To the top of a vanished mountain
In good spirits we left in a large group from the Netherlands to southern France for the big cycling tour. But the ascent of the Bald Mountain turned into a journey full of hardship.
The Italian poet Petrarch went into history as the first celebrity who climbed the Mont Ventoux. That was on April 26, 1336. He was one of the first tourists in human history, the first mountaineer. In a letter he wrote that on the mountaintop he had been reading a pocket edition of the “Confessions” by the church father Augustine.
When I arrived at the summit of Mont Ventoux in June 2008, there wasn’t any reading on my mind.
I decided to climb the Bald Mountain on bicycle after an accident I had in September 2007. The initiative came from a few colleagues, who chose a professional to organize the event. Together with some other groups of cyclists we filled a large touring car.
After a bus drive that took whole day, we arrived at the camping Carpe Diem in Vaison-la-Romain. A thunderstorm had just past and for the next days more showers were expected. Nevertheless, we made a 49 km training trip over the Col de la Madeleine to Bédoin. In Bédoin it rained again, so we had a cappuccino on a covered terrace.
Through the canyon
The day of the great ascent began with rain. Since this was the first time in my life I went cycling in the mountains, I would start the climb of the Mont Ventoux in Sault, attacking the mountain from the easy side. To get there, we went via Bédoin, Flassan, and Villes-sur-Auzon to the Gorges de la Nesque. The 20 km long road through this canyon ascents from 300 to 700 m. It was a spectacular ride.
Through Monieux we reached Sault, where we landed on a terrace.
The big climb
While we waited for our coffee, the Mont Ventoux, which we still could see vaguely from Bédoin, became enveloped by clouds. An ominous rain screen came our way. We did not wait any longer and we put on our rain jackets — our version of “rolling up our sleeves”.
From Sault to the top of the Mont Ventoux is 26 km, from 700 m to 1912 m. The first two kilometers are a give-away, because this section is flat. Here we could get used to the rain, that came on harder and harder. After a kilometer of more serious climbing, the group fell apart and the conversation stopped.
Fog, rain, water on the road, it was chilly — but we had to continue climbing.
I read the distance from the kilometer posts. Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten … With every kilometer I had come another 50 m higher. Meanwhile it continued to rain, the fog became denser and the temperature dropped.
Then there was a relatively flat kilometer, we reached Le Chalet Reynard. This place was thought as a meeting point underway, but under the circumstances no one wanted to wait.
The last six kilometers went from 1417 to 1912 m in a steady climb. This was the real challenge! I still felt good, but I was angry at the mist and the rain. I shifted into my easiest gear, 38–28. No longer I counted every kilometers, instead I noted each hectometer. My only beacon for this was my cycling computer, because of the fog and the lack of kilometer posts.
In the thick fog, the Tom Simpson Monument almost escaped my attention.
Finally, I passed a restaurant and reached the weather station at the summit. It was still raining. It was so foggy that I couldn’t see the tower top — the surrounding landscape was completely invisible.
And it was really cold! The station reported 6 degrees and I was not dressed to that. I paid a brief visit to the souvenir shop, where the attendees jeeringly greeted me, because I looked like a drowned cat.
I hurried back to the restaurant, our meeting point just below the mountaintop. Here I warmed up a bit, but all my clothes were soaked. To prevent water damage, the restaurant was partly closed. The coffee machine was broken, but they had hot chocolate and apple pie — something different after too much isotonic drinks and too many energy bars.
Back to the sun
Then the descent followed. The toughest part was the first step outside the restaurant: it was raining unabated, it was foggy and cold. I didn’t wanted to wait a minute too long before leaving this terrible place. We rode past the weather station at the summit and then the rain lashed our faces — like someone aiming a shower at your face.
I reduced my speed because caution was required in the downhill on soaked asphalt. The road was like a mountain river. The cold caused seriously shaking arms, but I managed to keep my bike on track. A few times we stopped to recover from the continuous braking.
As we descended further, the temperature rose. When we were almost down the mountain, it was dry and the fog was gone, so eventually we had a nice view. By the time we reached Malaucene, the temperature was pleasant.
The journey was completed.
All participants came home with their own stories about this bizarre trip. This was mine.
The next day, the weather had cleared and from the touring car, driving us home, we had a beautiful view on Mont Ventoux.
“I’ll be back…”