“I made a comment that I would like to ride a mountain ascent from the Tour de France, just to see just how hard it is. Next thing I know, I was at the base of Mont Ventoux. It is long. It is steep. Monotonously steep.”
Photographer’s notes: Mont Ventoux is that feared Tour de France ascent. Tommy Simpson died on the final kilometres. On the years the hill is included in the Tour, spectators await the stage as the proving ground for the entire Tour. Thin framed climbers attack to prove their mettle. Contenders struggle to stay intact in the general classification. It is so feared, so filled with history, it is not included in the Tour every year. It adds to the mystique.
Frankly, I would have been content with a lesser known climb. I had no need to see the beast as my inaugural ride.
I dreaded the attempt the second I knew I was going to do it. I have climbed hills before. Real hills. Steep hills that run a couple of kilometres. Longer hills that run maybe five kilometres. Insanely difficult, steep walls. But I have never been on a climb that would run 26 kilometres of unending, numbing pain.
A week before the ride, I checked my gears. Not if they function. I was hoping to have a rock-bottom low gear ratio. Something that would allow me to spin an insanely low gear to the very top. When I saw I had a 30 inch base, I thought I would be able to climb a telephone pole. … Fat chance.
Ventoux is deathly and painfully steady. Just twists and bends for 16 kilometres. You are buried in a forested lower region, the roadway ahead constantly hidden by the next bend and the trees. I kept hoping the next turn would offer some relent but, turn after turn, nothing came. It was just another bend to reach.
There are kilometre marks along the hill. Each and every kilometres. And each and every kilometre is further apart. The further up the hill, the harder the pedals are to turn, the slower the cadence, the heavier the bike – and the heavier you are. By kilometre 12, the 30 inch gear was monstrous and I was berating myself for not having a larger rear cassette and access to a 20 inch gear. Maybe I could do this on 20 inches.
I started the climb early in the morning. First light and I was at the base. I had planned for the climb to be anonymous, unnoticed by anyone save myself. It seemed a good plan. I had the first 10 kms alone, save one rider. Then a few more arrived. Not many, but when I remember I had started at first light and had the lead, I also had to realise these riders had eaten into my lead and caught me well before the top. I was not going to set any credible time on this ascent.
If you watch the Tour de France, there are the cycling fanatics who run alongside the lead cyclists, sprinting to keep up on the mountain passes, screaming their encouragement. They last for maybe 50 metres before the riders speed is too much for them to match.
As I climbed the hill, a mother pushing a baby stroller and carrying a shopping bag walked past me.
I was at the 15k mark, just before the restaurant that is the clearing ground, where you can finally see the top of the hill, the station tower ahead, when I was passed again, and not for the last time.
I heard them coming from behind. One voice chatting away about the philosophical differences between Smurfs versus Minions. Two riders passed, a man with his son and the son – and this was after climbing a mountain pass for 15 kilometres – was discussing cartoon characters in detail in an unending voice. I mean, he did not even take a breath for another sentence, let alone the ride.
Well, I think he was discussing cartoons. At the time, the effort I had put out on the climb was giving me hallucinations. I could barely breath, and this twig was talking non-stop, the chatter still heard as he disappeared around the bend. He was so light in weight, I think my thigh weighs more than he does.
The last reach is likely the worst. The percentage picks up a couple more points and you can see the peak in front of you, taunting as the road turns and leads away from the summit. It takes a while before the optics lets you see the end is coming.
I actually had to stop just 50 metres from the end. The scent of the close of the hunt had been to0 great and I had pressed harder and I earned two massive leg cramps for the effort. Recovery was a few minutes before I could ride the last stretch of asphalt. I crossed the line silently, riding into a mass of faster, fitter riders who had gathered to savour the moment at the top.
Getting to the top of Mont Ventoux has to be come thing of a marathon moment in cycling. Nobody cares about your time. Nobody gloats about being faster. You are part of the day and that band of cyclists who made it to the top. The celebration is in the accomplishment.
We all took turns standing under the Mont Ventoux sign, the iconic image for just about every cyclist who can claim the prize, swapping poses for each other’s cameras, exchanging responsibilities to record the event for pour personal archives.
Now I will start looking for another climb. Something equally iconic, me thinks. … with a lower gear ratio combination in hand.