February 26, 2015

Cycling up Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux, or the “Giant of Provence” is a mountain in the Provence region of Southern France located some 20 kilometers (12 miles) northeast of Carpentras. Although Ventoux is geologically part of the Alps, it is considered separate due to the lack of mountains nearby.

Mont Ventoux is a legendary mountain in the Tour de France. It has been ascended 14 times since 1951 and has been witness to dramatic scenes like the death of British cyclist Tom Simpson in 1967 who collapsed from exhaustion near the summit. In recent years it has been the stage for battles between Armstrong and Pantani and legendary solo breakaway wins of Richard Virenque and non-climber Eros Poli.

On an unusually cold and rainy July morning, I headed out as lead guide for Gourmet Cycling Travel to tackle this epic mountain.

There are three ways to climb this monster of a mountain. On this day we would climb from the Bedoin side, the hardest and most popular for amateur cyclists and the Tour de France.

Starting in the beautiful Provence village of Bedoin, the total ascent is 1617 meters (5300 feet) over 21.8 kilometers (13.5 miles) of relentless uphill. The total climb starting from Bedoin has an average gradient of 7.5%. The first 5-6 kilometers (3-4 miles) are quite gentle at only a 3.9% average gradient. The road then kicks up with the remaining 16 kilometers (10 miles) at an average grade of 8.9%!

As we started the climb a torrential down pour of cold, icy rain greeted us. My goal was to ride within myself and take care of the group. I am always surprised at how hard the majority of the climb is with no breaks in gradient. The first few “easy” kilometers tricks one in to believing the climb is not that hard.

The middle third of the climb is through wooded vegetation. As one approaches the final 6 kilometers (3.7 miles), a left turn takes one to the barren final kilometers to the summit. Originally forested, the barren final part to the climb was systematically stripped of trees from the 12th century onwards to serve the demands of the shipbuilders of the naval port of Toulon.

In the final kilometers and in view of the lighthouse, a strong head wind was blowing, typical for Ventoux whose name is said to originate from the French word Venteux or windy. The temperature had now dropped to 4 degrees C (40 F), a huge drop in temperature from the earlier slopes. Gary Stern and I battled towards the summit, passing the Tom Simpson memorial which singled we were almost there.

The final switchback is incredibly steep and required every last bit of strength from weary legs. We regrouped at the summit, took photos as evidence then descended back down the mountain, a nice reward for the sweat and pain over the last 2 hours of climbing the Giant!

Today’s climb would take us 1 hour 48 minutes. Most amateur cyclists will be able to conquer the mountain in 1h30m-2h30m. Professional riders take between 1h-1h15m on average. The fastest time so far recorded has been that of Iban Mayo in the individual climbing time trial of the 2004 Dauphine Libere in 55′ 51″!


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