Mont Ventoux – 1912m - Wrestling with the Giant of Provence

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Wednesday 8 October 2014

Mont Ventoux – 1912m - Wrestling with the Giant of Provence

Mont Ventoux, one of the most famous mountains of the Tour de France, certainly earns its nickname of the “Giant of Provence”. Standing hundreds of metres taller than anything else nearby and rising out of the otherwise mild terrain of Provence it can be seen from miles around. Given the nickname it would have been obvious to call this post something like “slaying the Giant”, however, that wouldn't do justice to the effort required to ride up this beast and any implication we had somehow conquered the mountain just wouldn't be accurate.
We'd arrived in Malaucene on Sunday night and had spent 2 days looking up at the misty mountain top visible from our motorhome aire and wondering if the clouds would clear for long enough to give us a clear ride to the summit, as there didn't seem too much point cycling up without getting to enjoy the view as well. We'd passed Monday relaxing and taking a short stroll into tiny Malaucene, but had warmed up our rusty cycling legs on Tuesday by taking a tour around the nearby Provence countryside. After all it had been almost 2 months since our last big French alpine cycle and we didn't know if we still had it in us.

Wednesday dawned much sunnier but frighteningly windy and even though the top of Ventoux did appear out of the clouds we were dubious if it was sensible to try the ride. However, reasoning we weren't likely to be nearby again anytime soon we decided to have a go and turn back if the wind was too bad. Setting off in the early afternoon sunshine the climb markers told us we had 21km to go, during which we would climb from 284m at Malaucene to 1912m at the summit at an average of 7.5%. Phew!

The climb was hard right from the outset. There was no easy warm up since the climbing got going straight away with some 8% and 9% sections early on and the gusting wind whipping at us every time we passed by a gap in the sparse forest that lined the slopes. Also, with the summit cone in sight almost from the start of the climb (but never seeming to appear any closer) we were soon fighting the psychological battle to keep on pedalling up the seemingly never ending slope, slowly ticking off the grinding metres. Thankfully the view was there to keep us occupied and since the mountain towers out of the surrounding orchards, we could soon see for miles to the south. It was beautiful, with the panorama stretching into the haze.

After an hour I was starting to tire, just as Esther was warming up and flying on ahead. My energy levels weren't helped around 10km on when, after a slightly flatter section, the next 5 one kilometre sections averaged 12%, 11%, 11%, 11% and 9% which nearly had me on my knees. In fact by the time I reached 7km to the summit I was ready to pack it all in. Having set off so excited to tackle this giant I really was ready to throw in the towel and had definitely “hit the wall” in a way I hadn't experienced on any of the other mountains we'd cycled up. After a banana I resolved the best thing to do was to just take it one kilometre at a time and so we set off once again.

With a few more very brief stops I crawled past the 5, 4, 3 and 2km to go signs, grimacing at the upcoming gradient markers. I wasn't really taking in the view any more and besides, the clouds that had lifted off the summit earlier in the day were now creeping back onto the summit and hiding the sun that had warmed us so far up the hill and the air was decidedly bitter, so we had to keep going just to keep warm. However, it's not every day you get within a couple of kilometres of the summit of Mont Ventoux!

The final 2 kilometres took us out of the trees and onto the barren rocky mountain side where the wind was blasting the clouds across the summit until finally we passed the 21st kilometre! But we were in for a surprise, there was still 30m of climbing to go?! This 'tiny' but unwelcome little kick at the end took us to the summit proper where the wind, which we thought had been strong before, was howling across the exposed car park making it hard to stand at times and leaving us in no doubt we couldn't stay long. With the briefest of breaks in the cloud we managed a few photos and revelled in our achievement. To me, this had been the hardest climb we had ever tackled and I was proud to have made it and felt good to be here despite the cold.

Throwing on the few extra clothes we'd carried with us, and lamenting not bringing our gloves, we began the steep descent, bracing ourselves against the freezing air. Thankfully the kilometre markers passed very swiftly and around half way down we re-emerged into sunshine and began to thaw a little. By the time we rolled back to our motorhome for a shower and some warm clothes we were very ready for dinner (tasty sweet potato chilli). It had been hard but we'd made it – although I think that the mountain had still “won”.  

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