GFNY Mont Ventoux: A Legendary Race

I’ve done the GFNY Championship in NYC four times. I’ve done a double century (200-miles) in one day. I’ve cycled up Stelvio in Italy. I’ve ridden GFNY Italia, Tour of the Battenkill and Tour of the Catskills with the infamous Devil’s Kitchen climb.

None of this could prepare me for GFNY Mont Ventoux.

Mont Ventoux is epic. And she’s a beast. With many nicknames including the Bald Mountain, she’s featured periodically in the Tour de France. GC hopes can be sealed or shattered at its summit. Weather is entirely unpredictable. (It was 36C at the base three days before the event – and four days before that there was snowfall on the summit.) Winds are notoriously strong and the climb is absolutely brutal. And she’ll throw everything at you in attempt to break you; to assure you don’t reach the summit.

The "beacon" at the top of Mont Ventoux

The “beacon” at the top of Mont Ventoux

There’s a weather tower on the top that serves as a beacon to those riding nearby (and seen from nearly the entire GFNY Mont Ventoux course.) But I didn’t think it was a beacon, I thought it was a middle finger saying, “There’s no f–king way you’ll get your @$$ up here! You can try, but you will fail.”

I wouldn’t listen. I succeeded.

Since she was giving me the middle finger for the entire eight hour ride, I figured I owed her some in return…

F–k you, Ventoux!

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because, of course, there is so much more to this story. Let’s go back to the beginning and first look at the course:

GFNY Mont Ventoux

On paper, this doesn’t look so bad; but a closer look shows that the total elevation and the climb up Mont Ventoux are two very real challenges. And the three climbs before Mont Ventoux don’t look too bad until you do the math and see that you’ll have virtually climbed Mont Ventoux before reaching the base of that climb! (The three preliminary climbs total almost the same elevation as the Bald Mountain herself.) And while this is true, it’s a really nice way to set up the course: do the first climb, recover; do the second, larger climb, recover; do the third even larger climb, recover; attack Mont Ventoux. If you aren’t ready when you get to the base of the mountain, you may as well abandon.

The Start

Our hotel was just a few blocks from the starting line and since the gun was at 7:30 AM we didn’t need to get up super early. An alarm at 6 AM allowed plenty of time for morning prep, a full breakfast and a short roll out to the starting line.

My "Wilson" shot...

My “Wilson” shot…

The mood as we staged was really friendly and relaxed. We knew there was a short “neutral” start to get out of the city center safely, so folks weren’t too amped up. However, even with the neutral start at GFNY Italia the peloton launched into a frenetic pace around 40kph and I was among a not so small group that was dropped before the neutralization was finished! This made me a little nervous, but GFNY Italia has nothing close to Mont Ventoux waiting on the course, so I was hoping the start in France would be more reasonable as folks paced themselves to the big climb. Thankfully, I was right.

Justin leading me out. I wouldn't see him again until I reached the hotel.

Justin leading me out. I wouldn’t see him again until the hotel.

The Preliminary Climbs

For about 10km the peloton rolled at a reasonable pace out of Vaison-la-Romaine and into the countryside. I was with a large pack of riders, probably right near the middle of the full race compliment. It was very comfortable, except that the first climb simply comes up way too soon.

Why do we start climbing so soon?!?

But before I get to that, here’s a short digression. Each bib had the rider’s name and flag of their home country in addition to other information like category and course distance. This is a really nice touch, especially for an international field. I could address riders by name and, for me, more importantly, I knew if I could communicate with them in English.

Bib #5

Bib #5

Now, I have to rant just a little. If you are sensitive to political incorrectness or stereotyping, please skip this next paragraph!

<BEGIN RANT>
The French. Oh, boy, the French! As a country, they are so hospitable and welcoming. And they’ve got such great food and wine. But on this race, they were the most irritating riders on the course. Two things happened that I consider unacceptable in a road race. First, whenever I was in a paceline, the riders rotated. And every time I can remember a French rider getting to the front, they immediately pulled off. They never took their pull. Maybe some did, but none that I saw and it really started to bother me. Second, this was not a fully closed course, so there were recreational riders on the road with us. Ok, that’s fine. However, on many occassions I was isolated (riding alone) and after passing a recreational rider, they’d get on my wheel. I was like, “SERIOUSLY?!?” I’m not winning this race, but I’m in a bike race and you are going to draft me just to save yourself a little effort?!? Absolutely absurd!
<END RANT>

Whew! Now that I got that off my chest…

The first climb is not a bad climb – about 5km with a 5% average grade and very little variation.

It should have been a piece of cake, but it just comes up so soon (at least mentally) and at 5km in length, it’s quite long by local standards where I ride regularly. In fact, it’s more than half the distance of the longest local climb! I didn’t exactly struggle, but my goal was to really take it easy on the preliminary climbs. At the same time, it’s a balance – taking it too easy would lead to more of a push on Mont Ventoux, so perhaps getting over these faster wasn’t a bad idea. Either way, by the time I was really calculating my plan, I had found a natural rhythm.

Passing one on many, MANY, vineyards on the course.

Passing one of the many, MANY, vineyards on the course.

I was in the small ring, but only about the 17 in the rear, so I knew I had lots of gears left for the harder climbs. This was definitely something I thought about beforehand – don’t use any of my easiest gears until I’m on Ventoux! That part of the plan I did execute successfully. But when I later heard that Justin didn’t even go to the small ring until the big climb, I was a bit jealous. Then again, he’s about 20% faster than me in these events, so it’s crazy to compare us and our riding strategies.

Around a switchback through one of the old towns

Around a switchback through one of the old towns

Each climb took us through spectacular old towns with lots to look at and take our minds off either the current pain or the pain we expected to feel on that final ascent. The old buildings, the beautiful vistas and the winding roads were absolutely spectacular. And each town had at least a few locals cheering us on – it was terrific!

IMG_20160626_094400964

The Mont Ventoux summit always looming over the course.

The second climb was much like the first, but a little shorter. I realized that in my mind the preliminary three climbs were each longer than the one before, but that wasn’t true – they were just higher. So the second climb was really a nice ride – more great views and more old towns.

The best thing about these climbs was that they were “mountain pass” roads in that they went up, and then right back down. Each climb was rewarded with a beautiful winding descent on roads that weren’t perfectly smooth, but were virtually pothole free. This meant that I could really bomb the descents and I twice approached 70kph which is among the fastest I’ve ever descended.

One of the narrow, winding descents. And the terrific view.

One of the narrow, winding descents. And the terrific view.

The third climb had the same 4.5% average but was quite a bit longer at 12km and a couple of short kicks that were steeper including a few switchbacks. But then again, it’s called Col de L’Homme Mort, or “Dead Man’s Hill,” so there must be more to the story. Once again I found my rhythm and made my way up the mountain. Many riders would pass me on the climbs, but I would pass many of those same riders on the descents and I later found myself in much of the same company as I was in the first 10km. I was feeling good about my pace overall.

After the third preliminary climb is the road to Bédoin and the base of Mont Ventoux. The course in this section is mostly false flat (slightly uphill) along the valley floor. However, when I entered this section, I was greeted with a brutal headwind. I’m roughly 90km in and feeling great when suddenly I’m pushing hard just to move forward at a snail’s pace. I was hoping the wind would pass, but it did not and the next 10km or so really tore me up. I was pacing myself so well, leaving as much as possible for the mountain climb to the finish, but now a 1.5% incline was killing me because of the wind. It was very demoralizing.

My signature pose. While I was still feeling strong.

My signature pose. While I was still feeling strong.

Just when I was beginning to crack mentally, a group of eight riders pulled up to me. There were three Italians at the front and they immediately noted that I was an American riding an Italian bike:

“American? On De Rosa?” they asked.

“Oui, oui!” I replied (I was thinking in French, not Italian, but they got the point.)

“For you, we work!” And they signalled me to get into the paceline.

I got some similar attention at GFNY Italia and I’ve really come to respect riding the De Rosa in Europe. But this was different – just when I was hitting a wall, they pulled up and saved me. I dropped into the paceline and they pulled me for 5km+ and then we were passing through the valley vineyards of Bédoin and beginning the Mont Ventoux climb. I waved a hearty thank you to the Italian leads and international group I was with and pulled off to do my own thing on Mont Ventoux.

The Bald Mountain

With some help from the Italians, I reached the base of Mont Ventoux somewhat refreshed. Overall, the three preliminary climbs are a perfect setup for the mountain climb. At the base of Ventoux are farms and vineyards – and a perfect view of the weather tower at the top, looking very, very, far away. The climb begins very gradually and just 1km or so in there was a fountain, so I stopped to fill a bottle and take in some nutrition.

The Mont Ventoux forest is a mental game, and a hard one to win.

As the climb heads into the forest, everything changes. What was a casual, countryside ascent suddenly becomes a threatening challenge. There are trees everywhere, yet somehow there is practically no shade. For one of the first times all day, and for a mentally long stretch, there was no more view. And no visual indications of progress – just turn after turn in the trees with more and more climbing. Most of the forest, and a fair stretch beyond, hover between 9% and 11%. In fact, there’s a stretch of about 10km that never goes below 8.5%. The only savior? Very few kicks beyond 12%; as if that’s comforting.

Stone road markers along the climb

Stone road markers along the climb

The only indications of progress while in the forest, other than the feeling that I was ascending, were the stone road markers indicating elevation, grade and distance to the summit. I was mostly keeping my wits about me, and at least I was passing a few riders, so I knew I was making some progress. At one point an older woman (recreational rider) passed me with ease and I was quite startled – until I realized she was riding a bike with a motor.

Does the forest ever end?

Despite all the legend about the barren, lunar landscape at the top of Mont Ventoux, I found the forest the most difficult. Perhaps I’d have felt differently if it were snowing, raining, windy or if there were searing heat. But on this day, the mental game being played with the forest was the toughest for me. Worse, still, as the forest starts to thin, it still takes seemingly forever to finally clear it. The wind gets stronger, the trees fewer and further between, but still many blind turns before full exposure and a clear view to the summit.

I was also having an issue with my gears. With a compact crank and an 11/29 in the rear, I have good gearing for long climbs. But when I was in the 27 or the 25 (second and third easiest) gears, they were slipping. So I found myself shifting between the 29 and the 23 which is a pretty big gap. I did much of the climb in the 29 and felt that the 27 would have been a better choice. C’est la vie!

The beauty of the Beast

The beauty of the Beast

And once there’s a clear view to the summit, everything changes. Suddenly, progress is notable and there’s a real goal in sight. But at the same time, while the grade declines slightly, it’s rarely under 8%, there’s more wind, and the visual progress, while notable, is painfully slow. Still, while my time doesn’t reflect this, the top portion of Mont Ventoux was my favorite part of the ride. Every moment on that mountain felt sacred and suddenly the entire race felt like the Bucket List challenge I’d originally planned. At this point all the suffering to get here was all worth it.

My pilgrimage to the Tom Simpson memorial.

My pilgrimage to the Tom Simpson memorial.

With just over 3km left I stopped briefly at the final aid station – Chalet Reynard. I got my last boost of food and water, and began the last stretch to the summit. With 1km left is the Tom Simpson memorial where I had to stop to pay my respects. Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux at this location during the 1967 Tour de France. He was severely dehydrated, but his death was more a result of his doping attempts which caused his poor judgment leading to death. I walked up the ten steps to the memorial which seem painfully difficult to climb at this point, left a water bottle for him, snapped the photo above and continued my ascent.

The summit is finally within reach!

The summit is finally within reach!

I went no faster on the final 3km from Chalet Reynard, nor on the final 1km to the summit, yet this last stretch felt much easier. Perhaps just having the finish line approach was enough, but also the ride atop this sacred mountain was beginning to wash over me.

Crossing the finish line just minutes ahead of my eight hour goal.

Crossing the finish line just minutes ahead of my eight hour goal.

When I crossed the finish, I could not throw up my hands and I could not celebrate for the camera. I simply pushed with my last effort over the line and coasted to the spot where they were presenting the medals. I cried for a moment realizing the magnitude of this accomplishment and the history of this place. I was exhausted, but so incredibly pleased to be on this summit. And to have gotten here by bike

Maggie and me at the summit - 1912m

Maggie and me at the summit – 1911m

The Great Descent

The summit was chilly and windy, but tolerable. There was a bag waiting for me with a vest and full finger gloves; I donned them both and began the ride down to the valley.

The race is over, but the fun has just begun!

The race is over, but the fun has just begun!

The first few turns were awesome – the wind was moderate, the road was clear and the switchbacks had lots of room. I was able to let loose and really fly downhill. It’s not often I want to see the profile of a descent, but this one is worth a look:

However, the fun ended about a third of the way down the mountain when the wind really kicked up and I was getting tossed around the road noticeably. I tried to refrain from braking too much, trying to trust the bike to remain true; but this was hard at 60kph+ with turns and traffic coming the other way. It was definitely a hairy ride down, but still pretty fun.

Once at the base, there’s anoth 10km+ to Vaison-la-Romaine where the race started and where my hotel was located. That was a tough stretch – windy, flat, busy roads and I was clearly quite tired. When I finally got to town I was less than 100m from my hotel when a car left me too little room and I went over the curb and crashed. I was fine, but the bike was a little messed up, so I carried it to the hotel figuring I’d pack it in the bag and deal with it back at home.

Conclusions

GFNY Mont Ventoux is a legendary ride. Anyone who watches the Tour de France and does these sportives should put this on their bucket list. The riding in Provence is lovely and the towns welcome cyclists with open arms.

A huge shout out to Nicolas and Lucie, the organizers of this event. There is a standard set by Uli and Lidia at the GFNY Championship in NYC that must be upheld by each of the GFNY World organizers. But Nicolas and Lucie really go beyond! The expo, the “parade of nations” and the concert leading up to the race are really well done and lots of fun. And the race itself? Well, maybe Nicolas and Lucie are blessed to have one of the best routes in the world. But the work they need to put in to get all the permits and pull off race day so perfectly – well, that’s monumental. And you need to experience it for yourself.

5 Responses to “GFNY Mont Ventoux: A Legendary Race”

  • Wade says:

    Jared, great job on such an epic ride. I enjoyed your race report and I can’t wait to ride up Ventoux later this month!

  • Oriol Brull says:

    Great write up Jared, makes me wish I was there…definitely adding this to my bucket list!

  • Boris says:

    Hi Jared,
    this is realy a great post, well written! I’m the guy who was standing next to you on the start, on the “Wilson Shot” with the red Oakley. And I’m a blogger too and wrote of course also about the GFNY Mt. Ventoux experience (German: http://www.unterlenker.com/2016/07/gfny-mt-ventoux-2016.html). What a chance! I climbed the Ventoux now several times and I think each time, that the actual attempt will be easier, but no, this f%%%ing beast shows, as you write correctly, the riders always the middle finger. There is a great article in the Rouleur about Ventoux in the actual issue. (Drop me an email and I can share it with you).
    Keep riding! And keep writing too, I will take your blog in my feed reader.
    Cheers Boris

    • Flywheel Fred says:

      Boris – that’s totally amazing! So cool that you found this AND found yourself in my silly photo. I will drop you a line shortly – thanks.

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