I woke up at 6 with a terrible headache and queasy feeling in my stomach. It wasn’t the fear of ascending Mount Ventoux – but “I took a nudging” (as Wes from Australia put it) from the festivities of the night before. I laid in my tent for a couple of hours trying to will myself to feel better. I decided maybe a cold splash of water on my face might help me feel better. I left my tent and saw Luke. “Good morning,” he said. I could only grunt in response.
I sat down under the canopy and couldn’t imagine eating anything. I poured a cup of water and slowly drank. Shane told me that I needed to eat something to feel better. I got a dry baguette and tore off hunks of bread which I slowly chewed and washed down with water.
I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to ride – let alone ride up a mountain. I decided that I could at least start by riding the flat part out of Avignon toward the “Windy Mountain.”
A funny thing happened when I got on my bike – I felt better! We struggled finding the roads out of Avignon – as it was a big city and our route maps were not detailed. Eventually, we were on our way to the Windy Mountain. We cold see its white rock top in the distance – as we pedaled toward our fate.
The day was once again hot, and I drank two water bottles in the 30 mile ride to Bedoin, our stop before the climb.
We stopped for lunch, and I had a sandwich with ham and cheese and two Coca Lights. Afterwards, I stopped by the bike store to pick up a jersey and to replace my cleats on my shoes. All of the walking on cobblestone and bricks had taken a toll on my shoes – and now I was having a difficult time clipping in to my bike. This worried me because the grade was so steep up Mt. Ventoux that if I wasn’t able to clip in if I stopped, I might not be able to start again.
The first two or three miles to the mountain were a gradual climb. I concentrated on spinning and keeping my effort easy. Then the first steep part came. I rode in my smallest granny gear, and I could barely peddle. After a mile and a half, I was breathless and had to stop when the road’s steepness subsided slightly. At that point, I considered turning around. I had nine more miles like this, and the top was even steeper than the beginning of the climb. How in the world was I going to make it to the top?
I gave myself permission to stop every mile if I needed to – and I got back on my bike. This time I pedaled two miles without stopping. I caught my breath again and started the grind to the top.
Strangely, the more I rode, the more my legs and mind got used to the idea of riding up the mountain. The bottom part of Mt. Ventoux is a hot, humid forest. My pace was slow and the bottom part was oppressively sweltering. I rode in the shade of the trees whenever I could find some. As I continued my climb, the temperature cooled as I gained altitude. I not only had to deal with the heat but relentless flies. Normally, flies are not much of an issue with riding, but I was going so slow that it provided the flies an opportunity to circle me and land. These flies were like biting horseflies – but a little smaller. I tried to blow them off and sometimes would try to brush them off with one of my hands. The only thing good about the flies was that they helped me keep my mind off how much my legs were hurting.
About two thirds up the mountain, the forest disappears and all that is left is a bare, white, rocky mountaintop. I had heard this part was more difficult, but it seemed easier to me. The air was cooler, the flies disappeared and there were occasional switchbacks which provided precious flat spots on the road that allowed my legs to recover for 15 seconds.
One of our tour leaders, Drew, was providing support for the day. He really encouraged me every time I saw him.
“You are spinning well,” he said. “You are looking really good.”
I smiled and felt more energized as he talked to me and took photos. I also felt encouraged by the riders who were descending and would give me a thumbs up or say “Allez!” (go) as they passed by.
As I neared the second to the last switchback, a car in front of me stopped. I was on about a 10% grade at the point. “Go!” I yelled, forgetting that I was in France. I was afraid that if I stopped I’d never make it to the top. The car started just as I neared the point of having to stop or go into the oncoming traffic lane to go around.
I passed the memorial to Tom Simpson – an English Tour de France rider who died while riding up the mountain caused by the drugs he was using.
When I arrived at the top, I took the wrong turn, and Ann (another tour leader) came down to tell me that I needed to go up one more incline - about 100 feet – to the end. She held me steady as I clipped back in my bike and prepared to tackle the last steep climb.
I made it to the top and saw my friends who had arrived before me. They were clapping and cheering me for making it. It was a magical moment. The mountain was beautiful from on top. Mount Ventoux was the highest point for miles and miles around, and the views were awesome.
There was candy for sale at the top, and also a gift shop and bar. I rewarded myself with a Coca Light and a Snicker’s bar. The top was really very pristine and didn’t have the feeling of being commercialized. I felt peaceful on top seeing the beauty of the panoramic view and feeling my sense of accomplishment of having made it to the top.
By far, that was the hardest climb I have ever done. It is relentless with an average grade of 9.5%. All of the riders who took on Mount Ventoux made it up that day. Our oldest rider, Ian (an Australian), who is over 60, made it up in a double chain ring. We saw him as he neared the final stretch.
“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Oy, oy, oy,” we said. (Apparently some sort of national saying?) He was the inspiration of the day for me and many of the other riders.
The photo of us on that day shows us all beaming with radiant smiles. For most of us, this was by far the most difficult ride we will ever encounter. And all of us made it up – despite our worried thoughts on the way up that maybe we couldn’t do it. Our minds had taken over when our bodies wanted to quit. In the process, we uncovered the truth about how strong all of us were in body, mind and spirit.
Following the ride up, we descended down the mountain toward our campground for the night. I made sure to give the riders heading up a thumbs up when I could, hoping that my bit of encouragement would make a difference for them as it had for me.
We stayed at a Roman theme campground that was really tacky. We ate food at the campground, too tired to ride to town. Near the restaurant was the karaoke bar and we listened to the French singers attempt the words of songs by English-speaking groups (Village People, Queen, U-2). That was seriously the worst karaoke I have heard in my life! But it was a good laugh for us that evening.
My tent was at least a quarter mile from the bathroom – and I had to put it on gravel – but despite the inconveniences, I slept deeply and peacefully all night.
Total miles: 68