Margaret and Dick   


July '05: Attack on Mt Ventoux

(Margaret's story)

We just returned home from our annual assault on Mt Ventoux, the "giant of Provence".  The bald head of the mountain is visible from all over the region.  Many cyclists consider their participation in the sport incomplete without a pilgrimage to its holy slopes.  Lance Armstrong calls it the toughest climb in France. 

Any climb of Ventoux is epic, but this year it included the legendary Mistral wind.  The name "Ventoux" translates roughly as "all winds", and when the Mistral starts to scream it can be a real adventure.  Dick decided to come along and try it too.  (His story follows below.)

There are three approaches to Ventoux.  The hardest, which is the side that is usually featured in the Tour de France, starts in Bedoin and is the natural choice of the most masochistic cyclists (moi).  Almost as difficult is the approach from Malaucene, which Dick decided to attempt if his heart rate would cooperate, and most cyclists choose that approach.  Dick and I went our separate ways to meet possibly en route as I descended the Malaucene side.

The climb from Bedoin is 22 km (13 mi) long.  It begins easily enough at 3% but starts getting steeper as the mountain swings into view and gives a hint of the suffering to come.  Within a few km the road tips up to 9%-11% and stays there for the next 10 km (6 mi).  The road winds through the woods and the ascent is really very pleasant if you ignore the suffering.  Near the top of the woods, the slope decreases somewhat and the lunar landscape of the mountain top looms into view.  It's hard to describe the psychological impact of the barren landscape and the realization of how much climbing still remains.  The terrain is entirely rocky scrabble.  Your spirits just sink.

And then the wind began in earnest.  Without the protection of the forest, the wind was alternately friend and foe as I worked my way through the switchbacks.  On one section of 7% grade, the tailwind almost allowed me to climb without pedaling -- or so it seemed compared with the howling headwind around the next corner. 

The final psychological blow, the killer (literally) section, comes just before the top.  The road tips back up to 10% for a long straightaway.  Monuments at the roadside commemorate racer Tom Simpson and randonneur Pierre Kraemer who died there on the ascent.  Motorists stop to gawk at the monuments and at the cyclists grinding their way past them.

Finally, the top.  My time was exactly the same as last year, 2:20, and considering I'm seven pounds heavier and a year older, I'll take it.  Cyclists of all nationalities milled around, leaning into the arctic wind.  I didn't stay long but instead began a careful descent down the north (Malaucene) side of the mountain that bor the full fury of the north Mistral wind.  Imagine my surprise and delight to find Dick about a mile from the top, near exhaustion but resolute.  I turned around to accompany him back up the mountain. 

As Dick approached one of the last switchbacks, a violent gust blew him off the road (toward the high side, fortunately, not toward the cliff) and onto the rocks.  I won't repeat his tirade.  His bike survived better than his ribs and ego, and he finished the climb on foot.  No shame in walking;  half of the Malaucene-side cyclists walk the steepest sections.  I'm sure he was the oldest cyclist on top of the mountain that day, and I declared him to be a total stud.  Come to think of it, I was the oldest woman up there, so I'll accept that title too.

Next year I'm going to fly up the mountain, ten pounds lighter and ten minutes faster. 


(Dick’s story)

It helps to know in advance what you’re up against.  Before climbing Mt Ventoux, Margaret found a website that gives the slopes km-by-km up the mountain.  From Malaucène it goes like this:


The mountain top is at 1,909 meters (6,000 feet), with 1,300 m (4,000 ft) of climbing in the 21 km from Malaucène.  I’m not a good climber, but, I said to myself, why not try to go half-way up, up to where the grade tips up to 10%?  Halfway is better than nothing.

A km-by-km record of my internal inspirational musings reads like this:

6%, 5%...  No problem.  No worse than our usual hills around Limoux.

9%...  Hey, that wasn’t so bad, and after two more km it will go almost flat.

8%, 9%...  Phew, glad that’s over.  I think I can actually DO the whole climb.

5%, 6%, 7%, 5%, 6%...  Wow, this part is really easy.

10%, 9%...  Oh shit this is really hard.  I don’t know about this.  And it’s not over yet.

10%, 9%...  Okay, I’m gonna walk the bike over this part.

5%, 7%, 7%, 7%...  Wow, I’m going to make it to the top.

10%...  Oh crap, I’ve got nothing left in my legs.  Walk the bike, I’m not proud.

8%...  Met Margaret coming down to meet me.  She was impressed to see me there.

  “Let’s get back on the bike for the final km,” she says.  “It sure is windy up here.”

As we approached the top, oh yikes, that wind, heading for the ditch, I’m going to crash!

I make a slow-mo easy fall onto the jagged rocks of Ventoux’s lunar surface.  Do I laugh (that was SO stupid!) or do I cry?  I shout as the pain in my ribs overwhelms me.  Expletives deleted.   "Stop cursing," Margaret said.  “Heads are turning.” 

A motorist stopped to offer help.  No thanks, I said, untangling myself from my bike. 

After a few minutes at the top, trying to enjoy my moment of triumph in spite of the wind and the pain, we got back on the bikes for the descent.  The wind blew hard and cold, and I avoided any sudden motions or heavy pressure on the ribs.  Whatever I’ve done to them, it’s best to get to the bottom.  We made our way down at low speed, as gusts could take us over the edge at the switchbacks.

I learned that I can climb better than I thought.  But it’s easy to make stupid mistakes when over-tired.  Two ribs will carry that lasting reminder. 

Have I told you that I rode my bike to the top of Mt Ventoux this summer?

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