“It is like the moon,” Remy said of the top of the nearby Mont Ventoux, which he and his wife, Evelyn, had visited earlier in the day. In their car.
It was July 29, 1995 (25 years ago! how is this possible) and we were in the little hilltop village of Seguret in Provence. And, like so many other things in life that seem like a good idea at the time, it began with alcohol. Lots of red wine at the combination Auberge de Jeunesse and hotel in Seguret where Susan and I were staying.
Remy’s English wasn’t very good, but definitely got better the more he drank. And Remy was a world-class wine drinker.
FYI: Increased wine consumption doesn’t improve my French. And my English gets a little slurred.
“Is it possible to ride up on a bike?” I asked, certain the answer was no. I didn’t know much about Mont Ventoux back then. I had no idea it’s considered the toughest, most leg-shattering, lung-searing climb in the Tour de France. Or that French philosopher and bike-racing 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.” Or that Tom Simpson, a British professional cyclist, died trying to climb the Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France. His last words were supposedly “put me back on my bike.”
Perhaps ignorance was bliss, especially the Simpson part.
I had no idea cycling fanatics from all over France, Europe and beyond come to Provence to climb the Ventoux. It’s a 21-kilomter (an unlucky 13 miles?) climb. “It is like this,” Remy said of the road to the top, holding his hand and arm at a steep angle.
“We saw many people riding on their bicycles,” Evelyn added.
“How many” I asked.
“Thirty or 40 people, maybe more,” Remy said.
I looked over at Susan, who immediately knew what I was thinking. She smiled and shrugged, knowing it was too late to stop me.
The Ventoux is 1,909 meters (6,273 feet) high. The highest I’d ever climbed before, on a bike, was 996 meters (3,267 feet). This was almost twice as high. (The mountain seems to have shrunk and the sign at the top now says it’s 1,909 meters high).
There are three ways up the Ventoux: From the base town of Malaucene, on the western foothills of the mountain and the closest base town to Seguret; from Bedoin, to the south; and from Sault, to the east. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Bedoin route is considered the toughest, and is the one they do in the Tour de France. The Malaucene route – the way I was going as it was the closest base town from Seguret – is considered a little-less difficult, but not by much. The Sault route is the easy one, with easy being a relative term.
(Here’s the link to my Biking Provnce eBook)
August 1, 1995: The ride from Seguret to Malaucene is an easy 20 kilometers (12.3 miles). I hit town and the start of the climb at about 9 a.m. “OK, it’s only 21 kilometers to go to the top,” I told myself. “That’s not too far. How hard can it be?”
On many of the roads in France, especially the smaller and more rural rues I sought and rode, there’s a marker every kilometer that often tells you the distance to the next substantial town. The D974 road I was on, had these signposts, with the distance remaining to the summit, as well as the altitude. The first marker said the summit was 20 kilometers away and my current altitude was 366 meters. I did some math in my head. “That’s only 1,500 or 1,600 meters of climbing to go, a mere mile, spread out over 20 kilometers,” I told myself, trying to sound optimistic. And confident. “No problem.”
The first two kilometers are kind of easy. Only 4.5 percent. And then, the fun begins. The next two kilometers are 9.0 and 7.5 percent. My thighs began to burn, it was hard to suck in enough air to fill my lungs and giant beads of sweat began rolling down from the top of my head and running into my eyes – and started to sting like crazy. I kept going slower and slower, and soon my speed was down to four or five miles an hour, so slow that it felt as if I was about to lose all my forward momentum and topple over. I kept going. Pedal stroke by pedal stroke, through several switch-back turns.
With 11 kilometers to go, I hit the hardest section of the ride: Four consecutive kilometers of 9.5 percent. Ouch. As I struggled and sweated, two guys on the way down flew past, shouting something encouraging. In French, I think. These were the first two cyclists I’d seen all day.
With 10 kilometers to go, the signpost said I was at 1,041 meters. I was over finally 1,000 meters and a little more than halfway there. There was some light at the end of the tunnel. I started believing I could actually do this. And, believing you can do it is half the battle, as climbing is as much psychological as it is physical. Like that episode of Gilligan’s Island, the one where Gilligan made a set of wings out of some feathers he’s found and is flying. He’s actually flying. And then the Skipper has to go and tell him he can’t fly.
“I can’t?” Gilligan says, despite the fact that he’s flying.
“Of course not,” Skipper says.
And with that, Gilligan, who no longer believes he can fly, crashes to the ground, landing on top of the Skipper, who then chases him around, swatting at his head with his hat.
“Screw you Skipper,” I said as I continued to slowly fly up this mountain. “I’m gonna make it.”
A couple hundred meters later, a cyclist came up from behind, passed me and slowly pulled away. Normally, this would have sparked my competitive streak and I would have been up, out of the saddle, trying to catch him. Or her. Not today. I was in survival mode.
The four-kilometer stretch of doom was finally over, and I was at 1,479 meters. And … was immediately engulfed in a giant cloud of gnats. Or, the French equivalent of gnats. They were everywhere and all over me, dozens sticking to the sweaty, exposed skin on my face, arms and legs. A few flew into my mouth. Was this some sort of ominous warning sign? A plague? And then, just as suddenly as they’d appeared, the cloud of gnats were gone. Perhaps I’d passed their altitude limit.
Finally, I was out of the forest and could see the summit of Mont Ventoux up ahead. This was the psychological boost I needed. It was exactly as Remy and Evelyn had described it: A barren, white-rock filled mass that really did look like the surface of the moon. Unfortunately, it was also shrouded in dark, ominous clouds and it looked like it was raining, up ahead, on top of the mountain. As I continued to climb, I entered the dark cloud … and the cold, drizzle of rain. It was refreshing at first, and then I began to shiver and shake a little.
With 1.5 kilometers to go, I was at 1,813 meters and could see the final section of switch-back turns up ahead that would take me to the top. I was close, so close, and also in the midst of the toughest kilometer of the climb: 10.5 percent.
“Go for it,” shouted a guy flying down the mountain. “You’re almost there.”
How did he know I spoke English?
There’s a viewing stand with half a kilometer to go, but it was too dark and overcast to really see anything down below. Finally, I rounded the final turn, and was at the top. All I could manage was a tired, satisfied smile. It had taken me 2 hours and 20 minutes. Not bad for a rookie.
There’s a café at the top, and a souvenir shop where you can buy all sorts of Mont Ventoux-themed knick-knacks. No thanks. I got two cans of Orangina, a Mars candy bar and sat on the edge of a wall, shivering and shaking, looking down through the clouds. It was sort of like peering down from an airplane. Behind me were several vendors with carts filled with candy and cured meat products. Candy I could understand. Salami sticks? Who rides to the top of the Ventoux and craves pepperoni? On a bike ride, that’s stomach distress in stick form.
There were a dozen or so riders at the summit, and I could look down and see a few more ever-so-slowly riding up the road from Bedoin. They looked like ants. Most of the riders on the summit were smart and experienced enough to have brought a jacket with them. Not me. Several riders posed for photos in front of the summit sign, that read 1,912 meters. I didn’t have a camera. Heard several languages, definitely French and German. Met and talked with a British guy, who had ridden up from Bedoin with a fully loaded bike. Including all his camping gear. His gear must have weighed 50 pounds. Impressive.
After all the effort to make it up to the top, it seemed like I should stay and savor the moment a lot longer. But I was cold. Shivering and shaking. And the dark clouds pretty much ruined the view. So down I went, to Bedoin, clutching my brakes in a death grip whenever my speed got too dangerously fast.
Let’s just say I’m not a very talented or brave descender.
After five kilometers, I was below the clouds. The rain stopped and I started warming up and drying out.
That night I celebrated with lots of red wine, and told Susan, Remy and Evelyn all about my conquest of Mont Ventoux. They were impressed. And then two new arrivals wandered over: David, 18, and Martin, 16. These German brothers said they were semi-professional bike racers and were here to climb the Ventoux several times over the next few days as part of their training. David told us his best time was an hour and 20 minutes, up the tougher Bedoin route, and he thought he would take another five, maybe 10 minutes off his best time tomorrow.
I felt like chasing him around and hitting him over the head with my hat.
Two days later, I climbed the Ventoux again. And here’s the thing: I could have sworn I rode to Bedoin and climbed up from there. But no, it seems that while I did ride to Bedoin, I then headed to and along the Gorges de la Nesque, an incredibly beautiful ride, and then on to nearby Sault.
According to my journal, which I’m sure is more accurate than my memory, I had lunch in Sault “and then – apprehensively – I was off for Mt. Ventoux. The 20 K climb to where you meet the Bedoin road was pretty easy, but then the last 6 Ks were torture the whole way. I did the first 3Ks pretty well, then, after 58-59 miles, I was pooped. I stopped to get a photo at the monument of the dead biker [Tom Simpson], and, after that, I was spent. I wound up walking the final K. It was much clearer and warmer today and the view was excellent.”
The total for this amazing ride was 85 miles.