There seems to be one every year. A new climb that nags at me. Last year, it was the Meyrand and this year it’s the Mézilhac. It’s not always the same reason a climb will stick under my skin. Sometimes it’s the history of a climb, like Ventoux, other times it’s the view or just local legend. Many times it’s conquering the climb faster and faster, other times it’s just getting over the damn thing—don’t we all have a heartbreak hill?
It was pretty clear right away the Mézilhac was going to be “the” climb this season. I arrived in France and, since I had spent two months in the area last year, didn’t expect to find many new roads let alone new climbs. How could I have missed a 21km climb in my backyard? No idea.
“It’s called the Mezilhac,” Edward explained. I immediately liked the name of the climb. Riding for the local amateur team here, Edward had first been taken there on team training ride. “It’s just outside of town, I’ll take you there.” Well, he was either taking me there or I was going myself as soon as possible.
No more than two days later, Edward towed me to the slopes of the Mézilhac, “towed” being the key word because it was very windy. Occasionally I popped out of his slipstream as he pointed out landmarks and signs I would need to navigate home but I stayed tucked behind him, saving my legs. After 45minutes of riding, he slowed down and I pulled along side him.“This is it,” he said, “we’re on the Mezilhac.”
Before I was left to my own devices, we spun easily next to eachother as he quizzed me about my path home. The gradient was gentle, only a few percent, but it was enough to hook me. Just as he left, he suggested that perhaps “today isn’t the day to go to the top.” It was freezing. It was really windy. I was unfit. I did have the whole season to ride up and down as many times as I’d like… “Yeah, okay. I’ll just see,” I replied, acting as if I took his advice to heart.
One kilometer down, 21 to go. I knew pretty much immediately I was going to the top.
We parted ways outside the town of Val-les-Bains and I continued to follow the road along a river. Gradually the road rose higher and higher above the water, winding through small clusters of houses. The gradient was steady, kicking up occasionally around or between corners, but never downhill. It was the type of climb that didn’t seem threatening because of the 4% average gradient but one that would slowly wear you down—a kill you with kindness sort of situation— no matter who you are 21km is a long climb.
On this particular day, however, the Mézilhac had a partner in crime. The wind was howling and forcing me into first gear. It was also icy cold and, with only 6km conquered, my hands were clenched frozen on the tops of my bars. That’s when logical side of my brain started to get chatty. The climb wasn’t going any where, I could come back. Freezing to death and getting sick would be stuipd.
Eight kilometers down, 14 to go. I pretty much knew immediately I was going to the top.
I was now out of the valley. The small collections of houses became smaller and smaller until I was passing single homes and farms. The river was far below and the rock overhang in the valley had been replaced by trees and sky. The odd car passed from time to time and, ever so slowly, the calming feeling of solitude crept up on me. I had settled into the climb and just like that I was half way up.
As I climbed higher and higher, the wind became stronger and stronger and I became colder and colder. Almost tucked into a ball to stay as warm and out of the wind as possible, I trudged on, trying not to think about how cold the 21km descent would be. Moments of direct sunlight, however, seemed to warm my hands and seduce me to continue my ascent. Climbing solo like this was something I loved and body temperature seemed an easy sacrafice.
The kilometers ticked by. Until they didn’t. I had been climbing for an hour. Where was the top?! The terrain lead me to believe the summit would be around every corner. My legs seemed to fall for the trick, corner after corner as the road continued, but my brain wasn’t fooled. I was cold. Toes, fingers, arms, bum, back, nose…every freezing cell in my body was telling me to cut and run. My thoughts wrestled between getting the climb done and how on earth I would manage the cold on the way down. My conviction was beginng to falter.
Really, I was wasting prescious engery thinking about it. The decsion had been made the moment I heard the word “Mézilhac” mentioned. I knew right away the first time my wheels were on it’s slopes I would make the summit. I was counting meters by this point but my legs were still in a good rhythm, I just had to get my brain singing the same tune.
It must have felt like forever but looking back those final kilometers were a daze. I just got it done and, eventually, I turned the last corner and was rewarded with a black sign: Col de Mézilhac (1119m). No one was around as I rolled over the top to the four-way intersection. Just an empty restaurant, four stop signs and an abandoned parking lot. In an instant, the past 22km “wasn’t so bad,” I thought. In fact, it was awesome. “I know I could do it faster.”
I made sure my jacket was zipped right to the top, gave my hands a quick rub to warm them up, thanked heaven the sun was out and pointed my bike down the mountain. I thought 21km went by slowly going up but going down was endless. It was a double edge sword: speed would get me down faster but speed made me colder. My shoulders crept up to my ears as the cold ripped through my jacket and my hands became claws, frozen and unable to move. Down the mountain I went until I could hear the river, simultaneously feeling the temperature jump up as the valley provided some shelter from the wind. I was still chilled to the bone but I relaxed, knowing the coldest was over.
When I got home, I nonchalantly replied to Edward’s inqueries.“Yeah, nice ride. It was a tad cold,” I responded. Then he asked one more question, even though he knew the answer: “Did you ride to the top?” I nodded with a half smile and went about making a recovery snack. He smiled back, “I pretty much knew you would.”