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Mont Ventoux sportive - when the wind blows

Trevor Ward
14 Jul 2016

Mont Ventoux in Provence is among the most feared climb in cycling history. This edition blew the riders away. Literally.

I see the first rider get blown off his bike after just 10 kilometres. This is mildly worrying. There are still 35km and 1,600 vertical metres to go to the top of Mont Ventoux, with another 90km after the summit until the finish line.

This morning, before setting off for the start, I’d had a quick glance at the weather forecast over breakfast, and it had predicted wind speeds of 37kmh at ground level and gusts of up to 80kmh expected at the summit. As I pedal nervously towards the lower slopes of the mountain, I scan the sky ahead of me, but the Giant of Provence is smothered in dark cloud and in no mood to reveal its secrets. What kind of hell is awaiting us up there, I wonder. 

Two and a half hours of hard riding later, I get the first hint. Increasing numbers of riders have turned around and are heading back downhill. As they swoop down past me out of the sepulchral gloom in their sunglasses and rain capes, they look like bug-eyed phantoms fleeing some unspeakable terror.

Occasionally, one of them manages to make a cut-throat gesture in my direction, or shouts some words of warning before disappearing into the greyness: ‘C’est ferme!’

I keep churning away regardless. I’ve come this far, and a mixture of determination and morbid curiosity about what lies ahead persuades me to continue edging slowly up the slopes. I continually have to shift my weight on the saddle to counteract the sudden gusts of wind that threaten to dump me on the tarmac (or worse, over the parapet). I’ve had my leg warmers on since the feed station 5km from the top (my arm warmers have been on from the start), but now the sweat inside my jersey feels like it is turning to beads of ice. A wind chill of -4°C is predicted for the summit and I’ve no reason to believe it might be an exaggeration.

My upwards slog is slow and strenuous, but I eventually notice that my Garmin is saying there’s less than 2km to the top. By now the stream of ghostly refugees emerging from the mist is relentless, with as many riders walking down as pedalling. Two slits of yellow pierce the gloom before morphing into the first of several vans and cars stuffed with haunted-looking riders and their bikes.

A smudge of orange turns into a reflective-waistcoated official who is shouting above the roar of the wind: ‘C’est ferme en deux kilometres!’ The rider in front of me stops pedalling and dismounts, and an English voice exclaims, ‘Sod this for a lark.’ For him, the Granfondo Ventoux is over.

Like no other mountain

It seems contradictory that a mountain should be able to perform the dual feat of having thick fog – visibility is now down to less than 100 metres – and gale-force winds simultaneously. One should surely cancel out the other. But this is no ordinary hill. During the 1955 Tour, French pro Raphael Geminiani said to his team-mate, Ferdi Kübler, ‘Be careful, Ferdi – the Ventoux isn’t like any other mountain.’ Not that it did the Swiss rider any good: he abandoned the next day, declaring, ‘Ferdi killed himself on Ventoux.’

I’d been warned about the mistral – a fierce, cold northerly wind that whips up out of nowhere, usually after rain – but nothing could have prepared me for what I am currently experiencing (not even four months of winter training on the east coast of Scotland).

I am now less than a kilometre from the summit, according to the dim glow of my Garmin. There are no other visible points of reference available. Below me I hear the wail of sirens. I learn later that several riders have needed hospital treatment after being blown off their bikes near the summit, and that others have been treated for hypothermia.

But right now I am too preoccupied with trying to keep warm and upright as the wind increases and the temperature drops to the point where the outside air is winning the battle against the inner furnace being generated by my heart and lungs. I mutter curses through clenched teeth and I realise I’m letting this 2,000-metre lump of rock get under my skin. When I signed up for the event, I pledged to ignore all the mythology and history associated with Ventoux. ‘It’s just another mountain,’ I tried to convince myself. How wrong I was.

The attraction of the Granfondo Ventoux is conquering one of the most revered and feared climbs in cycling. The route up the mountain alternates each year between the climbs from Malaucene and Bédoin, with the distance varying between 130km and 170km respectively. The climbs are almost identical in terms of length, average gradient and elevation gained, but Bédoin is the ‘classic’ Tour de France approach. For the Granfondo’s 13th edition – that alone should have set alarm bells ringing in my head – the Malaucene route is being used, just as it had been the very first time the Tour ascended the mountain in 1951. 

In view of the weather forecast for the day of the event, I’d done the climb 48 hours earlier as a contingency – when the wind speed was a mere 36kmh. I’d got to the summit with a copy of Tom Simpson’s biography stuffed down my bib-shorts, with plans to leave it as an ex-voto at the memorial that marks the spot where the British cycling legend died from exhaustion during the 1967 Tour, but I was thwarted by the road down the other side being closed.

Back to the start

On the morning of the sportive, I don’t have room for Simpson’s book. My pockets are stuffed with a wind jacket, arm and leg warmers, gloves, buffs and a cheese sandwich I’ve made for emergency fuel. I’m woken by howling winds rattling the windows, and when I set out on my bike I’m almost slammed into a wall by a sudden gust before I’ve even left the grounds of my B&B. By the time I arrive at the start in Beaumes de Venise under leaden skies I’m resigned to the event being cancelled. Instead, with a Gallic shrug, the organisers simply warn us to be extra careful on the final 5km to the summit.

Nine hundred of us cross the timing ramp at 8.30am, and the wind soon fragments us into small groups, all trying to find the biggest rider to shelter behind. The parcours to the foot of the climb is a testy, twisty affair past vineyards and over a couple of short, steepish cols. The tarmac is littered with twigs and pinecones that have been blown onto the roads overnight, but the most disturbing sight is the number of pairs of white Lycra shorts being worn by the riders of the Essex Road Club. 

I’ve set myself a target of three hours to cover the 44km and 2,200m of climbing between the start and the top of Ventoux, but it soon becomes clear that I have underestimated just how strong the mistral is even at only 90m above sea level.

The 21km climb from Malaucene steepens to 8 or 9% quite early on, before slackening off to 5 or 6%, which gives me a chance to find a rhythm. I know from my earlier recce that the steepest section – between 9% and 11% – is the 2km stretch slap bang in the middle of the climb, so can pace myself accordingly. But more unnerving than the irregular gradient is the sight of the riders ahead of me being buffeted by side or headwinds whenever we come to a bend. (Later, another British rider, David Gough from Warwickshire, will tell me how he had observed the same thing: ‘I was just thinking, “Why are those riders in front wobbling about so much?” when whoah, a gust of wind sent me over onto my side. I wasn’t hurt, but it was pretty frightening.’ And he’s a qualified pilot.)

Fortunately, I have taken the precaution of having an extra pudding with my meal the night before, and have supplemented this by overdosing on chocolate brioches for breakfast. My 90kg frame isn’t going down without a fight. 

At the feed station 5km from the top of Ventoux, it starts to get cold. After topping up my bidon and refuelling with dried apricots and a slice of brie, I pull on my leg warmers. Just after the next hairpin the cloud rolls in and the snow-capped peaks of the distant Alps disappear from view for good. Two days ago at this point, I’d been able to see the iconic weather station tower of Ventoux looming above me, seemingly within touching distance. Now the only familiar landmarks I can make out are the piles of snow bulldozed to one side of the road. I have to remind myself it really is June.

Soon after reaching this point, the English rider in front of me gives up, and I reach what I know must be the final hairpin. As I follow its arc, I can feel the wind intensify. Suddenly, I am being blown backwards down the hill towards the void. Just in time, I manage to regain control of the bike, but the wind and gradient have spun me around a full 180° so that I am now facing downhill. I climb off the bike and huddle against the slope on the inside of the bend, trying to find some respite from the fury of the gale.

My Garmin assures me that the summit is a mere 600m up the road. Under any other circumstances it would be a matter of climbing back onto the saddle and tapping out a rhythm for a few more minutes before arriving at the highest point and enjoying the long, sweeping descent to come, but if the conditions are like this here in my relatively ‘sheltered’ spot beneath a flank of the mountain, what will it be like at the exposed summit, where a record wind speed of 320kmh was once recorded?

Sadly, I decide that I am in no mood to find out. I’ve still not donned my gloves and wind jacket yet, and suddenly I realise that I’m freezing. I walk about 50 metres downhill looking for a recess in the mountainside, anything that might give me sufficient shelter to get more clothing on without seeing my bike blown over the edge.

And that’s how it ends – 600 metres away from the top of a mountain that still haunts me. I’m only 44km into a race that should have been a pleasant summer day’s ride though beautiful French countryside rather than a battle through the banging gates of hell. 

The aftermath

Back in Malaucene, the cafes are full of battered survivors swapping war stories. Just to taunt us, the sun has come out and the temperature is nudging 19°C – more than 20° warmer than at the summit – but we all keep on our extra layers and gloves as we sink our first consolation beers. On the descent I was the coldest I’ve ever been on a bike, and it will be a while before the feeling returns to my extremities.

As I sip my beer, I get talking to fitness coach Paul Bailey from Telford, who is part of a team of riders – Team – who rescued ‘a hypothermic Frenchman’ at the summit and put him in their support van. 

‘He’d gone past the stage of shivering,’ says Bailey. ‘I was hugging and rubbing him in the van. We wanted to get him to a doctor but he climbed out and disappeared on his bike when we stopped 5km below the summit.’  Team manager Steve Moran, who has climbed Ventoux more than a dozen times, is shocked by the decision to allow the race to go on: ‘The organisers are either money-grabbing or incompetent. The wind speed must have been 120kmh up there.’ At the table next to us, riders express their disappointment that, having been told the road at the summit was closed, they were given no information about an alternative route. Somehow we still have to find our way back to the start to reclaim the €10 deposit on our timing chips.

Later, I speak to Loic Beaujouan from Sport Communication, the event organiser, and he tells me that the summit was never officially closed, even though his estimate of the wind speed – ‘80-90kmh’ – was Gale Force 9, ie sufficient to ‘cause structural damage and remove chimney pots’. I ask him if the police had been consulted before allowing the race to go on? ‘We don’t need police permission,’ replies Beaujouan. ‘We self-police the event with 20 outriders of our own. One of our officials had gone up to the mountain at 6am and reported that conditions were OK.’

So how many of the 900 starters had made it back to the finish? One rumour flying around is that only the first 200 riders had beaten the weather and crossed the summit of Ventoux.

‘It’s possible,’ says Beaujouan. ‘We had more than 500 arrive back, but we have no way of knowing how many of them completed the full route, did the shorter version or came straight back down from the summit.’

Paying dues

Two days after the abortive sportive, the sun is shining and the wind has dropped to a whisper. I’m glad I decided to stay in the area, and finally manage to pay my respects to Tom Simpson (with the dog-eared book that has spent too much time down my shorts) and reach the summit via the Bédoin route, which will be used in the 2014 edition of the Granfondo Ventoux. 

For anyone thinking of doing it next year, be prepared for the middle 10km of the 21km climb, which grind through dense forest at between 9% and 11%. But if the mistral is blowing, the gradient will be the least of your worries.

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