Stage 6 – Dignes Les Bains – Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux. The name alone is enough to strike fear and respect into the hearts of cyclists all over the world. It dominates the surrounding landscape, invading the horizon whenever you approach it. It's difficulties are numerous. First there is the height gain, over 1600m vertical from Bedoin. Then there is the really hard section up through the woods. 12km where the gradient rarely drops below 10%, the overhanging trees creating an oppressive oven like atmosphere in the heat of the day. There are no regular hairpin bends to break up the monotony, just the gentle curving backwards and forwards. Arriving at Chalet Reynard you come out into the moonscape, the exposed rock and earth magnifying the heat and exposing you to the brutal winds that blow through this lone peak. Then the final challenge as the last few bends rear up steeply and mean you have to give your all to get round and over the finish line. This really is one of the most difficult climbs you can do on a bike and one of the most rewarding.

All three of us have previous with the mountain. 5 years ago we did the Etape du Tour from Montelimar to Mont Ventoux. I'd gone okay up the mountain but my time of 2 hours 20 minutes would not be good enough today. Ian had put in a great impression of Caspar the ghost and put in a similar time. Simon had done a good ascent but earlier on this year he had done the Cingles du Mont Ventoux, climbing the mountain from all three sides in a single day. He knew every inch of the climb and that was playing on his mind.

But first we had to get there. 120km of rolling roads and shorter climbs to bring us into the foot of the mountain. By now we knew what was going to happen. We'd cross the timing mat and all hell would break lose as everyone tried to stay with the front group and get a fast ride. I'd decided to start at the front of the second group and try and jump across to the first peloton and try and sit with Ian and Simon as long as I could.

Lining up in Digne there was an air of excitement in the peloton. I think everyone had been looking forward to this stage. The count down finished and off we went. After a couple of kms I had the opportunity to jump the motorbikes and make my way to join Ian and Simon. It was great, finally, to be cycling with them. Then we crossed the timing mat and it all got interesting. I'd not been up in the first peloton before. Wow. This was different level. We were on a tight back road. The pace was incredibly high. 40 – 45 km/h. After every little climb or corner you had to put down about 400 – 500 watts to get back into the pace line. This really felt like racing hard. It was awesome. Coming into a narrow bridge I managed to avoid a crash as people hit the bridge and ran into the back of each other.

Soon however it started to climb. This was going to be about a 2o minute climb up onto the first plateau. Now my early morning lack of power showed again and I just could not stay with the lead gruup. I don't know if it was that I wasn't pushing myself hard enough knowing what was to come, or if my knees just couldn't take the stress as by know the pain in my patella tendon was getting really bad. Over the top of the climb I'd slipped back quite a bit but was still able to get into a big group of people as we set a fast paceline. The first feed station flew by, completely ignored by everyone. Spots of rain made the road greasy but still we rattled along, each taking our turn to do a short stint on the front. At this pace it only took an hour to get to the next feedstation. Here we all stopped to refill and refuel. A lack of organisation meant we all then carried on at different times. I suddenly found myself alone with a group of about 8 people about 300m ahead of me on the road. Decision time, do I put in a masssive dig and close them down to draft through to the bottom of the col de notre dame des abeilles or do I accept that would take too much out of me and continue solo. No way I was going to do this alone. 10 minutes later of burying myself I got onto the back of the group. That was so tough. It took ten further minutes of sitting on the back of the group to recover. I just hoped this hadn't taken too much out of me.

We were in a smaller group now which made it much easier to organise. Most of the guys were from S-Aero club plus a Zimbabwean and his English wife. This is the bit I really enjoy about the Haute Route. We all have a story to tell of why we are here, what we think, what we hope to achieve. The sense of shared adventure is there for everyone. Chatting to the Zimbabwean and his wife we reflected on the standard of riding, which was exceptionally high. There are very few who are out of their depth and anyone finishing in the top 300 would be smashing it in their local sportives. This really does feel like the pinnacle of amateur cycling sportives.

Notre Dame des Abeilles came, we took it easy, not wanting to go too deep too early. Judging by the times later on that day this is where I lost a lot of time. I should have gone harder here but it was hot and I knew there was a massive amount of climbing to come.

The descent down from the top was amazing. We took a different way down to the last time I was here. Tight, narrow and twisty. Just the kind of descent I love. I flew past about 15 people on the descent. Then a right turn, a few kms of gentle slope and across the timing mat. Mont Ventoux started here.

Soon the left turn came and we were onto the climb proper. It's really difficult pacing yourself for this amount of climbing. If you go off at threshold you will blow up before the top. I set myelf a target of trying to stay just about 200 watts and see how I felt come the end. I actually started to really enjoy it. Yes it hurt but the pace was good, I caught and passed quite a lot of people, some with the Haute Route race numbers on. Although it was hot it was not oppressively hot. Jersey wide open I was dripping in sweat but I wasn't over heating and wasn't running out of water. The peddles kept on turning over. It's a mental challenge more than anything, a climb like Ventoux. You have to set yourself for 1.5 – 2 hours of just going up.

On and on the peddles turned. The km slowly ticked down. I was counting down to the feed station at Chalet Reynard where I'd quickly refill with water and drink some coke. 4km to go, 3km to go. I passed a few more Haute Routers. Then I was out of the forest and at Chalet Reynard. A quick stop and off again. I was feeling really good now I knew I only had 6 km to go. I could see the observatory at the top urging me onwards and I put on a burst and settled into a high pace. This bit is where I'd completely cracked last time but it felt like that was not going to happen now. I retook a couple of guys who'd overtaken me earlier. 2km later they passed me again. A proper seesaw battle.

Ian then Simon came flying past down the hill shouting words of encouragement spurring me on. It later turned out that Simon had gone so deep trying to keep pace with Ian in the final kilometres that the medics had put him on oxygen!

As you get to the final km it ramps up to 10 – 11%. You pass Tom Simpson's memorial. So many of the british guys were stopping on the way back down to lay something down. The guys who had over taken me were 50m ahead. That was my target. I wanted to cross the line first. I upped the pace. We got to 30m before the final bend when I put in my effort. Mustering everything left I sprinted round them and up the final steap ramp to the line. Crossing the line and punching the air in delight I was overwhelmed with emotion. This is what this mountain does to you.

The view from the top is amazing. A glass of coke, a selfie and a deep breath of air and a feeling of elation. You feel like you are on top of the world.

A quick word about the family battle between Ian and Simon. They set a blistering pace up the mountain with an ascent time nearly 25 minutes quicker than mine. Simon just couldn't hold on in the last km and Ian crossed the line first. The gap? Exactly 48 seconds. The difference between them at the beginning of the day. They were now neck and neck again. Nothing could separate them. It would all come down to the last stage.

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