Mont Ventoux. The Géant of Provence. A mythical mountain with endless steep grades, strong wind and a barren moonlike summit. From Pro Tour rider to the most trained weekend warrior it strikes fear into all who dare to ascend. Those with common sense stay clear.
That's not me - or 400 other riders at the inaugural three-day Haute Route Ventoux.
Organised by Haute Route, the same folks who put on the seven-day Haute Route Alps, Pyrenees and Rockies, Ventoux offers the same pro-like experience both on and off the bike in a perfect long weekend format.
Based in the quaint French village of Bédoin, the route covers 270km/168 miles with 7800m/25,600 feet of climbing, including three ascents of Ventoux.
Stage 1: Mistral Madness
Bédoin - Gordes - Sault - Mont Ventoux
106km/66 miles, +2900m/9,514 feet
Climbs: Trois Terme 9km 4%, Liguière 10km 6%, Ventoux 25km 5%
The day begins with a bit of logistical madness as Provence's legendary Mistral wind blows 150km/hr on Ventoux. For safety, the stage finish is moved just below the summit, but that still leaves 100km of riding with The Mistral.
From the start a tailwind pushes us down narrow lanes, through villages rich in cycling culture and past century old vineyards. Negotiating roundabouts and road furniture add excitement, especially at 50km/hr. With the colourful peloton strung out ahead and behind as far as the eye can see, it's a breath-taking sight.
The tailwind section is all too short though. Turning into the Mistral wind we climb Trois Terme and generally begin to suffer like dogs. For me, the suffering doesn't stop for 80km.
The Mistral is relentless, painful and demoralizing. Riding in a group to conserve energy is paramount, the smart thing to do. Of course, I'm not that smart. Dropped just before Sault I suffer mightily for my stupidity.
The Mistral pushes me about like a cork in the sea. A few endless solo kilometres later I catch #32, Christian Dunand of France. He doesn't speak English and I don't speak French, but we share a common language - teamwork.
In Sault we start climbing Ventoux, past trees with red, yellow and orange hues of autumn. Continuing our silent teamwork, Christian and I climb "on the rivet". An hour later, and none too soon, we cross under the finish banner in 76th and 77th place. With ear-to-ear smiles and sweat dripping from our brows we pat each other on the back, both thankful stage 1 is fait accompli.
Stage 2: The Good, The Bad and The Ed
Bédoin - Sault - St Auban - Malaucene - Ventoux
141km/88 miles, +3300m/10,827 feet
Climbs: Aulan 8km 3%, Peyruergue 4.5km, 5%, Ey 5km, 4%, Ventoux 21km 7.3%
I start at the back, riding with numerous groups for the first hour. It's a wonderful opportunity to meet riders, share stories and enjoy stunning scenery. Rolling up the impressive Gorges de la Nesque with its limestone walls, sheer drop-offs and hand-cut tunnels is breathtaking. Plus, it helps me warm-up for the first climb, Col d'Aulan.
Winding up a narrow canyon on a one-lane road outside picturesque Montbrun-les-Bains this climb thrills the senses at every turn. With steep canyon walls and forest trees looming above it's a real treat. By the top I settle in with a group including #139, Ed Milnes out of the UK. He starts the day in 103rd overall with a goal breaking into the top 100.
At the top of Col de Peyruergue an aid station lures some riders away. I roll on. Ed wavers, should I stay or should I roll? He opts to follow as we carve our way down the mountain past apricot orchards and through a series of hairpin turns.
But soon the thrill is gone - for me. With a rear puncture I stand by the side of the road. Although Mavic's bright yellow motos and cars chock-full of spare wheels and bikes are usually within sight, they aren't now. The only thing I see is bad luck. Ten minutes later I'm back on the road after fixing the puncture.
The climb up Ventoux from Malaucene might not be the most well known, but with 21km at 7.3% it is certainly epic. No matter who you are the long painful grind to the summit is a challenge. Like Ed, most Haute Route riders set personal goals to challenge and motivate them. Today I want to make the summit in 105 minutes.
With each km marked by roadside monuments, I only focus on getting from one to the next. In a 39x29 tapping out a smooth steady rhythm I feel pretty good, even catching a few riders from Mexico who cheer me on, calling my name or maybe calling me names...it helps either way. At 10km the road pitches up to 12% for 3km without reprieve. Now pedaling squares in a herky-jerky manner with tunnel vision and hard breathing the roadside monuments can't come soon enough.
Eventually, the end is in sight with Ventoux's iconic white and red tower coming into view. I dig deep, very deep. We're talking Grand Canyon deep and attack the final 500m with a vengeance. Crossing under the Haute Route summit banner in 102 minutes and beating my goal feels incredible, like I'm on top of the world - or at least Ventoux. There's no place else I'd rather be.
Stage 3: Living The Dream
Bédoin - Mont Ventoux
21km13 miles, +1600m/5,249 feet
The race of truth. Just you against the clock...and gravity...and wind.
Ventoux's classic time trial route is short, but offers the most difficult ascent, the most famous too.
Although the climb averages 7.5%, the devil is in the details: 5km at 4% through countryside, 10km at 10% in the forest and finally 6km at 8% over barren slopes. Today, with the last 6km eliminated due to high wind, staying focused in the forest is the key to success.
The grade quickly changes from "this isn't too bad" to "oh shite, 10k of this?".
It's a mental battle now. Trying to think of something, anything, to keep my mind off the suffering I stare down at the road. The answer is right there - Tour de France road art.
Surrounded by thick trees and dappled light it's a surreal sight. The only sound comes from chains, heavy breathing and an occasional sheep bell in the forest. Everyone, and I mean everyone, suffers in silence.
In a cross-eyed daze I imagine my name on the asphalt as 10,000 fans line the road, scream my name, take turns pushing me forward - a lot. Soon I round the final corner and surge across the finish line, finishing in 65 minutes.
John is a former faux pro racer enjoying life as a geriatric cyclist in search of great bucket list rides to keep him in shape and out of trouble - well, at least in shape.
He writes about his Bucket Rides in all their variety and glory for Granfondo.com. See his reports here.