The September day was nearly cool enough to contemplate a long-sleeved cycling jersey, though I opted for short sleeves.
Not long after my ride began, sheets of sweat cascaded down my forehead, fogging my glasses, and dripping off my mustache, rehydrating me.
That’s how intense a workout this French mountain posed for a flatlander from the Midwest, cycling with my Oregon buddy Bob Turner.
The effort to climb Mont Ventoux — a peak nicknamed the Giant of Provence, one tough enough to appear periodically on the course of the Tour de France — was daunting. Really daunting.
That was despite intensive preparation. I led twice-weekly spinning workouts over lunch hours at work. I’d cycled 200 miles on a July day just two months earlier. Then there were the repeat climbs up Ramsey Hill in St. Paul, with its notorious 13 percent grade, and its twin, Ohio Street, on that city’s West Side. Those were done without a granny gear, the equivalent of low gear in a car, to increase the training benefit.
Still nothing in this Midwestern metropolis prepared me for the straight-out relentlessness of my first attempt at riding up a French mountain.
The climb didn’t seem that bad the year before, when I’d driven as far up on the auto road as the retreating snowpack would allow. That’s where this dream of ascending on a bike took root, prompting me to float as a pretext the idea of a reunion with the European branch of our family at Vaison la Romaine, half an hour away.
But that view from behind the steering wheel was cruelly deceiving. There’s no fooling gravity on a bike.
The summit was 21 kilometers ahead when Bob and I rented our bikes. That’s not much more than a warmup under normal conditions. But this was 13 miles up a grade that maxed out at 12 percent. Even with a carbon fiber frame and an effort-reducing granny gear, I found new pain points emerging at the intersection of my hamstrings and glutes.
In short, it was the test I’d been seeking, even if it’s rated as only the world’s 203rd toughest climb on a bike.
Why? It’s something innate, I guess. My father used to say that I was the terrier, and my brother the St. Bernard. I relish a physical challenge, something I’ve passed on to my younger son, the ultramarathoner. So does Bob, whom I met when that son started dating Bob’s daughter, now my daughter-in-law, or belle fille, to use the French phrase.
Mountain draws cyclists
Bob and I weren’t the only ones on the road. Even on a late summer midweek day, several hundred mostly European cyclists joined us in challenging a mountain that draws bikers almost magnetically. Some lumbered up the hill like me, with the locomotive pounding of their heartbeats keeping time with the cadence of their pedals. Others seemingly glided up the mountain as if pulled by an invisible wire.
Bob and I had picked what by popular acclamation was the toughest of the three routes up Ventoux, the road from Bédoin. The road from Sault is flatter overall. The road from Malaucène mixes some steep climbs with flatter sections. But the route from Bédoin to the summit? Relentless.
There were a teasing few kilometers initially where the grade never topped a few degrees, rows of plane trees shaded us, and we had the energy to rubberneck views. But soon enough, we were head down, eyeing only the road and the occasional sign of racers who had come before us: their names scrawled in pain or chalk on the pavement by fans.
The challenge grew apparent at the hamlet of St. Esteve, where the ascent road doglegged left into the beguilingly scenic forest of the mountain flank.
But as the early-morning light slanted through a misty tunnel of alpine pine and cedar, it became increasingly clear that the mountain was not going to let just any Sunday rider reach the summit. No, this was an honor to be achieved only by the determined.
For the remaining 10 miles of our ride, the grade would average almost 9 percent. That’s longer and steeper than the fearsome L’Alpe d’Huez. It’s one reason that Ventoux has made 15 appearances on the Tour de France.
Bucolic sheep, thunderous jets
I have younger acquaintances who have climbed Ventoux after a daily ride of nearly 100 miles. That’s what the pros do, their legs seasoned by months of training. Some amateur riders pedal Ventoux as part of organized tours, supported by van drivers who supply energy bars, tend to equipment and even retrieve excess clothing from overheated riders. The drivers also supply ready encouragement, even to laggards like me: “Allez! Allez!” one urged as I labored by without such support.
The mountain conveys charm despite its fierce demands on a cyclist and the barren shattered rockfields above its tree line. But it sometimes conflates experiences that seem to arise out of separate centuries. The tinkling of bells at one point reminded me of our encounter the previous year as we motored up, only to be stalled by a sheep ambling down the road to fresher pastures. Sure enough, as we broke through the tree line, our pedaling brought us alongside a herd grazing under the eye of a sheepdog lazily soaking in the warmth of the pavement, oblivious to bikers streaking downhill a few feet away. Their near-silent speed was replaced mere minutes later by the thunder of a French military fighter jet skimming the mountain’s harsh profile.
Even as I gutted my way up the mountain, I wondered how Bob was faring. He lacked a road bike on which to train for Ventoux but compensated by jumping onto a stationary bike and pedaling for 45 minutes at maximum resistance. Still, he was 10 years older than me, pedaling in running shoes and toe clips. Despite those disadvantages, I soon lost sight of him as I paused to shoot photos.
We reunited at a chalet two-thirds of the way up the mountain. Bob had recovered his wind sufficiently to strike up a chat with a Frenchman roughly our age, sporting an impressive gray mustache. He wondered what two Americans were doing on his mountain. As I coasted up, Bob explained, “It was his idea.”
“With him for a friend, who needs an enemy?” our fellow wryly responded.
We had broken the back of this mountain by that point, and were cheered when our offspring showed up by car with liquids. But an earnestly steep climb remained, steepening even more just before the crown to make sure we’d paid our dues.
Cresting the final ramp, we arrived at a sturdily built French weather station that uses the commanding heights for observations. We disdained the expansive display of sugary candies for sale, and took a few self-congratulatory snapshots by the summit’s elevation marker. We absorbed our vista, marveling at the clouds clotting and dissipating a few hundred feet below us as well as the hairpin road we’d climbed.
Then we rolled off for the best part of any mountain climb — the glorious downhill — letting gravity tempered by judicious braking bring us back to the land of mortals.