This is from the “Le Ventoux Master” Cyclosportive held in Beaumes de Venise every year in late May. Had some trouble with the video as the quality was horrible for some reason at the start. It eventually “fixed” itself until the battery died. Stopped again but also accidentally hit the “low quality” switch so you will notice half way through the aspect ratio and quality change a little.
But it’s a much longer story than the above 9:59. Thankfully, for those who are not prone ADHD and have a constant hunger for long-winded stories, this is your feedzone.
I wish I could say that I planned well in advance to climb the fabled ‘Giant of Provence’ but considering the circumstances, I was pretty thrilled to be at the start line in Beaumes-de-Venise on a beautiful morning without any major setbacks.
Here’s what I knew: The race goes up Ventoux which judging from highlight clips of the Tour de France I’ve seen over the years, I figured it was at a “substantial” altitude and a length of “significant measure”. That was good enough information for me to have a naive smile at the start line. I heard rumblings that there were also 2 or 3 other mountains thrown into the course as well. Really, the only hardened knowledge I had was that the total distance was 144km (at least that was the distance last year) and a quick google search pulled up some blogs from past iterations of the event and most reported times between 5 hours 30 minutes – 6 hours 45 minutes and climbing up Ventoux would take 1:45 – 2:15 on average. So why would anyone want to race up one of the toughest climbs in the Tour de France totally naive to any facts, figures, or idea of what to expect?
Let me tell you why…
You see, I’ve been meaning to ask my girlfriend for her hand in marriage for the past year. The timing has never been quite right… either the seasons didn’t fall in line with my ideal setting, or we were caught up in day-to-day life, or I didn’t have the right ring to pop the question. A few days before the Ventoux event, the ring was ready and the early summer weather in Provence was nothing short of magical. The weekend would be the perfect time to ask but I knew I didn’t want to mix cycling with proposing. The cycling event would bring us to the beautiful Ventoux area and I’d already reserved a nice hotel in the medieval Roman village of Orange. Picturesque? Oui. Romantic? Peut-être. But when I first saw photos of the city and port of Toulon from the top of Mont Faron (specifically this photo from SteepHill.tv, I knew that I wanted to make that our home for a year and I wanted to ask my girlfriend to marry me on the slopes overlooking the Mediterranean. Although Ventoux and Orange are wonderfully romantic settings, Faron is a little like home. The mountain somehow provides a bit of shelter and comfort to replace both of our displaced families. The ring alone took me several weeks of searching and scouring. Once it arrived… well, now it was up to me… Could I postpone another week? Just looking at the ring made my heart race. I couldn’t wait any longer.
After rushing off to the doctor to get a ‘medical certificate’ that said I had good enough health that I probably would not die in a cycling competition and organizing the logistics of the weekend, I turned my attention to the proposal.
My girlfriend’s favorite fairytale to this day is called “Tri orísky pro Popelku’ which is translated as “3 Nuts for Popelka” but the english name of the film is actually “Three Wishes for Cinderella”. It’s a Czech film from 1973 that we have watched no less than 6 or 7 times together and I too have grown to love the classic tale.
In the Czech version, a hackneyed chariot driver who attends to the constant demands of the noblewomen takes pity on the scorned Popelka (Cinderella) and wishes he could give her something to cheer her up. He says he will bring her the first thing that hits him in the nose next time he goes to town. On his way into town to fetch velvet for the noble mother and prized daughter, the chariot driver doses off to sleep in the chariot when a bird’s nest with 3 walnuts falls into his lap. Keeping to his word, he presents them to Popelka. The walnuts prove to be magical and each one grants her a wish that help her to shed the tyranny of her step mother and older sisters, allowing her to eventually impress the prince – leading to their marriage and happy ending.
Friday arrived and we packed up the car for our weekend trip. I was so busy with organizing the logistics of the proposal that just before leaving the apartment I said to Linda, “Now lets think of things that would be game-breakers to the whole weekend. Passports, wallet, keys, medical certificate, bike, helmet…,” just then I spotted a lone bike shoe in the closet… “or for example, my left bike shoe!” I had packed a few salads for a late-lunch and said that perhaps we could stop somewhere on the way and take some nice photos and have a late lunch. Traffic getting out of the city was horrendous and our route was mostly on the highway so I suggested having our salad on Mont Faron since it was probably the nicest spot we’d come across on the route. While stuck in traffic, a beat-up van full of construction workers passed by with one guy smiling and waving frantically at me. I thought this was quite strange and was puzzeled at first. That was until I deciphered what he was yelling by reading his lips. “Nashledanou!” the jovial man shouted as they pulled away at the light and I simultaneously spotted the “CZ” hat on his head. I gave a big smile and a wave once I figured out what he was gawking at. He had obviously spotted our CZ license plate and was excited to see fellow Czechs… well, he was half correct!
We found our familiar spot on the rocks near the summit of Mont Faron just as an older couple was departing from the orientation table. With the Provençal sun glistening off the Mediterranean and a slight sea breeze to cool things off on the first hot day of the year, we put the lunch down and immediately started snapping photos.
After several poses, self-timers, and various angles, we finally sat down for a quick bite. I placed the picnic bag next to me and when I reached in for the forks, I said, “What is this? Did we leave this in here from the last picnic we had?”
I pulled out a tree branch with 3 walnuts dangling from purple ribbons. I painted “Jedna” (Czech for “One”) on the first shell and inside were 30 tiny photographs of my girlfriend and a list of qualities that I admire about her. In the second shell, labelled “Dva”, I packed 30 photos of both of us together. Some were from several years back, others were taken at the very same rock where we were sitting just a few months prior. Also inside the shell were a list of qualities that we enjoy when we are together, past, present, and future. The third shell was similarly labeled “Tri” and inside packed tightly with cotton was an engagement ring.
and she said yes!
Also tucked away in the picnic bag were champagne glasses and a bottle of brut named “Demoiselle” (meaning “Misses”) from a vineyard that happens to be the same as my last name which is quite uncommon and I’ve only seen this vintage in France. We decided to save the bottle until we could fully enjoy it once we got to Orange.
We arrived around 10pm in Orange and found a small outdoor restaurant in the central square that was thankfully open. Although the hotel was wonderful and comfortable, I could not wind down until finally dozing off at 3:30am only to wake up at 5:45am for the event.
Do you feel exhausted by reading up to this point and there hasn’t even been a mention of a single pedal stroke yet? Well that makes two of us. I was actually looking forward to riding and relaxing for the next 5 hours that only involved turning the pedals over.
The sportive started with about 1200 riders (400 were doing the shorter 94km loop) under a beautiful blue sky and the first hint of summertime temperatures. The pace was quick from the onset and we hit the hills in a matter of minutes – climbing from 375 feet to 1,175 feet on an ascent that wasn’t even part of Ventoux. A quick descent then we volted back to 1,500 feet. “Has Ventoux started yet!? This is getting annoying!” cries the guy who didn’t bother to look at the course profile.
The pack of 800 was still searching for cliques and formations as we ascended up to the Provencal village of Suzette. Although still passing many, I often noticed a few familiar
faces kits, finding myself mixed with the 3 good looking guys from Belgium with their hockey-star mullet haircuts, big arms, and hidden tan lines. I didn’t mind riding with them, especially “just in case” a big fight broke out. My youth hockey days have taught me that you never know when you may need to drop the gloves… (actually we never got into many fights, but it sounds good)
Finally, things started to indicate that we were on to something epic. A roadside sign asserted that Mont Ventoux was open… and then the authoritative “0 km sign” broke the “secret” of what was in store for the next 90 minutes or so: “21km, average gradient 7.5%” The guy ahead of me starts inhaling gels like a junky before a police crackdown…
I was very conscious about the fact that I totally exploded 2 years before in the Otztaler Radmarathon (238km, 5500 meters of climbing, an 8-10 hour race) after just 4 hours due to the intensity and heat. Therefore I tried to remain very comfortable and subdued throughout the climb. The major challenge for me is not trying to catch EVERYONE in front… because with 800 riders, there will always be someone “in front”. I tried to realized this and attempted, reluctantly, to sit on some wheels now and then. Thankfully, a guy from Narbonne (a region not far from the Spanish boarder) passed me and I noticed he was passing everyone! “Hmmm, my new pacer! ” I thought to myself. I rode behind the Narbonne guy for what seemed like ages. We passed everyone… eclipsing guys wondering “now how did THEY get ahead of me?” and other guys in varying states of agony. Suddenly I spotted a jersey with a big maple leaf on the back. When my pacer pulled up close I simply asked (in plain English – which I’ve only done 2 or 3 times in the past 5 years):
“So, where in Canada are you from?”
Confirming my inclination, he pipes back in full Canadian accent:
“Oh, East Coast.”
“Yeah? Which province?” I ask.
“New Brunswick,” he replies.
“Really! I’m from Maine (some Americans think Maine is part of Canada)!”
“Yeah, where in Maine?”
This question catches me off guard as I’ve been usually very happy if people know where my state is located or have heard of Boston or New England.
“Mid-Coast, And you?”
“Edmundston.” he states in a somewhat thick Canadian accent that I usually can understand but combined with the noise and effort of climbing up Ventoux I didn’t quite distinguish the phrase….
“It’s 2 miles from the Maine boarder… near Madawaska,” he reiterates.
Suddenly I piece it together and I marvel at the fact that the region is soo north (one of the most northern points in the US) that I really only know of a few people with connections to the area. I did a bike race once in the region and it was quite nice… rolling potato farmland country… a far cry from the terrain we were both attempting to thrust ourselves up. Turns out he is living in the Netherlands and came down with some friends for the race but will be returning to Edmundston after the summer. A very similar story to my own.
Although my attention was totally diverted, the guy from Narbonne appeared to be taking it easy during the chat and once our conversation landed on a closing statement, he bust out of the saddle and attacked all 6 riders in the vicinity.
I didn’t have time to “bid adieu” to my new Atlantic Maritime friend, but hopefully it was implied that I was marking the guy from Narbonne. He was a bit whirly in his style and was in and out of the saddle much more than me. At one point, he was bouncing on the pedals around a corner and I misjudged his speed and direction, causing a me to carefully maneuver my front wheel to avoid colliding with his rear. We were only going 8mph and I was happy in retrospect to have that be the “closest call” during the entire race.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but as we passed dozens and dozens of riders, I found myself in front of the Narbonne guy by accident. I was trying to maintain a constant and prudent heart rate of 165-172 bpm… no more, no less. I was still in the safety zone so I continued on. A few minutes later, I peered over my shoulder on a large curve and I didn’t see the guy from Narbonne…
By now, we were 45 minutes up Ventoux. The slower riders were behind, the faster riders were ahead. I kept pace with 2 strong guys and we passed a few good riders who “exploded” but most of the sorting out had been accomplished in the previous 15 km. I switched on my headcam to try to document the nether regions of Ventoux.
The gradient was a solid 10% throughout, although the roadside markers keep saying 8% for each successive KM, giving me hope that it would be hard for the first bit, but it would certainly level out to a more paltry incline ahead.
It never did.
To me, it was a very steady climb the entire way, hardly any steep sections, hardly any flat sections.
Soon I found myself in the lunar landscape that defines Mont Ventoux, void of trees, void of brush – even grass cannot grow due to the strong winds that swirl around the summit. The notorious Ventoux tower was in sight…
I neared the top of the climb, mostly focused on capturing the scenery on video, but to my surprise I found myself catching more and more riders… along with a large camper-van blocking the way with their listless tourist pace.
I reached the summit in 1 hour 23 minutes from the first 0km sign. It’s not blazing fast but that wasn’t my objective since I knew we still had 3 or 4 hours to go in the race, but not too bad either considering it was my first ascent.
I eventually discovered the feedzone which I might have skipped without the revelation that skipping feedzones is akin to donating your heart and lungs to devil for the next several hours (learned the hard way in Austria). I filled my bottle (I had only drank half a bottle 2:30 hours thus far, but its good to top off) from a giant Nes-tea jug but could have been Gater-aide, Ice-Tea, or some variation, and I grabbed a slice of baguette, a half banana, and as many gooey, sugary, gum-drop-type things I could fit in my mouth. It’s funny how your taste buds and eating habits revert back to a 5-year-old after a 21km climb. For interest sake, I passed on the figs (only because I was so excited about the adjacent gum-drops) and the cheese (pretty sure it was Reblochon melting in the sun, which is a French cheese from the Alps) and the deli meat which seemed to be a salami variant.
Like a common thief, I grabbed as much as I could and hit the road. The descent included many lazy curves, a few sharp turns, and a bit of a headwind. There also seemed to be a lot of car and bike traffic coming up from the other side which meant that you couldn’t use both lanes to maximize the apex. I was feeling a bit guilty about spending so much time (2 minutes) at the feed zone so I tried to make up some time.
I eventually caught up with a group of 14 riders and we worked together battling the Provencal winds. However, my camera battery had died. After about 30 minutes I decided I’d rather have video memories of the event rather than a good result. So while comfortably in the pack, I stopped, took off my helmet, swapped the battery with a new one, and got back on the road. The stop set me back 2 minutes. Once I got up to speed, I tried the camera. Still nothing. Frustrated, I stopped again and flipped the battery around as I surmised that I inserted it up-side-down. Finally, I got everything working again but I was now 3 minutes down and the pack certainly would be able to pull away even more. At one point, I could see them winding their way around a switchback climb. “I’m close!” I thought. But the road ducked into the woods and was further away than it appeared. I was still 2 minutes down when I got to my visual benchmark. Just then, I looked over my shoulder to see another massive pack bearing down behind me.
I remained in “no man’s land” for 30 minutes, trying not to lose focus and get lazy. 25km to go. 20km to go. Just after passing the 15km to go sign, another sign comes into view,
Sure it wasn’t Ventoux, but still climb. I looked over my shoulder to see a pack of 16 riders closing the gap to just 200 meters.
“Great,” I said to myself in resentment and defeat. “Well, if they want to catch me, which they will, I’ll at least make them work for it.”
I went at a good pace, keeping my HR below 170 to ensure I wouldn’t implode, for the next 3km. As I rolled over the summit and gladly saw the downhill, 1 rider, then 2, then 3 passed me (seen in the video). Thankfully, only 6 or 7 of the riders from the large group were able to join up. We rode together for the remainder of the route, finally finishing back in Beaumes-de-Venise. We spent the night in Orange and walked around the ancient village and marveled at the old Roman amphitheater. On Sunday, we took the scenic route home, stopping off in Chateauneuf-de-Pape (for some wine, naturally) and Avignon. I think I overheard more English in one afternoon than in the past 12 months combined.
Overall, Le Ventoux was not on the same level as the Oetztaler Radmarathon, the event that I learned how to feather my efforts and manage hydration by falling completely off the cliff. I seemed to be using the Austrian event (238km, 5500 meters of climbing) as template to temper my speed and force myself to drink more. Le Ventoux, however, is only 144km and 3050 meters of climbing so I ended the day with plenty of energy and fuel to keep going. My camera battery did not fare so well. All things considered, a great weekend.