Mount Ventoux – The First Ascent
Mont Ventoux (or mount windy in French) is one of the most legendary climbs of the Tour de France. It has been used fifteen times since 1951 with possibly the most dramatic stage seen in 1967 when British cyclist, Tom Simpson, dropped dead not far from the summit, still clipped into his pedals and suffering a combination of heat exhaustion, dehydration and the effects of drug use.
At 1912 meters above sea level, the mountain stands proud over the comparatively flat Provence. On a clear day, its iconic white peak and weather tower beckon beyond the vineyards and lavender fields. Varying in distance from 21.5 kilometres to 26 kilometres, there are three routes to the summit, the longest but easiest averaging a grade of 4.4% and commencing in Sault, while the most well-known but hardest averages 7.4%, and commences in Bedoin. As the name suggests, it experiences some serious wind at its peak, with gusts reaching up to 320 km/hr. Even the 2016 stage of the Tour de France was cut short when wind speeds at the unprotected summit exceeded 100 km/hr.
In early June however, only a blanket of thick cloud commanded the view over Provence. We’d camped for two days awaiting suitable weather to climb The Bald Mountain, so it was with a sense of urgency that Colby dragged me out at dusk and jabbed an excited finger at the horizon. The cloud had opened like a thin curtain, and there in the distance was the white peak. The peak we would be standing on the following day . . . all things going well.
Like a couple of giant snails we motored out to the base, pockets stuffed with extra layers, baguettes and water. Of the three routes to the top, we set out from the small village of Malaucène, for no other reason than its proximity to our campsite. The climb began steadily, lulling me into a false sense of ease with its steady grade and stunning views under a sea of puffy clouds. An organised tour group fractured around me, the more experienced riders disappearing into the distance and the stragglers tick tacking with me until the grade became brutal.
Half way into the climb, the road kicked up into a killer 12% and our little group shattered. Riders stopped. Walked. Pushed. And loaded bikes into the sag wagon. The only thing stopping me from joining them was a sheer determination, a fear that stopping on this grade would mean I’d never clip in again . . . and the fact I didn’t have a sag wagon to get into anyway. My quads burned their way past another two riders and my eyes focussed on a flatter 10% ahead, my head convinced I could do it. But when a tiny screw skittered across the road beneath me, my focus was broken. Convinced it was a sign of imminent, catastrophic failure, my determination melted and I pulled over in a flap of self-preservation. Colby gave my bike the once over as I chowed down on a baguette, ruling quickly that perhaps it wasn’t the bike that had a screw loose.
The road ahead split, sliding off to a ski station in one direction and to the summit in the other. The temperature dropped and my resolve wavered. My legs burned and my irritability grew, and after one too many short sharp demands, Colby pedalled off into the distance, leaving me blissfully alone. I stared stone faced at the bitumen, mentally disconnecting my legs from my body, and letting them do their thing. A single remaining tour group rider ground it out in front of me. The friendly tick tack of earlier was all but done. His face oozed the pain of pure survival . . . no doubt a reflection of my own.
The road curled into a series of switchbacks and I had neither the energy, nor the will to ponder when the never-ending forest would give way to the moonscape which stretched for kilometres around the summit. With each pedal stoke my chest grew tight. Yet I forced a grimace for the photographer who appeared out of nowhere, and fought dizziness as he thrust his card into my hand. The altitude was non-existent in comparison to Bonette, yet I was feeling its effects. It was time for a break.
I pulled over on the next switchback, fighting the urge to slump over my handle bars. The rolling green hills of Provence spread out like a carpet below demanding my awe. Still, I sucked in a deep breath and turned back toward the beast I was yet to conquer. There, up ahead and shrouded in cloud, was the moonscape. The weather station loomed above, so close I could almost touch it . . . even if the zig-zagging road would take me another kilometre before I reached it.
Rolling up to the summit bought with it the greatest sense of achievement. I had ridden up one of the most iconic mountains in France and nothing could wipe the smile from my grit stained face. The famous moonscape unravelled beyond the summit sign as I hung my helmet on my handlebars and joined the queue for a shameless selfie. The previous evening, we’d stood on the edge of our campsite and stared up at this distant peak and now we were standing on it. All things had gone well.