Not quite how Chris Froome did it, but I too cycled up Mont Ventoux

Simon O'Hagan

Mont Ventoux 300x199 Not quite how Chris Froome did it, but I too cycled up Mont Ventoux

(Getty Images)

What happened when Simon O’Hagan tackled the fearsome “Giant of Provence” in the 2009 Etape du Tour

He was lying flat out on his back, his bike by his side, about halfway up Mont Ventoux. I was put in mind of a medieval knight, fallen in battle, memorialised in stone alongside his trusty steed. His eyes were closed and he actually looked quite content.

Nearly 48 hours after completing the 2009 Etape du Tour – 170kms from Montelimar to the top of Mont Ventoux in Provence – this is the image that keeps coming back to me. It seemed to sum up that final climb, the climb that all of us Etapers had been thinking about – imagining what it would be like, getting our heads round it, reading about it, stressing about it, over-stressing about it, burying ourselves in the legend of it - for months on end. And now finally I was on it, and here was this poor middle-aged man, too exhausted to even drag himself off the road, and I was weaving my way round him, determined not to suffer the same fate but by no means certain that I would. So THIS was what the Ventoux was like.

This was my sixth Etape. The fact that I finished means that I can’t say it was the hardest. Two years ago, ill-prepared for a brute of a route in the Pyrenees, I got swept in the broom wagon. But it was certainly the most special, and the Ventoux climb itself easily the most demanding and spectacular I have ever encountered.

This Etape was really two rides in one. There was the first 148km, from Montelimar to Bedoin, a village at the foot of Ventoux, and there was the last 22km to the summit. The first ride took me six hours. The second took me 3hr 20min. That tells you what the Ventoux was like.

The day had begun when the alarm went off at 4.15am in the village where I was staying with three co-Etapers, including the estimable @SimonUsborne, about an hour’s drive from Montelimar. The bikes were had been loaded into the car the night before. Kit had been laid out, porridge oats soaked.

Your night’s sleep before an Etape is crucial. You get into bed feeling a bit like a condemned man. I like to think that the reason I failed in 2007 was because I attempted the ride on only two hours’ sleep. I knew I couldn’t make that mistake again. As it was, I slept OK – a little fitfully, but OK. I felt rested and reasonably alive. I was still worried, though.

Two days previously, Simon and I had done a recce up the Ventoux in a car. It was a toss-up whether it was better to know what it would be like, or to not know. Ignorance might be bliss but my curiosity got the better of me. As Simon and I waited in the start pen after the drive into Montelimar, I had plenty of time to dwell on what lay ahead. I reckoned it was a climb I could get up if I was fresh – but after a hilly 150kms?

At least the weather was kind. On the day we drove up Ventoux, the cloud had come down and the wind was howling, and the cyclists we looked at out of the car window were struggling to stay upright. The people at the sweet stall at the top of the mountain were clad in ski jackets. Those were not conditions I wanted to face on the bike, but come the morning of the Etape it was almost perfect. A clear sky, and warm but not a heatwave. We had got lucky.

The great long line of Etapers – all 9,000 of us – snaked its way out of Montelimar. It was gradually uphill right from the start, which nullified the tendency to set off in a mad dash which is what I’d witnessed at all my previous Etapes. I got behind someone’s wheel and tried to settle into a rhythm. After 15 minutes or so, Simon moved on ahead, as befitted someone so much younger and stronger than me.

We were in the Drome – a beautiful region of wooded inclines and rocky outcrops, and the occasional lavender field. We got to the first climb – the Cote de Citelle. I was going OK. I found a comfortable gear. I didn’t want to use up too much energy. But nor did I want to hang about. Conversation dropped. All you could hear was the whir of bike wheels and the sound of breathing getting heavier.

Over the top and I began to think, well, maybe I can do this. We got to another, smaller climb, and then the first of some amazing descents, this one down towards Nyons, the town nearest to where we were staying and in whose public swimming pool I had gone for a dip the day before the ride. We were on a stretch of the route I had already familiarised myself with. It included the next climb - the Col d’Ey – and from there it was down to the first feed station at Buis les Baronnies. We were at the 77km mark, just over halfway to Bedoin, and I was on the road again, fresh food in my pockets and my bottles filled up, with just under three hours of the ride gone. Things were going according to plan.

Stunning scenery was all around. There was a steady climb to the village of Aubres where I grabbed more water from a roadside fountain – cyclists politely taking their turn to put their bottle under the flow of water. That was nice. Then on up to Sault, where villagers were out in force to cheer us on. Down the other side, and we reached the start of the last climb before Ventoux – the Col de Notre-Dame des Abeilles.

The Abeilles climb required quite a dig. It was steep at the bottom, and there was a series of false summits before we were finally over it and hit the ultimate descent – a 12km stretch of wide road that barely required a touch on the brakes. Exhilarating - like nothing else I’ve experienced on a bike. Then a few kilometres of crossing the valley floor to Bedoin, and as we entered the village my clock showed six hours precisely.

I felt pretty good. The broom wagon was still a long way behind me. I had given myself a fighting chance. I shovelled down food and energy gels at the Bedoin feed station and set off up the lower slopes. ‘Let’s do it’, I said to myself. There was lots of support at the side of the road. “Allez, allez!” English families on holiday with their Union Jacks flying. “Come on! Well done!”

The first 4km of the Ventoux are kind of manageable. The gradient is only four or five per cent. But it was here that I really began to notice the heat. It was now early afternoon and the sun was right behind me and hot on my back. I began to crave the shade of the trees that I knew was coming, but which I also knew marked the start of a 10 per cent stretch that would continue pretty much unabated all the way to the top.

It was here that I began to see people who had climbed off their bikes and started walking. Maybe they had overdone it on the road to Bedoin. I didn’t think I was guilty of that, but then it was to soon to be sure. The road disappeared into trees and suddenly ramped up. I sat back, and tried to maintain a rhythm. My body was aching. I got out of the saddle – partly to alleviate the back pain, partly to put in a little burst that would boost me psychologically.

And so it went on, kilometre after kilometre. My speed dropped to eight, seven kilometres per hour. More and more people were dismounting and walking. Not many spectators could be seen now – just a few people here and there, sitting on their camping chairs at the side of the road. What fun to watch us all toiling up the mountain.

I’d approached the Ventoux by thinking of it as an extended session up a steep climb in the Chilterns I had trained on a lot – called Whiteleaf, just outside Princes Risborough. One Ventoux equalled about 15 Whiteleafs. I tried counting them off. It worked – up to a point. I’d once done 20 Whiteleafs straight off but the difference is that I always had a recovery minute or two as I descended back to the bottom. With Ventoux there were no recovery points. It was relentless. So periodically I paused at the side of the road – to eat and drink and get my head together. I asked bystanders to give me a push to help me get going again. I figured it was the least they could do in return for the free entertainment they were getting.

The road barely changed direction for about six kilometres through the trees before finally we hit a big hairpin bend. That was an important staging post. Now Chalet Reynard – marking the end of the trees and the start of the exposed upper section of the mountain – was within striking distance. I was hugely grateful to a team from Cyclefit who had set up at the side of the road and filled my bottles – all the more so when I finally got to Chalet Reynard after more than two hours’ climbing to discover that the feed station had run out of water. I joined an unseemly scrum to find water inside the café, and then I was on my way again.

Just six kilometres to go. “Just” six? It wasn’t over, not by any means. The gradient eased very slightly, but I was still so wrapped up in my own ordeal that I didn’t even notice when I passed the memorial to Tom Simpson, marking the point where the British rider collapsed and died during the 1967 Tour de France. But I did notice the cyclist who was standing by the roadside and, as I passed him, was violently sick.

Now there were more walkers than cyclists. I kept going. I still had the odd out-of-the-saddle burst left in me. I even took in the panoramic view of Provence nearly 2,000 metres below, and thought, ‘wow’. With two kilometres to go, I paused for the last time. An elderly French couple with their camper van were offering me water. The lady had with her a tray of apricots and a single peach. ‘I know how you feel’, she said. ‘I used to cycle myself.’ I asked her if she’d ever cycled up Ventoux. ‘No’, she said, but she had done the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees – a huge climb which I did on the Etape last year. Respect. And she offered me the peach. It was the best peach I’ve ever tasted.

I think now that I knew I’d do it. The last two kilometres were back up over 10 per cent. But I was hanging on in there. The observatory at the top of the mountain began to look quite close. The yellow “1km to the Arrivée” sign appeared at the side of the road. The sun was beating down on the white rock, and I was still turning the pedals. Round the final bend, and up out of the saddle. Then the beep of my transponder as I crossed the line. I’d done it. All those Whiteleafs, all my other training over the months and years. They had got me to the top of Mont Ventoux - just.

Naturally on the way up the mountain I had told myself, never again. And it may well be never another Etape. But that’s only because there are other challenges, and I just don’t see how this Etape could ever be bettered. The Road to Ventoux may have come to an end, but where’s that road leading over there?

Simon O’Hagan has not ridden an Etape – or the Ventoux – since

This piece was first published on 23 July 2009

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