L’Etape du Tour 2009: Montelimar to Mont Ventoux
On Monday 20th July, the Brit Pack comprising Ben, Dennis, Neil & Deborah and baby George , Rob & Alex, Steve, and Tam and I, were due to tackle L’Etape du Tour 2009.
The gents in the pack were to ride, while the girls and young George treated us like model pros, insisting we focused on resting and eating before the big day.
We stayed in a house on a vineyard in the medieval town of Grignan in Provence. With a pool to cool our nerves and toes in the lead-up to LÉtape, we couldn’t have wished for a more gentle acclimatization to the region. Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the pool, a gentle pre Etape warm-up ride was required to ensure our toes hadn’t forgotten the art of pedalling altogether.
To ward off any undue publicity the mass Brit Pack arrival in Provence might generate, some of the party travelled by road, others by commercial aircraft, while others still arrived under the guise of darkness at a remote airfield. Bonne arrivee Steve!
On the eve of L’Etape, we packed in as much pasta as our bellies would enable, topped this up with an additional bowl for good measure, before the final piece in the jigsaw, tarte aux pommes. Stuffed, next came the rather delicate part of trying to sleep at 10pm.
Before I knew it, I was rudely awakened by my alarm at 4am (a painful 3am UK time). After cramming down a huge bowl of porridge and completing my King Carbo load, I dived into one of the two cars Alex and Deborah drove to Montelimar.
We were dropped off a few kilometres from the start. This allowed us to stretch our weary limbs out, before we joined our 9,500 fellow Etapistes in our designated start pens.
With at least an hour to spend in my allotted spot, I made a final inspection of the route of this year’s Etape. The organizers normally make every effort to select one of most challenging and mythical stages of the year’s Tour de France. This year was no exception, they had elected to serve up the stage from Montelimar to Mont Ventoux, a tough 170kms route winding South East.
The stage can be broken into two sections: a gradually rising 149kms punctuated by 4 classified climbs, followed by the Mont Ventoux.
The 4 climbs are Côte de Citelle (5.2kms at 3.9%), Col dÉy (6.3km at 5%), Col de Fontaube (4.7kms at 4.3%) and Col de Notre-Dame des Abeilles (7.8kms at 4%). These official statistics overlook much of the gradual climbing to be done before reaching the ‘official’ start of each climb. They also overlook the 5km climb up to Sault.
The second section does not require much of an introduction. Mont Ventoux is the Giant of Provence sitting so dominating and so exposed to the elements that its bare scree slopes at the top have been described as the “sloping desert, the Sahara of stones.”
My start number placed me in the second last, or 7th, start pen. With the staggered unleashing of riders from 7am, by the time I crossed the start line, it had already gone 7:30am.
My plan for the first section was to find a suitable group with whom to share the workload to each of the climbs, to ride each climb with something to spare, before teaming up with my group to the base of the next col. Rhythm and the conserving of energy were going to get me through this section.
Instead, I was subjected to a lot of stop-start from bottlenecks on the climbs and crashes on the descents requiring ambulances and the attentions of calax honking police motorbikes. Rhythm was not going to feature today.
The staccato nature of the ride and my starting position dealt another blow to the other part of my plan. Groups were not coming through, and so I began chasing in the vain hope of making up time. Soon enough I recognised that such a chase would not only ruin my economy of effort, it would in fact ruin my entire day given the looming appearance of Mont Ventoux’s neck wrenching gradients.
I quickly had to re-think my strategy. I would reduce my work rate on the climbs in exchange for maintaining the same effort of my solo charge across the parts in-between.
Once settled into the new plan, I was able to take in the wonderful sights and smells from the picturesque Provencial villages we road through.
In spite of it being Monday, villagers came out in their droves, offering up cheers and songs or offering to douse our sweaty heads with cool water. I welcomed all such wonderful gestures, however one road side proposition I couldn’t get my head around was the sale of nectarines. I left the nectarine supply in tact, I wasn’t about to tempt unloading my carbo load.
I reached Bedoin at the conclusion of the first section, 149kms and some 5 hrs 15 mins after setting off from Montelimar. Given this had comprised a stop-start solo ride, halting to fuel up at chaotic feed stations that resembled the 11am feed at Regents Park Zoo, I pushed on with vigour, and a slab of malt loaf crammed between my teeth.
I arrived at the foot of Mont Ventoux, faced with the prospect of ascending a climb most steeped in history, the most revered among the legends of the world’s greatest cyclists past and present. Eddie Merckxx needed oxygen immediately upon reaching Mont Ventoux’s summit, while Lance Armstrong has said he fears this climb like no other else.
Unlike other ascents, Mont Ventoux’s reputation has also afforded it a personality, one French historian even referring to it menacingly as “a god of evil, a despot of cyclists.”
Officially the Ventoux climb is 21.2km at 7.6pct average, but with the last 6kms at approximately 7% average and the first 5kms at 4%, that means that the middle section is roughly 10kms of 10% average!
I went at the first 5kms of the Ventoux deliberately steady, and felt fine.
I then felt the road, and my heart rate simultaneously ramp up. We were at the start of the most crucial section of the day, the forested part of Mont Ventoux.
I had heard countless recollections about the forested section of Mont Ventoux. I had read about how its brutality can suddenly rip the will from man, at will. Yet, even with this knowledge, I was shocked with the world I had just entered.
For the next 10kms, the road simply rose and rose, there was no respite. There was neither a flat hairpin to allow for even a momentary break in the slope, nor were there sweeping S shaped turns in the road to allow at least for a break in vision from the ghastliness of the wall that ramped up before me.
The relentlessness of the climbing was coupled with the airlessness of the section. With the forested surrounds, the air simply could not circulate. Add in 35 degree temperatures beating down on riders, and this paints a picture of the world we were now in. An altogether different one from that we had inhabited several kms below.
Silence descended on the hordes of previously exuberant riders, there was almost an air of serenity. Many a rider here accepted the card they were dealt, some ground to a halt and simply fell from their bikes, others lay with their eyes shut roadside, and I even saw one guy lying motionless on the road while still clipped into his bike that was pointing to the road ahead. This created a surreal illusion of a stricken person being watched over by his loyal dog. I should have known that the torrid conditions were responsible for creating such vivid thoughts, one of my fellow Brit Packers Rob saw deer at the very same point of the ride.
I got my head down, tucked in and pushed on. I was slave to my heart rate monitor here, sitting right on my 87% max heart rate, knowing this was sustainable. Of the 9500 starters in the Etape, more than 2000 failed to finish. I suspect most of these non-finishers were scattered in the forest.
Onwards I continued, mindful of maintaining my plan. I tapped my way up the climb, and away from the carnage all around me, staying at 165bpms to the digit.
Eventually, I came to Chalet Reynard 6 kms from the top.
Chalet Reynard had been my marker ever since I rose in the morning, I had focused my mind and my energies on getting here. I knew that once I’d made it to Chalet Reynard, the peak of Mont Ventoux, now visible, would draw me towards it.
At this point, the gloves came off and I ditched sticking to any specific heart rate, I was going to gun it. I went all out aiming to go as hard as possible. In a matter of seconds, my heart rate darted up to 170bpms, then when it went up to 174/175bpms (92% of max), I felt good enough to remain working this hard for the duration of the last section. I was loving this!!
As I neared the summit of the Ventoux, cramps suddenly started whipping up in both quads. So near my goal, I simply looked down at both quads dismissively, and admonished them with: “sorry, today is all about me, it ain’t your day, so bugger on off, this ain’t your gig”. And with that, the cramps disappeared!
Soon enough I crested the peak of the Ventoux. The finishing line was laid out across a very narrow, small strip of tarmac at the very top, and the organisers were busy trying to move people off once they’d finished. In my case, the moment I crossed the line, I froze on the spot, such was my pure depletion having emptied everything I had by the finishing line. I stopped rock solid, both legs gushing with cramp, not to mention a sore back. I thought, ‘’okay you sods, now you can have your moment if you really wish, go cramp in style!’’
This showed me how controlled my drive to the line had been, and how focused it was that any sideshow such as cramp, just wasn’t going to get even a peak, sorry lads!!!! I’d made the 170kms stage in 7:05:28 ! Very nice!
The Brit Pack started to find each other, every rider having his own version from his day to recount. It was wonderful we had all come in to this together, succeeded in this together, and were now able to dissect the epic day that had unfolded.
Overall, from 9500 starters I came in around the 1300 mark (top 13%). My ride up Mont Ventoux of 1:49 was my highlight of the day. Riders finishing around the 100 mark overall were timed at around 1:45 for their Ventoux climbs, could this mean the Cols de North London may soon feature on Pros training rosters?
Next day we chewed on our emotions as we chewed on all manner of fuel to restock our depleted stores, nectarines included.
Recurring themes from the Etape were ones of relief, the heat, the gratification, the relentlessness of the Ventoux’s wall, the sense of achievement, the sense of being overwhelmed, and above all else, the togetherness and bond forged among every rider.
Will the Brit Pack be back? Some day, somewhere, we will raise out glasses and fill our bellies once again in celebration of another wonderful day!