Climbing the Mighty Mont Ventoux

This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Delta’s SKY magazine. I would have posted the link, but the magazine went out of business a few months later. It wasn’t my fault! Really, it wasn’t. I hope. Anyway, this story is about climbing the Ventoux on my 60th birthday…

It’s October 2, my birthday. A big one: Soixante.

That’s French for 60 and seems appropriate as I’m in Bedoin, France. At the base of Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence. It’s considered the toughest, most leg-shattering, lung-bursting climb in all the Tour de France. Tom Simpson, a British rider, died a few kilometers from the summit during the 1967 race. His final words were supposedly “put me back on my bike.”

 Can I do it, can I still cycle to the top of the Ventoux, or has Father Time and a near-fatal bike crash five years ago taken too much of a toll on my body and brain? That’s why I’m here, to rage against my age and prove to myself the crash hasn’t diminished what I can accomplish on or off my bike.

The crash was bad – really bad. I was hit from behind by an intoxicated driver who fled the scene, leaving me unconscious on the side of the road. I had a fractured skull and traumatic brain injury [TBI], whiplash, broken ribs, collapsed lung, cracked vertebrae, broken shoulder and ankle. Susan, my amazing, patient wife, nursed me back to health. The hit-and-run driver? He was eventually caught, convicted and spent three years in prison.

Off I go.

The first six kilometers of the 22-kilometer (13.6 miles) climb are relatively easy, but I know what’s coming. I’ve ridden the Ventoux before, the last time in 2010 when I attempted this crazy thing where you climb the mountain three times in one day, from each base town (Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault) to become a member of the Club des Cingles du Mont Ventoux. Cingles translates to: Crazy, mad, loony. Yep, that sounds about right. 

On my first Cingles attempt, it was 70-degrees in Bedoin and snowing at the top of the mountain. Snowing! A total, windy whiteout, in September. I came down with a bad case of hypothermia, started shivering and shaking uncontrollably, and had to abandon after one ascent. Two days later, when I had finally thawed out, the weather had calmed down a bit, I became a Cingle.

(Here’s the link to my Biking Provence eBook)

At the six-kilometer mark, there’s sharp left turn and the real climbing begins: The grade averages 9 percent the rest of the way. “Relax,” I tell myself. “Take your time, turn beautiful circles with your pedals. Don’t get impatient. Relax. Enjoy the moment.” 

At about the 9-kilometer mark, Susan passes me in the rental car. She’ll be waiting at the summit. This is a brutal stretch, with a 10.5-percent grade. Every one-percent increase is like adding another 5-pound brick to the imaginary knapsack on my back. I’m going slow, about five miles per hour. Any slower and I’ll topple over. “Keep turning beautiful circles and relax your neck,” I tell myself. And yes, I talk to myself a lot while climbing mountains. And worry about my whiplashed neck and achy back.

At the 15-kilometer mark, I exit the forest and can see the summit. Everyone describes the rocky, barren mountaintop the same: It looks like the moon. And it’s windy up here, really windy. A few 100-kilometer gusts almost blew me off the road and over the edge back in 2010. The summit looks so far away. “Don’t worry, it’s an optical illusion,” I tell myself. “It’s really only six kilometers, less than four miles. Drink some water. Stretch your neck. You did it three times in one day. You’re a cycling machine.”

 Three kilometers to go. I pick up the pace and begin to struggle. “Slow down. You’re getting impatient. You’ll bonk if you keep going like this. Relax. Enjoy this.”

French philosopher and Tour de France fan Roland Barthes called the Ventoux “a god of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering.” Roland nailed it. 

Less than a kilometer. Lots more unfair tributes and suffering. And I know this stretch is extra steep – sneaky steep – as you turn the final corner. Some riders slow to a stop and walk. Not me. No way. 

There’s Susan, up ahead, waving and smiling. I pedal toward her. I’m at the summit: 1,909 meters high. It’s cold and windy, and the view is spectacular.

There’s a time-honored tradition when you reach the top of the Ventoux: Get a photo of you and your bike in front of the summit sign. Lift your bike, if you can. “Hurry, it’s heavy,” I say. Susan clicks a few photos. I take a few deep, cleansing breaths, smile, give Susan a hug, and start back down the mountain. “Take that Father Time and 60. You too, Ventoux; and I’ll see you again on my 70th birthday.

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