By early afternoon, the day before Bastille Day, I was on the twisting country roads, riding to Mont Ventoux.
Just the day before, I had flown into Paris from Boston, a last minute trip to visit a friend that had turned into a surgical strike to see stage 12 of the Tour de France. Just that morning, I was on the TGV to Avignon. Just an hour before I was in the Renault navigating my way through Provence to the bike shop where I had rented a bike.
I was happy just to be on a bike after the shop in Beaume-de-Venisses had screwed up my reservation, first telling me that daily rentals didn’t start until 6:30 in the evening and then that I had reserved the wrong size. It took me and two Danes to get it sorted out with the French shopkeeper. It was France, so I expected nothing less. The Bianchi Integro I had rented was nothing in comparison to my Look 695, but it would do for the day next few days, especially with its compact, ultra-low gearing.
I had been a fan of the Tour and of Mont Ventoux in particular since 1985. It was CBS Sports schmaltzy, high-pathos account of Le Ventoux in 1987 that made we want to ride it and it to suffer like those riders I saw. Suffer for glory and greatness.
I’ll admit it: I still get goosebumps when I watch the old video clip and listen to Phil Ligget. I had that Tour taped on VHS and must have watched in a 1,000 times. The 1994 Tour stage over the Ventoux, won by Eros Poli, even further inspired me, so much so that I named my firstborn after him.
My plan had always been to race the Tour. To ride those iconic climbs as part of the peloton. I had let go of that dream but for years, I could not see myself as a spectator of the race. So it had taken me more than 30 years to come and see the Tour live and in-person.
I soft-pedaled along the road to Caromb, trying to ease into the ride, chewing on a bar because I had skipped lunch in the haste to tackle the climb and wanting to avoid carrying a stomach full of food to the summit. My legs felt bloated and sluggish from two days of travel. The bike fit was close but not quite right.
I caught a glimpse of a rider in a green GFNY jersey up the road and resisted the urge to chase him down. The route wound past high stone walls and dun colored villages with red tile rooftops, through vineyards, rising and falling over the small hills, through Saint-Hippolyte-le-Graveyron and Crillon-le-Brave. Every so often, the road broke clear into wide-open fields of fig and olive trees. Off in the distance, looming above all was the Giant of Provence: Mont Ventoux.
I caught up to the rider in front of me: François from Orange who was also riding the Ventoux that day, wearing a GFNY Mont Ventoux jersey, which struck me odd that the New York tour would also have a ride in France. But it made sense: Ventoux was the mecca for cyclists, greater than Alpe d’Huez or the Tourmalet. A true believer had to climb its slopes at least once in their lifetime.
We agreed to ride together, at least until the climb where, in François’ words, “chacun son tour — every man for himself.” We rolled along talking racing, wine, doping, the next day’s Tour stage, and the Mistral. The powerful winds that blow through the Rhône valley had picked up the day before and were ripping across the top of the mountain. It was bad news for anybody making the ascent, especially once you were above the tree line, and potentially even worse for the Tour.
We passed through Bédoin, its narrow tree-lined streets crowded with cafes and little restaurants. François called out the “official” start of the climb and I tapped the lap timer on my computer. Twenty-one kilometers to go. I was already in little gears, spinning and waiting for my legs to feel better. François stayed in the big ring, for psychological effect, he explained, until the Virage-Saint-Estève where the climb would get steeper and he would need to shift to smaller gears.
Up the road, the way was blocked by gendarmes and there was a long line of cars. They had closed the road to vehicle traffic. We threaded through and passed the barriers. We’d have the road to ourselves–apart from other cyclists and a few official vehicles–the rest of the way.
After Saint-Esteve, the pitch cranked up to 10% and François pulled away. I kept spinning in the low gears, glancing down from time to time to make sure I had a few left for when things got serious. I had no idea how long this section was, or how much worse it would become, despite having watched video footage of the climb and studied elevation charts for more than three decades. All I knew was that the worst of it was to come after the tree line. So I was saving something for later.
I could already see the signs of the coming race. Cars, vans and campers lined the roads. Fans had started to congregate, some rigging banners announcing their chosen riders, some painting their names on the pavement: Pinot, Sagan, Quintana, De Gendt, Froome, Porte. Some paid homage to riders long since departed: “Pantani, il Pirata.” Others made commentary on suspicions of performance: “FROOMEPOPORTE.” Most sat in lawn chairs, drinking beer and watching the cyclists pass by, warming up their cheers for tomorrow’s race.
The grade relaxed to 7-8%. I found my rhythm and caught back up to François. We climbed together, without speaking. I was breathing heavy and my heart rate was pegged at threshold, 165 bpm. I was okay at this pace, no faster. The markers counted down the distance to the summit and I was thinking how it would be to actually race up this. I compared it to other mountains I had climbed: the steep, unpolished gaps of Vermont, the high-altitude grinds of New Mexico, the interminable mountains of Guatemala. I was at my limit, on a borrowed bike, years past my career as a racer, yet it was thrilling. With each pedal stroke, I felt stronger and more certain. Everything in the last thirty years had been leading up to this moment.
I was climbing the Ventoux.
I broad smile crossed my face. Now there were young fans running along side, shouting “Allez! Allez!” and slapping my hand as I climbed. The broad leaf oaks and beeches gave way to cedars and larches, scrubby juniper and white rock faces crept up to the roadside. It was hot. I was soaked and I unzipped my jersey. François was long gone, having fallen back at some point without a word. There was a switchback and I swung to the outside to pass some slower riders, dodging several more on their way back down, before regaining my rhythm.
There was another switchback, a glimpse of a view down the side of the mountain, and then I was at Chalet Reynard. The trees were gone. There was just the barren, rocky moonscape surface. The blue sky. A drop of several thousand meters to the land below. One glance was all it took for me to get vertigo. I was afraid to look anywhere other than the tower at the summit.
And there was the wind.
As soon has I made the left hand sweeping turn past Chalet Reynard, the wind hit me with full force, powerful and cold. I tucked, as though I were descending, to minimize my surface area. The gusts arced around the rock faces, threatening to pull my wheels out from underneath me. Reports would later track the wind at 90-100 kilometers an hour. I tucked in behind another rider making the ascent, found some brief respite and gathered my strength. I was breathing deep and heavy. I could feel the thinness of the air, the lack of oxygen. The previous 15km was nothing compared to what remained.
Riders on their way back down were descending with one foot clipped out of the pedals. I saw two guys get blown over, fortunately hitting the pavement before they went over the edge of the mountain. The wind had toppled the crowd control barriers that had been set up for tomorrow’s race.
I was slowly making progress. I passed the memorial to Tommy Simpson, the great British rider who died on his ascent of Ventoux in 1967, and murmured a quiet prayer. I was suffering too much on my own to stop. I could see the final few twists of road, the tower at the top of the mountain. It was really steep now and the wind did not let up until the final right hand sweeper, the steepest section of the climb, and then I was there, at the summit of Mont Ventoux, 1,912 meters, one hour and thirty-six minutes later.
At the top, I stepped off the bike. I wanted to kiss the ground, but there had been a petrol spill and workers were dumping sand from white plastic sacks. But the wind was so strong that it blew the sand into the faces of the riders before it made it to the ground.
I stared in awe at the view from the top: the patchwork of fields, vineyards, towns and roads, the road as it plunged back down the mountain — the road that I would have to descend shortly.
I put on a wind jacket right away, but I was already getting cold. I stopped for a few photos. I ducked inside the gift shop to try to warm up. I was already shivering when I started my way back down. As I rolled out, François was just reaching the summit. We shook hands and wished each other good luck.
The descent from the summit of Mont Ventoux was far more difficult than the climb up to it. The wind, blowing fiercely from the side and behind, gave the impression that it was going to lift me off the mountain. My hands were cold and my fingers were locking up when trying to work the brakes. The Bianchi, with its high stem height and endurance geometry that had been great for climbing, was shaking so violently on the downhills that I had to stop several times to make sure the front wheel was firmly attached. I realized later that it was my own body shivering that was upsetting the balance of the bike. My neck was strained. My back was seizing up.
I stopped at Chalet Reynard and sat in the sun, in the lee of the wind, to warm up again before continuing down.
I completed the descent, uncertain of my bike and my body, holding back more than I wanted to, but wanting to get to the bottom in one piece. In Bédoin, at the base of the climb, it was warm again and I stripped off the windbreaker, soaked up the heat and exulted in my accomplishment.
I had no idea how I was going to do it all again tomorrow when I would come back to watch the Tour de France.