Mont Ventoux anyone? When the invitation came through from Sportive.com at the end of May, romantic thoughts stirred in my brain. Ventoux is one of the iconic climbs: "The Giant of Provence", "The Windy Mountain". And, after all, wasn't I already in training for the Etape? I took the plunge and signed up for the GFNY Mont Ventoux with under a month to go.
GFNY stands for Grand Fondo New York, and they run a series of races-cum-sportives around the world. The top 10% of finishers in each age and sex category are invited to participate in GFNY's headline event in New York the following May, although this can also be entered by anybody like a normal sportive. This sportive on Sunday 28th June was the first by GFNY at Mont Ventoux, and was based at the attractive tourist town of Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence.
Having gone all in I needed to sort out the logistics of getting my bike and me from Bristol to the south of France. There was a direct Eurostar train from London to Avigon, a mere stone's throw from Vaison. It looked quite promising until I found out that bikes couldn't be taken on the train. Apparently, because it was a direct train more space was required for food so there was no room for bicycles. I could have got an indirect Eurostar but that would have involved a change at Paris between separate stations.
In the end I went for Plan B, cashed in some Airmiles (or Avios, as they're now called) and flew return from Heathrow to Geneva. Only £70 and I could go business class, which meant two bags in the hold luggage, one of which was the bike.
Despite all of my best laid plans l was ten minutes away from missing the flight after a hold-up on the motorway. I had to change plans and drop my car directly at the airport for an extra £24 instead of off-site in order to clear the various hurdles of bag drop, security and boarding on time. My stress levels weren't helped by three circuits of Terminal Five parking trying to find the right level and row. It took me most of the flight to calm down. We landed Friday early evening and I recovered the bike and picked up the hire car with only a long queue at the Europcar desk to delay me. I drove for about an hour to the pretty town of Aix-Les-Bains, around a lake on the edge of the Alps, and holed up for the night.
The day before the sportive I was up and out by 9:00am for the three hour drive to Vaison. Weekend traffic delays added an extra half hour to the journey but I arrived as planned at lunch time. Vaison is a small town and it was easy to get my bearings. The medieval old town is across the river from the new town where the event was based. A big inflatable gateway in the GFNY colours of green, black and white told me I was in the right place. Euro pop blared out and there were numerous market stalls featuring everything from cycling equipment to local delicacies of jams, lavender, foie gras etc. I worked my way through to the registration centre at the end and signed on.
Entry to the GFNY Mont Ventoux cost 77.80 Euros (£55.25), which was great value as it included a cycling jersey. The website for the event was in a mixture of French and English but I got the gist of what was required. As well as the jersey there were other goodies including a water bottle and a bottle of wine. There was also a number for the bike, another one for the jersey and a transponder to fix to the bike stem. Finally, there was a little sticker to go on the crossbar showing the route profile and feed stations. I also paid an extra eight Euros for a bag to be taken to the top of Mont Ventoux on the day of the event ready for my arrival. Registration had been open from the Friday and was also available 10:00am to 7:00pm on the Saturday when I was there.
The GFNY Mont Ventoux was a big event for the town and had been turned into a three day celebration. This had featured a free rock concert on the Friday evening prior to my arrival and various other events showcasing the local area. I got something to eat as I waited for check in time at my hotel in the old town around 3:00pm. I had my heart in my mouth driving through the very narrow streets and dodging the tourists to get to the hotel.
The hotel - Le Beffroi - turned out to be fantastic, with an outdoor pool overlooking the town and fountain outside. The weather was amazing all weekend with temperatures between 25-35 centigrade, but I had to deny myself the pool and instead carried my bike bag up two storeys and set to rebuilding the machine. Not my favourite task but eventually I got there. A test ride round town revealed a minor issue with the rear derailleur shifting. This was soon fixed for free by a trip to the mechanics at the GFNY base.
I'd been invited to a VIP event on the Saturday evening for some of the event sponsors and the great and good of the town. This was held at the museum by the impressive Roman ruins in the middle of Vaison. On arrival it was clear there was a finger buffet with liquid refreshment that was still in the process of being set up. Once under way there was some great food and some equally great wines. Lack of will power meant I made my excuses and left before consuming too much of the red, pink and white stuff, especially knowing what was ahead the next day.
Ride to the mountain
The sportive was due to start on the Sunday at 7:30am but bags for the summit had to be handed in by 7. I also needed to resolve a couple of minor problems, in that I had no cable ties to secure the timing transponder and I'd been given the wrong profile route sticker. There were two routes available, the longest of which was 135km (84 miles). Both finished on the summit of Mont Ventoux and both featured a couple of early, less onerous climbs. The short route of 113km (71 miles) missed out an extra 15km climb before the big one.
Problems solved, I joined the start line amid the hullabaloo of more Euro pop. The organisers claimed 1000 participants from 20 countries, although there was only about two-thirds of that number on the final results. Everyone had the GFNY jersey on as a condition of participating, although I did see one middle-aged gent get totally naked adjusting his kit on the start line. It wasn't a closed road event but throughout the course there were marshals on almost every junction, stopping traffic when riders came through.
The mass start was a frenetic affair as everyone jostled for position and attempted to shed their nerves at the prospect of what was to come. Once out of town and after a few undulations we were onto to the first climb of the Col de la Peyroniere at the 19km mark. This featured an average gradient of 6-7% climbing 311 metres over 5km. It was a steady climb with great views, including Mont Ventoux in the distance with the distinctive tower on top. It was on a wide, fairly straight road. A short descent followed and I joined a couple of other riders as we soon approached the Col des Aires at 32km. This climb was more twisting on narrow roads passing through a little mountain village where the locals came out to observe proceedings. It was 3km long but featured gradients between 5-8% rising up 176 metres.
First feed station
The descent to the first feed station at 40km was sweeping rather than steep, and allowed plenty of time to take in the lavender fields that lined the roads. The feed stop itself was a bit disappointing though, mainly segments of banana and orange and some cake slices going rock hard in the sun. There was water but no energy drink.
The course split came immediately after the feed station and I went for the long route up Col de l'Homme Mort (Dead Man's Mountain). This was a step up again from the first two climbs, due to the distance of 15km rather than the relatively forgiving gradient of 4-6%. There were few flat sections so it was a sustained slog up and around the mountain rising to an altitude of 1213 metres. All the time I was trying to save as much as I could knowing the Ventoux was still ahead. There was the odd car but mainly just other riders as the field had thinned out a lot at this stage.
Near the bottom of the subsequent descent was another feed station at 70km, this time in the car park of the local town hall. By this time I was in the back third of the field and practically feeding off scraps of orange segments and not much else. At this point I thought that for an event that was otherwise run to a high standard, the level of refreshment offered was well below par.
I latched onto the back of a group of seven riders who pulled me up another unnamed climb shortly after the feed station. This opened out onto the side of a massive valley with spectacular views. The group stopped for photos but I went on, conscious that there was a 1pm cut-off time to be on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. The ride descended gradually down and round the valley in a semi-circle to the other side. There was time to take it all in and also get some breath back.
The third feed station at 100km was everything that the previous two weren't. Cheeses, sweets, nuts and loads more besides. I filled my boots. Although I had an eye on the time it was always achievable, and a short roll out of town later I was on the lower slopes of Mont Ventoux and the King of the Mountains section with 15 minutes to spare. The ascent was separately timed but I wasn't aiming to trouble Ivan Basso's record of around 55 minutes for the 21.5 km. Although there are three routes up the mountain, the GFNY Mont Ventoux took the hardest and classic ascent from the village of Bedoin.
On the slopes of Mont Ventoux
The first 6km you didn't even really know you were on a climb. It was just like an open country road with gradients hovering between 3-5%. However, after that it was onto the hard stuff in the forest section. There were trees, lots of them, but not very many hung over the road so the shade was sporadic. The temperature was over 30 centigrade and flies were buzzing around my head and face quite incessantly.
After a kilometre at 8.5% there was then seven straight kilometres of 9.5% to 10.5%. Stone posts, like tombstones, relayed this information every kilometre. I went as long as I could - for about 3km - without stopping on that section but then got hit by stomach cramps. Too much energy drink. I stopped, regrouped for 30 seconds, didn't walk and then got going again. I craved water but only had more energy drink. It did seem never ending and I think I stopped about three or four times in the same fashion. I passed and got repassed by other GFNY riders. It helped to know there were others sharing the experience, along with riders on the climb who were not part of the event. For some parts I felt good and then other bits I felt terrible, not always related to the gradient. There was no flat that I recall, just a small ease up in gradient on very odd occasions.
After 14km the forest ended and the welcome sight of Chalet Reynard, a big cafe/inn, and the last feed station came into view. This was the point at which the trees finished and the limestone began, but that also meant no shade for the last 7.5km. I ditched the energy drink and refilled with water. Refreshed and with gradients down to between 6-8.5%, it felt like a little bit of respite. In some ways it was like a Sunday afternoon in Cheddar Gorge with cars and motorbikes also going up and down the mountain on a fairly constant basis. I had read that this was the point where the wind could be extremely strong, but on this day it wasn't a factor at all. There was just the tantalising view of the weather station at the top coming ever so slowly closer.
One kilometre from the top I reached the memorial to British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died on the climb in 1967. Water bottles and scarfs were draped over it but I was in no state to stop as I was bracing myself for the final kilometre at 10.5%.
The last section was a bit of a blur and I just remember the final corner and slope being really steep. Then I was across the line, 1912 metres up. I collected my bag and did my best to knock back the recovery drink inside it. I didn't really feel like lingering to take in the view so I donned my wind jacket and started the 31km descent back to Vaisson. This was down one of the other routes and, although a little steep in places at the start, it soon bottomed out to a nice pace on wide roads. It wasn't part of the timed ride. The weather was such that I had to remove the wind jacket.
Gladiators of Ventoux
After 20km of descending the final stretch home was on the flat. I arrived in Vaisson in time to collect my medal and witness the prize giving in the outdoor amphitheatre. There was a short display by some local "gladiators", the mayor made a speech and then the top three overall for both sexes were presented on the podium. It looked like the winners got a new set of wheels. I didn't stay for the age group prizes as I knew my time of 7 hours 45 minutes wouldn't trouble the scorers. Instead I went back to the hotel and finally collapsed by the pool for a couple of hours.
Before flying home the next day I drove back up the Ventoux to try and take it all in a bit more. Even on a Monday morning there were dozens of cyclists attempting the ascent.
As for the sportive, it was an amazing experience and I had a massive sense of achievement - although it is a reflection of the challenge that I would think twice before trying it again. The only thing that could improve the event might be a wider range of refreshments at the first two feed stations - but for anyone looking to bag one of cycling's most storied climbs, I would totally recommend trying GFNY Mont Ventoux.