The descent off the Ventoux required full concentration, a lot of
braking, and a huge amount of upper-body strength. Frankly, on a fixed-
gear bike, you just want it to be over with. There are spectacular
views all around you, but you’re not looking at any of them. This
would have been a joy on a bike with a freewheel. On a fixed-gear, it
was an exercise in extreme focus: focus on the road, on your line, on
your speed, and on anything else other than how much pain you were in
and how quickly your legs were moving.
The last few kilometers I began to see cyclists ascending the route.
The sun was out and with was going to be a gorgeous, and hot, day.
In Malacuene, I stopped at the Blueberry Café and gorged on breads,
jams, croissants, O.J., and 2 cafés au lait. I filled my bottles in
the natural spring in front of the café and was off at 8:15am for
climb number 2. With the toughest climb behind me and still feeling
fresh, I had little doubt that I’d finish all the paved routes. I had
concerns about the time (this was clearly going to take all day) and
about the unknown forest road. All the way up Malaucene, I thought
about whether to attempt the forest road third or save it for last,
which was the original plan. Part of me wanted to get it over with and
to face it when I was fresher. Another part thought that it would
break my will and that if I failed, I’d only have completed half the
climbs. I thought that if I had three climbs in me, and if the only
thing that stood between me and success was that forest road, then I’d
find some way to get up it. But I also thought about what a beast it
must be. Think about it: if the grade were better than the Bedoin
route, then the “forest road” wouldn’t be the friggin’ “forest road.”
It would be THE road. The fact that it was a crappy, unpaved, rarely
used road meant that it must truly suck.
Unlike my solitary ascent of Bedoin, Malaucene was filled with
cyclists, which added a nice distraction both from my present work and
my fears of the future. Most riders seemed to be fairly serious,
middle-aged roadies, the majority of them French. In fact, I would not
encounter a single American on the mountain that day.
Once guy I passed shouted out, “What gear?” (in French), as I rode
past and accelerated to match my pace. I backed off so we could chat.
Recognizing the bike – a “pignon fixe” – this exchange was the first
of several of the day that went something like this: “”You have strong
legs!” “No,” I’d reply in French, “I have a small brain.” Before I
departed, the rider asked me to move farther left so he could shoot a
photo of me and the bike from the drive-train side. The French are
About halfway up, I passed the first of two people on the mountain
that day who blew me away with what they were doing. This guy was
running up the mountain, and he was moving fast. I was barely faster
than he was, and he was faster than a good many cyclists. We had a
little mutual admiration society going as we leapfrogged each other.
I’d have to stop to catch my breath and he’d just keep flogging it up
Malaucene is easier than Bedoin, but it is still an HC climb. What
makes it easier is that it has a few kilometers that average “only” 5%
or 6%, but it makes up for it with one especially ugly kilometer where
the average pitch is a whopping 12%. There are parts of the climb
where you ascend 600 feet in a mile. One part of the road is, in the
winter, marked as a black-diamond ski trail.
By the time I reached the ski lodge on the Malaucene side (different
from Chalet Reynard, on the Bedoin side of the mountain), I badly
needed some rest. Forty minutes and 2 more cafés au lait later, I was
back at it.
I think the summit cone from the Malaucene side is tougher than from
the Bedoin/Sault side. There’s a long, murderous stretch that I had to
rest on twice. And, as with the rest of it, there’s not a meter of
ground that’s flat. The Malaucene side is also more scenic than the
(admittedly stunning!) Bedoin side. The views of the valley 6,000 feet
below are sweeping and the summit cone from the north side looks more
dramatic. It’s a wall.
I rode the last pitch from Malaucene with two Englishmen who were at
the same pace. The difference was that there were seated, spinning
away, and chattering while I was out of the saddle, totally out of
breath, and nearly cracked. At the top, the Brits introduced me to
their wives, who had driven up to meet them. We talked and took
photos. The summit was now crowded with people, including a few older
French guys who were there to watch the cyclists. I spoke with one guy
briefly who then summoned his friends and explained to them what I was
doing. I got a chorus of “Courage!” and “Chapeau!” from everyone.
Neither word is administered lightly by the French, so I began my
descent to Sault feeling honored.
Descending the route to Sault is the same as the route to Bedoin until
you reach Chalet Reynard. There, instead of turning right and
descending into the cedar forest, you bear left, leaving the main
drag, and head to the south-east toward Sault. The descent of the
summit cone this time was trickier than earlier. Now, the narrow road
was filled with cyclists, both ascending and descending, and with
autos. I let it rip on the descent because I didn’t want to get in
anyone’s way. On a geared bike, the descent would have been epic and
fast and I didn’t want to block anyone who had earned such a sweet
reward. I was surprised that I overtook more riders on the descent
than who overtook me.
I took the left fork to Sault, having finally decided after much
deliberation to do the forest road last. I’d just have to find some
way to get up it. The Sault descent is, relatively speaking, gradual
and leisurely but the road surface is in poor condition and the road
is in places quite a bit more narrow than either the Bedoin or the
Malaucene routes. Sault is not a popular climb and so it had little
auto or cycle traffic on it.
Nearing the bottom of the descent, I witnessed an awesome feats of
cycling. A couple was headed up the mountain. The guy was riding a
hybrid bike and towing their kid, who had to be four or five years
old, in one of those Burley-like trailers. I’d see them a few hours
later at the summit. Now that’s tough!
Another especially memorable moment occurred as I approached the
valley floor. There are endless fields of lavender growing on the
Sault side, and you can smell them long before you can see them. The
smell was just sweet and divine.
Unlike Bedoin and Malaucene, the town of Sault is built on a hill. A
big hill. After descending to the valley, you then have to climb a
very steep, 300-foot hill to get into town. It was one of the more
difficult pitches of the day, and not just because it stood between me
and lunch. Finally there, I got my stamp and had a rest at a café with
ample water, Coke, and jambon et fromage. I was refreshed, but it was
now officially hot. The temperature would get into the 90s before the
day was over.
The Sault climb back to Chalet Reynard is easy and it was good
recovery. I was glad to have chosen this route over the forest road
for my third ascent. I was riding fast and strong, and felt good.
There were many pitches I could handle from the seated position, which
provided some much-needed rest and recovery.
I made good time to Chalet Reynard where I stopped briefly to fill
bottles before tackling the summit cone from this side for the second
time. It was much harder now, with two other ascents in my legs and in
the full heat of the day. By reputation, there is the “windy” Ventoux
and the “hot” Ventoux. I got the hot one, and I’m probably lucky that
I did. As a Florida boy, I can deal with hot.
The route was now choked with cyclists from every conceivable
background, from pro-looking guys on bling bling carbon bikes to young
girls in tank tops on rental mountain bikes. Climbing Ventoux seems to
be a rite of passage for cycling fans visiting the south of France,
and with the good weather, there were many people making the
pilgrimage that day. Many people were hoofing it and looking
positively worn out.
I made the top in 2:10 total time, and repeated the scene of
interacting with impressed French spectators. I didn’t linger long. I
had a date with the forest road. I quickly set off to descend to
Bedoin. I made quick work of the familiar summit cone, but the descent
into the cedar forest was new terrain. It was steep! The 10km pitch
below the Chalet was, in a word, insane. I stopped mid-way down to
cool my rims with what water I had remaining, a necessary task. My
upper body and hands were in agony from the braking, and I was very
glad once I got off that pitch safely.
I stopped at the B&B in Saint Columbe. On the descent, I had decided
to put on the lowest gear I had to tackle the forest road. I simply
could not believe I had made it up the paved route earlier that day
and, with three climbs in my legs, I doubted my ability to clear it
again in 70 gear inches, especially this time on an unpaved route. The
lowest I could go was 48x19, but it would have to do. (Yes, I was very
much regretting leaving the 45T chain ring and the 20T cog on my work
bench at home....) I changed the gear, changed clothes to feel a bit
more fresh (which always works!), and then set back out on the road to
complete the descent to Bedoin, obtain my final town checkpoint stamp,
and to begin the fourth and final ascent. It was about 5:15pm. I’d
been at it for almost 13 hours.