“Physically, the Ventoux is dreadful. Bald, it’s the spirit of Dry: Its climate (it is much more an essence of climate than a geographic place) makes it a damned terrain, a testing place for heroes, something like a higher hell.” Roland Barthes, French philosopher and bicycle racing fan,
If you know me in person or even just from this blog, you know that I love my cycling holidays and that I always use Exodus as my tour operator. Therefore, when I got an e-mail from them a couple of months ago with the subject line COMPETITION I opened it immediately.
It read that they were organising a special group of people to cycle up Mont Ventoux with the guy off the telly, Ned Boulting. The one you have possibly never seen but whose voice you would have heard if you are a cycling fan. The trip was supposed to be filmed for a documentary for Sky’s Bike Channel.
There was to be a group of 8 people chosen to go away on a weekend in France to climb the mountain made famous by Tour de France. To get a spot you had to say something about yourself and explain why you should get on the team. Now I had looked at that trip in the brochure literally a few days earlier so I thought it was a sign. The Gods of Cycling were giving me an opportunity here. Plus, it was my birthday just a week before the trip so that would tie up nicely since I wasn’t doing anything this year, snowed under as I have been with my question papers, assessments and work. I entered the contest and kept my fingers crossed.
Then just a week or so before the trip date the call came: Izabela, you are in!
I was on cloud nine! My colleague thought I had won the lottery which in a post-Brexit Britain it kind of was – all paid trip to Provence!?
A series of e-mails followed with the main topic being: are you taking your bike or would you like a local hire? Local, please. Then came the biggie – heart over mind: would you like a road bike or a hybrid? Noooooo…. I could not make up my mind first.
I was thinking I wouldn’t be able to get up THAT ‘hill’ on a hybrid. But then I looked at the itinerary: 87km the day before Mont Ventoux then around 50km on the day to get to the foot of the mountain then 22km up the mountain and then descent.
I have only done one race on a road bike – 125km of Tour de Cambridgeshire – which was completely flat and after that it took me a couple of weeks to get the pain out of my shoulder due to the position I am not used to.
I’LL TAKE THE HYBRID!
I learnt that the group was made of 4 women and 4 men plus Ned. I was trying to work out who we were at Heathrow Airport but I only recognised Ned’s face.
When we boarded the plane I could hear two ladies talking behind me about all the miles they have cycled and all their experience and as I was fighting off tiredness I was thinking: ‘Jeez, they have done so much! I really hope they are NOT in our group… I will never manage to keep up with them…’
There was a young chap sitting next to me playing this game on his phone. He looked kind of 17. Then this other, younger looking still (!), guy came into view with a massive camera and said to my neighbour while taking a picture of him: ‘Where is everyone else sitting?’. ‘Oh we are all over the plane I think’ came the response.
Gulp! ‘Ermm, are you with Exodus by any chance?’ I asked – ‘Please say no’ (I thought). ‘Yes!’ ‘Great!…’. Then there was this big THUMP – sound of my confidence dropping.
We arrived in France and started chatting on the way out of the plane so by the time we got our luggage we had all the introductions behind us.
We were met by our guide Thierry, a mini bus driver and the guys from Exodus Dave and Andy. We boarded the bus in the rain.
We had a great chat over the 2.5 hours drive and managed to get to know each other a bit. I also learnt that we were chosen from overt 800 people who actually entered the competition!
Finally, we have arrived at our hotel Le Louvre in the charming town of Sault.
We got the room keys but all we wanted to do was to see the bikes! Mine was already in the garage downstairs – just because it was special, just like me. As I suspected I was the only one going on a hybrid. I just like to do things differently.
Lesson 1: BIKE FIT IS VERY MUCH BIKE SPECIFIC
I sent all my bike measurements for my own hybrid to Exodus ahead of time. Then I took them with me as I went to the garage, together with my MTB pedals – as I said, I like to do things differently.
We set the bike up as per the checklist and… a disaster. It was all wrong. We just had to set it up from a scratch.
Then we had a briefing in the evening:
- Fri 7thOCT – Ride to Montbrun, then climb the Col de Macuegne (1068m) for views of Mont Ventoux. After an easier climb we then tackle the Col de l’Homme Mort (1213m) before returning to Sault. 87km with 1170m ascent.
- Sat 8thOCT – Ride through the magnificent Gorges de la Nesque to Bedoin and climb Mont Ventoux (1912m) by the most famous Tour de France route. Long descent to Sault. 105km with 2060m ascent.
- Sun 9thOCT – Recovery ride through the scenic valley of Toulourec, before returning to Sault. 75km with 1000m ascent. After the ride there will be the opportunity to shower before transferring back to Marseille for the flight to London Heathrow
The dinner at the hotel was fantastic and we were eager to test the bikes and the roads the next day. We were also given an Exodus cycling jersey and enough gels and sport drinks to open a little SIS shop on the corner.
Lesson 2: YOU ARE NOT A PROPER CYCLIST WITHOUT A PAIR OF CROCKS
As we descended into the garage the next morning I felt like something was wrong: everyone was either wearing crocks or going barefoot – as in just socks. Did I miss a memo? Nope. That’s the joys of wearing MTB cleats – they are very easy to walk in unlike the road cleats.
Lesson 3: ARM AND LEG WARMERS ARE A WORK OF GENIUS!
The weather at this time of year can get a bit cold and anyway mountain weather is unpredictable hence we were advised to be prepared for any eventuality. The beauty of an Exodus trip is the support vehicle: any time we regrouped you could offload any unnecessary items or put on an extra layer that was sitting in the car.
I only got my arm and leg warmers a few days before the trip and they were in use every day. They are absolutely brilliant!
Lesson 4: SPORTS DRINKS TASTE DIVINE WHEN YOU NEED THEM. OTHERWISE THEY ARE UTTER S…E
I used two bottles every day of the trip and they really helped. I haven’t used the gels at all.
The first day ride was beautiful but there was a part of it that required a fair bit of climbing. It got to 14% once or twice and all I could think was that the next day was going to be like that just for much, much longer…
In the evening we had a lovely meal and another chance to get to know each other. And of course we did some more work for the camera – we were being filmed during the ride but also had to give interviews about the Big Climb. The backdrop to that was the Mountain itself which apart from looking quite steep and high looked so far away! I kept thinking it was going to take us a few days to get to the mountain let alone climb it…
THE BIG DAY!
“The Ventoux is a god of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering.” Roland Barthes, French philosopher and bicycle racing fan,
Finally, it was Saturday morning. I woke up full of trepidation after riding up the mountain in my dream for most of the night.
We had a nice breakfast, loads of coffee and we headed out into a beautiful day. The ride towards the mountain was nothing short of stunning. We stopped to take these pictures at some point. The destination still seemed so incredibly far I really thought we would need another day to get there.
Finally, we got to Bedoin. Last coffee stop. Last bit of advice. I took cash out for the massage I had booked for that evening in our hotel (and if I died tackling the summit, it could go towards covering the cost of transporting my body down to Sault).
Then we split the group up. We left the really fast and strong guys & girls in town to have another pint or two, to give us an hour head start and off we went with Ned and the brilliant TV crew.
The sun was shining and we were going out of the town and heading towards the mountain. Before we got there each of us got a few minutes’ chat with Ned as we followed the TV crew in a car in front so they could catch it all on tape.
Then we entered The Forest. I remember everyone (who has climbed MV) saying that the forest is the worst. ‘Once you get out of the forest you will be fine. Once you get to Chalet Reynard, you know you’ve got this!’. So off I went. With Ned by my side. He was still chatting away but I was getting into the zone (read: really bricking it). I knew this was it. I said: ‘Ned, I am not very sociable on climbs.’ ‘No worries, you don’t have to answer’. OK…
We were side by side to start with, then he got to the front and said: ‘If I am going too fast or too slow just tell me’. Right. Now, I have never done anything like that before. All my biggest climbs I have done on my own. I needed to find MY rhythm and having someone in front to think about was an extra stress. I got into my stride and saying NOTHING slowly overtook him.
A few minutes later I hear: ‘Are you asthmatic?’. ‘No, Ned. This is how I breathe on climbs’. It’s a cross between a woman in labour and a steam train. Yes, shedding some weight would improve the situation. But I get my breaths in and out on a beat, leave my mouth hanging open and get as much oxygen in as I can. Breathing heavily but evenly gives me my rhythm, hence I cannot talk and disrupt the flow.
On this climb you don’t want to look too far ahead because all you can see is how steep it is so I just focused on what was immediately in front of my front wheel. I meant business.
Then I hear this: ‘You are going like a bat out of hell. Slow down by 10%. I don’t want you to find you have nothing left at the end’. ‘Well, Ned, I have never done anything remotely like this. I haven’t got a Scooby how long it’s gonna take me. I think the faster I get there, the faster this suffering ends. For now, this feels good. I have no more gears left anyway. Plus, I don’t know what 10% less means.’ These were my thoughts. I don’t know if I actually responded at all.
By then I wished I had a power meter on my bike. Seeing the numbers would allow me to actually go 10% easier – gears permitting.
It turned out that I covered the first 4 km in some crazy time. For someone like me.
The climb is 21.5km. I remember the first 4 and then the last 6. Whatever happened in between, the other 10km through the forest, I have no recollection of. None. NADA. The other 4 team members must have passed me at some point. As did the TV crew. They must have because they were on top before me despite starting after me.
As it is described on http://www.veloventoux.com:
“From Bedoin at 300m it is 5.5km to St. Esteve at 541m. This gives an elevation of 241m and an average gradient of just 4.4%. So why the bad reputation? Well, the next section, the infamous forest has the answer. From St. Esteve at 541m it is 9.5km to Chalet Reynard at 1417m. This gives an average gradient of over 9% for the whole of this section. It is also worth remembering that this 9% is not constant as there are a few sections as low as 7% and many over 11% and 12%.”
Anyway, I started faltering around kilometre 15. That’s when I had my first sob. One of the riders who takes my classes had told me: ‘This mountain messes with your brain.’ And it does! The Garmin shows values that your brain and legs completely disagree with. You never know the true meaning of a false flat until you ride those mountains. As the minutes go by you think that this is an interminable climb. It has to flatten up at some point, doesn’t it?
Over an hour in and the mountain was unforgiving. The unabated ascent really gets to you. But I fought hard and then I was out of the forest. I saw the big sign saying Chalet Reynard and I remembered all those voices: ‘Once you are there, you are fine. The worse is done’.
Or is it?
I saw the boys from the TV crew on the next turn and looking for some solace I shouted: ‘How far is it from here?’. I didn’t have to do it. I knew it was 2km. My brain, which had been under a continual stress for a long time by then, clearly remembered it was 2km from the Chalet. And then Henry responded: “It’s not far. It’s only 6km!’
Well, they would both tell you my response to that piece of news. Don’t kill the messenger and all that…
‘F**** off! I don’t have 6km left! F****ck!!!’. I really don’t know why they laughed. I wasn’t.
The climb felt truly everlasting by then. And the thing is once you are out of the forest you cannot escape The View of the tower with the red stripe on the top of MV. All around you is just this moonscape and every time you make the mistake of looking up, that top is just so incredibly far away, your exhausted brain tells you that you will need a week to get there.
The only way to keep your sanity is to look just in front of your front wheel. Do NOT look up. You can look at the distance markers. But don’t look up.
I really struggled for the next 2k. Then I felt another crisis approaching. My bits were in bits as the chamois cream started wearing off, I felt like both my legs were about to cramp and crucially I ran out of energy drink in my bottle at the front. The other one was full but there was no way I could access it easily while riding at the state I was in.
Lesson 5: LEARN TO RIDE HANDS FREE OR SWITCH BOTTLES BETWEEN HOLDERS WHILE RIDING (hold the empty one in your teeth).
As the tears started flowing I heard this woman’s voice in my head: ‘Calm your breathing down. Just calm down. You can do it. We only have 2km left. Keep going.’ I thought I was going nuts! Then I felt and saw a bike slowly coming up to my left and I thought that some random woman rider was being really nice to me.
Only when she caught up with me I realised it was Rowan – the girl I was sharing a room with! And then she did this incredible thing – she put a hand on my back and gave me a push.
She swears it was nothing more than just a light touch but it felt like she was pushing me up that hill. That made me cry even harder. No, not because it was so lovely but because I thought: Jeez, she started an hour later, caught up with me, can still chat AND push me!? Like how?!
She asked me if I wanted to stop and I really didn’t know if that was the right thing to do. ‘What if I can’t get back on?’ I said. But I had to switch the bottles. I had another 1,500m to the top and no drink. I stopped. My legs were shaking. I had a good cry while Ro inhaled two energy bars.
A few minutes later she said she was going to push me to start me up the hill again. The TV crew joined us and started filming my snotty sobs. After a minute Ro went: ‘I have to stop, I have a puncture.’ Great! So now I knew she was talking to me and pushing me WHILST on a flat tyre!?
She stayed behind with the crew to change the tyre and I went off. For about 100m. Then I stopped and honestly I was ready to take a picture of the flipping tower from right there and just descend from that point. I couldn’t care less if I ever stood next to that blasted building. The summit was so close but still so far.
I decided I was going to walk the rest of the distance. I was broken. I got to the last left turn and I saw the marker saying 500m. At the same time, you see the riders really struggling up what seems to be 15% gradient over the last bit…
I had to get into the instructor mode: ‘C’mon Izabela, the last 500! Just flippin’ get on that bike and do it!’ So I got back on it and… it was not even 10% it just looked much worse. I was about to beat the relentless taskmaster. The Polish Dynamo was just a few meters away from the summit.
A few more pedal turns and the last turn came into view. I was praying to God that the road did not wind up around that tower and it didn’t.
I cycled up the last few meters to be met with the fast half of the team. I managed to unclip and break into a heaving sob to the delight of the TV guys… Andy (I think) took away my bike so I could cry freely for the next few minutes.
Once I calmed down I must say it was nice to hear that they did not expect me to get there that early. It was time to get extra layers on as it was positively freezing up there and get some food in. We were waiting for the rest of the team to finish.
It was pretty emotional for a few of us. We took a great team photo and then it was time to descent. Cold, fast and furious all the way to the Chalet for a snack.
Afterwards another 25km or so back to the hotel for a well-deserved massage, dinner and cake.
Lesson 6: AFTER CLIMBING MV EAT. EVERYTHING THAT IS BEING SERVED. Even if you don’t like it.
I am not a fan of lamb served for dinner that night so Craig ‘The Hoover’ had my portion as well as his. But I felt really hungry the next day. BTW: I have never seen such a skinny guy who could eat that much: two course dinner, dessert etc and 15min later: porridge!
The next day we had an 85km ‘recovery’ ride planned but after the first 10km of descent I came to conclusion that 75km more didn’t feel like a recovery to me so I actually decided to take a day holiday and ride in the team car with the guide, as support.
It felt awfully professional – being passed jackets and arm warmers by the team as they rode so they didn’t have to stop, waiting for them at junctions so they wouldn’t take the wrong turn, taking pictures and recording videos.
I must say the trip was truly amazing. I met a great bunch of people of various ages and cycling and professional backgrounds. We had a laugh. I had a cry. Or three. Well emosh.
The highlights of the trip? People, definitely. Stunning region of France. Beautiful scenery, breath-taking views. The bloody mountain.
They asked us: would you do it again? Well, half of our group actually did it on the recovery day… Would I? I think if I leave it long enough to forget, I just might.