|Road to Ventoux: Top of the World
||[Jul. 22nd, 2009|12:35 pm]
He was lying flat out on his back, his bike by his side, about halfway up Mont Ventoux. I was put in mind of a medieval knight, fallen in battle, memorialised in stone alongside his trusty steed. His eyes were closed and he actually looked quite content.|
Nearly 48 hours after completing the 2009 Etape du Tour - 170kms from Montelimar to the top of Mont Ventoux - this is the image that keeps coming back to me. It seemed to sum up that final climb, the climb that all of us Etapers had been thinking about - imagining what it would be like, getting our heads round it, reading about it, stressing about it, over-stressing about it, burying ourselves in the legend of it, for months on end. And now finally I was on it, and here was this poor man, too exhausted to even drag himself off the road, and I was weaving my way round him, determined not to suffer the same fate, but enduring my own pain and by no means certain that I would. So THIS was what the Ventoux was like.
This was my sixth Etape. The fact that I finished means that I can’t say it was the hardest. Two years ago, in the Pyrenees, I got swept up even before what I’m told was the horror of the Col de Bales. But it was certainly the most special, and the Ventoux climb itself easily the most demanding and spectacular I have ever encountered.
Montelimar to Ventoux was special chiefly because it was a team effort, with four of us flying The Independent banner, training together whenever we could, staying together on the trip itself, offering mutual support and encouragement, listening to each others’ tales of woe and elation over the many months of the build-up. And I’m happy to report that when the big day finally came, we all got round in ways that we could be proud of.
From the top - Graham Bence, 7hr 40min; Lewis Blackwell, 8hr; and Simon Usborne 8hr 10min. Magnificent effort, chaps. Finally, there was me, Simon O’Hagan, as ever bringing up the rear, in 9hr 30min. I don’t mind that. I was just delighted to get round, and to cycle every inch of the way.
As I’d speculated, this Etape was really two rides in one. There was the first 148km, from Montelimar to Bedoin, and there was the last 22km, up the Ventoux. The first ride took me six hours precisely. The second took me 3hr 20min. That tells you what the Ventoux was like.
Our day had begun when the alarm went off at 4.15am in the village where we were staying about an hour’s drive from Montelimar. The bikes had been readied and loaded into the car the night before. Kit was laid out. The porridge oats had been soaking overnight.
Your night’s sleep before an Etape is crucial. You get into bed feeling a bit like a condemned man. I like to think that the reason I failed in 2007 was because I did the ride on only two hours’ sleep. I knew I couldn’t make that mistake again. As it was, I slept ok – a little fitfully, but ok. I felt rested and alive. I was still worried, though. Two days previously, Graham and Simon and I had done a recce up the Ventoux. That seemed like a big mistake as Simon and I waited in the start pen after the drive into Montelimar. I thought it was a climb I could get up if I was fresh - but after a hilly 150kms?
At least the weather had improved on Saturday. Then the cloud had come down and the wind was howling, and the cyclists we looked at out of the car window were struggling to stay upright. The people at the sweet stall at the top of the mountain were clad in ski jackets. Come the morning of the Etape and it was almost perfect. A clear sky, warm but not a heatwave. We had got lucky.
It was gradually uphill right from the start. That prevented the mad dash you usually get at the start of an Etape. I got behind someone’s wheel and tried to settle into a rhythm. Simon moved on ahead after 15 minutes or so, with Graham and Lewis, who had much higher start numbers, further back, and me wondering at what point on the route they would overtake me.
We were in the Drome - a beautiful region of wooded inclines and rocky outcrops, and the occasional lavender field. The first climb – the Cote de Citelle. I was going ok. I found a comfortable gear. I didn’t want to use up too much energy. But I didn’t want to hang about. The bunch was still huge. The whir of bike wheels. Breathing getting heavier.
Over the top and I began to think, well, maybe I can do this. I was remembering to drink. Another, smaller climb. Then the first of some amazing descents down towards Nyons, the town nearest to where we were staying and which we already knew quite well, and to a stretch of the route we had ridden a few days before including the long climb up the Col d’Ey and then down to the first feed station at Buis les Baronnies. That was 77kms and I was on the road again, fresh food in my pockets and my bottles filled up, in under three hours. I was over halfway to the foot of the Ventoux at Bedoin. Could I get there in six hours? That would be good.
Stunning scenery was all around. A beautiful, steady climb to the village of Aubres where I grabbed more water from a roadside fountain - people politely taking their turn to put their bottle under the flow of water. That was nice. Then on up to Sault, where villagers were out in force to cheer us on. Down the other side, and the start of the last climb before the Ventoux - the Col de Notre-Dame des Abeilles.
“Good morning!” And there was Lewis, easing past me. I was five hours into my ride, Lewis four and a half, which was another quite healthy indicator from my point of view. Lewis is as much as 20 per cent better than me. So far he was only 10 per cent - though of course that differential was about to increase.
The Abeilles climb required quite a dig. It was steep at the bottom, and there was a series of false summits before we were finally over it and hit the ultimate descent - a 12km stretch of wide road that barely required a touch on the brakes. Incredible. Exhilarating. Like nothing else I’ve experienced on a bike. Then a few kilometres of crossing the valley floor to Bedoin, with my clock showing six hours precisely.
I still felt pretty good. The broom wagon was still a long way off. I had given myself a fighting chance. I shoveled down fod and energy gels at the Bedoin feed station and set off up the lower slopes. Lots of support at the side of the road. “Allez, allez!” English families on holiday with their Union Jacks flying. “Come on! Well done!”
The first 4kms of the Ventoux are manageable. It’s probably only 4 or 5 per cent. But it was here that I really began to notice the heat. The sun was right behind me and hot on my back. I began to crave the shade of the trees that I knew was coming, but which I also knew marked the start of a 10 per cent stretch that would continue pretty much unabated all the way to the top.
It was here that I began to see people walking. They had overdone it on the road to Bedoin. I didn’t think I had, but then it was too soon to be definite. The road suddenly ramped up through the trees. I sat back, tried to get into a rhythm. Back pain was kicking in. I got out of the saddle - partly to alleviate it, partly to put in a little burst that would boost me psychologically.
And so it went on, kilometer after kilometre. More and more people off their bikes and walking. The silence of a defeated army. Not many spectators now. A few people here and there, under the trees, sitting on their camping chairs. What fun to watch us all toiling up the mountain.
I’d approached the Ventoux by thinking of it as an extended session up the Whiteleaf climb just outside Princes Risborough. One Ventoux equalled about 15 Whiteleafs. I tried counting them off. It worked - up to a point. I’d once done 20 Whiteleafs and its neighbouring Kop Hill over nearly four hours, but with Ventoux of course there were no recovery points. So periodically I stopped at the side of the road - to eat and drink and get my head together. I asked bystanders to give me a push to help me get going again. I figured it was the least they could do in return for the free entertainment they were getting.
The road weaved slightly for about six kilometres through the trees before finally we hit a big hairpin bend. That was an important staging post. Now Chalet Reynard - marking the end of the trees and the start of the exposed upper section - was within striking distance. I was hugely grateful to the team from Cyclefit who had set up at the side of the road and filled my bottles - all the more so when I finally got to Chalet Reynard after more than two hours’ climbing to discover that the feed station had run out of water. There was an unseemly scrum to find water inside the café there, and then I was on my way again.
Just six kilometres to go. “Just” six? It wasn’t over, by any means. Yes, the gradient eased very slightly, but I was still so wrapped up in my own ordeal that I didn’t even notice when I passed the memorial to Tom Simpson, marking the point where the British rider collapsed and died during the 1967 Tour de France. But I did notice the cyclist who was standing by the roadside and, as I passed him, was violently sick.
Now there were more walkers than cyclists. I kept going. I still had the odd burst left in me. I even took in the panoramic view of Provence nearly 2,000 metres below, and thought, wow. With two kilometres to go I stopped for the last time. An elderly French couple with their camper van were offering me water. The lady, who was about 70, also had a tray of apricots and a single peach. She said, "I know how you feel. I used to cylcle." I asked her if she’d ever cycled up the Ventoux. No, she said, but she had done the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees - a huge climb which I did on the Etape last year. Respect. And she offered me the peach. It was the best peach I’ve ever had.
I think now I knew I’d do it. The last two kilometres were back up over 10 per cent. But I was hanging on in there. The observatory at the top of the mountain looked quite close. The yellow “1km to the Arrivee” sign appeared at the side of the road. The sun was beating down on the white rock, and I was still turning the pedals. Round the final bend, and up out of the saddle. Then the beep of my transponder as I crossed the line. I'd done it. All those Whiteleafs, all those Swains Lanes, pre-work sessions round Regents Park. They had got me to the top of the Ventoux -just.
Naturally on the way up the mountain I had told myself, never again. And it may well be never another Etape. But that’s only because there are other challenges, and I just don’t see how this Etape could ever be bettered. The Road to Ventoux may have come to an end, but where’s that road leading to over there?