’t have too much to worry about, compared to a novice like me at least!

      However…do you have any rest days planned on that mini TdF you are doing this summer? That’s a lot of cols you have listed above!

      Time: I was wondering when someone would ask. Lets just say it was under 2 hours. I paced myself quite a bit, not knowing how much trouble I was getting myself into. I have a better idea for the race on the 21st, so I’ll make sure and time myself and report back to the blogosphere 😉

      Speaking of timing, I see that you can get time chips for Ventoux, as well as the big climbs in the Alps, I think. You might already has sussed that out, but if not, I’ll send you the links.

      Weather for August? Stinking hot, I’d say.

      • Nicole will be my support on the big hills in the Alps (water and stuff) and we’ll ride together on the flatter roads when we get to Provence. I love the heat. I guess that’s because the default weather here in Calgary is COLD….especially this year. We had a flurry of snow again last night. My first day in the Alps is to ride the Col de Telegraphe, Col de Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. You will have ridden it already and call tell me what it’s like. I’m think really hard. And the next day I’ll do the Col de Madeleine (Catagory HC) and the Col de Saisies (Catagory 1), and to finish my time in the Alps I might ride up Sestrieres before driving to Provence. I rarely take a day off so I’ll probably ride every day while I’m over there. These are all special routes on my Bucket List and I’m glad do them with my daughter. Nicole and I may explore the Nice area for one full day. As for rest, I can rest on the plane when I fly back to Canada. Like I said, Love/Hate relationship with pain…..

  5. I look forward to the report once you’re done, Rob. I only wish we were here to enjoy at least a part of your trip with you. There are lots more cols to climb though, so hopefully ‘next time’ won’t be too long.

  6. Gerry, this post came at the right time for me. Just having returned from a physically taxing trip out west, I have only been on the bike once in over a week. Your story helped to inspire renewed desire to get back out there. We don’t have a Ventoux in our area, but that does not mean that I cannot get back out there and find something in the ‘tough’ catagory. Thanks for the great read and excellent [as usual] pics!

    • Thanks. I’m glad to motivate! After Ventoux I’m somehow a little sluggish. It must have taken more out of me than I had imagined. If you want something Ventoux-ish, looks like your son has a few climbs in his backyard!

  7. we were looking for you in the 2 taped Italian races that were on our Sportsnet channels today but could not find you …… great story glad you attempted it..and great pics… keep up the great work….

    • Wow, you get the Giro…impressive! Won’t be there, but thinking about maybe next year. It’s almost close enough…

      Thanks for the comments. Next time you and Lois visit we’ll take you up Ventoux. It’s even tough by car 😉

  8. Fantastic blog Gerry. Just what I wanted to know about Mont Ventoux…an honest, no bullshit account! I’m trying it for the first time next summer although it will probably be August!! You’ve really sold it to me. If you don’t mind me asking, just what weight did you haul up this beast?
    Climbed the Tourmalet a few days ago and it was the psychological barrier that was hardest to overcome so I have to say that Ventoux scares the hell out of me!
    Anyway, it’s there so it has to be conquered. Call it a mid life crisis!
    Thanks again Gerry for the great pics and commentary

    • Hi Colin,

      Thanks, Colin. I’m glad you’re sold. I’d love to have written how easy it was, but it doesn’t even get that way for the pros, so I’d be lying badly.

      I haven’t climbed the Tourmalet yet, but at least you have one big climb under your belt. That, to me, changed the whole game. After Ventoux I knew I could make it up very big mountains. I think the gradient is similar overall on the two climbs, so you’ll just be doing the same thing for much longer on Ventoux, if that’s any consolation. And you’ll have plenty of company on the climb in August!

      I’m not fat anymore (never really was, unless you ask my wife), so I was only 70 kg or so that first time. Weight it key, I can tell you that. There were plenty of people with more ‘meat’ than me on the mountain and somehow they all get up. Can’t be a pleasant experience for many, I can imagine. I know guys over 100 kg who’ve done it, by the way.

      Good luck. I look forward to hearing your war stories. And, by the way, aren’t mid-life crises great!? I think I’ll extend mine into old age…

  9. Gerry, congrats on a fantastic commentary, I am now full of respect for Mont Ventoux,its refreshing to get an honest opinion of the cycle and while I am a little anxious of my planned charity ascent in September, it’s nice to know that it’s achievable, hopefully i’ll be able to take some photo’s during my cycle too.

      • I forgot to mention, the actual Charity Cycle is Paris 2 Nice, with Mont Ventoux as an optional extra “spin” on Day 4 :), but in any event the advice you offer in your blog is reassuring and practical for a cycling novice.

        • Paris to Nice. You won’t be a novice after that one! The best advice I can give for climbing a monster like Ventoux is go light! I’ve climbed it 12 or 13 times now and I can tell you that it sure is more fun when you have fewer pounds to drag up those endless 10 percent slopes.

  10. I’m climbing Ventouxin mid September 2014. How did you handle water? Did you take one bottle and fill it or…. thanks

    • Hi Bill. I’d take two then suss the situation out at Chalet Reynard. There’s also a fountain 1.5 km beyond the chalet, which usually has water pouring out of it! Good luck!

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