Back Again

Hello, there!  How’ve you been? All is well on my end. As I mentioned to you when I signed off on this blog four years ago, I intended to continue cycling. I’ve done a pretty good job of that.  I’ve gotten into the usual adventures and misadventures. I’ve bought new cycling gadgets, clothes, and related items.  I’ve spent too much time sitting on my couch each July, watching the Tour de France.  I’ve flatted in unfortunate situations and enjoyed the thrill of small achievements and the occasional nice view on my bike. Basically, I’ve been doing much of the same stuff I regaled you with all those years ago.

I did do one thing that was slightly different for me:  I flew to France and pedaled up a mountain. Mount Ventoux, to be precise.

I thought you might be interested to hear how this went.

At this point, I know what you’re saying.  You’re saying, “Steve, you must’ve been out of your mind to do something like that!  You are way too old and far too out of shape to be horsing around on an epic Tour de France climb.  Please tell me more about the psychological breakdown that caused you to do this!”

I blame Gerry.

It was Gerry who was a faithful reader and regular contributor to this blog in its early days. His helpful ideas and encouraging replies to my posts helped to renew my interest in cycling. Gerry’s own blog, The Vicious Cycle, was one of my favorite reads and introduced me to cycling in Provence. Then, Gerry went so far as to form a bicycle touring company, 44-5 Cycling Tours, and offered packages to anyone interested in cycling this beautiful part of the world. And when I contacted Gerry about a possible assent of Ventoux, he enthusiastically agreed to the idea.

Clearly, Gerry is at fault for all of this. And for that, I am in his debt.

What I eventually settled on was a three-day excursion around Ventoux as part of my honeymoon (Did I mention that I recently married? I may have skipped over that). My beautiful wife gamely agreed to cycle with me for two days over the rolling foothills around Ventoux. These rides were no small task – about 25 miles and 2,000 feet of climbing. As Gerry would call them, they were a “bit lumpy.” As for the mountain itself, the plan was for me to ride solo with my wife offering water, food, and encouraging words from the support vehicle which would accompany me. I explained to her the duties of a podium girl and she enthusiastically embraced the role.

The first challenge was to somehow make it to our hotel in Malaucene, a quaint medieval village at the beginning (or end, depending on your perspective) of a road leading to the top of Ventoux. After starting our honeymoon in Rome we flew to Marseille, rented a car, and drove 70 miles north to Malaucene. After taking the A7 highway to Avignon, I took the exit to Carpentras. This is what I saw:

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That’s Ventoux. From 20 miles away, it still looked massive. I’ve read that the mountain dominates the surrounding countryside and it most certainly does. I shook my head and started laughing – I was going to climb that! I’ve done crazier things in my life, but not many. At this point, there was nothing to be done but give it a try. Either I’d make to the top of that thing or I would fail spectacularly – both would make a great story!

After arriving at our hotel – a former country farm with rustic charm – we settled in and waited for the morning.  We had no concerns because Gerry had taken care of everything.  His company partners with the hotel, so they knew to have breakfast ready for us before our ride time and they were prepared to store our bikes for us at the end of the day.  Speaking of bikes, Gerry arranged for some very nice rentals from a local shop.  We got bikes, shoes, and helmets there, which made packing for the trip much easier.  Gerry provided the water and energy foods and was ready guide us on a ride through the Dentelles de Montmirail – a pretty region featuring some jagged rock formations (thus the name, a derivation of “dents,” the French word for teeth).

We did almost 26 miles through the foothills of Ventoux, past the vineyards of the Rhone Valley.  We also climbed three “cols,” or mountain passes,  and managed to get about 2,000 feet of climbing in.  In Gerry’s world, this is a flat and care-free ride – the sort of thing you do on a Sunday when cycling with your children and looking for a good place to buy baguettes.  In my world (the desolate plains of Northern Virginia), it would be considered a nice workout.  I therefore considered it to be a nice workout.

 

Look what WordPress can do now – exciting photo montages! Those are the Dentelles, with an action shot of us pedaling and a nice “col pic” of a lucky guy and his new wife.  You can see Mount Ventoux in the distance, taunting me.

But enough of the warmup ride.  Lets discuss Le Geant (sorry, Francophones, but my American computer does not easily place the proper accents on French words and I don’t care to learn how to make it right).  Having satisfied himself that I would probably not die on the mountain, Gerry handed me off to his partner, John, for the big climb to the top.  John arrived with a support car and plenty of supplies and good cheer.  He drove us to the beginning of the climb and we discussed strategy.

“I’m going to start slow,” I said.  “If I need to, I will then go slower.”

John thought this was as good a strategy as any.  He took a pic of me at Kilometer Zero and I shoved off.

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A note for the pro cycling fans: there are three ways up Ventoux and I chose the traditional route (departing from the village of Bedoin) that the Tour de France takes when they give it a go.  I would descend on a different route that would deposit me nicely at our hotel in Malaucene.  It takes the professionals about an hour to make this climb.  I suspected it would take me a little longer.  When I suggested to Gerry that I might make it in two hours, he looked me over, paused, and gently said, “Well, that would be a nice mark to shoot for.”

Gerry is a very tactful guy and clearly has a future in international diplomacy should he decide to change career fields.

So, what was I doing?  Oh, yes, I was starting my ride up the mountain.  The first several kilometers are very gentle.  I passed through small villages that were waking up on a Wednesday morning that promised to be a very pleasant day.  Ordinarily, I’d be pushing myself a bit but I was able to control myself and soft pedal toward a famous left turn at Sainte Esteve, about six kilometers into the ride.

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The left turn at Sainte Esteve

Six kilometers down.  16 to go.  So far, so good!

I’d done my homework and understood that the next phase would be a true test – ten kilometers at a 9-11% gradient.  I’ve climbed steeper inclines.  Heck, there’s a hill about a mile from my house that averages 15% for several hundred yards.  I’d even gone over some of the Appalachian Mountains several years ago and had a steady climb for a couple of miles.  But I’d never done this kind of slope for this long a stretch. This would be SIX miles of relentless climbing and I figured it would be pretty painful.

I was right.

At this stage, there’s very little to look at to pass the time.  Trees in France pretty much look like trees anywhere else.  I couldn’t see the top of the mountain, with its iconic white tower atop a treeless landscape.  All I could see were fellow cyclists struggling to get to the top, and an occasional descender who would fly by while yelling words of encouragement.  To the folks climbing, I would give them a cheerful, “Salut!” – or at least as cheerful as my current condition allowed for.  I didn’t have a chance to say much to the descenders as they screamed by me, but their very existence reminded me there would come a time when I wasn’t climbing up a mountain.  And that was a nice thought.

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This marker helpfully informs me that the next km will be at a 9% grade and I am (still) 14 kms from the summit.

Time dragged on.  The slope continued.  My thoughts began to fixate on the Chalet Reynard, a tourist stop/restaurant located at the edge of the treeline.  I knew that at that point there would be a brief respite as the slope would “only” be 4-5% for a few kms.  If I could just reach that stupid Chalet, the worst would be over – or so I thought.

All the while this little drama was playing out, John and my wife would scoot ahead in the support car and cheer me on when I caught up with them.  They also provided me water (so I didn’t have to carry too much) and energy food.  They even took the great pics you see in this post.  John would inform me of some minor accomplishment I had achieved (“you just did 11% for that last km – great job!”) or tell me a small fib to boost my spirits (“you’re looking really strong today!”).  This was all very helpful, but I was really focused on reaching the end of the woods and the end of my misery.

“How much farther to the chateau, John?”

“It’s not a chateau, Steve, it’s a chalet.”

“Seriously, John.  How much farther to damn chalet?!”

“You’re getting close!”

Hmmm…  That was not very definitive.  It’s the sort of thing you would say to someone when you know the truth would break their spirit.  Perhaps not, though.  Perhaps John wasn’t sure on the precise distance but the chateau/chalet/whatever was coming up soon!

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The Chalet has to be around the bend, right?  Wrong.

Sadly, my first instinct was right and I had a few more painful kms to struggle through before I reached my goal.  It took about an hour and 15 minutes, but I was finally through the woods and onto the final stage of the climb.  I paused to take some pics of the area and prepare myself for the final six kms.

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Me and my podium girl at Chalet Reynard (which is out of the picture, obviously!)

Six kilometers is not far, right?  It’s a ridiculously short distance.  At home, that sort of distance passes in a moment.  I’ve ridden up to 300km in one day.  Six kilometers at a reduced incline would amount to a victory lap!

Not so fast.  Those final kms would prove to be some of the most exhausting work I have ever done.  I had nowhere near the energy reserves I hoped for and the reduced incline seemed to not help me at all.  Mercifully, the day was postcard-perfect and the infamous winds which can blow above the tree line weren’t present.  I pondered my good luck as I lumbered forward.  Despite the great conditions and the assistance/cheering of the support vehicle, it would take me another 45 minutes to travel the final stage.

About one km from the finish, there is a monument to British cyclist, Tom Simpson, who collapsed and died at this spot during the 1967 Tour de France.  I used this opportunity to get off the bike and briefly pay my respects.  The rest was very welcome.

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The Simpson Memorial

I now had only one km – one kilometer! – to go, but I was completely shattered.  The final stretch increases in slope to 10% – what would be the fun if it didn’t?  I was now focusing on each pedal stroke, wondering how many more I had to do to get to the top.  500?  Maybe less?  Lets count!  1, 2, 3, … screw that, lets look at the view.  That’s nice.  God, I’m tired!  Now how many pedal strokes?  480?  Can I do that many?

And so it went.  Eventually, I made it to the top and was greeted by my wife and John.  We cracked open a bottle of champagne and celebrated the moment while taking in the views.  I took the obligatory picture under the sign proclaiming the summit of the mountain.  Backs were slapped and kisses were given (the latter, solely by my wife and solely to me).  Gerry even showed up!  He was supporting another client’s climb of the mountain and he had a moment to congratulate me.

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What came next was the descent.  This is something that not everyone thinks of, but the fact is that getting off a mountain can be trickier than climbing up it.  Going uphill simply requires a certain level of pigheadedness.  Avoiding a catastrophe at over 40mph requires skills that I don’t have a large supply of.  This would be my first alpine descent, after all.  I put on a vest, arm warmers and full finger gloves to guard off the cold as I went down.  John gave me a quick safety briefing that amounted to, “Don’t do anything stupid,” and I was off.

Almost immediately, I flatted.

Fortunately, John was in front of me in the support car and saw I had a problem.  He quickly stopped and fixed my flat while I chatted with my wife.  I have flatted in a great many places (this blog chronicles many of them) and I must say that if you’re going to flat, having someone fix it for you while you chat with a beautiful woman whom you happen to be married to is the way to do it.

The rest of the ride down was problem-free.  Unlike the road up, the trip down to Malaucene is full of striking views.  I enjoyed these while taking care to remember John’s early safety briefing.  Two cyclists did not receive this sort of brief and past me at the speed of fighter jets.  It’s a bit jarring to be passed when you’re doing 40mph on a bicycle. How they stayed on the road was beyond me.  Later, John informed us that occasionally some of these riders do not stay on the road.  They were easily going 50-55mph.  These two safely made it to the bottom.

After 40 minutes of exhilarating coasting, I found myself at the end of the road and the entrance to our hotel.  Done, at last!  I thanked John for a fantastic experience and pondered where I could find food and beer.  Fortunately, both were very close by!

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John and I, at the end of the descent.

We were not quite done with our cycling experience, however.  On the next morning, my wife and I suited up and met Gerry again in the hotel restaurant for a final pedal in the L’Ouveze river valley.  Although this ride was a tick shorter than our first day, it was far from flat.  “It’s another lumpy ride, I’m afraid,” said Gerry.  In all, we logged another 1,700′ through some more gorgeous countryside.  I was very pleased to see that I was able to bounce back after the previous day’s exertions and finish the recovery ride with my head held high.

 

 

 

Another fun WordPress photo montage!

All good things must come to an end and our cycling excursion was no exception.  Gerry expertly guided us back to the hotel where we chatted a final time before parting ways.  After so many years of corresponding via emails and blog posts, it was an absolute treat to meet him in person and I couldn’t imagine being in this part of the world and doing these rides without him.

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Two bloggers, one of whom is a good cyclist

Things I Think I Think:

One of the features of this blog used to be a section called, Things I Think I Think, wherein I would share half-backed thoughts and impressions of whatever event I had just completed.  Here are those thoughts for cycling Mount Ventoux:

  • Having a guide is a really good idea.  There’s a fair amount of work involved in cycling in a foreign land.  Gerry knew the right routes, the right hotel, the right bike rental shop and had the language skills necessary to solve the minor problems that inevitably arose.  Trying to do all of this on my own would have been extraordinarily difficult and would have made the event far less enjoyable.

 

  • Having a support vehicle on Ventoux is a good idea.  I needed every possible advantage to go up and down that mountain.  Every ounce of water I didn’t have to carry mattered.  A lot.  The cheerful words of encouragement mattered even more.  Having someone there to fix a flat shortly after being completely smoked on the mountain top was a luxury that I greatly appreciated.

 

  • I was very, very lucky to have fabulous weather on the mountain.  Two days earlier, wind gusts reached 40mph.  That would have been brutal.

 

  • It was remarkable to see the hundreds of cyclists on Ventoux, in the villages surrounding it, and on the roads.  And this was not the high season!  Although the spectacle of the summer must be impressive, I think I am happy to have been there on a pleasant set of weekdays in September.

 

  • Again, it was a pleasure to finally  meet Gerry.  I’ve been able to meet a handful of fellow bloggers in person over the years and this was an absolute highpoint for me.  Gerry is as humorous, gracious, and skilled in person as you would think from reading his blog.  If you’re in Provence and not cycling with him, you’re making a mistake!

 

13 thoughts on “Back Again

  1. Steve, this was a very excellent read, and I’m not just saying that because you praised me and the company so much…really! It was a great pleasure to finally meet you and your lovely podium girl. I’m especially happy that Mont Ventoux was everything you expected and more. If it’d been easy it would have taken the fun out of the trip!

    You are obviously welcome back anytime and I hope we can ride together again someday, on one or another continent.

    Finally – and I think I speak for all your former readers – welcome back!

  2. Excellent blog and a very good achievement. Re your opening paragraphs, apologies, but I cannot recall sharing stuff with you 4 years ago. Must be the tablets!

  3. I have to thank you Steve for putting a fantasy of mine firmly to bed. Your vivid description of the climb is quite enough to persuade me to stick to what I can do however modest that may be. Congratulations for sticking to the task so nobly.

    I would like to add the hope that you will continue to put out at least the occasional bog as you are always well worth a read.

    • Don’t be so hasty. Triple cranks are your friend! It should also be noted that this is not a timed event and breaks are fully authorized. I saw several pensioners working their way up the mountain, including a lady who looked to be several years my elder. She was awesome!

  4. Gerry told me about your trip to France and how nice it was to meet you and your wife. Your comments touched my heart as I am Gerry’s mother and its always nice to hear nice comments about my son and of course I agree 100%. Congratulations on your climb——Mt. Ventoux, to me was intimidating even in a car !!!

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