Monday, 15 July 2013

Another Mont Ventoux Ride for the Record Books

Mont Venoux is an icon in the history of the Tour de France and Chris Froome's incredible ride yesterday adds another tale to that legend.

Chris Froome conquers Mont Ventoux
Having ridden Ventoux twice myself, I have very personal reasons to appreciate something of what the riders have gone through. Despite first appearing as recently as 1951 the 'Géant de Provence' is one of the classic mountains and it's regarded as the most gruelling climb, in what is a pretty tough field. There are higher mountains, there are steeper mountains, but Ventoux has something special.

Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and cycle racing fan, sums up Ventoux's almost supernatural quality: "The Ventoux is a god of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering."
With an average gradient of 7.6%, the 21.4km climb frequently rises at over 10% - in itself that's pretty brutal, but the barren landscape of the upper slopes of the 'bald mountain', the result of huge deforestation, give it an even more alien air.

A view of the barren last miles of the climb to the summit...

The mountain has been the site of some historic Tour scenes, including British champion Tom Simpson's death in 1967 (46 years yesterday), Eddy Merckx's need for oxygen after his win in 1970 (just as Froome needed oxygen yesterday) and Armstrong's battle with Pantani in 2000.

At the summit in 2006 on my trusty mountain bike!

My first experience of Mont Ventoux was in 2006, having just cycled nearly 1,000 miles from Birmingham in England to Montpelier in France. The second time was in 2008 with my brother James (with whom I've also cycled through Germany, the Czech republic and Switzerland as well as along the WWI Western Front).

But my knowledge of the mountain was limited to what I'd seen of it on the Tour's TV coverage and read in William Fotheringham's biography of Tom Simpson. I was to have an education.

In both cases I started early, driving to Bedoin at the base of the climb, using my mountain bike in 2006 and a hired road bike in 2008. On a lovely summer morning it's a beguiling start, with a gentle slope through vineyards with the weather station at the mountain's tip visible in the distance.

The approach from Bedoin is the most famous, and arguably the hardest, of three routes up Mont Ventoux. This is the route most often taken by the Tour, although they climbed via Malaucene this year. It's 21km, a climb of just over 1,600 metres, which the pros do in around an hour (the record is currently 55' 51", set by Iban Mayo in 2004) with trained amateurs taking around double that.

Mont Ventoux Profile from

About 6km into the ride, at the St Estève bend, the climb really kicks in and you disappear into the trees, not to return until close to the summit - and the shade is a real blessing!

It's vital to have enough supplies with you to reach the top, because there are literally no facilities, apart from a cafe and a tap by the side of the road at Chateau Renard 15 km in. Also remember that you're going to need to cycle back down the mountain, which is a pretty hair-raising experience in itself, so best to leave something in the tank.

One of the secrets of climbing mountains is pretty straightforward (aside from hard training and power-to-weight ratios!) and similar to the advice I've heard given to first-time marathon runners - find a pace that you can maintain and stick to it. There's no point racing away at an unsustainable pace, because you simply won't be able to keep it up - if you saw the riders being dropped in the Tour today, wobbling along in first gear, you'll see what I mean. This is what made Froome's two bursts near the top, to surge away from Contador and later Quintana, such an incredible achievement.

But, for us mere mortals, staying in the saddle spinning a low gear is essential. It's fine to get out of the saddle once in a while to give you a change, but it's less efficient, so can't be done for long.

On the day in 2006 when I rode there was a local race taking place, so the route was lined with French families sat by their cars eating what looked like delicious picnics and offering words of encouragement to the suffering riders passing them, but there are always plenty of riders out on the road.

The heat can be stifling at times. In 2008 I had to stop for a minute or two in the shade as I was getting so hot that my body couldn't cool itself down, risking heat exhaustion. One crumb of comfort is that, as you climb it gets cooler - because of something called the 'adiabatic lapse rate' the temperature drops by approximately 1C for every 100 metres of altitude gained.

On the down side, when the trees stop it's a very bleak place as you near the top and, if you're unlucky, the wind can be brutal (the Mistral reaches up to 300 kph and the wind blows at over 90 kph on the mountain for more than half the year). But from this point on the peak, with it's weather station, are pretty much constantly in view, which provides a motivation, even if there are always more corners to go than you think.

A mile from the summit is the memorial to Tom Simpson, who died here on July 13th, 1967 while taking part in the Tour de France. Simpson began weaving across the road and collapsed. It was claimed that his final words were "Put me back on my bike!", but this is disputed by those who were actually there.

Simpson was an amazing and inspirational rider - the first Brit to wear the Yellow Jersey and to become World Champion. He was killed by a combination of amphetamines, which were endemic in cycling at the time, alcohol, heat and exhaustion.

Riders and visitors still leave tokens - especially bidons - at the memorial. There's a really interesting documentary about Simpson on YouTube. Here's the last part, dealing with his death:

But on the plus side, it has to be said that getting to the top is a great feeling, if only because it means there's no more climbing to be done...!

At the summit with my brother James in 2008
There's also a chance to take in the amazing view - Ventoux towers over the surrounding countryside for miles in every direction. It's a good time to get something to eat and drink before you head back down too.

The view from the top

As I said, the temperature drops as you climb, so it will be approximately 16C cooler at the top of Ventoux than at the bottom. It's actually pretty cold at the top. This is one of the reasons that cyclists put on their jackets when they get to the top (or, wonderfully, they used to stuff a newspaper up their jersey in the old days) in preparation for the decent. The other reasons are that you're going a lot faster so there's more wind on you, plus your muscles are doing very little on the descent, so they're not warming you up.

However hard cycling Mont Ventoux may be, the other thing I like to bear in mind is that the professionals are tackling Ventoux at the end of a long day's cycling and they're already a fortnight into the race, with another week to go!



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