Les Routes du Ventoux

Sunday 12th September 2010
Mont Ventoux probably owes most of its fearsome reputation to the tragic 1967 death of top British cyclist Tom Simpson during the Tour de France.  I can still remember at 8 y.o. seeing this tragedy on television. It was probably the first time I’d heard of the Tour de France and it wouldn’t be until 1984 that Robert Millar would win the “King of the Mountains” title, bringing our attention back to this incredible race. Simpson’s immortal last words were “Put me on my bike”. His death is often attributed to “exhaustion” but that is normally impossible. He was certainly killed by drug abuse.
I drove down to the Southern Alps the day before the race, fortunately in time to register before the 7pm closing time. The race was to start and finish in Villes-Sur-Auzon – a small town in the middle of nowhere but dominated by the impressive Mont Ventoux. Fortunately I’d emailed the organisers in advance and knew that registration was at the “salle polyvalent”. On arrival the town name wasn’t even visible but luckily I spotted a small sign for “salle polyvalent” and made a bee-line for it. Sure enough there was the registration stand and I’d made it with 5 minutes to spare after a 4hr motorway trip. The start was to be at 08:30am in the morning at about 200m from this point, just outside the town. Visiting this site and speaking to people setting up equipment it transpired that the finish would be at the other end of town about a kilometre away and there was parking and even a campsite there. Typically none of this information was publicised. With bearings established I parked up in town to look for a restaurant.
The climate was much warmer at this lower altitude and latitude. Walking through town I spotted one cyclist sitting in an outdoor terraced restaurant eating a copious plate of spaghetti bolognaise and decided that was where to eat. Thoughts of sitting close to him and engaging conversation about the race were quickly squashed when he unbelievably lit up a cigarette. There is no way that a smoker could participate even half seriously in such an event. Smokers are not only physically wrecked but they are so mind numbingly unconscious about their own health that they care absolutely nothing for the health of others in their proximity. The waitress however was amazing, very friendly with everyone and speaking in English at every opportunity – so totally un-French for a French woman. After the meal I drove to the parking near the finish line – it was quiet there and perfect for sleeping. The place would be busy in the morning so perfect and secure for leaving the vehicle parked for the day.
On the morning of the race it was an early start – at 06:15am with porridge cooked with a banana. While the porridge was cooking I made up three bottles of sports drink – one for now and two for the race. This sports drink is called “4:1” because it contains carbs to protein in that proportion. It’s now understood that it’s better to include protein during exercise to prevent muscle protein from being broken down and consumed for energy. I also prepared a high density chocolate pre-race food mix – that ultimately couldn’t be eaten at all after the porridge and banana.
Sleep had been fine but perhaps due to an underlying physical tiredness (legs were sore from technique changes during the week) or due to eating too much in the evening, it was impossible to breathe through the nose. I was aware during the night of being forced to breathe through the mouth – so that was not a great sign – meaning the body is under stress somewhere. (Later it transpired that Christiane at home had a full blown cold – perhaps it was my system dealing proactively with that virus that caused the breathing issues).
Cycling though town early I found a small cafe open and bought a very welcome coffee. There was a bit of queue of cyclists there – all engaged in the same pre-race ritual – drinking coffee and then visiting the toilet. Despite this being my third toilet trip this morning I knew – correctly – that I’d still need to pee again five minutes before the start of the race – and that if I didn’t I’d need to stop to do it during the course. Don’t know if it’s due to the pre-race sports drink or due to tension.
The Race
Two courses were proposed – the short 100km or the long 151km course. I’d registered for the long one – but with plenty doubts lingering over the wisdom of such an endeavour.
Here is a link to the “official” French account of the race – a good opportunity to improve your French…
Here is a direct link to the results for the 151km course…
The course plan below shows the extra loop (to the right) added for the long course. The “white” splodge is the bare, wind blown, sandy summit of Mont Ventoux – the “Giant of Provence”. 
Organisation of the race was to be a problem throughout. This is very unusual in France and it’s the first time I’ve encountered such shortcomings. There was no electronic timing – just a number to pin to the back of your shirt. The start of the race was neutralised by a security vehicle for the first 1.4km so as to get safely through the town and into the countryside. It appeared however that the security car was holding up the main peloton for most of the first 30 minutes.
There was a terrible tendency for the peloton to bunch tightly and grind to a halt for no apparent reason – exactly as in a motorway traffic jam. The narrow roads may have been the real cause though with 420 riders all charging along together. Inevitably there were some nasty pile ups. The first pile up was the most spectacular with at least a dozen riders on the ground and in the ditches at the side of the road, bikes broken and carnage everywhere. This happened at around kilometre 10. There may have been other incidents going on further behind as the main peloton was about 25% of the riders, but I didn’t hear about any. I managed to stay with the main peloton for much longer than usual, around 40 minutes, but instinctively remained at the back because it felt dangerous. The big pile up took place near the front of the peloton but despite this I almost didn’t manage to stop in time – with the back wheel in the air due to powerful breaking and the guy in front of me leaving the road and falling off. There’s a danger at the back of the peloton that you will get dumped if there is a break further ahead but it was worth that risk for the safety advantage. A few kilometres further and once again bodies and bits scattered across the road. Despite the delays at the back due to the accidents ahead the peloton remained intact.
The concertina action of the peloton continued for the entire 40 minutes until the “Col de la Madeleine” (yet another Col de la Madeleine!). It had been very hard work keeping with the main peloton but the new pedalling technique was making it possible. On the first climb I pushed hard to avoid being dropped as a split had opened up just ahead. One rider I overtook shouted in French “take off the motor” – a humorous allusion to mechanical doping! Understanding his humour I replied – Not yet! The pedalling technique was certainly having the desired effect. The joker beside me was no 179, Jean Luc Caret-Tournier from Chamonix. His humour did not let up all day and I was destined to encounter him several times.
Very early on it became clear that nasal breathing was not an option today and that it was best to resign to mouth breathing and make the best of it by at least trying to reduce ventilation as much as possible.

Jean Luc was an excellent descender and a great bike handler on the corners. Unfortunately I didn’t find out about his background but heard him say to someone else that he came from Chamonix – which most certainly means that he skis – thus the fearless descending. It was a good lesson following him into the bends – but a bit scary as it was faster than I’m accustomed to. On one such bend someone braked in front of me and forced me to brake – not a good idea. The back wheel slid out a bit during the bend but recovered – so from then on I stayed wide of anyone who was indecisive and hesitant. The Col de la Madeleine split the peloton and I was still very happy to be in the second group and fighting. This was real racing, unrelenting, fast and hard. Lack of technique had deprived me of this experience up until now, but the scary thing was a question lingering in my mind: “Could I possibly keep up this totally frantic pace?”
Before long we were on the long 21km climb up Mont Ventoux. Jean Luc’s presence behind me was evident from his fast and loud unconscious breathing – at least twice as fast as my own. This was reassuring for me to hear because it probably meant that he was having to work harder than me. Breathing gets pushed up due to lactic acid accumulation. It’s a bit of a trap really because the hyperventilation response to lactic acid then leads to a drop in CO2 levels in the lungs and blood and this creates an oxygen deficit. Basically, the panting and heavy breathing to try to get more oxygen have the opposite effect. I had no doubt that Jean Luc would outlast me because he was obviously very experienced – but it would have to be due to some other weakness in my conditioning or performance.
There was one tiny refreshment stand somewhere on the middle of the climb and as I’d hardly consumed any of my own drinks there was no point stopping. In all I consumed less than two litres of liquid and one very small almond/marzipan bar during the race.
To my surprise the Ventoux climb was not turning out to be so difficult. There were very long stretches of 11%+ gradients, but the pedalling technique was working miracles. Normally I’d be brutally dropped right at the start of something like this – but today was different. Nobody overtook me on this climb. The front peloton had disintegrated now and the stragglers were being reeled in. This was interesting. Fortunately there was no real wind yet as Mont Ventoux is reputed for high winds – that would come later! Having started early the heat wasn’t too bad either. There was no need for a windbreaker for the descent on the other side – the coolness of the summit being welcome. The top of the Ventoux was a bit crowded with tourists and there was very little in the way of traffic control for the race – in fact very little had been seen all along and the traffic was heavy enough to be uncomfortable. The route was marked with crude white arrows and “RV” painted on the road – but there were no signs at eye level and very few people signalling. During the descent I almost took a wrong turn but fortunately spotted someone ahead – it was a close call.
The effort to climb Mont Ventoux was not negligible. After about 02:20hrs of intense effort from the start  it would be hard to maintain that on the descent. I’d been isolated on the summit but there were several riders just ahead so I used my descending skills to catch them up. Just at the point of catching them there was the confusion about direction and everyone seemed to evaporate – fortunately leaving me in the right direction but alone again. For several minutes there was a period of “relaxation” where there was just no motivation to push hard – then out of the blue appeared Jean Luc hammering past me – as usual on the descent. There was no choice but to catch on to the train… Jean Luc’s descending quite frankly scared me. He had someone else with him who was also very good – a match for him in terms of bike handling. I had to slow slightly on the bends and then put the power on each time to catch up again. This certainly brought me back to life and got me racing properly again. All the time my head was telling me that my legs won’t make it  – it’s too fast. In fact there wasn’t too much time to worry about that due to the frightening speed of the descent and cornering – which was probably a good thing. It was really important to hang on because those guys would be good fighters and team mates on the flats later, where becoming isolated would be a disaster – especially as the wind was picking up throughout the day. In the end we formed a bunch of about five riders and continued with fast progress right up to Sault.
At Sault there was a fat guy acting as a signaller in the middle of the road and he stood there doing nothing. After passing this dumpling Jean Luc, slightly ahead of me suddenly pulled over. I knew that the branch off location for the two different courses was in Sault so I guessed there was a problem – but had to shout a few times to Jean Luc and others to be sure that we had taken the wrong course. Jean Luc somehow had a clearer idea and backtracked. Soon I caught on and was behind him – but a bit too far behind. By the time we had reached Sault our group had grown to around 10 riders, but nearly all had taken the short course – which is why we followed them at first. Only three of us were aiming for the long course and only one got it right first time. Apparently it had been marked on the road about 50m before the turn off but I saw absolutely nothing. Really crap organisation and signalling – which is what I shouted to the great dumpling when I went past again in the other direction. Jean Luc had luckily caught up and teamed with the other guy and there was no way I could catch the two of them working together – so I was dumped, isolated and annoyed all thanks to useless practically non-existent course organisation – for which 420 people had each paid 35 euros!!!  
Just as I was beginning to despair someone out of nowhere caught up and went past me fast, so I stepped on the gas and jumped on his tail. He didn’t seem interested in rotating the workload so I happily just let him pull. We were on flats and descents in general at this point so ahead I knew that Jean Luc would be in his element and not holding back. My tow was going great guns though and it didn’t take long to bridge the 300m or so gap and catch up with the others. We then all continued to work in rotation for a while, especially as the terrain was now alternating between climbing and flats. Suddenly the powerhouse who had pulled me up to the others vanished. It turns out that he wasn’t in the race – he was just some guy out for his Sunday ride! That was a real stroke of luck by any standard. Never-the-less Jean Luc was quite impressed that I had caught up again. 
Eventually another group of four caught up with us, probably because we managed to lose more time getting lost again. This time I had a tap on the back and a wave from a rider who had been discussing bikes at the start of the Ventoux climb – he was on a Lapiere bike today but had bought a Canyon like mine and was also very pleased with it. Up ahead of us was what resembled a wall going up a few thousand feet and we were due to climb it. The climb was ominously named “Col de l’Homme Mort” which means “dead man’s pass”. My energy level was dipping and it was clear that it was going to be tough. Sure enough I had to let go of the group and start to fall behind – but very much less than usual. Looking at the Garmin the speed was still about 12km/hr which is respectable for me on any climb – so once again I was surprised. There was no trouble keeping form with the pedalling technique. Fortunately I’d put a couple of almond/marzipan bars in my pocket and decided that there was nothing to be lost by trying to eat something. It was extremely difficult to swallow anything, but with some of the energy drink it was eventually possible to consume one bar. Very shortly after this the energy started to return to the legs and the gap to the others lessened instead of increased. Strangely the energy drink itself didn’t do the job – though admittedly I hadn’t even consumed a litre of the stuff and had covered over 90km including the Ventoux before starting to feel tired. It was now about 3:35hrs into the course and way past time to eat something. Jean Luc had swallowed a banana several kilometres back and it looks like he had made a good move.
Further up this climb there was another (the second and final) refreshment stand. Normally they don’t have them during a climb but wait until you get to the top so that you are capable of eating. Did I say the organisers were useless? Even worse there were no cups for drinking. I had emptied packets of 4:1 powder into my water bottles and filled them with water so now it was not possible to drink any clear water or orange juice. I just grabbed one of the big drums of water and poured it directly into my mouth and all over me. It was boiling hot by now so the shower was welcome however I choked and could hardly breathe for the next few minutes as I clipped in and resumed cycling and choking up the hill.
Altogether four people overtook me on this 10km climb so it wasn’t too bad. Jean Luc had vanished into the distance with the group but in the results he placed only five minutes ahead so that appears to be all that was lost on the climb altogether. 
On the flats at the top of the climb of the dead man’s pass I wasn’t completely dead but was certainly tired and a bit demotivated, but hanging in. That’s when I first met race number 83, Albert Sannier. Albert was clearly in a younger age category (so was Jean Luc!). Albert went past me and there was no response from me. On the descent he steadily pulled away. The problem was that this “descent” was due to last more than 50 kilometres and it was directly into a very strong wind which had whipped up at the end of the morning. Albert got about 250m ahead by the time we arrived on some flats and small climbs. There was no one ahead for him to catch and only me behind. He kept looking behind to see where I was so I understood what was going through his mind. My energy level had somehow recovered after the rest during the descent and so I could power up the small climbs. When Albert saw that he was not pulling away and that the gap was closing he got smart and slowed down to let me catch up. He then stayed in front for five minutes to let me recover and then we started to work hard together – an excellent partnership that lasted right to the end of the course. 
Quite frankly I was apprehensive when Albert slowed down because I still didn’t know if I was up to it. My legs were tired and painful, but apparently still functioning. The pedalling technique was fundamental in this process. We simply shared the work against the wind. Albert continued to be stronger on the descents and  I seemed stronger on the climbs. The final 5km climb “la montée des Gorges de la Nesque” was carried out at round 20km/hr. We caught up with a pair who had been occasionally visible ahead in the distance. The wind appeared to have worn them out and they were dead on the climb, just crawling up. At one other point we passed a rider just sitting by the roadside recovering. Perhaps, like some others on the Ventoux he had been forced to stop for cramps. I broke the ice with Albert by mentioning that it was good to finally catch a few others after all that effort and then Albert opened up – he was relatively chatty from then on – as much as you can be when descending a mountain pass at around 60 km/hr and negotiating tight blind bends. Albert’s bike handling was good too, perhaps not as scary as Jean Luc’s – but very competent. We just pushed as hard as we could towards home. About 1500m from the finish we were taking it just a little bit easier when Albert turned around and spotted a group of about 10 riders bearing down hard on us. When he announced that it was my turn to take the reins so I just said “let’s go” and put the power on  as hard as possible. Albert held on to my wheel and eventually when I ran out of steam he got in front and pulled me along for the final few hundred meters. The last 1500m was spent with the heart back up at the top of the lactic threshold zone again. The other group didn’t get any closer and I was quite happy to let Albert cross the line before me – in the same time.  Before the end I thanked Albert for having waited 50km back – he was intelligent about that and it had made a real difference.
My official time was 05:25’55” 
Overall position 58th (out of 126 including 15 abandons), 7th in age group (out of 19).
First place was 04:31’04”
10th place was 04:48’15”
1st woman was 05:29’26”
Jean Luc was 05:19’05”
Charts represent heart rate against time and distance respectively. (Expand by clicking)
The drop in performance after the Ventoux was clear – with the steady decline associated with lowering blood sugar levels and possibly dehydration. Still need much better management of food intake.
My max heart rate on the day was only 168 – which is not high (185 is max) – which probably indicates the tiredness / overtraining / illness present from the start. 
As far as a “test” of technique or anything else goes it was a MAJOR step forwards.

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