by Ben Hallam
The realisation hit me somewhere in the middle of a dense forest, the road continuing on up relentlessly, the heat pressing in from every side as I veered across the road looking for any bit of shade that I could find. Once upon a time I would have been storming up here, smiling at the mere mortals that were grovelling around me. But now, like a super hero that has had his powers stolen by an evil villain, I realised that I too was mortal and was crawling up the Bédion face of the legendary Mont Ventoux like everyone else.
It’s been at least 5 years since I have ridden over 100 miles in a day. Concentrating on uni and then building my new career has meant that I haven’t had the time or inclination to do such silly things. But a kind invite from David Watson to join him for the Ventoux sportive couldn’t be turned down. This was going to be my first continental sportive and I had no idea what to expect. When I was racing full time I would have taken this in my stride but a number of years of only doing the odd hour or two had left me with severe doubts about my ability to complete such an event. Still, I made sure I fuelled myself properly and filled my pockets with my race day specials (bread roll with cream cheese and jam, bite size pieces of fruit cake) which would get me through the first 2 hours before then attacking the inevitable torrent of sickly sweet gels. The major issue for me was going to be the heat; it was pushing into the low thirties without a cloud in the sky which is well past the melting point of a ginger person.
The profile given by the organisers looked simple enough; 170km with a 13km warm up to Bédion, up to the top of Ventoux and down to Malaucéne, a long flat/slightly up hill ride round the mountain, up three quarters of Sault side and then 30km home with a couple of blips. The start wasn’t too hectic and although I started towards the back, I easily tootled through and round riders and gained a number of places without pushing hard at all. Then we started the climb, I stuck it in the 39x25 and began the long grind towards the sky. I very quickly realised that if I pushed too hard, my core temperature would rise too high and I would develop heat stroke so I settled into a pace that I knew I could maintain and crawled along. I started looking around at the people that were climbing at my pace and was humbled to see that they were all 15 to 30 years my senior; thin, wizened and tanned to a man. There was even the odd woman holding a similar pace to me. The final straw came as a guy came flying past at a pace that I could never hold, he appeared to be taking a very long drink....... but then the realisation dawned that he was actually an amputee and was storming up the col one handed!!!!!
The forest section was very tough as the trees stopped any cooling breeze from reaching us. I got to the first feed at Chalet Raynard on the verge of boiling. I had been told about a fountain at the back of the car park, this was a God send as I soaked myself in cold water from head to toe and got my core temperature back under control. A quick fill of my bottles and I was away. The last 6km were very enjoyable. Mont Ventoux is a magical place. Easily higher than anything else in the area, it’s strange to stare down from this lunar landscape. I did the tourist thing and stopped to pay my respects to Old Tom. On the way up to the summit, I started to wish that I’d done more sessions on the Bespoke Performance Lab’s Altitude simulator as the thin air started to take its toll. The view from the top made up for it however. The descent down was FAAAAAASSSTT and I loved it. It was the first time I had thrown my Parlee Z5 SL into corners at 50+mph and it felt smooth and confident at speed. Another quick stop to make sure my bottles were full at the bottom and I started the long trawl around to the east side of the mountain. Here I found out that the organisers had been joking with the profile. Despite the picture showing a slow gentle incline, there were at least 4 occasions that I found myself in the 25 and grinding away. The midday heat was also having its toll and I was unable to push hard without starting to boil over. I wasn’t the only one though; I past a number of people that were foolhardy enough to ride past the feed stations as they lay in the shade throwing up with heat stroke.
I got in a group of 6 that were rumbling along nicely but very quickly got annoyed that there were only 3 of us willing to work. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that two of the guys that didn’t want to do a turn insisted on sitting in 2nd and 3rd wheel and then free wheel and look around when the poor bloke on the front had finished a 2km turn. I’m normally a very mild mannered person but stick a bike between my legs and I do become a bit of a mouthy git. Sufficed to say, these two did get a few of my choicest snippets of Fronglie hurled in their direction which seemed to do the trick.
The heat was driving me to the point of boiling again but my savoir came in the form of a village fountain in Aurel where, once again I drowned myself in its cooling waters. My core temperature once again under control, I headed up the Sault side of Ventoux. This is considerably easier than the Bédoin side and more open so the breeze kept me cool. I felt quite good now and stormed up with an old Belgian guy who had a beautifully smooth pedal stroke. Another quick descent and suddenly I felt the finish was in sight with only 30km and two small climbs to go. I charged up the first 5km climb with lots of enthusiasm getting very competitive as I passed rider after rider. This however was to be my downfall as I pushed my body just that little bit too far and boiled over on the final climb. Heat stroke hit me like a slap in the face, all my power disappeared, my teeth started you tingle, my vision started to blur and I started to fight the urge to throw up. Luckily, the last 10km were mainly downhill and I free wheeled most of it.
I finished in a time of 7 hours and 1 minute which was good enough for a gold certificate. I was pleased to have been able to just jump up and ride that kind of distance without too much training. The event was well organised, big enough that there were plenty of people to keep you company but not so huge that it was chaos at the start. Despite being humbled by a number of old gits, women and a one armed bandit, I really enjoyed the event. Next stop, the 210km Quebrantahuesos in Spain. Bring it.