…. One of the most iconic mountain climbs used in the Tour de France.
Did you see Bradley Wiggins and the rest of the professional peloton suffer while scaling it in this year’s Tour? Ever wondered what it is like to ride it as a mere mortal? Being one for obscene challenges, there I went to find out in August this year. There was one slight catch – there are three ways to the top. I thought: “Why not try all three of them, mind all in one day!” My long time cycling friend, Dave and I decided to try and ride all three ascents in under twelve hours. Almost 4500m of climbing!
Welcome to the world of “Le Club des Cinglé du Mont Ventoux” (www.clubcinglesventoux.org). This is an elite brotherhood of sorts and roughly translated means “The club for crazies of Mont Ventoux”.
With sun streaming through the shutters, we woke up to a beautiful Summer morning in Provence, with Mont Ventoux only a 20 minute ride away. We were staying with a regional champion and his wife (Craig & Vicky) at www.veloventoux.com, and what a wonderful place they had! They possessed the cleanest, most comfortable accommodation you could ever ask for.
We decided to start our challenge from the village of Malaucene, as this was the closest town of the three from Craig’s place. We found the tourist office and duly got our official log books stamped at 9:34am. We wondered if we would be back before the 12 hours were up to get the final stamp and complete the challenge. We started well enough and in good spirits despite the temperature already at 24°. With a forecast of up to 40º, we were in for a very hot ride. As we started our first climb, we started passing riders and were questioning our speed. We thought: “Should we slow down?”. We decided to carry on as we were, keen to get a good start.
After 40 minutes of climbing, the views started to reward our efforts. It looked like we could see the whole of Provence and more. However the smiles soon disappeared as we came across the dreaded 6 miles of 11% incline stuck in the middle of the ascent. This was made worse by the fact we were already in our lowest gear! Needless to say we got stuck in with fresh legs and it was not as bad as we thought.
Nearly two hours from starting, we finally made the summit. Quite simply, we thought we were on top of the world! A couple of locals came over when they saw the Cinglé Challenge shields on our bikes and wished us “Bon Courage”. With one eye on the clock, we quickly got our log books stamped and prepared for the first descent. Now for some fun…!
For our first descent, we decided to head down to Bedoin. This is feared as the hardest of the three ascents and the one “Le Tour” uses, so we did not want to leave it for last. The descent was superb, although getting stung by a wasp was painful. Nobody warned us there would be so many wasps that time of year! We passed the Tom Simpson memorial and promised to stop when we climbed back.
Next we passed the famous “Chalet Reynard”, where we hoped to stop for lunch later on. Passing cars when descending put a big smile on our faces, as the effort of the first climb rewarded us by the bucket load. The tarmac was super smooth, and the hairpin turns came thick and fast. All too soon we reached Bedoin.
After getting our log books stamped, refilling our bottles, having an energy bar and gels, we started the long haul back to the top. Within minutes we found ourselves in our lowest gears, and were not even on the steepest bit! We thought: “Oh why are we doing this? It’s going to be a very tough climb indeed!” It seemed like an eternity of climbing in the wooded section.
With no views to look at other than the ribbon of hot tarmac ahead, and a 12-14% gradient for nearly 7 miles, it took its toll on us and we gradually slowed down. The temperature rose to 33º and we were both sweating more than ever. The salt from our sweat started to sting our eyes. No position on the bike seemed comfortable, one minute we were out of the saddle, next minute we were back in it. We thought: “Oh this pain, will it ever cease!” It took all our mental strength to get back to Chalet Reynard where we refilled our bottles yet again and prepared for the final 4 miles at 10% gradient to the top.
With 1.2 miles to go, we stopped at the Tom Simpson memorial and paid our respects. It all became very quiet and it filled us with very humbling emotions. To think Tom Simpson pushed his body to the absolute limit in the 1967 Tour de France trying to climb this mountain and paid the ultimate price with his life. As per tradition, we both left a momento. I left a light, with new batteries to light the way for Tom, and Dave left his lucky gloves. We mounted up in silence and made our way up the final mile of the second ascent. We reached the top without another word, both deep in our own thoughts.
Once up on top, we looked at each other somewhat worried. Without a word spoken, we knew what each other was thinking: “Are we able to do the third climb?” With slight cramp in our legs, it was going to push us to the limits, and probably beyond. We noticed the temperature was now 9º cooler at 24º, the same as it was in Malaucene when we set off in the morning. We downed a quick coke and headed back down to Chalet Reynard for food……
However, our worst nightmare happened! Chalet Reynard was no longer serving lunch as the kitchen was now shut! The only thing they could make for us was crepes. With no other option, we both had two Crepe Suzettes with a couple of cokes. We paid the bill, and took the split in the road that took us down to Sault, only to turn around and climb again. As we dropped, it got noticeably hotter. The temperature had now reached its zenith of 38°. That was 14º hotter than at the top!
One mile from Sault there was a nasty climb to reach the village. Honestly, we really did not need that thrown in! However, it had to be done in order for us to get our log books stamped. Once stamped, we refilled our bottles and took on yet more energy bars and gels. Sault was the easiest of the three climbs, but being 21 miles out, it was the longest.
The climbing was gradual and on a sheltered forest road, so we had no views to inspire us to keep pedaling, and cramp became a worrying issue. However, we kept going, glad of the slight gradient of the final climb. The road became noticeably quiet, and the shadows started to get longer. We were extremely tired and hardly spoke to each other, no doubt both trying to deal with our own pain. We both started trying to spot the road markers ahead, counting down each one at 1k intervals. Our only thought was to get to the next one, and deal with the suffering. It became a battle of wills.
Slowly one by one we passed each marker. After what seemed like a lifetime of mental torment and physical pain, we reached the Bedoin road at Chalet Reynard for the last time. We filled up only one of our bottles, in an effort to keep the weight down to a minimum, knowing the gradient of the final 4 miles to the top kicked up to 10% again. We slowly wound our way up, with the famous weather station tower in sight, ever so painfully slow, getting closer. As we passed the Tom Simpson memorial for the last time, we removed our helmets in a mark of respect. I couldn’t help wondering if I would ever pass this way again. I certainly hoped so.
With only 1.2 miles to go, I thought: “We’re going to make it!” We rounded the final hairpin and saw the finish only yards away…We had done it (well almost). We still had to get back down to Malaucene and get the log book stamped one last time. We gave each other a hug, and nearly fell to pieces as all the emotions came pouring out. It took an immense amount of effort to complete the final climb and we were both in a world of pain. A French couple noticed us and they came over and asked how long it had taken to climb. We told them that the last climb took nearly 3 hours. They did not seem too impressed, until we explained to them that was the third climb of the day. At first they did not believe us, indicating that nobody does that. We showed them our log book to prove it. They were dumb-founded, and we could not help feeling justifiably proud of our achievement.
We said our goodbyes, put on our wind-cheaters and prepared for the final descent. We raced back down to Malaucene, hoping nothing untoward happened along the way. We were getting better at passing cars and were now descending like demons and had a lot of fun, despite my legs completely seizing up. We stopped at the bottom and got our log book stamped one last time. As for the time? Well, it was 8:30 in the evening. Nearly 11 hours after we started, we finished. Despite all the pain, mental and physical, we succeeded!
Out of nearly 55,000 people who registered for this challenge over the last 21 years, we have become two of less than 3,000 worldwide who accomplished it. Officially, we are graduates number 2910 & 2911 on the Cingle website.
Nearly 4,500 metres of climbing and 104 miles of road covered, all while carrying everything we thought we would need. Would I go through the pain and tears and do it again. At the drop of a hat, absolutely!
Special thanks must go to David and his team at Bikefood for their kind sponsorship. Although I did suffer physically, I have never ridden stronger, harder or faster before. By using Bikefood, I also recovered faster compared to any other product I have previously used.
Also, a big thank you to Mike Perry of Meastro UK (www.maestro-uk.com) who, with 40 years experience, is the leading dealership of Colnagos in the UK. Thanks to Mike and his guidance, I ended up with the best Colnago road bike ever. It fitted like a glove!