Saturday, 25 July 2009

Mont Ventoux - For Real

Today the remaining riders in the Tour de France cycled the penultimate stage of the 2009 race, which for the first time ever ends at the peak of Mont Ventoux, otherwise known as the Geant de Provence or Mount Baldy!

Mont Ventoux is the most feared mountain in what is generally regarded as the world's toughest endurance race. Over three weeks, and 3,400 kms, 180 riders consume 252,000 calories EACH to fight for the right to wear the yellow jersey in Paris tomorrow.

It's hard to really appreciate quite just what a challenge the Tour de France is. Cycling 100 miles is, for most cyclists, the benchmark of endurance. In terms of effort, 100 miles cycling is about the same as 30 miles of running - and that's not factoring in wind and hills - imagine running a marathon+ every day for 3 weeks.

Describing Ventoux, Lance Armstrong has said: "It's just a weird place, a very weird place - It's the hardest climb in the Tour, bar none."

The best gauge of the effort required is to take a look at the faces of the cyclists on a mountain stage such as Ventoux or the Cols du Tourmalet - these people look close to death, with a 1,000 yard stare. Tommy Simpson had that look, just before he died on Ventoux in 1967 after falling off his bike on the final slopes - allegedly crying "Put me back on my bike!". Take a look here:

To be fair, he was exhausted, hugely dehydrated and had amphetamines and alcohol in his blood - not an ideal racing cocktail.

Ventoux is a singular mountain, it separates the men from the boys and even the most experienced riders fear it. The summit is 1,912 metres high, with the 'hard' route from Bedoin taking 21km to get to the top, starting from 300 metres above sea level. The average gradient is 7.5%, rising to 11% in parts.

To put that into context, Ventoux is nearly twice the height of Snowdon, but the climb is 1,600 metres, compared to 425 metres for Snowdon (where the climb starts at 360 metres above sea level), four times more. Suffice to say that you are unlikely to see children or men in flip flops tackling Ventoux!

The mountain towers over Provence and its bare limestone upper slopes resemble a snowy peak from a distance - its name is said to derive not to derive from its windiness ('venteux'), but the Gallic for snow cap - 'Ven-Top'. The mountain suffers extremes of temperature and it gets very windy at the top, apparently peaking at 50mph+ 240 days per year.

As you may gather from all this, I am a touch obsessed by Ventoux!

Anyway, I tuned into ITV's coverage of the stage to get a fresh appreciation of what lies ahead in the autumn. As mentioned, I've ridden Ventoux twice before, taking around 2 hrs 30 mins to get to the top - far from the hour it takes the pros (going down is much more fun and takes around 30 mins, but it does leave your brakes rather hot!). But that was without a preceding 85 miles of pretty serious hills. It's all becoming frighteningly real.

As a cyclist of any pretension, it's a very humbling experience watching the professionals - these guys are on a different planet. Whippet-thin, the winners average 25mph over the whole race - I can't average 20mph over a fraction of that distance. It's no wonder that people accuse them of taking drugs - I mean, even with physios, nutritionists and great kit how is it possible?

Sadly the coverage was of absolutely no use to me in recceing for the ride; they joined the riders as they started on Ventoux, which I know well. I'm only glad I don't have to ride past miles of drunken idiots threatening to knock me off my bike. The stage had very little effect on the final race, all it did was to remind me how fat and slow I am.

Anyway, on with the preparations for Bournemouth to Dover and pray a miracle occurs.

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