How to survive the Ventoux as a non-pro cyclist

The term cyclist evokes images of tight-fitting lycra with garish futuristic motifs printed on every inch of the surface, a helmet that takes it’s design from the pokey prawn-head and shorts that effortlessly transform the most elegant of ladies legs into Octoberfest bratwursts. Don’t get me wrong, I love to ride my bicycle and I do so fully clad in spandex, I just don’t think of myself as that kind of cyclist.

Let me start by introducing myself in the context of cycling. I guide bicycle tours around France, Spain and Switzerland on occasion. In my own time I like to get out on a road bike maybe twice a week. Three times on a good, windless, deadline-free week for around one to two hours with a couple of climbs if they’re in my vicinity. I’m far from hardcore and I don’t partake in any cycling clubs or anything like that but I do love to push pedals. I’ve only been riding a road bike for around three years now so I’m far from hardcore.

Emilie pointing at our destination.

If you, like myself, enjoy cycling and are contemplating climbing the Mont Ventoux in the near future, here are a few insights and tips that could help you get to the top and have a nice time at it.

Only if you Ventoux
This last weekend I decided to attempt my second climb up the Ventoux. My first ride up last year, as more of an occasional cyclist, had me convinced, for most of the climb, that I would never put myself through the suffer-fest again but when I made it to the summit it felt like my heart was going to explode. Not in that “I think I’m going to have a heart-attack” kind of way but in the way that your heart explodes with joy and overwhelming gratitude for life itself. I was so damn happy. I was proud of myself for having pushed to the end and grateful for all the elements that had come into play to enable me to have that experience. It was challenging but there I was, at the summit overlooking the endless hues of blue and green landscape below in awe… Contemplating my next climb.

So if you’re sitting on the fence about climbing the Ventoux right now, sit no more. Jump in. Start planning the how and forget that if.

View from the back-side of the summit. I don’t want to spoil the actual view for you.

This year’s climb saw me much better prepared and it changed the experience entirely. For the past few months I’ve been riding relatively consistently. Nothing dramatic at all: maybe around 35–75km/week. The difference is that I’ve been throwing a couple of climbs into my rides. A dear friend has been a gem with riding tips. He noticed that I was gritting my teeth through the uphills in anticipation of the fun bit: the downhills (I love to ride down fast). Thanks to his gentle nudges I started challenging myself to get uphill faster. To take on that climb and get out of my seat more. I’ve started actually enjoying the climbs (who knew?!). Start pushing yourself to the odd climb. You’ll be grateful that you did.

The foresty section in autumn.

The ride: There are three places from which you can climb the Ventoux: Sault, Malaucène and Bedoin. Bedoin is the classic start. It’s the Tour de France route and the route that most people consider to be the “real” climb. I have only ever done this one so I can’t comment on the others but I know that the Sault climb has the gentlest gradient although it’s longer. It’s supposed to be super beautiful too.

If you’re planning to ride from Bedoin it helps to think of the route in three stages: the first stage is around 5.5km–6km of gentle climbing around 5%–5.5%. A perfect warm-up. From the 6th kilometre the gradient tilts it’s way between 8.5% and 10.5% for around 8/9km for phase two. I’m not going to lie, it goes on for quite a while. Stage two has you winding through a beautiful forest. It’s a great place for general life contemplation… Sorting through those thoughts in the bottom drawer. Embrace it.

Once you’ve made it to Chalet Reynard on the tail end of stage two the gradient relaxes a little for stage three between which sits around 6% and 8% and the last few hundred meters are at 10% — just to remind you of where you are.

Chalet Reynard is a great spot for a water refill (find the tap on the left hand side of the building). If you’re expecting wind on your climb day, you’ll find it just around the corner from the chalet so this would be a good place to put your wind-breaker on. If you hit the wind the last few kilometres can be a challenge because it’s completely exposed to the elements and although the beacon looks close, it’s still a fair distance away. Don’t let it get you down. Dig deep and keep pushing.

It’s important to remember to drink on your way up. I find that when you’re in the shade with a crispness in the air it’s easy to feel that you’re not thirsty but keep sipping at those electrolytes.

So close yet so far.

Snacks and powders:
As with the lycra and prawn-helmets I’m not a big fan of synthetic energy-boosting gu’s and sweet drinks but they have their place and here’s what I would recommend: Skratch Labs make a variety of mostly natural electrolyte powders. I like their thinking, natural ingredients and the flavours. I’d recommend their sports hydration drink mixes for the boost you’re going to need. Their gums are also a great addition to the climb. I don’t know the rest of their products but I have no doubt that they’re great.

When it came to “food” (because you’re going to wish you had some in your pockets) I packed two Clif Bars. For the same reason that I like Skratch Labs, the guys who make these bars pack them with actual nutritious goodness. Nut butters, dates, cacao and such. You would need to order them online ahead of your planned ascent or take what ever floats your boat for food and rehydration. I’m mentioning these because I like them and I don’t like packing my body full of things I can’t pronounce but take what ever you’re comfortable with and what ever works for your body.

For long rides I often pack a pom-potes or two in my pockets. We often use them on bicycle tours. Essentially it’s apple puree in a squidgey container packaged for children. They’re great because the organic ones are additive and sugar-free but they have all the natural fructose and energy straight from the fruit combined with a little hydration. They’re also easy to stash in cycling pockets and easy to open and consume on the go. Don’t let the packaging turn you away — it’s just marketing. You can find them in most supermarkets around France.

I made it :)

In total I had two sachets of electrolyte-infused hydration powder: one in each water bottle, two snack bars, a pom-potes and some gums. I also had a substantial breakfast a good hour and a half or so before the ride. I think a proper breakfast is key. I wouldn’t steer too far from what you’re used to. Keep it simple and substantial. Bananas are a great addition.

Timing: This is entirely dependent on when you chose to Ventoux but what ever you do, don’t leave late morning in the heart of summer. If it’s hot, leave early. If it’s autumn or spring 10:00 is a good time to go. If it’s winter you really shouldn’t be climbing the Ventoux. It’s freezing up there. Literally.

Gear: Depending on what month you decide to ride it and what the weather is doing on the day, you’ll want to wear different things. Regardless of the day you’ll definitely want a wind-breaker for your ride down. You’ll have built up a bit of a sweat on your way up and it’s likely that there will be a breeze at the top so you’ll want to cover up. Not only to keep you warm while you take in the mind-blowing view but also because you’re going to spend the next little while free-wheeling down and that fresh wind is going to have you cooled down in no time.

I recommend regular cycling gloves to anyone who rides. Full fingered gloves if you’re going up in cool weather. A friend once told me a story about someone who had a fall and lost layers of skin on the palms of their hands. Since that day I wear gloves every time I ride. A helmet of course. A jersey with pockets for your snacks, phone and windbreaker. Clip-in pedals will make a huge difference if you train in them too. Sun screen (to be applied before you leave) for sure. There’s a shady foresty section which helps to protect you from the sun and wind but once you make it out on the other side your skin will take a beating without the sunscreen. Lip balm… I know! It’s unexpected but trust me on this one. I remember being advised to take it the first time I rode up and this last weekend I decided not to take it. My lips are destroyed right now and I wished I had it with me through the exposed sections and on the downhill.

Sunglasses. I don’t have cycling-specific sunglasses although I’m sure they must be a treat to ride with. Mine are light, polarised shades on a string. It help not to have to worry about where to put them when they’re on a string… and they’re usually right where you left them when you need them. Sunglasses make all the difference on the downhills with wind and insects.

If you’re planning to Ventoux in autumn or spring and you have a tendency to get cold easily (as do I) I highly recommend packing a puffer-jacket. I had my sleeveless Uniqlo tightly wrapped up and strapped to the cross-bar on my bike. I hardly noticed it was there on the climb and when I needed it at the top and on the way down… I was so grateful that I had brought it. I even got jacket-envy from local cyclists. Regardless of the puffer, definitely pack a light, pocket-packed wind-breaker. Decathlon sell great ones that crumple super small.

It’s a no-brainer: Of course you should have a pump, a spare tube and a bike tool in your saddle-bag at all times. It’s certainly useful to know how to change a flat on your own. Useful and empowering. Youtube is incredibly useful for this. 
Cash. Always carry some cash because you never know whether you’re going to need a coffee or a ride. And lastly, your phone. For emergency calls but more importantly to capture the view from the top.

So to list the basics:

1Commit. Commit to tackling the Ventoux. You can do this and it’s totally worth it, I swear.

2 Train. Get some climbs into your training. I know it’s not always easy if you live in Holland but it could be a fun way to plan weekends away near the mountains in preparation. I highly recommend getting comfortable riding out of your seat. It makes a great “break” from the climb along the way. Again, youtube has helpful tips.

3 Stock-up. Make sure you have the fuel you’ll need for the climb. Stick with food or snack that you know. No need to get fancy and throw your digestion off over gels and unfamiliar snacks but pack energy.

4 Prepare for the cold. Warm gloves and a wind-breaker are a must. Temperatures can be down to zero at the summit in the middle of summer. Just saying.

5 Remember to look up. It’s a ridiculously beautiful climb. Having done it this weekend in the heart of autumn was such a treat. Stretches of orange, yellow and pastel greys. It’s so incredibly beautiful. Not to mention the views from the summit. It’s worth checking out the other side too.

6 Take it easy on the downhill. I say this as someone who should take it easy on the downhill because I like to take corners fast but there are some nutty drivers screaming up those windy roads and it’s not worth the risk.

7 Have fun. Enjoy the training and all the adventures it takes you on.

8 Bring a friend. It’s nice to climb with someone. Even if you’re doing it at a different pace to him or her, there’s something nice about knowing that you’re in it together and you can celebrate with a sweaty hug at the top.

Good luck :)

Happy friends who climbed to the top for the first time.