Day 31: Mont Ventoux - Heidi Ho - CycleBlaze

July 11, 2012

Day 31: Mont Ventoux

I’ve never aspired to climb Mont Ventoux. As a Tour de France watcher, I know the climb. I know that it's long, that there are no trees for the last 6 kilometers or so, that Armstrong (supposedly) let Pantani win there one year, and that Tom Simpson, the British rider, died near the top in a year he might have won the whole race. Still, that never caused me to dream of it for myself.

But Leo made a radio show about Tom Simpson. He recorded it when he worked for the BBC, in 1987, for the 20th anniversary of Simpson’s death. The program sparked my interest and I decided that if circumstances allowed, I would climb it.

The statue as you approach the town of Bedoin. The summit of the Mont Ventoux is in the background.
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I should tell you from the start, I made it to the top. I started at 6:30am and didn’t return to the campground until almost 6:00pm, not totally shattered, but close. But that’s just the end of the story...

The 28 kilometer approach in the early morning was absurdly beautiful--rolling hills, pretty towns, light traffic and perfect weather. I rode to the town of Bedoin, which Leo told me was the start of the traditional tour route and the toughest way up. It took me an hour and a half to get there, where I stopped at a bakery to fuel up before the start of the main climb.

This, posted in the town of Bedoin, at the start of the climb.
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If you’ve never heard of Mont Ventoux, it used to be completely forested. But through the centuries it was stripped of trees to build useful things like ships, houses and particle board. Except I made up that last part, about the particle board. But it WAS used for ships and things like that, from the 13th century on.

And then a funny thing happened. The trees never grew back. It’s now a barren landscape at the top, nothing grows there, and food for thought for our world now, don’t you think?

Anyway, it became famous when the Tour de France started sending riders up it to race. And now it’s a celebrated climb. I can attest to that because it was crawling with riders of every skill level, from countless nations.

I’m sure I was the only one on a touring bike, with racks, and some (though not all) of my stuff in the bags. I passed no one. Not one (well, aside from one boy, but I'll get to that later). Though I got to see clean wheels and the butts of, seemingly, everyone who started behind me. Some butts went by faster than others, of course.

By the time I got to the tree line, about 16 kilometers up, I was tired, and I mean REALLY tired. Still, you don’t come all that way not to make it. I WOULD make it.

I stopped at the restaurant at the previously discussed tree line and had some cookies, or as Leo and Steph would say, some biscuits.

“The last section is easier,” a Frenchman said to me as I sat at one of the picnic tables.

He and some of his friends came over to talk, and ask about my bike and my trip. Maybe they were thinking, “what kind of an idiot rides up Mont Ventoux on a loaded (or in my case, semi –loaded) touring bike? Actually, I think they were a little impressed by it, and were trying to lend moral support.

They were right, the grades went from 8 and 9%, to 6 to 7%, but by then my legs were so tired it didn’t make much difference.

"The last kilometer has a section of 21%," his woman companion said as they were rolling away.

Great, I thought.

Finally, above the tree line, where it was a LITTLE less steep.
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But I kept going. And climbing near me was a French boy about 12-years-old with his dad. The boy was only riding the last section above the tree line but for him it was clearly a painful challenge. We never talked to one another, but rode the same pace. His family was there in a car, driving ahead, stopping and cheering him on, over and over. And then, because we kept passing each other, they started cheering me on. Maybe they felt sorry for me, or thought me pathetic?

Getting closer...
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I rode. I stopped. I rode. I stopped. I pretended I was taking pictures because of the view, but I was really mostly tired. Then I had a legitimate reason to stop, at the Tom Simpson memorial. It was just like Leo described in his radio show.

The Tom Simpson Memorial. Set at the place he collapsed and died.
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Slowly I crept up, until final I was there, the summit.

The summit of Mont Ventoux!
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It is one of those things that, while you are doing it you think, why am I doing this? But once there it felt like an accomplishment and I am glad to have done it.

The French boy made it too, and I'm glad that this morning I had the presence of mind to toss my French flag pins in my handlebar bag.

I went over and said to him, in French, "pour courage," a phrase I had learned on the Puy Mary.

"Je suis American," I said, pointing to the flags on the pin. "Vous êtes Français." And then again, “Pour courage.”

He looked at me and puffed up with pride. “Merci!” he said.

And then his mother shook my hand and said the same, “Merci” and some other things I didn’t understand, but were clearly meant with kindness and to thank me. His dad and the rest of his entourage, which I assume were the rest of his family, did the same.

After sitting on top for what seemed like forever, I gathered the energy for pictures...

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Me at the summit with the famous TV tower in the background, the one that can be seen as a tiny point in all of my other summit pictures taken from a distance.
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...after that I rolled down, and celebrated with an omelet at the restaurant I stopped at earlier.

Unfortunately it wasn’t quite over. There was still the little matter of me camping 28 kilometers or so from the base of the climb, and now it was very hot, and dry, with a strong head wind. There was nothing to do but soldier on though. And a little before 6:00pm, close to 12 hours, 101 kilometers, and (according to my Garmin) 6180 total feet of elevation gain from when I started, I arrived at base camp.

I was so tired that when I finally had dinner at the campground restaurant, the food kind of made me sick and I couldn’t even eat my desert--strawberry ice cream! It was the lowest moment of my whole trip, leaving strawberry ice cream uneaten, in a melted puddle, pooling in the dish, wasted.

Still, now that the despair of that moment has largely passed, I’m happy. I climbed Mont Ventoux!

Pocka dot jersey AND shorts? My first reaction to this guy was, "hey, dude, you're pretty cocky." My second reaction was, "hey, dude, nice butt!"
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Yikes, this kilometer's gunna hurt! And still so far from the end!
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I still had a ways to go at this point.
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The final switchback!
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The Tom Simpson memorial. People leave "offerings" out of respect...
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Really? An empty Power Bar wrapper was left as an "offering" to Tom Simpson? That's the best you can do?
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Really? Mont Ventoux in your underwear? Dude, that is NOT a good look for anyone! Later I saw a car pulling the guy in red underwear up the last 6 kilometers.
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Even though the tour didn't climb this mountain this year, that didn't stop people from writing the rider's names on the road. "Wiggo" ended up winning the whole thing this year, as I'm sure most of you know.
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...of course some names were classier than others. I wonder who knew I was on my way?
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On my way down. Prudence? Will do!
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At the top. Never miss an opportunity to sell crap to tourists.
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I didn't see any sheep, but I was on the lookout!
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I bought this pizza and "Coka" to fuel up at the base of the climb. I sat down at the table outside the cafe and started eating, American style, by using the bag the pizza came in as a plate, and drinking the "Coka" from the can, like on the left.Apparently the bakery owner couldn't stand it, and brought me a plate, eating utensils and a "glass" for my "Coka," like on the right.I used the glass for my coke, but, heck, I'm an American, let's be reasonable here, I picked up the pizza and ate it with my hands.
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This was the first course of my dinner. First, I would like to say that this was the CAMPGROUND restaurant, not a 5 star restaurant. Not bad, and it sure beats corn dogs, what I might expect at an American campground...
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...this was the main course. Delicious. But, after the effort of the day, my tummy just couldn't take it. I didn't take pictures of the strawberry ice cream. I was too distraught.
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Today's ride: 101 km (63 miles)
Total: 2,977 km (1,849 miles)

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