As we warmed up on the Col du Madeline, the shadowy outline of Mont Ventoux looked somewhat terrifying. I’d climbed a few mountains before but the last time I ventured onto a mountain this big I was skiing. It was daunting. And that was exciting.
It was my first big test after returning from my hamstring injury and I wanted to smash it. During the two hour drive to the climb, I was getting more and more excited. I spent the majority of the trip planning my attack strategy, deciding on what food I would take, debating power targets with Edward, setting and adjusting time goals, and praying my legs wouldn’t be having an off day.
We parked in a small town at the base of Ventoux and took off to warm up. The plan was to ascend the climb from Bédoin, the way the Tour de France would be riding it this year and, naturally, because it was the hardest and steepest of the three possible routes. The roads were full of cyclists. You could tell who had already been up and who hadn’t by the look on their faces and their body language. Wobbly pedal strokes and exhausted looking faces might have been the first clue to what lay ahead but I had my eye on the summit.
Ed and I stumbled upon the unofficial start of the climb and in a split second Edward had powered away, not to be seen again for over an hour and a half. I started off somewhat slow. My legs were itching to go faster but I knew it was marathon, not a sprint. The first few kilometres are relatively flat and it gave me enough time to figure out my hamstring was going to have a good day and that my legs weren’t feeling too bad either. Almost unawares, I turned a corner and found myself losing speed and working harder. The real climb had started. Right, time to get to work.
As if I had a choice, I clicked into my smallest gear and there I would grind for the rest of the ascent. Not that it stopped my right hand from checking every so often. The steep gradient falls upon you after about 4 kms in and it never stops, except for the odd few meters of road where it drops to about 7%. You wouldn’t think 7% sounds like relief but after 9kms of 9% or higher, 7% feels like a gift. I settled into the terrain, however, got into a steady rhythm and pretty soon I started noticing other riders. A lot of other riders.
There were hundreds of riders on the road and that’s when it dawned on me that this wasn’t just a great training session on a famous mountain. It was more of a pilgrimage and I was in the mass company of fellow cyclists on the same journey. There were riders of all shapes and sizes. Some on slick racing bikes looking like pros; others working twice as hard as anyone weaving and wobbling up the climb on heavy city bikes. There was a real sense of camaraderie, fostered by the shared suffering, and yet everyone recognized it was an individual undertaking.
Just over half way up the climb, you emerge from the protection of the trees and ride into that ever-famous barren landscape where the terrain flattens slightly. I increased my cadence and immediately I could feel the last hour of climbing making my legs heavy. But I could see the summit so I just put my head down. With my eyes focused on the few meters of pavement in front of my bike, I started to notice some of the names imprinted on the road. In this year’s Tour the riders will complete over 220km before hitting the slopes of Ventoux and as I rolled over many of their names the fatigue in my muscles seemed trivial. These are the slopes where Yellow can be won and lost. Where epic attacks are made and legends are born. It’s cheesy but the mountain is famous for a reason and in the movie of my life, this is where the music would crescendo.
The last 2km are at 10%. Any romantic notions and emotional impetus I was feeling was murdered in the last 2km. In the movie of my life, this isn’t where the music wouldn’t crescendo. I realized my time goal was out of reach and as I crept toward the summit, I kept thinking I would never again judge a pro rider for not closing a gap, however small, even if it was for Yellow, over these 2km. This was absolute torture.
With only 500m left I overtook the last rider I would pass. His friend saw me and surged forward and the 10m that he gained he would keep. Try as I might, my legs were stuck turning at the speed they were turning, pushing the power they were pushing. I stood up to “sprint,” gaining no speed at all, around the last brutal hairpin of 13% and finally crossed the imaginary finish line.
As I wobbled over to a clear spot to shake out my legs, I looked around at all the happy cyclists. No matter how difficult their journey, every single one had a smile on their face as they ritually rehashed the last 21km and took pictures to document their achievement and share in the lore of Ventoux. I sat down on the warm cement and looked up at Edward who had been waiting for me with a huge smile on my face. I had arrived in our Mecca.