At the summit of Mont-Ventoux there is an observatory and a small shop that sells typical tourist tat at inflated prices. To the right of the cluttered sales counter is a single refrigerated drinks cabinet that houses rows of ice cold cokes, with equally entrepreneurial mark-ups. But to the many parched and exhausted cyclists who have ground their way up to the top of the mountain, no price would be too much for a can of Coca-Cola with its cool seductive sheen of dripping condensation.
Along with the cyclists – of all shapes, sizes and nationalities – there were those aimlessly milling around that had been chauffeured to the summit. They fired off snaps from their giant SLR cameras of the valley below and the endless horizon, or idly fingered goat-shaped key fobs in the shop. They were simply stretching their legs after a tedious car journey.
A fat child was blocking my path to the drinks fridge. I had dreamt – near hallucinated – of the taste of ice cold coke on my tongue during the interminable minutes it had taken me to overcome the final kilometres of the climb. Half baked, half fried on the unsheltered slopes. The boy was trying on plastic sunglasses from a rotating carousel. “Excusé moi”, I croaked impatiently to get past. I grabbed a drink and turned to pay at the counter, fumbling with my change. But my path was again blocked by the same boy, stooped low in order to complete his thorough search of the most hopeless collection of eyewear in southern France. His fat arse very nearly found itself with a Mavic cycling shoe quite firmly wedged between its substantial cleft of flesh. Eventually I handed over my money; two Euros fifty was never better spent.
On a curb outside I sat and enjoyed every last drop from the can. However I knew I still had one more ascent of the mountain to make; so far I had managed only the first two. The full weight of the sun beat down, and on the hottest part of a hot day in a hot summer, I again mounted my bike to take on Mont Ventoux for the third and final time.
The challenge is to ride all three of the ascents of the mountain in a single day – the reward is membership of the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux. Potential Cinglés (or ‘Madmen’) can choose any day to complete the ride and the order in which to tackle the ascents. A card is stamped at each starting town – at a participating shop or café – and then again at the summit.
The start point of each climb are the towns of Malaucène, Bédoin and Sault and each road is distinctive; the road from Bédoin is generally agreed to be the most challenging, whilst Sault is definitely the easiest (although in no way ‘easy’). In mid-July temperatures are well into the thirties, with it only being marginally cooler at the summit. Ideally our challenge would have began early and in the cool of the morning, and with the hardest climbs out of the way first whilst both the air and our legs were freshest.
Of course that was the plan. Unfortunately myself and my two fellow Ventoux virgins – Luke and Pedro – had arrived in France kitted out with inappropriate gearing. A 11-23 might be fine for the Surrey Hills, but even a 12-28 can prove a slog on Ventoux. A compact chainset would be ideal, or even a triple if you’re in any doubt of your climbing ability.
We passed dozens of cyclists during the day climbing to the top; not just serious racing cyclists, but cyclotourists, teenagers in baggy lycra, and many middle aged men too engaged in their struggle to manage a breathless ‘Bonjour’. I was jealous of all of their gearing; with speeds barely breaking double digits and legs spinning like windmills, their progress may have been slow but it was relentless and steady.
So our day started with a visit to the bike shop in Malaucène, and despite their helpfulness and efficiency, it wasn’t until late morning that we headed out with our new cassettes fitted. We consigned ourselves to the day of suffering ahead; knowing the hardest climb from Bédoin would be tackled when the sun was at its hottest.
We turned out of the town and headed east; the steady gradient kicked in straight away, but with the smooth roads our progress was brisk and comfortable. The youngest member of our group Pedro ventured the prophetic words: “I hope I’m not speaking too soon, but this isn’t so hard is it?”. Yes Pedro, you were speaking too soon.
After 21km of unrelenting effort we eventually crested the peak. The last few kilometers were hard, but with the observatory in sight I found some extra strength to pick up my pace. After getting our cards stamped in the shop, it was soon time to head down the descent towards Bédoin. The first minute or so was cold – my kit damp with sweat and with the cooler air at the high altitude – but in no time at all we were back into the warmth.
Our next ascent was to be the hardest on paper, and as it proved, hardest in reality. The gradient holds firm at 9-10% early on, and rarely eases up. In the middle of the day shade was hard to come by; even in the wooded areas the high sun meant the shadow of trees only tickled the edges of the road. Eventually we emerged from the woods into the iconic moonscape of the Ventoux’s highest edges. But this time the sight of the observatory in the distance only brought me misery; it remained firmly out of reach whilst with every passing kilometre I could feel my energy deserting me. It had been hours since breakfast and my pockets were empty having already consumed handfuls of cereal bars and gels.
Long climbs are as much a fight against monotony and doubt than with time and kilometres. With every corner turned and a new upward stretch of road comes into view, the line between laughter and tears become blurred. Is this a joke? Will it ever end? How much more of this can I take?
But once again we arrived at the top. I knew I’d need food and a little time to recover before attempting the final climb. We descended half way and stopped at Chalet Reynard, which sits at the point where the roads from Bédoin and Sault intersect. We ordered the only available food left on the menu, Lasagne. It tasted good. Or it did to me at least.
The descent to Sault was enjoyable; the shallower gradient and rougher road surface meant it wasn’t like the white knuckle ride down to Bedoin. Approaching the town the road is lined with lavender fields; the picture postcard views prompting tourists to pull over in their cars and point out their cameras. We arrived in Sault just in time to miss Cavendish win his third stage of the Tour.
With the remainder of our gels and bars stuffed into our pockets, we turned back the way we came; through the lavender fields, and over sections of 7 or 8%. But unlike the previous two climbs, the road gradually eased up and we could start flicking up through the gears. It was almost an unbelievable joke; this is Ventoux, it shouldn’t be so easy! If you were racing, these would be big ring sections. But too soon we were back at Chalet Reynard, and joined the road leading up from Bèdoin. Straight away the road kicked up again, and it was back to the familiar toil towards the observatory in the hazy distance. I rocked, I used my whole body to keep the pedals turning, I struggled. But with the knowledge that my day of climbing was almost over, I kept the effort high. One final spurt as the sun dropped low in the sky, and then relief.
All that was left to do was descend back down to Malaucène. Evening was beginning to fall and the mountain was all but deserted, the wide smooth roads clear for a high speed plummet, brakes untouched on sweeping bends. I tucked low and left my climbing companions behind to enjoy the silence and solitude with Ventoux. I bade farewell, until the next time.
The Les Cinglés du Mont Ventoux challenge was undertaken during a week long training camp ran by Étape Reine Cycling. Check out the website for their programme of camps, or contact them at email@example.com. Photos by Tarik Djeddour.