Mont Ventoux – Froggie Odyssey

Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence – what an exceptional venue for the first race of the season! Scary to begin with such a monster climbing event though.


The van is dead so the carefree days of just turning up and sleeping in a nearby car park are over at least for the time being. Organisation and timing were required instead of spontaneity – but that’s probably a good thing. Expenses are quite high for those events if you want to do them regularly – 70€ fuel, 50€ road tolls, 35€ entry fee – if you add to that food and accommodation it’s not really sustainable to be doing this every week. I decided to help reduce the cost by camping – and for only 36€ bought a “pop up” tent. The design of the tent is quite incredible, a really excellent piece of design making basic camping simple and rapid. One slight worry however was a rather large notice inside the tent stating “This Tent Can Burn” – I guess this is a risk you take when you buy a cheap tent made in China.  

Driving alone without someone to read a map for you is when the GPS really does help. The distance was 336km and due to leaving at 3pm on Friday and the camp site closing at 7pm it meant that I couldn’t hang around. Negotiating the speed traps is perhaps the worst part of driving in France – even on the expensive toll roads the gendarmes are out with mobile units trying to boost their income at your expense. Driving has simply become unpleasant since speed traps started to appear everywhere – you can’t focus on driving because you have to be paranoid about your speed and forever looking at the speedometer. Arriving with plenty of time to spare I staked out my spot at the municipal camp site of Beaumes de Venise a beautiful ancient village where the race was to begin at 08:30am the following morning. Camps sites like this don’t take advance bookings so if you are working on Friday there is no way that you can turn up late in the evening and get access – this is the classic way that the French do business – making it as awkward as possible. I popped up the tent and went into town to sign up for the race. The emplacement next to mine had a camper van with an enclosed awning, table, chairs and even flowers. There’s something completely incongruous about domesticating a camp site location to this extent. Unfortunately camping in the wild is pretty much forbidden throughout France. There should be a law allowing anyone to put up a tent anywhere for a night – as long as they move on the next day.  
Local small businesses do well out of those events with several hundred people attending over the weekend. Regardless of this fact – as usual – it was impossible to find a restaurant willing to adapt and provide meals that would permit carbohydrate loading. Everything was meat and sauce oriented. Eventually I had to settle for a pizza. One thing really hits home in this area of France and that is despite its great beauty and warm climate it is very poor. The only business in the area (other than tourism) seems to be the vine yards and wine making – which doesn’t seem to sustain a whole population. You wouldn’t want to leave your car parked alone with all you gear in it for too long and it feels more like being in a dodgy banlieu of Marseille.
The bike was fully prepared in advance with the only requirement being to pump up the tyres to 110psi in the morning and oil the chain with special nano tech oil – which I’d left off for transporting the bike in the car. Racing tyres and tubes were fitted in advance and the gears adjusted to operate smoothly.
My Garmin Forerunner 305 is starting to have battery problems so to be sure I’d brought my laptop to use for charging the unit. In the tent I ended up leaving the computer operating on standby all night so that it properly had the GPS unit charged in the morning. I don’t think I’ll buy another Garmin because not only do they not upgrade firmware as well as they could but they have put this unit on the market without the ability to change the battery.  The Garmin also computes distance using horizontal distance and not slope distance – basically it doesn’t take GPS altitude into account when computing distance. This isn’t a problem where there are long inclines but when topography is very changeable then it does accumulate a significant error. The 305 can record distance from an odometer sensor but the idiotic Garmin engineers did not allow the unit to record distance from both GPS and odometer so that comparisons could be made – likewise when you enter a long tunnel the GPS stops but the odometer can’t take over. Garmin=Stupid Design. The dedicated cycling GPS units look quite impressive but the maps are really expensive and I don’t even want to find out what level of stupidity Garmin has engineered into them. We’ll just have to wait until smart phones evolve a little more and then Garmin is dead. The latest Sony Xperia Arc phone has a built in Ant+ chip for working with sports sensors – heart rate monitors etc.

Before going to bed I cooked my porridge and mixed the chocolate high energy goop so that there was no work to be done in the morning. Almost immediately on going to bed (on a good thick auto inflated expedition mattress) there was a loud cacophony of what sounded like demented ducks or geese. The noise was loud but tended to die away after a while – it wasn’t constant. I imagined a duck pond close by and perhaps a fox or cat tormenting them – but then an owl joined the chorus. Eventually it seemed that the owl would start hooting and then the ducks would react. Something else flew overhead making a sharp rasping sound but I’ve no idea what it was. It was to this ongoing symphony that the night passed in an uneasy sleep awakening at 6am to a bright clear day, an hour before the set alarm.
The sky was so clear that it was worth the risk to leave any extra clothing behind even though the Ventoux is almost at 2000m altitude (from 85m at Beaumes de Venise). This would be the first race wearing the colours of La Plagne and all that was needed in the pockets were a couple of small energy gels and a spare tube. The two 500ml water bottles had a protein/energy/isotonic mix added. It was the first time using new Camelbak bottles. Camelbak have as usual stepped well ahead with design – the bottles were great. No more opening and closing – they remain permanently open but only release liquid if you squeeze or suck – plus there is a lock that makes them properly drip proof for transporting. The plastic is also free of the harmful ingredients for which hard plastic bottles have developed a bad name recently – and along the same lines there is no plastic “taste”. I also appreciate that the filling hole is wider than normal which makes it much easier to ladle powder mixes into.
Prior to the race it’s important to take some time to warm up the muscles. The problem is that if you do this close to the time of the race departure then you are guaranteed to be behind several hundred others at the start. If you go to the start too early then you have a long wait and the muscles cool down. During the warm up I could feel that my legs were not strong. Only two days earlier I’d been ridiculously slow on a climb but continued just to keep the legs working. It had been impossible to recover from a monster workout on Monday. I’d been hoping that the legs would still recover in time but although they were a lot better they were not great. The start was divided into two groups – those on the long course (about 300) would begin in front and the rest behind (about 350). I ducked under the tape and joined about a half way though the second group because I had opted for the short course, this being the first race of the season and my training not going very well so far. Basically I was confident that I’d find fast enough people to work with regardless of where I started and because over an 86km course it would climb about 2700m, it would be mostly up and down anyway, so slipstreaming isn’t so important. The timer was electronic and attached to the bike frame.
The start of the race was fairly uneventful – no pileups or crashes, perhaps because it began straight away with a climb. There would be about an hour of riding with one col to pass before arriving at the foot of the 20km climb up Ventoux itself. I remember one woman dressed in rose and white starting just ahead of me and was interested because she had a much faster cadence than most and seemed to be doing well due to her light body weight or good power to weight ratio. Unusually for me I don’t recall much of that first hour of cycling except that I already noticed a tendency for me to overtake a lot of people on the descents and then for some of them to catch up again on the climbs. That’s what happens when you are too fat! The weakness in the legs was also noticeable during some of the climbs near the start – but not disastrously so. This was also the first ride this year over one hour where my heart rate would average 83% (158bpm). That was the average over almost 4 hours so this was really ramping things up a lot. Both the increased intensity and the leg weakness would be hidden to a large extent simply by the adrenaline created by the race. That first hour involved a lot of overtaking in general – perhaps catching a lot of the slower people who were heading out on the long course which only split off after the upcoming Ventoux climb.
Shortly after the start of the Ventoux climb the woman in rose and white from the start overtook me again and this time I was not going to be able to stay in contact. Most people who passed me however were only crawling ahead of me and not opening up too big a gap. In general I was holding my own quite well. The pizza from the evening before was still giving me a sore stomach which was not aided by all the rest of the carbo loaded junk I stuffed myself with in the morning. The feeding strategy, however unpleasant, seemed to pay off because there was no need to eat during the race and no loss of concentration or hypoglycaemic dip. Drinking the sugary/protein mix however did cause me to burp a bit – but it’s simply hard to drink when you can’t relax your output level. About the only time you can relax properly is when slipstreaming on flatter ground – and there wasn’t any of that until about half an hour before the end of the race.  Near the middle of the climb the gradient hits 11% and stays like that for 3 kilometres. It’s probably this section that gives the Ventoux its fierce reputation. One bystander, intending to encourage me announced “c’est plus facile aprés” which when directly translated says “it’s easier after”. I replied to him “It’s always easier ‘after’!” Quite a few people commented on the “La Plagne” club colours as we passed – always friendly of course. One guy on seeing the name as I overtook him said that I’d be able to climb this “tout seul” – that it would “happen by itself”. However I could feel the lack of strength in my legs so just focussed on compensating as best as possible through good technique and keeping good efficient form. Quite a lot of people were cracking, clearly dropping back or actually stopping. I knew there was no danger of that for me, but was just disappointed at my lack of conditioning, uncomfortable stomach, over large stomach and slight kidney ache. The last few kilometres near the summit are tough because you can see them way above you and my legs were just starting to tie up by this time, plus there was a slight headache that goes along with prolonged over-exertion. To my own surprise though I got up off the saddle and accelerated for the last few hundred meters overtaking several others who had been grinding slowly past me on the way up. It’s amazing the reserves that can remain when you think that you are done. Passing over the top there was a sense of relief more than anything else. 
It takes me a while to recover enough from climbing to be able to drink properly so I just focussed on catching people up and overtaking – especially on the bends. Most people cannot judge corners very well – perhaps they don’t get much practice. Some guys are fearless descenders and can leave me behind – but they are few and far between. During the descent on the main road I overtook perhaps a dozen riders, until the bifurcation for the two courses. When we hit that point I was suddenly abandoned on my own – the group that was around me were all going on the long course. For a while I continued the descent alone and then someone ripped past me on a gentle gradient so I accelerated and slipstreamed until we got to the main descent and narrower winding roads. This guy was a good descender so I was happy to sit behind him. He couldn’t judge the bends very well though so while he pedalled like mad to get ahead on the straights I’d just relax and get right back up to him on the tight bends. He had a good attitude though and didn’t hesitate in overtaking cars and any obstacles that might have slowed us down. Overall we tore past another dozen riders who had not been even visible ahead of us prior to this section of the descent and a tidy group formed for working together on the plateau ahead. The group turned out to be quite fast and this really upped the pace on the return leg – until we came to another col to climb over. There was a lone rider ahead who must have been quite strong and we had been catching him gradually but he was good enough to keep us at bay. Eventually on the climb I knew that I just couldn’t keep this pace up and had to let the group slip away. They caught up with the lone rider a short while later and all pulled away together during the climb. I was happy to let them go because it was just overdoing it too much for me to stay with them – even if the climbs were likely to be quite short. Before reaching the top I saw that even the lone rider had been left behind by the charging group. 
Looking around me there was no one behind so I felt that I’d be completing the course on my own now having lost the group – but surprisingly only seconds later just before the top of the climb I was overtaken by a guy who kept on looking behind. I’d jumped on his tail to try to motivate myself up the rest of the climb but he didn’t seem to want to cooperate and work together. Eventually his partner caught up and this was what he was concerned about – he didn’t want to team up with anyone else but her – yes – it was the woman in rose and white again. Somewhere along the way – I’d overtaken her again and didn’t even notice. She couldn’t have pulled that far ahead then on the climb up Ventoux. There was a young guy in tow behind her so for a while I pulled in behind them and we completed that small climb together. It was boiling hot now and though I was feeling a bit thirsty it was hard to drink much just because of the exertion level. Descending on the other side it became clear that she was afraid of the tight bends and couldn’t keep any speed up so I had to leave them and go ahead. Later at the next small col the situation repeated itself, this time the narrow descent taking us onto the main road and about 5km from the finish. Coming around a corner I found a long straight road ahead, perhaps 2km long and directly into the midday wind. I attacked as hard as possible sensing that the finish was close but after a while it felt like climbing up the mountain again just from driving into the wind. I could see the lone rider way ahead now, probably about 500m and even the group that had dropped us was still visible. Just then the team behind me came ripping past with the guy pulling the woman in rose and white at a good speed and also another two strong riders who had joined them. Clearly they were able to work together on the flat and really ramp up the speed. I stepped on the gas immediately and got in behind – it was a major acceleration. By the end of the straight we had almost caught the lone rider but now entering a build up area there were some tight bends to negotiate and the woman was struggling again. This time the other two young guys pulled away and left the rest of us. I didn’t want to get stuck behind the woman who couldn’t turn so put my hands on the drop bars and sprinted to bridge the gap to the young guys and made it – ramping my heart rate up to 175bpm for the first time in the race. They were now on a mission to get to the finish and about 200m from the end we overtook the lone rider who was a bit disturbed to lose three places right at the end but he had nothing left to give. Only tactics and some luck got me past him in the end. I came in 16 seconds ahead of the woman in rose and white but was very happy with that because she had her own personal team assisting her for the whole race. Ultimately, my climb was 12 minutes slower than last September but I had been 7 kilos lighter then and had the entire season behind me, plus I’d had a bad few weeks training recently and still had breathing problems from the cold virus. This time with all that extra weight was probably a better performance than last September – but it’s made me decide to never let this weight problem be an issue in future. I’ll get rid of this fat and not let it come back again. 
About half an hour after the race when talking with my neighbour in the camp site – the domesticated one, (who turned out to be English) I started to have some minor breathing difficulties. It was the sort of asthmatic feeling that occasionally hit me after a very hard sprint. It was stiflingly hot and I was dehydrated despite drinking half a litre of diluted orange juice. I’m certain that the brief breathing trouble was caused by hyperventilation. I’d noticed myself breathing poorly and rapidly through the mouth during the race. This has been going on since that viral attack in April but I’ll have to focus on nasal breathing for a while now to sort this out.

126th out of 363 on the short course and 17th out of 74 in my age group in 3hrs 57:45mins. That’s reasonable for the first race of the season and it will get better from here on in. 
Nicolas Ogier, also from the La Plagne club was 11 minutes behind me! However he was on the long course – about 50km longer!!! He came 4th overall on the long course. He is as skinny as a rake though and probably doesn’t need a house because he lives on his bike.
Leaving the camp site I asked the attendant what sort of birds were making all that noise at night and she asked me if it sounded like ducks. I answered yes so she corrected me and told me it wasn’t birds at all it was frogs! Unbelievably they sound exactly the same and because this is their mating time they are at it all night.  There is a river runs beside the camp site and it used to be used for swimming – an old photo from the 60s in the camp site office shows how it was back then. Now there is a dam upstream and swimming is forbidden – isn’t it typical how good things get destroyed? It must be a million times better to swim in a river than some horrible chlorinated town swimming pool. Perhaps that’s what the frogs were making such a fuss about.  French people must eat them because they think they are ducks. I suspect that the owls were also eating the frogs and perhaps the high pitched squawk was a frog flying off in the talons of an owl. (Please note that those frogs do not “croak, croak” as they do in the UK – they go “quack, quack”)

Driving home I thought about eating some chocolate covered protein bars and fruit that I’d brought along with me. Stopping at a petrol station I had a look for the insulated bag that they had been stored in but just couldn’t find it – though I was sure about leaving nothing behind in the camp site. Searching back in my memory the last place it was seen was inside the tent – because it had better ventilation than the inside of the car. It then dawned on me that when I’d folded up the amazing pop-up tent all the squidgy food had been left inside it. In fact I’d knelt on top of it forcefully to compress the tent into its small packing case. Perhaps this could start a new trend where not only is the tent pop-up but all the contents along with it. I did have the impression that my domesticated neighbours were that sort of product anyway.

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