France Retrospective: July 16, Mont Ventoux

After saying goodbye to Morzine, and to Hayden, Sue and the kids, we drove a long day to Carpetras for an overnight stay to ride Mont Ventoux. Located smack back in the middle of Provence, a wine growing region, Carpentras is not where you'd expect to find a mountain like Ventoux, but I think that is part of its mystique - its bleak, treeless shape protrudes from the flat countryside around it like a pimple in the middle of your forehead.

Of course, Ventoux is one of the legendary climbs of the Tour de France, with names such as Eddy Merckx and Marco Pantani being some of the big names to have won a stage finish on top of Ventoux.

While I certainly didn't have ambitions of climbing like those guys, I was looking forward to experiencing this legendary mountain for myself.

We set off from Bedoin for the 22k climb, the most famous way the climb is ridden. KKB had studied the climbs in great detail - how long the climb is, the average gradient and where the hardest sections are. I of course had not, and I set off just knowing that the average gradient was 7.1%. Easy. Right?

The first few Ks though, were almost false flats, so I was feeling great, just riding along through the farm land. It was a little steeper through the first few villages but being early in the climb, quite manageable.

About a third of the way up, heading through the forest now, it started to kick up more dramatically. I sat back in the saddle and focussed on pushing my legs round in circles, keeping my upper body relaxed. There wasn't much of a view through this forested section of the climb, and because we'd started so early, there weren't too many other cyclists around. I rode alone in the calm and quiet of an early morning in Provence, France.

It's not too often I'll be be able to write stuff like that!

I stopped a couple of times on the way up to drink. Although it was early, it was already around 20 degrees and the area was heading for a high in the mid 30s. Summer at last! The gradient of the hill was steep enough and constant enough that I felt better stopping than struggling with drinks while plugging away at the slope.

Chalet Reynard, about two thirds of the way up, is about where the forest ends, and Mont Ventoux's famous naked mountain top begins. The area was deforested heavily many centuries ago and for whatever reason, the greenery has never returned. Instead, Mont Ventoux, the lone mountain amongst the farmlands of Provence, is likened to a moonscape.

I expected the environment at the top of Ventoux to be overwhelmingly eerie, and I'd expected to feel lonely and a little spooked up here. But it couldn't have been further from the truth. I felt nothing less than exhilarated to be riding this famous climb.

I had also expected it to be overwhelmingly difficult. Instead I was surprised at the relative ease with which I climbed. By Chalet Reynard I'd gotten through eight or nine kilometres of average gradients of nine and ten percent. Still I was feeling strong - a good thing with Ironman Regensburg only a couple of weeks away.

From here on, I could see the observatory on the top of Ventoux. At times it seemed close, and it others, it seemed further and further away. I toiled away, getting ever closer, and taking the time to check out the view. It was impressive.

I'd saved something for the last few ks. Just as well, they became quite brutal! But before too long, I reached the summit. I wasn't all that disappointed with my time of 2:28, with an average speed of just under 8.5ks per hour.

At the top I chatted to some cyclists from the Netherlands, who informed me that in this year's tour there were more Aussie starters than Dutchies. I knew it was a good year for the Australian contingent, but didn't know how we stacked up against other nations, particularly a cycling stalwart such as Holland! We joked about how the Dutchies will always turn up to the Tour even if they didn't have any countrymen to support - they love the Tour and the legions of orange clad fans are easy to spot for three weeks in July.

After taking in the view for a little longer, I began the descent. I passed slowly by the cyclists who stopped to pay homage at the memorial dedicated to British tour rider Tom Simpson, who died on the mountain. There were more and more cyclists ascending now, and the closer to the bottom I got, the more there were. Large groups, single cyclists, and others with their families and partners waiting by the side of the road, cheering them on and armed with cameras to record the momentous occasion of them cycling the great Mont Ventoux.

I became very aware of what I'd achieved and I smiled.

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