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WACer conquers Giant

Neil Hopkinson reports from the Etape du Tour, Provence, France, 20 July 2009

The alarm went off at 3.30am – ridiculously 2.30am UK time, I reflected on as I put on my cycling gear. It was still pitch black in our hotel room. This is the day that had been on my mind since the Paris Marathon three months earlier, and the running training had been replaced by cycling with one aim - to arrive at the top of Mont Ventoux. It was in October 2008 that the Etape route was officially announced - the Giant of Provence held mythical status amongst cyclists, pros and amateurs alike, and I was keen to take up the challenge.

Mont Ventoux, the ‘Giant of Provence’

All the riders were quiet over breakfast and my stomach wasn’t ready for more food at this hour of the day. Croissants that had tasted so good on the days earlier were forced down, and by 4.30am we were on the coach to Montelimar where the Etape started.

9,500 cyclists in nine different pens were spread along the streets of the town most famous for its production of nougat (pub quiz addicts please note).  Strangely there was no seeding of times (as in the big city marathons) and being almost at the back I was mindful of the need to maintain reasonable speed without burning myself out before the foot of Ventoux, 90 miles ahead.  Unlike in running, where marathons can be completed in a slowish time, the Etape had strict cut off times throughout the route, controlled by the Police and race officials.  The indignity of getting off the bike in to the ‘broom wagon’ was not something I had trained for.

The race was blessed with superb weather. At 7.00am as the race started it was already warm and sunny. Temperatures of 35ºC were forecast and, importantly, light winds on the top of Ventoux. This latter prediction was welcomed by the riders as 300 Km/hour winds had been recorded on the 1912m summit (enough to blow the ears off a donkey according to the locals) and some years earlier, when the Etape last finished on Ventoux, the stage had been abandoned because of blizzards.

As soon as the race started I felt relaxed, the scenery was stunning as we cycled through fields of lavender and vines. From early on the riders were teased with glimpses of Ventoux, sometimes close up, sometimes far away, but no one could forget where this race ended. The towns that the 107 mile race passed through were full of locals turning out to offer encouragement; this was their special week too with the Etape today and the Pros racing through in a few days time. ‘Bon Courage!’, said one lady as I filled up my water bottle.

The first three Cols - Cote de Citelle, Col d’Ey and the Col de Fontaube were spray painted with many messages and the 40-50mph descents were breathtaking. There is simply nothing in England that has this length of climbs and descents. My preparation of doing regular week-end races of 100miles+ seemed to be paying off as at the 70 mile point I felt in good shape and ready for the even bigger challenge that lay ahead.

The penultimate Col - Col de Notre-Dame des Abeilles - was tough, however, and by now riders were beginning to hurt. The sun was now high and there was no respite from its heat.  I saw the first rider get off his bike here for a rest and knew that I needed to be mentally focused from now on.

There are three routes to the top of Ventoux, all difficult, but the ascent from Bedoin (‘the Pro’s route’) is recognised to be the toughest, and this is the route we were going up today. From here there is 23km of climb, with an average gradient of 7.6%. As I arrived at Bedoin, I made sure that my water bottles were full. The first 3km after the village are a relatively straightforward 3% gradient, but when the beautiful forest was entered the gradient raked up, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12% according to my Garmin. I thought there would be shade here under the trees, but it was on the right side of the road where there was a trail of cyclists walking - perhaps 50% had to get off and walk. On the verges was a surreal scene that resembled a war zone, bodies lying amongst the trees, I assumed asleep. The climb is relentless here and the plentiful water that I picked up in Bedoin ran out well before Chalet Reynard. 

Reaching the Chalet is a psychological boost as here the trees disappear and the landscape takes on a moonscape appearance. I stopped here to refuel and importantly pick up more water. Once restarted, the gradient is no less steep but the mild winds offered a hint of cooling and the peak gets ever closer.

Some 100m below the summit is the Tom Simpson memorial.  Famously in the 1960s this rider collapsed doing the Tour de France. ‘Get me back on the bike!’, he uttered before he died, and many thousands of cyclists each year pay respect by pausing before resuming their climb.

The elation when I reached the top was immense. Well over one mile into the sky it felt as though you were on top of the world.

8 hours 23 minutes on the chip timing. Three hours behind the winner, but he was one of the many pros that did it (the French National Champion, in fact, who hadn’t made it onto a Tour de France team) and over two hours before the cut off (which caught out over 2,000 of the starters).

Having just paid my respects at the Tommy Simpson Memorial (in the background), I remount for the final
part of the climb.

Once on the summit I paused to take in the views before a long descent to get a hard earned medal.  It was rounded off with a well-earned beer or two on the coach back to the hotel when we all reflected on an astonishing day.

The lunar landscape approaching the summit of Mont Ventoux

Neil Hopkinson


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