Mt. Ventoux, France
In midst February my mind keeps thinking of those warm summer days and looking forward to having winter in my rear view mirror. Very early on into being introduced to cycle, Alex, my boyfriend at the time, and I took a 10 day cycle tour of the south of France. This trip holds a soft spot in my heart as we both acknowledge this as the trip where we knew without a doubt that we wanted to be together. For me, I remember cycling down a quiet road with a sunflower field to our left and a valley to our right with the bright sunshine and thought if this is the type of things we will do together I could marry this guy.
Anyway, this first real experience of several days on a bike was enhanced by being in the south of France in July. The bike culture in France is rich and alive and with previously only have cycled in the rainy cold climate of England a complete 180. Drivers in France would honk at you as they drove past, but instead of honking to yell at you to get out of their way the drivers would honk to cheer you on, “Allez Allez”. The great atmosphere could have been that we timed our trip to coincide with the tour of France, although I like to think it would always be so encouraging.
The memory that has been concreted into my mind is the first real mountain climb I did, Mt. Ventoux. I am not the type to shy away from a challenge and at times that means enduring long periods of pain and still trying to act like I am okay; which was exactly what I attempted to do. Mt. Ventoux is a famous tour de France climb that averages 7.5% from Bedoin a 21.5km journey to the top. Once you get a bit closer the average gradient kicks up to around 10% average. Going from riding around London, which is a pancake in comparison was a bit nuts. We started the day in the town of Carpentras and for the first hour I had a good line of the mountain in the background taunting me. Alex was over the moon excited to reach the top and early on told me his role; I can go slow, but I cannot stop!
Not stopping is all good for him, but after an hour and a half on the main climb I was far past my breaking point. Alex on the other hand was making friends with every cyclist on the way up while me next to him was struggling to breathe. The climb was filled with photographers snapping away and trying to insert a card to later view and hopefully buy the picture. I was handed several, but afraid to see how awful I looked as I suffered up the hill, sweat bedding off of me. Alex kept feeding me sugary caffeinated gels and my stomach was not happy with the heat of the day on us. Alex kept telling me I could go slower, but with him barely even feeling it I didn’t think I could. How was he not out of breath too?
Finally, I realized this wasn’t working; I needed to suffer on my own and let him go off. Not just because I wanted to stop, but more importantly I needed to go slower and I felt bad having him slow down as he didn’t appear exhausted. He reluctantly left immediately increasing his pace and promising to ride to the top and come back for me. I then got in my own rhythm behind another female that I used to pace myself. I knew that closer to the top of Mt Ventoux the treelines disappear and you are surrounded by the vast surroundings. After what seemed like the longest 2 hours I hit this point excited that the top must be near. Unfortunately, I then saw a sign saying the top was still 5km away, there was nothing to do but continue pushing the petals. A short distance later Alex comes whizzing by and turned around to join me. He tells me he went straight to the top and turned around and came back- I really don’t know how he does it.
When we both arrived at the top together a huge sense of achievement filled me as we overlook the surrounding area. It was a magnificent view and knowing I climbed it compared to the many people who simple sat in their car gave me immense joy. We did the obligatory thing and took a picture together at the top and then nipped inside to the one store at the top in search of a nice cold coke. Well, being the only store at the top of the mountain the one can of coke cost 8 euros! We quickly decided against it and after a bit more time gazing out we hopped on our bikes to our long descent.
About a third of the mile down was a cafe and we were ravenous at this point and pulled in. Honestly, by the time we got there I was more than ready to get off my bike, I have never descended a mountain and knowing how far I had to go down and the speeds we were going made me hug my brakes around winding corners while gripping so hard my knuckles turned white. I would desperately need a drink to regain courage to finish the downhill.
The cafe was exactly what we both needed. We took a table outside in the fresh air and both got more reasonably priced drinks and a plate of crepes each, as well as, enormous amounts of free tap water. After we had finished I lingered for a bit than sucked it up and continued our journey down. On a C shaped turn at high speed Alex ended up getting a flat tire and luckily was able to stop without injury to his bikes or himself. Getting a flat tire on downhills can be extremely dangerous and we were lucky Alex had no problem slowing down and fixing the problem. After that hiccup the rest of the way down I was looking forward to when we were off the bikes for the day and I could order a beer; another benefit of cycle touring is a cold refreshment at the end of the day, everyday.
When we started for the mountain that morning we left our things at our hotel in Carpentras, but we were not staying there tonight. After 70km circuit of Mt. Ventoux we had to strap on our panniers and ride 50 km to the town of Tarascon. About 30km away from the final destination we both got hangry, but didn’t want to stop until we reach our destination. All of a sudden cycling became difficult, even though it was a completely flat road, and we got fighty. When we entered the town our brains were already shut off as we got lost and went right past our accommodation without registering it. Once we circled back and figured out our mistake we immediately put our things in our uninspiring room and headed back downstairs to sit outside and have a pint of beer, immediately our hanger went away and we couldn’t be happier with our day.