Jen has some words of warning/wisdom for those taking on a big mountain (I thought it was a lovely ride)…

Mont Ventoux, famed as one of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France, and responsible for the untimely death of cycling legend Tom Simpson in 1967, is an imposing mountain (the ‘Giant of Provence’). One should prepare well for an adventure to its summit then?

Mont Ventoux from the vineyards of Provence

Yes? Well you’d be right there. But not me, oh no, I had to learn the hard way…

If your fabulously kind brother-in-law steps in to look after your kids for a weekend to give you a little holiday you go for a spa weekend on the Cotswolds and put your feet up right? Of course not,… especially not if you’re reading this. What you actually do is plan a ride. One that’s epic, far from home, and a memory to cherish for ever.

So, we did, a weekend at the beginning of December. We planned the trains, the accommodation, bike hire, some sight seeing, a night in Paris on the way, and dinner when we arrived in Avignon (La Fourchette). Maybe we should have foreseen our slightly over-optimistic approach to the trip when sprinting across Waterloo station having not allowed quite enough time for the connection.

The plan, for the ride that is, was to ride from Avignon (beautiful place, well worth a visit by the way). We would pick up the bikes at 9:30, ride over Ventoux, leisurely lunch, and back before dark.  Simple.

Papal Palace, Avignon

Well, it could have been, if it hadn’t been for the catalogue of rookie errors that we proceeded to make in our excitement (a few child free days in a row is very exciting!):

(1) distance; Avignon is not quite a stone’s throw from Mont Ventoux, it’s more like a train ride (26 miles to be precise, and that’s if you take ‘route 1’).  That is about the same distance as my standard training ride in Hampshire, and that was before the real ride started.  If you’re adding in a mountain to your ride, make sure you can at least cope with the distance first!

Avignon to Bedouin (scenic route)

(2) hiring bikes; this is certainly something we weren’t used to (we’ve struggled with bike boxes and bags in various airports in the past and decided that this time we would make life simple).  If hiring a bike, particularly if you are female, bring your own saddle!  And pedals of course, but we remembered those.  It’s also useful to allow time to give the hire bikes a good test out before setting off (the loose headset didn’t help my descending).

So, we end up at the bottom of the climb. I’m pretty knackered (we’ve already ridden 30 miles and climbed more than 1800 feet)! I have a very sore rear and I’m starting to whinge (my children have recently reintroduced me to the concept and I’m finding that in certain situations it is difficult to avoid).  I only have a quarter of a bottle of water left, which brings me on to the biggest mistake of all:

(3) nutrition; (maybe I went on this trip with the wrong brother?!); for breakfast we enjoyed a delicious croissant, coffee, orange juice and and extra pain au chocolat in a little french cafe, but that was it…the alarm bells should have been ringing (a buffet of fat, caffeine, and a bit of sugar thrown in for good measure, and not a lot of any of of it).  We had also packed energy gels for emergencies, but left them in the hotel room.  I think the two water bottles each were just that, water, not energy drink.

Back to the ride.  Conveniently, Mont Ventoux boasts a restaurant (Le Chalet Reynard) part way up its slopes from Bedoin, just 12km away. We’ve arrived at the base of the climb at midday, so we’ll adjust the plan and stop there for lunch (we aren’t totally ignorant, this was our contingency and we were happy to use it). Alex decided I would be best having my own personal battle and working my way up to the chalet alone. He’s not mean, he would probably have been right, had we been the same distance from a pub at home. Off he went, off into the distance, and I started.

(4) height; 10 miles in Hampshire, is “nearly home”, 10 miles of mountain climbing is “hardly started”.  You can’t ‘run on empty’ up hill for 10 miles.

Now, in the dim and distant past I had climbed the Col du Tormalet, without stopping and enjoyed every minute. I was therefore confident that I would make it. I had also been training, not really long distances, but I felt fit. I wanted a good time on Strava! Of course then, I started off too fast.

(5) pace; pace yourself, don’t go too hard. This is easier with a heart rate or power meter and visible read outs, but it is possible to judge your effort without.

I knew I had gone too hard, and I tried to rectify the situation. I went into deep rhythmic breathing mode in the hope that I might recover enough, and soon. Then I felt my tummy rumble, and felt the first seeds of doubt welling up inside.

Unfortunately, doubt was not going to get me there, and I was on my own. I did pretty well in hindsight (this had all happened within the first two km and I only ran out of water totally after 8), but at 10 km, with a few piles of snow at the sides of the roads I BONKED. An expression used often by cyclists when they feel they can’t carry on. This was a true BONK.

I stood down off the pedals, sat next to the road in tears knowing that not only was I not going to make it to the top, I would most likely not even make it to lunch. I tried to phone Alex (who by this point had finished his diet coke and was starting to get worried), but there was no reception. I was in despair. Sat back in the saddle, made two pedal strokes and was off again. Recollecting it I can hardly believe it’s possible to get to that point, but I did.

So there I am, sub-zero conditions in Autumn weather clothes, which brings me to my next mistake…

(6) clothes; we almost had this right (see advice on clothing), but for one small issue I had stopped riding, stopped putting in the effort and creating heat, we actually needed emergency kit (possibly even a survival bag), or more probably just to have got everything else right.

Alex appeared, and told me I had to get up. I had to push the last 2km or I’d get no food. Gotta love him. Despite being pretty upset I knew he was right. He rushed off back up the hill to order me some chips before the restaurant closed (it had taken that long). It took me the best part of an hour to reach him, but I did in the end, walking for the most part. That was the best Orangina and cold chips ever!

The summit (Alex makes it seem easy)

Suffice to say, I didn’t ride to the top with my husband in the wind, although I wanted to, I headed straight back down the mountain. There was an office du tourism in Bedouin to shelter in and decide what to do next. My plan was to get a taxi back to Avignon, whatever the cost. It was going to be 80 euros. I almost had it booked when Alex arrived. I can’t remember the precise decision process, but the conversation went something like:

A. Let’s ride back
J. I can’t ride anywhere
A. We could ride half way and get a train
J. I can’t ride that far
A. I could push you some of the way, you’ll feel better once you’ve got going
J. I’m not riding anywhere. We can get a taxi and I dint care how much it costs.
A. If we ride back we can spend the money we would have spent on a taxi on a really nice dinner in a Michelin Star restaurant (Christian Étienne). If we get a taxi we can only afford McDonalds.
J. But I don’t think can make it.
A. Let’s rescue this holiday. Really, you’ll be fine.
J. You’d better be right.

The choice wasn’t the safest (it was getting a little dark when we arrived back), but I did warm up and Alex didn’t need to push me. The meal was amazing, even though I was nearly asleep at the table.

So, please, take my advice…I’m not using it 🙂. Hopefully, there are some people out there reading this who’ve never ridden in the big mountains and can take something from this. I really hope to get back there and give it a go again some time soon. And I like to think that I will get it right next time!

You might also take some advice from Mike Cotty, who shows us how it should be done:


Jennifer Forrester

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