At Bédoin there is a clocking-in system. You turn up for your shift on the mountain, stick your brevet card in the machine, and it prints the time on it. You’re at work now.
“4:18”, it says on my card. The first task of the day is a bunch of selfies to show we were here, and then we’re off. Our main task is, variously, to attempt the three notorious challenges of the Club des Cinglés de Mont Ventoux: the Cinglé (for which one must complete the three road ascents), the Galérien (which adds the unpaved Route Forestière) and the Bicinglette (the Cinglé, twice). Then we will see if we have any more ascents in us. I am attempting the Cinglé. I know my place.
The Bédoin ascent is perhaps the most likely to fit anyone’s expectation of a mountain climb. It starts gently before showing its true colours, and although it never becomes brutally steep, it’s an unrelenting piece of geography. It’s steady and constant; the price of the lack of brutal steepness is a corresponding lack of respite. Once the route enters the forest, it remains covered until Chalet Reynard, leaving just the last 6km as the single, deceptively drawn-out section where the summit is visible. With every corner the weather station draws only slightly closer, but eventually it rears up above you, its curiously faded walls offering a somewhat alternative reward to the view of the sunlight rippling across the ocean of peaks to the east.
As we pedal out of Bédoin, I’m wary. We have six in our little peloton, and the pace is maybe a gear or two higher than I’d like for the road out of town. Sure, it’s not really climbing much here, but I’m determined to take this as easy as possible. Slow and steady wins the race. And this isn’t even a race.
I end up scotching that plan a little by deciding to swap my windproof when we pass our gîte in Sainte Colombe, so I spin off ahead of the others and peel off to wrestle with the fiddly door and grab a different top. I re-emerge onto the main road to find some of the group waiting and some gone. We continue together until the road steepens into the forest, and I quite deliberately fall off the back of the group to keep my own pace.
After a while I wonder what gear I’m actually in. I’d tested my hastily-transplanted drivetrain (changing my normal 39×27 low gear for a 34×30) a week previously on a local hill of similar gradient, and had found third gear to be quite comfortable. It’s still dark, so to see how many lower gears remain I click down. I can’t. There are none.
Realising that any nuanced thoughts about gear choices are now redundant, I simply hope that the climb doesn’t throw occasional steep sections at me. To my relief, it doesn’t: that bottom gear turns out to be just fine.
Something just below my right kneecap starts to feel uneasy. I hope it’s a tendon rather than cartilage, but there is little I can do about it: I have some pain-relief gel, but it’s in the gîte, and I won’t be back there until after my third ascent.
The sky is light as the woods thin slightly. Some wooden chalets appear to the right and, shortly after that, Chalet Reynard swings into view. It is a marker for the final push, the visually iconic drag across the rocky upper slopes to the distinctive weather station that crowns Ventoux and is its motif.
I find this section pleasingly unremarkable: having only ridden the Malaucène ascent before, I’d always remembered its final approach to the summit as being cruelly steep, and I’d expected the road from Chalet Reynard to be more benign. This seems to be the case, and as I reach the top to claim my reward of the sun washing across the ridges of the préalpes to the east, I know that I will be relieved when I am back here with that Malaucène climb ticked off.
The descent to Malaucène is glorious. Fast, twisting, and—at this time of day—bereft of downhill traffic. It is not yet 7am, and only the gradually-intensifying stream of cyclists climbing upwards is to be seen at such an early hour. I fly past them, revelling in the whooshing noise that I know they can hear, smug in the thought that they all know I am one-nil up against this mountain already today while they have barely heard the referee’s whistle. I know this winning feeling will not last, and I take what I can get.
A quiche, a can of iced tea, a coffee and a stamp in the brevet card. It is time to remount, to tackle the second climb before the sun becomes too fierce. Malaucène is the hardest of the climbs, and I want it behind me.
Malaucène offers the most variety and, accordingly, the most interest. It mixes switchbacks with lengthy straight sections, offers both shade and heat, and juggles gradients with abandon. The lower half especially is often a game of repeated leapfrogging: some set off too quickly on the shaded lower slopes only to struggle for steam a couple of kilometres later. The terrain plays first to the hands of the powerhouses, then to the spinners; one minute it dishes up bite-sized straights between hairpins, the next it sadistically ladles a long, vertiginous slog onto your plate. It is almost a rouleur’s climb; not for its ability to be tackled at speed, but for its demands of reading the terrain and knowing when to pile on the power and when to hold back, when to drive through in a higher gear and when to spin a lower one. All this before it finally emerges from the trees above Mont Serein, rounds a corner, and presents you with a wall of rock, atop which sits the weather station. Of course, the road switchbacks up this last section rather than mounting it head-on, but the sheer visual punch from this towering expanse of stone is not to be underestimated. It forces you to crane your neck upward, to look your captor in the eye. It is Ventoux reminding you who’s in charge.
I set off out of Malaucène at a steady pace. I switch the Garmin from a page full of altitude data to a page full of distance data, deliberately retiring from the idea of monitoring my progress. The marker posts at the side of the road are more than enough: I can’t avoid seeing the distances displayed on their faces, but I choose not to look at the altitudes shown on their sides.
The road is reasonably busy now. Every hundred yards there is a rider or a small group, most on their first or only ascent of the day. Part of me would love to catch the tail of one of the faster riders and try to race the climb, but to do that today would be obviously stupid. Slow and steady, remember? I’m still managing both of those.
The lower slopes of this climb see much to-and-froing of riders. The climb is constantly changing, constantly playing to different physical strengths, constantly playing tricks with the unwary wannabe grimpeurs whose eagerness outstrips their fitness. I settle into a rhythm, amusing myself by watching others’ pedalling techniques. The guy whose feet angle skywards on every downstroke makes me want to yell at him Que faisez vous?! C’est fou! while the guy whose feet both angle to the left makes me wonder whether he’s dealing with a major issue with his leg joints or simply creating one.
There is a piece of my mind which wants to grab momentum from every slight lapse in the gradient, to hunt down whoever happens to be visible ahead, but even if that part of me didn’t realise that now is not the time, my body’s quick to remind it. The knee is definitely painful now. Manageable, broadly constant, but continually noticeable. I start to suspect I’m compensating for it, but given the fact that I came into this with a bit of a crooked back, it’s hard to be sure.
The long straight leading up to Mont Serein is hard work. I remember it from last time as the second hardest bit; the hardest is yet to come.
The road plateaus here briefly, emerging to a northerly vista of verdant ridges, before rounding a hairpin and turning back upwards through more trees. Shortly after this, my right thigh seizes and suddenly lights up in pain. I stumble off the bike and hobble to the side of the road, where I knead my own leg as if it were the day’s baguette dough, hoping that some uneducated knucklework will somehow fix everything.
Skyward-feet man rides past me. We’d passed and repassed each other a handful of times lower down and this stoppage will clearly hand some sort of victory to him. So be it. This isn’t my home straight.
I strike a balance between waiting for my leg to calm down and putting up with the flies, and I set off. My thigh is making its presence felt, but it’s not seizing up. That’ll do. Onwards and upwards.
After a hairpin-free section that seems longer than I recall from last time, the road eventually delivers the view I’ve been awaiting: the wall of rock across which the road snakes in its final approach to the summit. In my youth, I gave this section everything I had: I wrenched the bike raggedly up that wall, teeth bared, mouth snarling, eyes popping, a grim picture for the people coming down in cars. Today I am more sedate. I drop to that bottom gear again, and just grind it out. Not so fast, not so furious.
Nonetheless, I reach the top fairly exhausted. I dismount inelegantly from the bike and arrange myself in some sort of form on the ground, propped against a wooden barrier. My legs are throbbing, my knee stabbing; but less pleasant still are my lungs, seared and sore from the huge gulps of hot, dry air.
I allow a few minutes to pass before descending to Sault. The day is now fiercely hot and there seems no harm in an extended lunch break to sit out some of the heat. (At least, so goes the rhetoric. We all know that the heat won’t really drop at all until the daylight starts to fade.)
Down, then. From here to Chalet Reynard is a fine opportunity to sweep past other riders and indeed drivers. It isn’t as fast as the earlier descent to Malaucène, but being faster than others is always more satisfying than the speed itself, so it is very welcome.
Beyond Chalet Reynard, the descent is really quite shallow. I am buoyed slightly by this, knowing I will have to ride up it later, but nevertheless I crave some high-speed fun and I see no sense in pedalling hard when I’m overdue my lunch. Gravity pulls a little more enthusiastically on the later slopes, but it still matches neither the Malaucène descent nor the section above Chalet Reynard. Through the lavender fields I roll, emerging into Sault with what energy I can muster for the approach to food and cold drinks. By now it is painful to swallow, so hot and dry is the air: my mouth and throat are parched and start to feel like they are cracking.
Drinks come, and the relief is sublime.
The Sault ascent comes in stages. The first is a drawn-out, gradual rise across the scorching Provençal plain. Today the sun is fierce and the wind weak, so it is draining despite its moderate gradient. From here the route steepens a little through woods full of flies, swirling and jostling to add irritation to the challenge; the occasional waft of a headwind comes as blessed relief in keeping them at bay just momentarily. After this, the gradient eases again and is benign all the way to Chalet Reynard. On a good day, doing this as a single climb, it would hardly be unthinkable to race up this slope with a grin; even today, as the third climb, it’s big-ring material in places. Eventually it emerges at Chalet Reynard and there remains the familiar 6km to the summit. For candidates of the Cinglé this is the final push, the last hurrah, the sole remaining straw to be dumped onto the camel’s straining back.
Riding out of Sault, the thermometer goes north of 40 degrees for the first time. This is properly hot. The water in my bottles was fresh from the cool fountain when I left Sault, but time barely seems to have passed before the same water is unpleasantly warm and, no matter how sore my mouth, totally ineffective at quenching this forest fire of a thirst.
I press on, mindful of my knee, but looking forward to the easier gradients further up the climb. The forest section here is horrible: thick with heat from the morning’s sun, the road is choked with swarms of flies. They’ve been an irritation on all of the climbs, but they are at their worst now. Buzzing, swirling, crawling, it is impossible to keep them away. I blow on my nose and glasses, swipe past my ears, shake my head, even shout at them to fuck off, but only the occasional waft of a headwind can deal with them. It’s a rare occasion to ride a bike and wish for headwinds, but this is very much one of them.
I go up, and as I go up the road gradually becomes shallower. I click up through the gears, leaving the flies behind. Eventually I find myself in the big ring despite my caution: this route is undoubtedly the easiest of the three. My physical state leaves much to be desired by this point, but this part of the hill—did I say hill? from here this mountain feels like a big hill—is generous. On I swoosh, until I round the final hairpin before Chalet Reynard and meet a headwind that slows me, ready for the final stretch.
As I pass Chalet Reynard for the second time I feel a sense of the beginning of the end. Only the last six kilometres to go; six kilometres that I’ve already done. I recall that they were somewhat drawn out, but nonetheless I recall them as less brutal than the final section of the Malaucène climb.
It’s easy to forget, or at least to remember yet fail to fully comprehend, that around 500m of climbing still remains after Chalet Reynard. It is not quite the beginning of the end that it may seem.
It takes a couple more kilometres before I really start to suffer. This is like dragging an air-cooled VW Beetle up the mountain, the engine unable to stay within its design parameters in the heat, and the cylinders refusing one by one to continue firing.
I stop at the fountain and ram my head into the stream of cold, fresh water. It is at once both painful and joyous: too much of a good thing, but I would have dived into a pool of the near-freezing stuff rather than carry on being dried and slow-roasted in the dust and the rocks.
I sit a while. I know my real target lies only a comparatively short climb away: I can afford a little time. I put my head under the tap again, fill my cap with water, dump it on my head, and plod on.
At Tom Simpson’s memorial, I seize an excuse: It’s ok to stop here. You can have a rest. Just sit a while.
Tourists pass in their cars, slowing to look at the carved stone and the offerings of water bottles below it. Some stop and get out to take photos, and busily frame the scene so as to omit the wearied pile of human debris draped across its lower steps.
After a while I realise my urge to sleep has flung open the doors into my brain, wandered in uninvited, and dumped its suitcases presumptiously on the floor. If this urge stays, I will be cooked. The nearest water is at the summit. Someone passes me on a fixed-gear bike, clearly struggling but still looking less wrecked than me. Catching a wave of determination that is barely a ripple on the ocean of fatigue in which I swim, I steel myself for the final time and with an ever-stiffening lower back I clumsily remount the bike. I fail to clip in and nearly fall over, but with the second attempt I am moving again. Slowly, and not even surely, moving.
Each pedal stroke from there to the summit is an individual effort. There never seems to be absolute certainty of any given stroke being completed: every so often a pedal returns to the top and a foot has to pick it up and deal with it as best it can. The VW is down to its last cylinder, lurching its way along with a plaintive “fut-fut-fut”.
But the summit comes. And with it comes a bottle of cold, fizzy water. As I fold myself into a shady corner and tip chilled liquid into my sore, parched mouth, so too comes a crystal-clear realisation: that I have no desire to see this summit again.
There is, beyond this half-litre of cold water, nothing here for me now. The mountain is dead to me. I have seen it from all sides, explored every bit of tarmac, and no reward remains for the considerable effort required to return. Quite how two of our group are summoning the will to return here six times today is beyond my comprehension.
Once more, though, I had said. I had declined the Galérien but I had retained my aim of four ascents. Everyone else in the group was doing at least four. That was my goal.
As I remount and head back down towards Chalet Reynard I know I cannot attempt a fourth just yet. I stick with the plan I had made at the top: return to Bédoin for the final stamp, climb back up to the gîte, have a cold drink and a cold shower, and then see how things are. Play it by ear.
As I descend, my left leg starts to cramp; on a couple of corners I have to catch rear-end slides, not through attacking the descent with the ferocity of speed-fuelled adrenaline, but simply through my braking having become thoughtless and wooden. The sun and the effort have affected more than just blood and muscle. I am desperate to hide from the sun and stand under a stream of cold water.
So focused am I on getting to my shower that it doesn’t even occur to me to binge on ice cream in Bédoin; I obtain the final stamp for my brevet card and jump straight back on the bike and return to the gîte. Once there I grab another drink and, for want of simply falling into a heap, lower myself painfully and awkwardly into a heap.
A shower follows, then I lie on my bed. My knee is still painful, my muscles still strained. I sleep a little.
As I meander in and out of sleep I juggle numbers in my head. At one point it becomes apparent that even if I clear the Bédoin climb in the same time as this morning (a clearly absurd notion) I would still be descending in the dark. Sooner or later the combination of the anticipated miseries of the climb and the anticipated risks of the descent reach critical mass, eclipsing any residual hope that I could summit in a reasonable state or within a reasonable time. If I were to summit again, it would inevitably be a case of repeatedly stopping and restarting, wringing out blood from the stone every time. And if I did summit—in fact even if I didn’t, maybe especially if I didn’t—I would surely be in no state to descend, let alone in the dark and with the wind picking up.
And above all that, I can still hear my own voice telling me from the summit: I do not want to be back here.
The bittersweet decision is made. My total will have to stay at three.
And as I type this on the train home, sweeping through the French countryside and away from that enigmatic peak, I still have no desire to find myself atop it, nor any desire to replay any of the three halves of this oversized game.
Although… I can’t help but remain slightly smitten with the Malaucène climb.
Maybe I could do th—
Not for a while, anyway.