When you hear Ventoux, you think of legend. This mountain was my first big climb back in 2014 after I really got really addicted to road-cycling (I started in 2010), and every enthusiast has Mont Ventoux on their bike-it-list. There is a reason they call it the Giant of Provence; hosting multiple tours, heralding victories, claiming victims, 90kph winds and 1910m of glory. If you bother reading this long long entry, I am sure you are already somewhat familiar with this mountain so need I not explain.
Once I climbed and conquered the mountain in 2014, I went home and the doors to the future of epic ridez on two-wheels opened for me. I continued to climb mountain after mountain, and complete epic rides over and over. As a cyclist, once you begin venturing on big rides and big climbs, you crave for more and more. What you’ve done in the past just isn’t enough and you need a new challenge. While touring the ever-so-beautiful Cévennes with John and Gerry of 44|5 Cycling the week prior, I decided I wanted to climb Mont Ventoux again, this time, THREE times in one day and join the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux (which translates to The Brotherhood of the Madmen of Mont Ventoux). It was a last-minute decision but I decided to do it because:
- I was in the area.
- It was something I always wanted to do.
- Guaranteed 6+ hours of climbing. Yhayyy!!
- I am turning 30 this year and this was the perfect present to myself!
- Why not?
I am not a competitive cyclist and I would never race bicycles. I ride my bike to ride my bike, and there is seriously nothing more enjoyable than that!! I have robust endurance and mental strength, however, I’m not fast… and not slow either. When I am on big group rides, I find myself in the middle, usually at the front of the “B” group, behind the racey guys and in front of the weekend warriors. I have a Garmin but I look at my heart rate more than my distance, speed and cadence. I have Strava but I just like the idea of keeping records and pretty maps, rarely looking back at them. I am your ultimate fake cyclist! My ideal bike rides are long and epic, with lots of elevation but at a laid-back pace so we can take hundreds of pictures and stop for coffee and pastries. I simply love riding my bike.
In the past couple of years, I have really learned to slow down, look up at the scenery instead of fixating my eyes on the pavement in front of me… and to stop and smell the roses every so often.
Fitness-wise, I haven’t ridden consistently since my Japan bike tour in October. I would do 1-2 rides a week, take 2-3 weeks off and do it again. I took a month off due to an injury in February. I think I only did about 4 mountainous rides (slowly where I obviously got dropped!) since I came back from my two months in Asia last November. Back in the day, I could somewhat keep up with the guys or at least not have them wait as long. Prior to my 7 day bike tour in Cévennes before the challenge, I had only began “training” for that tour two weeks prior because I went to NYC for a week where I contracted the flu, so I was out for another 1.5 weeks. I’ve also been traveling between LA, Vancouver and other cities every two weeks since last November. It has not been a good year for me on two-wheelz! Fortunately I did my part to attend spin classes and lifted weights whenever I could, and not to mention, 8+ years of a consistent fitness routine prepared me with muscle memory and a strong mentality. I never think there is anything I cannot accomplish something. It’s all mind over matter.
If you want to do something, JUST DO IT. Don’t let your fitness ability hold you back. You may not complete a ride as fast as you could have in the past but you can still damn well try. A lot of people don’t do things because they are scared but it is a silly concept because you are basically fearing something that has not even happened yet!
Now that is much more ridiculous than attempting to join the Madmen of Mont Ventoux.
To be initated in this exclusive Club des Cinglés, you have to ascend the mountain from each of its three sides: Bédoin, Malaucène, and Sault, totaling approximately 135km and 4300m of elevation, on the same day.
The club has even more insanity you can attempt: the three climbs + Route Forestière or the three climbs twice. WHY would any recreational cyclist even consider doing this? I am not sure… I asked myself the exact same question during the final grueling kilometers of my ride that day when I thought I wouldn’t make it to the top despite it being right in front of me. I guess we do it, well because… the mountain is there. And because we love riding. We love climbing. We are always looking for new challenges. We just want to do it. I guess there are many reasons why people may do ridiculous things for their own amusement and glory, and we are no exception.
Prior to the Climb:
I have a tendency to under-estimate or do things without planning but it works out in my favour because I never have to deal with nerves. I’ve done long rides, big climbs and died from kill-me-now sufferfests numerous times over the years, most of them planned last-minute (winging it) so I knew I could survive mentally and physically …but I did worry about (typical Katy-vain-fake-cyclist-things):
- What kit am I going to wear?! Hmmmm, maybe I should wear a different kit for each climb.
- What am I going to eat?! As a foodie, I get excitement from planning my meals and snacks.
- What if my Garmin malfunctions?!?!?!?! That means the ride would have never happened!! I didn’t bother registering at the official Club des Cinglés website (in the age of Strava) since I was doing this ride last-minute so I was very careful with my Garmin, ensuring I don’t accidentally discard my ride during the day (story of my life). Can you imagine how much that would suck? Back to my question about why we cyclists do things that don’t make sense: so it can appear on our Strava profiles. Sigh.
The Day Before:
After 7 days of riding in Cévennes, I went back to Nice for some time off, then I took a relaxing 3 hour train ride to Avignon 5 days later where I finally caught up on books and podcasts (love taking trains). John picked me up from the train station and drove me to Mazan to check into my cute hotel, which was in a 16th century building —after a grocery store stop, of course. Thank god, I LOVE grocery shopping! Does recreational grocery shopping count as a hobby? I like eating too. Anyway, he picked me up later that evening to get my rental bike and also satisfied my cravings of pasta and gelato before the big day.
Summit #1: Bédoin
I woke up at 5am, had a coffee, banana and a turkey and cheese sandwich. John picked me up at my hotel in Mazan where we saw the sun rise behind Mont Ventoux as we got closer to Bédoin. We arrived at France Bike Rentals where I officially started my greatest day at 6:20am, which is where kilometer zero of the official Bédoin climb began. The beginning was pleasant as I waited for my sore hamstrings to warm up and then I quickly settled into the ceaseless meditation of spinning my pedals. I went to gym to lift weights 2 days prior (in Nice) and also did a nice ride up to Col Saint Roch the day before that so my legs were tired, but fortunately something I am use to.
I caught up to a guy on a mountain bike and we kept played cat and mouse for a few kilometers which was a bit annoying but he finally turned off towards a trail sometime before Saint-Estève when the steep part of Bédoin began into the forest (we saw him ascending the final stretch of Malaucène as we were going down). When I think back to the long and steep (10%+) portion through the forested roads of Bédoin, I was unimpressed by the ‘difficulty’— but only because I tend to forget about most of the hardship I experience on a bicycle and only remember the good. I am sure I suffered a lot but I barely remember those steep grades. All I can recall was being very thankful for the cool morning air, the empty road (didn’t see a single cyclist) and because it was my first climb of this great adventure that was finally reality, I had mucho energy and all I felt was excitement. I felt like I was powered by gratitude! I do remember those pesky bees and flies that wouldn’t leave me alone, and trying to keep my mouth closed as I rode past swarms of mosquitos. Yuck. I need carbs, not protein on a ride like this. #cyclistproblems
Finally out of the trees, I got to experience the famous winds of Ventoux during the final six kilometers while gazing up at the bald mountain top, completely devoid of any vegetation, from Chalet Reynard. I struggled against the gust, fighting with purpose to get to the next turn because every other corner gave me an encouraging tailwind, although only for a couple of meters when it would suddenly turn into a side wind that threatened to knock me off my bike every time… repeat, how many times? 5, 6? I don’t remember and don’t care. My spirits were high and I was going to summit faster than I thought, despite slowing down for all the Snapchats and photos I am known for while riding my bike. Hah. John was also taking lots of photos (another one of my demands) so I was also slowing down to pose and look good (no mid-stroke pedal photos please). I do remember my cadence slowing to a crawl as I hit the wall of wind and thinking to myself, “holy crap this almost as windy as Japan (but in Japan, I didn’t have two more big climbs and was going much faster than 2km/hr), so I reminded myself (because it is totally sane to talk to yourself):
“You will NEVER experience this moment again. EMBRACE IT. Embrace everything.” I focused on the beauty surrounding me, the calmness in my breath, the fatigue in my legs, the beating of my heart, the sweat dripping down my forehead, the slow and consistent churn of the cranks… I was living completely in the moment.
I got to the top at 8:06am, exclaimed how great I felt to John and demanded my summit photo. I wanted to descend right away but he forced me to eat, put on a jacket and told me to meet him in the parking lot below (thanks dad) because the winds were being quite the bully. John ended up driving me down about 5km because I descended only to the parking lot and was so scared that I just stopped and was too scared to move. Dad was right! I guess that’s why I had asked 44|5 Cycling to support me in this endeavour… because of my hardheadedness. I really don’t like to listen to people but thankfully, I learned to appreciate John’s expertise. 😛
There was no one at the top of Ventoux except for us two but soon appeared a cyclist via Malaucène, and then a local rider who was behind me on Bédoin. This barren heaven we cyclists call Mont Ventoux was ours for the moment… before it would soon be filled with a disarray of sweaty lycra, fluorescent jerseys, loud and annoying motorbikes, and humongous busses filled with tourists. The early bird gets the worm.
Summit #2: Malaucène
I descended Malaucene whilst passing by masses of bicyclists who had begun their own silent-suffering up the Giant of Provence. I saw people from all walks of life and ages ascending and it was quite a fascinating sight— I saw a tandem bike, a child and two old ladies amongst everyone else. Everyone wants a piece of this pie! But it was already 8:30am and it was getting hot. I had to hurry. I tucked in and swiftly descended while thinking of what I was going to indulge in at the boulangerie. John and I had a quick breakfast: an espresso, a pastry, and some words of encouragement, and then I was off again.
Malaucène was noticeably more difficult due to the significant rise in temperate and all the steep segments which had no shade from the blazing sun (unlike Bédoin). I can ride in wind and rain unaffected mentally… but extreme temperatures makes things soooo much tougher. I also find the variation in gradients on Malaucène much harder because when you have a consistent gradient over a long distance, it is much easier mentally to “get in the zone.” Despite the physical challenges, I nevertheless still felt great mentally and physically. Unlike Bédoin, I definitely remember how tough this second climb was (mainly due to the heat and worrying about tan lines) but I kept on going, never wavering, never wanting to slow down, rest, nor quit. My focus was razor-sharp and even though I felt my energy gently draining and legs slowing down, I could see the summit in my head so I kept on grinding relentlessly.
I passed a few cyclists but was only passed by 3 men (I guess the majority of the faster riders were over on Bédoin), the first one, whom I passed again on the last switch back, I actually took a selfie with because I was in awe of the view and he made it in one of them by accident right after I passed him, but I had a booger hanging out of my nose so it will never see the light of day. We all made conversation and they gave some encouragement by telling me I was fast (although I’m sure they started way after me)… but sometimes those little compliments can really make a difference, especially during times like this. It’s good to feel strong or at least think you are strong because after all, it’s all in your head.
I summited at around 11:15am and yep, I was right… the top of the mountain was chaos. I took a photo, drank half a can of Coca Cola a.k.a. my “epic-rides-only-drink” (and occasionally all-you-can-eat-hot-pot beverage of choice) and descended right away, eager to get away from the crowds.
I climbed Malaucène three years ago with an ITB injury only about 7 minutes slower than this ascent… that doesn’t make me feel so great. But then can I get permission to blame Bédoin, the heat and my mind on the final climb?! Hehehe. #excusesallowed
Summit #3: Sault
The descent on Sault took some effort. There was wind coming from all directions and I was sure I’d have to deal with some of it going back up. We normally climb a mountain first but on this Cinglés challenge, we have to descend the route first. Flying down the roads (which seemed to take forever), picking up speeds at certain segments (steep!) and knowing you have to ride up this same road the opposite way is a strange feeling. You realize how long the climb actually is. It helps you to REALLY get to know the mountain.
I guess we should have stopped to grab a coffee and a giant sandwich before I began climbing again because this was the only ascent where I actually stopped and got off my bike (to eat). I felt strong physically but because this was my last climb, my mind started playing games with me telling me to pace myself so I could make it… you know that little anxiety you get from being afraid of bonking near the end. The wind I felt descending Sault did not help either because it became head and side wind during the first few kilometers so I thought I’d feel better if I ate some food, although not much real food because I ended up inhaling some cheese crackers and was off again. I am not accustomed to eating much during rides except for my HUMA gels (a terrible habit but I rarely have problems).
It worked because I flew through the rest of rolling hills feeling “like myself” again, passed all the cyclists I saw and then I finally cleared the forested road and arrived at Chalet Reynard to begin the final six kilometers of my day. I had another gel for the final push against the merciless gradients and the unrelenting wind (although not as bad as the morning whilst ascending via Bédoin). It was almost over! Once again, I started up the same laborious six kilometers I was on this morning, to the top of the mountain, feeling great— however, a few kilometers in, as the winds became more tenacious and the road got steeper, I started to feel… worn… discouraged… no, I don’t know the right word to describe it.
So began the longest and most miserable three kilometers of my life. It was seriously never-fucking-ending. *I wish I could insert a million exclamation marks here.*
To get an idea of how slow I was, here are my times from Chalet Reynard to the summit on the first and last climb:
- Bédoin: 35:35
- Sault: 47:08
Note that I did not bonk! I know how bonking feels like… but during the final three kilometers, my mind decided to shut down for the day. I simply felt mentally exhausted. I get myself through tough situations by talking to myself, repeating mantras, etc., but it seemed as if I have exhausted all my tricks and nothing was working! I was still feeling strong and my legs wanted to continue spinning but everything suddenly got real tough all because negativity started to engulf my mind. My knuckles were white as I grasped onto my top bar and clashed with the wind. It was driving me insane and all of a sudden, I felt as if my legs were turning into concrete. I tried to embrace the moment again as I did in the morning… but only did so half-heartedly.
I ran scenarios through my head: What if I give up? Omigod, it would feel so nice to get off my bike and lay down for a bit… maybe I should stop at the Tom Simpson memorial to take a picture (an excuse to stop and take a break). I questioned my existence. I was grumpy (low blood sugar) and got annoyed at every loud and annoying motorcycle passing me. I ignored John and all the roadside photographers I would have normally posed for. I didn’t bother to wipe the ugly grimace off my face. I felt the sun burning lines into my skin (ew to tanlines). The tower only seemed to be getting further away. What the hell is going on?! Everything was great until now. I felt as if I was cemented in eternity.
We all know that visualization is a great motivator and seeing that majestic tower at the top of Ventoux right in front of me was the motivation I needed. When I reach my arms out, it felt as if I could have touched it. Fortunately, all those negative thoughts were just the typical passing thoughts I frequently experience on the bike because they simply came and went and deep inside, I already knew I would never give up… I knew I could overcome it but just not without a fight.
Bienvenue au Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux!!
I turned the final corner and it was steep so I exerted my last ounce of energy to stand up and push forward. A car drove by and three guys shouted allez allez and gave me a thumbs up. I could see John right in front of me at the crest of the mountain with the camera ready and shouting for me to push through those last few meters. I told myself I should probably sprint with glory to the finish but I was too tired to care. All I could think of was: “man I am going to have a really shitty finishing photo.” while not even trying. Suddenly, I was once again at the top of Mont Ventoux. I thought my completion of this ridiculous Cinglés challenge would be a little more exciting. It was 1:55pm.
John: “Do you want to take your photo?” (and he knows I NEVER say no to a photo).
Me: “No. I need a drink… now!!!! I don’t care about anyone or anything!!!!“
I went to the van, downed a can of Fanta, a banana and some crackers while staring into space and a few minutes later, I finally returned to my normal self. I hopped out of the van and demanded my final summit photo from John. Yeah baby! I had completed the Ventoux Cinglés!
The summit crowds had cleared up a little since my second climb and because I was done, I wanted to linger around to enjoy the top of this glorious mountain we were on. I later only decided to descend because I really had to use the washroom and I was itching to get some ointment on my painful saddle sores. I think John was glad because he did some of the day’s hardest work, following me up and down the mountain. For me, I guess I had already seen the summit three times too many today.
Au revoir, Mont Ventoux.
To my dismay, the descend on Bédoin was another windy one where I had to pedal and use effort— legs were totally disliking it! But I knew I was almost home. Then it was deja-vu… we were back where we started 8.5 hours ago. I realized it was over and couldn’t believe it! I wanted to do it again! Nah, just kidding. That’s what I would normally say but I was exhausted. I wanted to shower, food and bed (in that order).
I didn’t want to go out for dinner so John drove me to the grocery store where I picked up semi-healthy fare and then some junk (vanilla wafers!). Since I cannot function while feeling dirty, the first thing I did was shower, then I had a tuna salad with some bread and cheese (I had planned my dinner during the ride since I had too much time to think about mundane things). Throughout the night, I also had some turkey cold cuts, more bread, strawberry panna-cotta and my vanilla wafers (I’ve been craving for these for a year but did not let myself eat them until after this challenge, hah). I laid in bed, perused my Strava stats, made some phone calls, edited photos and dozed in and out of sleep for the next two hours, until I finally dragged myself out of the hotel to soak in the last bit of sun for the day (a half-assed attempt to even out my tan lines).
I woke up the next morning feeling excellent, and no soreness or tightness (although I can’t remember the last time I felt sore after a bike ride). Mind you, I do stretch after a big ride like that (hip flexors, ITB, glutes, hamstrings, etc), used my beastie ball, and take fish oil which helps with inflammation. I had breakfast and then took the train back to Nice. The end.
What I would do differently:
- Bring my own seat. The unfamiliar saddle contributed to the misery of my final climb which led to the gradual decline of my positivity. Thankfully it didn’t start until the end but Ibuprofen would have been really nice.
- Take my [last] caffeinated HUMA gel at the end of Sault instead of beginning. My caffeinated HUMA Gels seriously does WONDERS and I am sure it would have made a difference… even though it is most likely a placebo-effect, I am in denial. I brought a whole box of assorted flavour HUMA gels with me to Europe and unfortunately only had 3 left for the challenge (one for each ascent). These are my saving grace… my pain-killers (is that cheating?). I used my very last precious caffeinated pack at the wrong time which seemed like a major common-sense hiccup.
- Eat more. Eating is my nemesis on the bike because I rarely get hungry but I eat out of necessity. I am sure I could have gone faster and pushed harder with more real food in my body. I usually forget to drink water as well but after training in the super hot and dry LA the past year (versus a much cooler Vancouver), I did very well, and thanks to John for refilling my bottles on the go.
- Ascend Malaucène first. Less shade so it would be better earlier in the morning and as I mentioned earlier, variable gradients are tougher for me.
- Stop going on my phone. My dad likes to call me a “distractive rider” (in his broken English) because I am always taking shameless selfies, Snapchatting, and fiddling around with my music… all while on the bike. But I think my photos are worth it… =(
My Strava Times:
- Bédoin: 1:47
- Malaucène: 2:03
- Sault: 2:06
I didn’t ride as fast as I could but I didn’t go at a leisurely pace either, although I am really sure I could have shaved off a few minutes off each climbed if I stayed focus and did not take photos, selfies and numerous takes on Snapchat. Millennial problems! #dontselfieandride
So there you go… that was my longest day on the legendary Giant of Provence. One that I will never attempt again because it is simply too crazy and the world is too big with too many mountains to climb… but I am glad I did it because I think initiation into the Club des Cinglés is something every crazy cyclist should accomplish at least once in their life time. If you are really really crazy, you can do it again and again… but I am not that crazy! I am only crazy (singular), so that’s why I did it.
I am not sure what the average time for the Cinglés is but I did mine in 7:21 moving time (8:35 total). I guess I am quite happy with my effort and surprised myself, knowing where my current fitness level lies. I didn’t do any research and didn’t set any goals, other than to finish. I definitely didn’t ride hard but I didn’t take it easy either. I felt great mentally and physically and enjoyed every kilometer of the ride… except for the last three, which I believe, is a delightful ratio. I feel as if I’ve achieved something great, but at the same time I feel very neutral about it… my mind is already on my next adventure and unfortunately still trying to forget that final three kilometers!!!! A friend suggested the Défi des Fondus de l’Ubaye (a.k.a. death x7)… he’s already complete this twice! I will be happy if I get 4 cols and am definitely going to need a SAG van AND an ambulance following me, but I’m sure John and Gerry can arrange it all for me.