Sep 9, 2011, 1:54:19 PM9/9/11
Ventoux: La route forestere
The forest road is the same as the Bedoin route for 8km. It climbs out
of town through Saint Columbe and Saint Esteve, and then turns
straight up through the cedars for 2 brutal kilometers before turning
off the Bedoin route onto an unmarked dirt road. The paved bits were
definitely easier in 48x19 than with the 18T cog on, but it was still
a mighty effort to power the bike past Saint Esteve. I kept thinking,
“When is this ‘forest road’ going to appear?” I really wanted to get
on it and get it on!
Soon enough, my request was granted. For the first kilometer, the
forest road actually had some pieces of old pavement visible. It was
seriously degraded, though, and was covered with loose stone and
debris – sticks, rocks – that made good line choice critical. Still, I
made it up the first pitch and thought, “That wasn’t so bad!” I even
entertained delusions of descending the forest road, which I thought
would be more “pure” than taking the paved Bedoin descent, although
taking the paved descent is permitted under the rules.
After an initial steep kilometer, the forest road begins a climbing
traverse. What little pavement there was disappeared and was replaced
by two ruts packed with dirt, stone, gravel, and all manner of forest
debris. Mostly I was out of the saddle but at times I could remain
seated and handle the grade. Daylight was fading. Clouds were moving
in. The temperature cooled significantly. In the forest, there was no
sound other than my breathing and the crunch of my wheels on the
ground. The smell of the cedars was strong.
As the climb went on, the road-to-gravel ratio decreased
significantly. Picking a line that would let me keep the rear wheel
from spinning out became increasingly challenging. In places, the road
was washed out entirely, which meant traversing loose sand and some
I was still making forward progress on the bike, though, until I fell
victim to good intentions. Suddenly, huge amounts of loose stone
appeared. A road crew had decided to remedy the washed-out and eroded
bits by filling them with gravel. I was good for a short while, as
long as I could stay seated. But when the pitch kicked up
significantly and I pushed the crank all the way down without the bike
advancing one centimeter, I knew it was time to hop off and start
I walked for a bit until it looked like I might be able to get
purchase. I’d re-start and get maybe 50 or 100 meters up the road and
then I’d have to dismount again, lest I eat gravel. I repeated this
exercise a few times before I looked up the road and the reality of my
situation set in: the road remained very steep, uniformly covered in
loose stone, and there was no end in sight. I was about to go for a
very, very long walk.
Soon the flies found me. Remember those old guys photographed in
National Geographic, sitting in their remote African villages totally
covered in flies? That was me. I was all Zen about it – just like
those old wise-looking dudes – until the flies wanted in my ears and
nose and mouth. I didn’t want to spend precious energy yelling and
swatting. I tried negotiating with God: “Please. Anything but the
flies.” When the mosquitoes showed up, I asked for the flies back.
Then I fell victim to French energy bars. I’d picked up a few at the
bike shop in Bedoin I’d used as my final town checkpoint. They looked
like chewy fruit bars. I cracked one open. Inside the wrapper, the bar
had two little, dainty wax paper bits that that covered the bar, as if
you cared about getting your fingers sticky. I tried to peel this off.
No can do. I ended up with little bits of paper in my fingers and more
little bits of paper stuck to the bar. I gave up trying to peel off
the wrappers and ate all three of them, which was all I had left for
calories until I completed the “ride.” I figured my stomach wouldn’t
react negatively until this project was complete, one way or the
other. At least I’d been distracted from the flies for a few minutes.
After 90 minutes or so, the “road” leveled to a degree (meaning, it
probably dropped below 10%) that I could ride it without standing. I’d
covered barely more than a mile in that time. I hoped back on and as
long as I remained seated, I could get enough purchase with the rear
wheel that I could move more quickly on the bike than off it.
Now some of you may be thinking, why not ride the margins, Paris-
Roubaix style? Not possible, mes amis. There was no road shoulder. The
“road” at this point was like 5 feet wide. One side was a cliff going
up. The other side is a cliff going down. Instead of the little
annoying rocks that I could not ride on the “road,” what little
margins there were covered in boulders and logs and all kinds of
ridiculous crap that was not rideable on a road bike with 23c tires.
My problem wasn’t the “road,” it was the bike. A much lower gear and
I’ve have been loving this stuff. In 48x19, though, I was trying to
pound a square peg into a round hole.
Back on the bike, I was at least faster than the flies. I made good
time up to where the road hits a plateau and forks, with one branch
going to Chalet Reynard and the other topping out on the southwest
ridge and heading over to rejoin the Malacuene route. My directions
called for the Malacuene ascent, so I turned left.
Soon after this junction, I came upon a cyclotourist who was illegally
camping by the side of the road. He was as surprised to see me as I
was him. I took his presence as a good sign that I was near the road
junction and that I didn’t have much climbing left. This guy wasn’t
going to ride far or descend much (only to have to reclimb it in the
morning) from the paved road on a fully-loaded touring bike. I was
pushing hard now. I wanted to summit before sunset.
The forest road rejoins civilization just above the ski lodge on the
Malacuene side. Real pavement combined with the lower gear, plus
knowing I was on the home stretch, had me totally pumped up and I
hammered on the pedals. At this hour I had the road entirely to
myself, just like I’d begun. It was now raining, but I didn’t stop to
add the jacket. As long as I hammered, I’d stay warm.
Toward the top, I encountered a local who had driven up to photograph
the sunset. He was just packing up when I passed him. He was pretty
excited to see me and cheered enthusiastically as I went by, with all
manner of arm waving, jumping around, and shouts of “Allez!” He hopped
in his car, drove up the road a few hundred meters, and repeated the
serenade. He did this all the way up the summit, where all the
vendors, cyclists, and tourists had long since departed for the day.
At the top, the French guy drove on and I was greeted by a Dutch
couple, who was equally surprised and enthusiastic to see me there at
that hour. We chatted briefly and I punched my card in the time clock
for the final time: 9:18pm.
It had been a very long day, but it wasn’t over yet. I had to descend
more than 5,000 feet in the dark. I was tired and the road was wet.
Needless to say, I took it really easy. After a few kilometers, I rode
out of the rain and I could see all of the lights in the valley
shining below me. It was gorgeous, and I permitted myself a few
glances of something other than the steep, twisty road in front of me.
The second descent through the cedars was less terrifying than the
first, only because I could not see far enough down the road to be
scared of what lay ahead.
At 10:05pm, I was back in Saint Columbe, my mission complete. I am
certain that I now hold the record for the slowest descent of the
Ventoux. Iban Mayo went up it to set his record in nearly the time it
took me to come down it!
Ventoux: The Damage Done
Back at the B&B, Susan rounded up dinner (God bless the French and
their late dinner hour!) while I soaked in the tub. I had bits of
crushed gravel embedded in every place imaginable. I’d be picking the
stuff out of my hair and ears for a day. And my poor bike! I’d never
seen a granite-colored chain before: It was encased in dust and bits
Clean and fed, I could assess the damage. My hands were very bruised.
My upper body felt like I had worked every muscle to failure. My
triceps were especially fried. My lower back was the worst. Turns out
that hours out of the saddle, wrenching on the hoods for leverage,
really does a number on your lower back. Who knew? Surprisingly, my
legs felt pretty good. Tired and sore, sure. But they didn’t even rate
compared to any of these other maladies. My real fear was my hands –
in addition to being very sore, it looked like I'd have a few blisters
to remember this adventure by (despite wearing gloves and changing
them out mid-ride for a fresh pair). They were really, really sore. I
could manage PBP with all these other deficits, but you can't ride
1230km without touching the bars.
As I cleaned up, ate, and began to heal, I thought about how I didn't
succeed in doing all the climbs in one gear. I'm a bit comforted by
believing that there's no one, single combination of cogs and chain
rings I own that would have gotten me up -- and down -- Ventoux fixed
in one day. And, had I not changed to 48x19 for the forest road, my
walk might have been a lot longer, which might have put me on the
mountain in more rain and more dark and cold, all of which might have
jeopardized my safety or a finish. I don't get a fixed-gear purity
award for my ride, but so be it. I'll leave doing all four routes in
one single gear to another rider in the future. Still, I was pleased
that I didn't walk a single meter of any of the paved routes.
Especially in 48x18, that's more than I thought myself capable of.
The one statistic from the ride that I'm most happy about is that I
took no pain relievers before, during, or after it. I've been trying
to get away from using that stuff for years and getting up and down,
and recovering from, Ventoux without any drugs (liberal amounts of
caffeine aside) is an accomplishment I'm proud of. It sounds a bit foo-
foo, but I think by listening to my body and what it was capable of, I
was able to select an effort that made the climbs successful but that
also let me recover quickly and be in shape to start PBP just three
days later. There's no doubt I could have done this faster, and that
some Vitamin I would have produced a faster pace. A faster pace,
though, might have wrecked my PBP. Pain was good: it slowed me down to
something sustainable. And it would have alerted me to any kind of
issue that wasn't just muscle pain. Tweaking a knee or an Achilles
would have ended the ride. Had I been doped up, I wouldn't have felt
that until it was too late to do anything about it. And, what's the
point of a faster ride, anyway? The goal was to do it, period, and to
give everyone who told me -- even during the ride! -- that what I was
doing was "impossible" something to think about. No one cares whether
it took me 18 hours or if I did it in half of that. I'll leave a
faster fixed-gear ride to another rider in the future, too.
In the end, I had fun -- even while doing it and even while wondering
if I had the strength to lift myself out of the bathtub after my post-
ride soak. I made it up and down. And up and down and up and down and
up and down. Although I had some serious recovery to do, I thought as
I drifted off to sleep that I'd probably be ok for PBP. I'd be
fortunate to wake up the next morning and see my blisters looked more
like calluses. I'd be ok. And I'd definitely given some folks
something to think about when it comes to what's possible on a fixed-