After weeks of nervous anticipation John and I made the early-morning drive over to Provence for what we had determined to be the best test of our fitness we could think of leading up to the Etapes du Tour. Our reasoning was sound, I think, since a triple ascent of Mont Ventoux involves 135km of riding and nearly 4300 meters of elevation gain, i.e. very similar to our first Etape in the Alps. I think we were confident that we could at least finish the deed, but everything else was a mystery. Till now, of course!
Ascent One: Bédoin
We left Bédoin shortly after 8am in the company of a steady stream of Belgians who, we found out quickly, were doing some sort of all-day event that we thought was just going to clutter up the road for us, but ended up adding all sorts of entertainment and gave us constant companions for the whole, long day.
We had determined to do the first climb at a leisurely pace, so as not to kill ourselves too early. So, after a nice 5km warm-up out of the village we hit the famous left-hander that signifies the real beginning of the climb. And for once, it’s me who gets to be in the photo!
I’m smiling while I can because I know all too well what’s coming. Along the way through the 9km of forest we passed riders of all shapes and sizes, and one that demanded the question – ‘how’?
You can’t tell probably, but this guy was using his ARMS to pedal, not his legs. Very impressive.
John stayed with me for the customary few kilometers, insisting that we would be riding this thing together, but then, just as customarily, slowly rode ahead, swallowing up Belgians in the process. I was also having an excellent climb – probably my best in terms of feeling at least – and when I reached the top well after John I felt nearly as fresh as when I had started.
Obligatory photo of Ventoux ‘lunar landscape’.
At the top we made sure we proved each ascent by holding up the appropriate number of fingers.
After shaking our collective heads a little at how incredible we both felt we hopped on the bikes for the lovely descent to Malaucène, on the other side of the mountain. We wisely mowed down a slice of pizza each, filled up our water bottles, and started right back at it. This is the campground/restaurant/new sports shop area just before the climb gets steep on this side of the mountain.
Ascent Two: Malaucène
A similar scenario played out on this climb, but John was kind enough to stay with me for far longer. Then, on a long ligne droit, he saw a long line of Belgians who demanded to be passed, so he was off again. Before he left I captured one such takeover.
But I should say that I passed him, too. In fact, we were only overtaken by one skinny climber the whole six and a half hours we were riding. I’m not sure what that means, but it made me feel good. Obligatory photo of ‘lunar landscape’ on the other side of Ventoux.
The 2 or 3 times I had climbed this side in the past, the scene above always filled me with dread. You can see that the summit is tantalizingly near, but you can also see your road and imagine how vicious the last 2km will be. This time there was none of that, and I got to the top a couple of minutes behind John, feeling pretty darn good still, but wondering where the ‘bonk’ would hit. It just couldn’t possibly last like this.
On the descent we stopped at Chalet Reynard to fill up on Cokes and waters and I had an opportunity to take a few photos of the crowds. Ventoux, an enjoyable circus at anytime of the climbing year, was a giant carnival this day, thanks to the Belgians (2500 of them, we were told).
This guy was there, but strangely not Belgian. He heard one of us speak and sparked up a short conversation with us. He was on a bike trip from Spain (correct me here, John) to Italy, through the Alps. We were suitably impressed, but had little time to talk, so gulped down our caffeine and continued on our descent.
The descent to Sault was new to both of us and I was dreading it a little, having climbed it with John last year. I remembered the surface being pretty ragged, and it was, but the gradient is so gentle that it was safe and surprisingly fast. At the bottom we had our only ‘nature break’ of the day, ate all my apricots, and turned right back around for out last climb.
Ascent Three: Sault
Go to Sault, right now! This area is one of the largest lavender producing regions in France and in a week or two the smell wafting from this valley will be overwhelmingly wonderful. We didn’t get much of a scent, but it still looked pretty.
We had both remarked how fast people seemed to coming up this side on our descent and found out the reason when we made that turn. The wind was very favorable for most of the time and the climb, for most of the way, can’t really be called a climb. We made excellent time to Chalet Reynard, stopped again for one last charge of caffeine, before slowly making the decision to get those last 6km over with.
I saw a guy riding past the Chalet with a Belgian Champion’s jersey on and jokingly suggested to John that it was Philippe Gilbert. Whether it was the accumulated toll of all the climbing, the altitude, or the caffeine, the joke was lost in translation and he seemed to think Gilbert was really there. After some deconstruction of what I was trying to say, he finally said ‘let’s chase Gilbert down’. And that’s what we did, with John flying past him and his buddies, while I thought I was doing the same thing.
What I turned out to be doing (John had left on his own by now) was pulling ‘Gilbert’ and his one friend (the other had fallen back) up the mountain. That was fine until he edged his way to my side and starting inching in front of me. Gilbert or not, my near-perfect record of not being passed wasn’t going to be soiled 2km from my last summit! I struggled and kept beside him up that last 11% stretch, till Philippe could take no more (or so I imagined) and I took that last tight corner to the observatory alone, feeling quite satisfied, I have to admit.
And here’s the truly scary thing about all this madness. Both John and I felt pretty OK after all this. I’m positive we had one more ascent in the legs. I think we were both shocked at what had happened and cautiously started talking in terms of being pretty well prepared for the Etape after all.
In retrospect I think we could have expected something similar, but the unknown is called that for a reason – we just had no idea how strong we would be after all that punishment. I’m sure Coach is having a good chuckle reading this, since I’ll bet he knew it all along. Now, all we have to do is hope that wasn’t the peak of our fitness…we still have two more weeks till the first Etape!