Etape du Tour the big day

Paul on one of the beautiful descents
Paul on one of the beautiful descents

We made it…but to a man we have decided that we never ever want or need to ride up the Mont Ventoux again; it is a monster, quite rightly revered as the hardest climb in France; the true Giant of Provence!

It was dawn as we rode the 9kms to the start line, joined at every turn by more and more riders. What a buzz in Montelimar as we awaited the start; there was a mixture of nervous tension and excited anticipation amongst the 9000 competitors; this was going to be some experience. The first thing that struck me as we rolled through the streets of the capital of ‘Nougat’ was the pleasure of riding on closed roads. I felt like a real pro whistling along in the slip stream of hundreds of cyclists, riding either side of roundabouts and on both sides of the road. It was amazing how fast we could ride with relatively little effort just because of the wind shadow provided by everyone around you.

This had always been billed as a beautiful ride and as we made our way through Provence the scenery did not disappoint. From lavender fields to olive groves and craggy mountain passes dry and arid, the landscape was constantly changing and inspiring. The first descent came as a bit of a surprise as the peleton hadn’t quite worked out the over-taking etiquette required when riding with so many. Victims were scattered along the road, lying on the verge and in the ditches, receiving medical attention from a team of doctors who would be busy all day. They were in good hands but it was nevertheless a sobering sight as we sped past.

Soon the riders started to stretch out as groups riding at similar intensities started to form. Sometimes it was right to drive the pace and do a share on the front but there was more time spent in the slip stream. Catch a ride on the tail of a mini-peleton, make the most of the tow and rest, maybe even take the opportunity to eat and drink. Our fluid and energy plan was a major concern to us all. We had pockets stuffed full of energy bars, flapjacks, gels and bags of isotonic powder for our water bottles. It doesn’t matter how fit you are if you run out of fuel or dehydrate, you’re finished; there’s no way back from a wibble on a day this big!

We had done a good 70kms before 10am and it was already a hot day when we stopped at the first feed station. It was absolute carnage as thousands of people with their bikes bustled their way to grab bottles of water, bananas and bars. It was a joy to get off and stretch for a minute or too, change position, swing the arms and shake the legs. However, no time to linger, with water bottles recharged along with the revolting yet essential powder it was back to the road.

The rest of the ride towards our daunting final ascent was beautiful, hard work but great fun. By now we had all split up, riding at our own pace, making our way towards The Giant. The route took us on an almost full circuit of the mountain before we were allowed to start the climb. It was infuriating to be so close without being able to start the final effort. All we seemed to be doing was frittering away precious energy and sweating profusely!

When we finally hit the lower slopes of the Ventoux it was in the region of 35 degrees and what awaited us was harder than our worst fears! The slope was wickedly steep and the trees provided no shade. The roadside was littered with walking cyclists, destroyed by the gradient and the heat but also, perhaps, by an over exuberant first 150kms. It was all we could do to keep moving as the gruelling road wove its way up the mountain; no respite, no let-up, no hairpins to sneak a few metres worth of rest, just relentless, interminable climbing in the eerie silence of the forest. The spectators cheered but got little reaction from the riders as they looked on at the macabre procession of slow suffering and pain.

Eventually we climbed clear of the tree line and approached the refuge of Chalet Reynaud, the final feed station and a huge psychological hurdle sitting above the half way point on the climb. The rest of the ride was a blur of exhaustion; clawing our way up through the characteristic, heat magnifying white rocks of the Ventoux, eyes stinging from the sweat, aching shoulders, numb toes, throbbing head, driven on only by the promise of respite at the top. Finally it came, the observatory and the finish line.

The last time the Etape came up the Ventoux it had to be abandoned in mid-summer because of a blizzard but this year the sun continued to beat down until we were long gone. What an adventure and what a conquest. Well done to the tdc boys and to the other guys and girls we rode with and met along the way. Next year we’ll know what to expect and maybe, just maybe we might do a little better.


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