Preparing a safe and beneficial Mount Ventoux ride

From the calm and “bon vivre”-smelling plain of Mazan one would not believe that the Giant of Provence, erected at the distance, obtructing the horizon, seen as early as the exit of Avignon, will show quite a different image once you reach the “lunar cap”, this white rocky hat that covers Mount Ventoux.  Harsher sun, strong side wind, a much cooler temperature, sometimes snow may welcome you on your way up.
You need to plan this climb, foodwise, gearwise, and have a reasonable physical preparation prior to coming here if you want to benefit from this climb, thus coming back from this challenge a stronger person.
Watch out on your way down, as your life will be travelling on 10 cm2 at speeds up to 80 km/h!
Preparing a safe and beneficial Mount Ventoux ride

Preparing for the ride

Introduction

Let’s introduce Le Ventoux, make points, and see next what these points mean for you as a rider.

Preparing a safe and beneficial Mount Ventoux ride Climbing up the Ventoux is nothing like climbing up your local hill, I am thinking of Albany Hwy in Perth, Mount Glorious in Brisbane (forget about Mount Cooth-Tha), or even Mount Lofty in Adelaide, even if at 706 m, it is the highest urban area summit found in Australia.  The Ventoux climb will take you roughly a couple of hours.  1 hour if you are a champ’, but are you reading these lines anyway? 1:30 if you can afford to be flying, 1:45 if you are like me, 2:00 if you are still not bad, and maybe more if you are just normal, like most of us in fact.  Therefore you do not apprehend the climb like another 400 or 500 m high climb you do before work, or on Sunday morning.  You have to plan your climb, foodwise, restwise, gearwise (sprockets), this is my first point.

Going up that high (1910 m, 6266 ft) will make you cross a downwards gradient of temperatures.  Why? Because with altitude there is less air per every litre, therefore the sunlight can only warm it so much.  Although there are a crowd of factors that influence the equation, the “loose net” rule of thumb is that you may lose up to 1°C every 500 ft up or so.  So yes, it can be 10°C less at the top than at its foot.
This is where things get complicated.  A galore of questions are raised:
what should you wear before starting the ascent? What do you have to take with you? What will happen at the top? What can I do to not waste time changing clothes at the top to prepare the descent? This changing weather and appropriate dressing makes my second point.

As you can appreciate on the satellite picture on the left (click to zoom), Le Mont Ventoux roughly has a croissant shape, drawing a half circle from North to South.  It is set on a moderately high plateau (tableland), at 430 m (1400 ft).  Zooming out on Google Earth to reach France scale, and tilting the view to appreciate the 3D shape of this area of the country, you will notice a 500-km long corridor, running from North-North-East down to Marseille, called La vallée du Rhône, the Rhône Valley, known for its permanent, year-round, cold and strong wind: Le Mistral, that flows down directly from Germany! Woohoo! Meaning you just cannot ride up Le Ventoux any time of the year, this is my third point.

The ascent officially starts at a line that is located at the very beginning of Route du Mont Ventoux, in the town of Bédoin.  So in practice you will start there and a few hundreds of metres later you will shift to your lower chainring, if not done yet.  You can say bye-bye to your large chainring until you reach the summit now.  Even the start of the ascent will demand energy; therefore you just don’t want to start without a good warm up, just like an athlete wouldn’t do a 100 m dash just after popping out of their bed.  What you should do to be friend with your body is my fourth point.

At the top, as far as the route is concerned, you will have three options:

  • 1.  You ride down backtrack.
  • 2.  You ride down onto the other face of the Ventoux, East side, down to Malaucène, then back to wherever you left through the plateau.
  • 3.  Someone you know picks you and your bike up, the least exciting thing to do, unless you have just riden from Montélimar . . .
If you elect to go down the other way, I will tell you a few tips, it will be my fifth point.
Whichever of options 1 or 2 you choose, you will be travelling down Ventoux at speed that come near 80 km/h (whatever figures they say on TV, like 90 or 100, that can’t be done right here).  In any case, I will share with you a few safety tips that you must know if you want to see your family and friends again to tell them your story.  Your safety will be my fifth point.

Point #1: planning your climb

Foodwise

Preparing a safe and beneficial Mount Ventoux ride You just don’t want not to be friend with your body at this stage of the climb, i.e.  the very beginning of it, or you will have a really bad time.
I know that everybody has something that works for them.  But is it good enough? And what if you had a better diet, at precisely defined intake times, to help your body release the nutrients at the time it most needs it?

Whatever your eating habits are, remember these simple points:

  • A Ventoux climb will require an extra 2000 kcal to whatever your current diet is, please whatever extra you need to get to the foot of it, and return home.  This is massive.  It is the normal daily calories for an average person being moderately active (walks 30’ a day or more) over 24 hours.  So an additional 2000 kcal or more can only be seriously gotten from low-GI carbs (pasta, rye bread, grain bread, polenta, rice, potatoes, wheat semolina, wheat grains) that have ingested at least 12 hours earlier, if possible in two intakes, once 12 hours earlier, and another time 24 hours earlier.  Some even have a 72-hour ramp.
  • Regardless of the time you want to start at, get a good breakfast, with low-GI solids, and not too much milk or dairies.  Obviously the later you’ll start and the larger you can afford your brekky to be.
  • During your climb you will need fast sugar (gels, soft drinks, sweet bars) at regular intervals, let’s say every 20-25 min, to help the transformation of the low-GI carbs in the metabolic cycle they are involved in to produce energy.
  • Drink plenty of water in the previous hours before your climb.  Drink smaller amounts at frequent intervals during your climb, especially in the second half.  At various points you will find water.  Let me tell you at least four I know:
    - one is at the main fountain of Bédoin, on that little square next to the cafés, just opposite the “Route du Ventoux” start - one is about 1 km after the start, still on the straight portion.  It is a fountain and a carpark on the right.
    - a third water point is on the left side of the road as you cross the first little village on the way up.
    - finally a fourth water point, very popular, is at Le Chalet Reynard, at 1440 m altitude.  Make sure you refill both bottles there, as you will not find water easily at the top, or on the other side.
  • Preparing a safe and beneficial Mount Ventoux ride Pop in the back pocket of your jersey a couple of cans of your favourite soft drinks (avoid caffeine-based, your heart will race enough as it is).  May I advise a product name? They do an excellent real orange pulp no colouring and no preservatives original drink, that is only slightly fizzy, just enough to be nice without the hassle of the burps while you will need to use your lungs at best.  It is called Orangina, and it is the favourite of millions of French during and after exercise.
  • Stay professional: despite the excitement brought by the breathtaking (literally) views at the top, and the overwhelming effort you just put to make this ascent your new personal best, remember to replenish your body with fluid and nutrients, or at leasst electrolytes and sugar.  Your concentration during the descent, let’s call it vital, will need it, as your body will still burn calories from the metabolic fire that still burns in you, long after your reached the top.

As said earlier, the sun can be quite strong over there, and it can be hot.  Therefore you should take in your back pockets or bumbag some snacks that will make it through the heat.  In France, I found it is easy to find these 3 aliments that you can easily take with you everytime you ride.  They are individually wrapped madeleines, kinds of little madeira cakes, with no icing; semi-dried figs (figues de montagne), and slices of cinnamon breakfast bread (pain d’épice).
If you are a kind of gourmand (= you like your food), try individual packs of “Crêpes Whaou”, which are rolled French pancakes with a chocolate filling.  The filling will get melted but the convenient, easy to tear off wrapping avoids a mess.

What quantity to get? We all have different needs.  Some guys don’t need anything else than 2 few bottles and a couple of snacks, but all they do is tapping into their muscle fibers to find the much needed energy.  Bad choice since they will lose muscles as they climb! I would advise to get 4 madeleines and 3 packs of pain d’épice.

General physical state and previous rest requirements

Going up Le Ventoux is a feat, as I said earlier.  It will get you tired for a couple of days at least.  Not anyone can do it.  Less can do it at a decent pace.  Even less could run a half-marathon after it.  Only decide to do Le Ventoux if you are not feeling sick, if your lungs and bronchiolites are clear and if you have not had a gastric disorder just before (you could still be dehydrated).

gearwise: sprockets and wheelset to use

The Mont Ventoux ascent is known for its permanent “en prise” profile.  Meaning “always pushing on the pedals”.  There is barely any flat.  The almost only flat that is worth naming such is the long bend along Chalet Reynard - 1440 m, mentionned earlier as a waterpoint.
If you watch the Tour de France in July on TV? you will realise that the last 2 km are specifically steep, well over 10%.  However, don’t expect anything too far off 10% until then anyway.
Okay, with a description like I’ve just made, you already know you need your compact groupset.  So 50/35 at the front, or near, and 12-27 or 11-28 at the back, for that extra degree of insurance in case of a “breakdown”.

Mind you, but I still haven’t tried my compact setting on Ventoux.  So far I have only been riding it on 53-39 and 11-28 at the easiest.  Much better than my first time as a newbie 12-25!

As far as wheels go, make a point having some light, low-rim, wheels.  Don’t take your high-rim wheels with you on that ascent, even if they look much sexier! Their inertia will make your dancing a lot more difficult in the steepest sections.  The reason I had a high-rim front wheel on the picture down at the bottom, is because I didn’t have a low-rim wheel available at this time.

Point #2: sportswear

For me this has always been the most complicated part of the planning.  What clothes set to take, and what to leave at home?
In most cases, expect a 10°C or more drop between the start of the climb and the top.  Meaning it can be really cold over there, aggravated by the chill factor, high on Mount Ventoux due to the terrible wind all year round at the top.  By the way, there is a first pass, 2 km from the top, called “Le Col des Tempêtes”, meaning “The Pass of the Gales” in French, that says it all.
So I advise you to take with you a lightweight windproof jacket, if possible that serves as rainproof jacket, and the mist or rain can appear at the top.  To carry it up there without dragging you too much, and without occupying the very expensive storage volume in your pockets or bumbag for other needed items, what I do is I hang it on the belt on my bumbag, on one side of my waist, slight at the back to avoid wind dragging.  Or, if you can, get a model of jacket with removable sleeves, and hang the sleeves together, on the same spot, like on a clothe line using your bumbag built-in clippable belt.

A trick I use when I can’t make up my mind about whether to take my windproof jacket or not, is to leave it behind, but take instead a lebanese bread bag, or a council liner bag cut to fit your tummy.  Both are thinker kinds of plastic bags, that are easy to place on your tummy, between your layers, or directly on your skin under your single piece.  They are much better than the traditionnal supermarket because they can be applied easily, and stay where you put them thank to their thickness.
If you fold one of them square and tight, and put it in your pocket or bumbag, it takes virtually no space, and will prove to be really blocking the wind.  They also can be refolded and reussed easily.  No need to stop riding.  You can fold them and store them as you ride (please use caution, only on flat).

It is not out of this world to think of your feet.  The very fast relative wind on the way down, coupled with accumulated sweat, may freeze your ties, especially if like me you have Raynaud syndrom.  But you can’t really wear overshoes, except if the weather is so cold that you can tolerate them on your way up.  To overcome this dilemma, I suggest you use 2 slim plastic bag bottoms, like those fruit & vegies plastic bags at the supermarket.  Before your ride, cut them so they can wrap around your feet.  One at the top, you can quickly wear them as oversocks, inside your shoes, in an invisible manner.  They will keep your feet warm on the way down.

Point #3: the best time for the climb

General weather conditions: put off that ascent in wet, stormy, galy, icy or snowy conditions.  Wet or icy corners will make you and your close ones regret that descent, probably the last you’ll ever have.

Time of the year? Huh, you should be fine in the June-September period.  If you think you’re lucky, you may start to ride as early as April or May.  But at this time of the year, Spring, the weather is so unpredictable that you may have snow at the top that blocks the road albeit the previous day was fine and warm.  September is, in my opinion, the best time.  It is still summer, but there are a lot less cars, caravans, and bikes, as a lot of tourists have then gone back to work.

Time of the day? I will have to leave that up to you, as I am usually not a morning person as far as riding goes.  I only like to work early, not train.  However, here a few “elements of answer”, that you can build up your opinion from.

  • Early start:
    Pros: Over and done with.  Fresh.  UV relatively low at first.  Presence of other riders like you to talk to and ride with, as this is the most popular time of the day to ride all around the world.  The freshness of the morning will make it easier to climb.
    Cons: Since a large brekky will benefit the rider, and you should allow about 3 hours between brekky and the ride, it is difficult to conciliate an early start and a sufficient brekky unless you’re planning to get up at 3pm.  The key is to have a large dinner instead, and enough of a brekky.
    The sun will get stronger as it gets harder.  The big dinner you were relying on is getting more and more distant.
  • Noon start:
    Pros: You’ve had enough time to digest your big breakfast before the effort.  Don’t have to get up very early, so you can enjoy your previous evening.  Very scarce traffic and riders as French ease off for a couple of hours for lunch break, so follow tourists.
    Cons: The high temperature in summer at this time.  It will be hot all the way up.  You will need to take a lot of fluid with you.  I’ve done it once, it was 37°C in Bédoin and still 31°C at the top.
  • Afternoon start: (my favourite!)
    Preparing a safe and beneficial Mount Ventoux ride Pros: The longer days of summer allow you to do this, hence have a normal life the day before, and on the day.  No need to go to bed early.  You can enjoy the region during the day, and see how you go physically.  You can sleep in, enjoy a big brekky and a good meal, and do a reasonable amount of things in your day before going.  In Spring and Autumn this will be a very nice temperature as the sun will have heated up the place for most of the day.  The decline of the evening sun will give this unique light at the top.  The eather is now predictable since it will not change much from what you have seen so far.
    Cons: Still hot in summer, especially the “lunar cap”, where the white rocks are.  You could do too much in the first part of the day, therefore have “no legs” left for the climb.  Watch out for sunset.  If you do the ascent at dusk, or by night, always have someone to pick you up at the top.  The speed you can reach on your way down needs a very good light . . . sunlight!

Point #4: getting there & where to start

Preparing a safe and beneficial Mount Ventoux ride There are two faces to Mount Ventoux : “par Bédoin” and “par Malaucène” (par = via).  The most difficult and spectacular one is “par Bédoin”.  Malaucène and Bédoin join by the road by the way, so you can do a loop.
A lot of riders start in Bédoin.  It is a nonsense to me.  You do need a good warm up, like a athlete preparing a dash, a jump, a time-trial, etc.  As I said earlier, the ascent starts right in Bédoin.  If you start cold, it will not be beneficial to your body, and you will not make as good a chrono as if you started warm.

Let’s not be stupid, you’re not going to bring your home trainer to Bédoin.  So what I suggest you do instead, is that you get based in Avignon, and you start from and finish in Avignon (it can be Avignon Nord too, like this cyclist-friendly hotel: Novotel Sorgues, near the A7 motorway exit.  The mild fake flat that leads from Avignon, (26 m), to Bédoin (430 m), is about 45 km, and is the perfect distance to ride easy, get a good warm up spin before the hard yakka starts.  Obviously there will be the 45 km to ride back when you’re finished.  But it is a downwards fake flat, crossing little towns, or bigger (Carpentras) where it is easy to get a refreshment and even something to eat at the local Boulangerie (bakery).

The only difficult point is to exit the city centre of Avignon to join the road to Carpentras.  The shortest route can’t be ridden, as it is a motorway which access is forbidden to bikes on some portions of it, notably near Avignon Nord.  There are ways around that you can find out using Google Maps.

Point #5: your safety

even if I don’t know you, I want you back! So make sure that you war a proper helmet, even though it is not compulsory to wear one in France.
Also make sure that your bike has been revised recently before undertaking the fast descent.  In particular, if you hesitated to change for new tyres as the ones you currently have are getting too worn out, well go for it! Watch out though, hairpin bends will make the bike tilt so much that the tyres will be in contact with the road on their edges.  That means that the tyres should be mounted a few days before, to allow them to get worn out ever so slightly on the lateral edges for more grip on the tar.

Check your brakes, brake cables, tension of the various screws of your bike.  Pedals, crankset, stem, handlebar, well . . . everything! Speeds in excess of 75 km/h will be reached, meaning there is no room for chance.

Ventoux slopes, especially down to Bédoin, feature long straight lines.  I advise you to choose a time of the day that will allow the roads to be rather empty at the time you go down, so that you avoid those cars and campervans going up all summer, and in particular in the 7 days that precede any Tour de France stage there.  There would be literally hundreds of campervans on the side of the road before a TdF stage, with as many dogs, sometimes kids . . .   So stay clear of danger by avoiding peak traffic times.

Ride on the right hand side, but close to the middle line.  If you ever have to fall, it is much better to skid on the tar than exiting the road! Remember to go back to the right edge of the road when a vehicle or a pack of cyclists go up, especially if you are in an emergency situation and you go back to your left side reflex.
If you have to choose a trajectory on your way down, favour the virtual line that the left wheels of most car would follow.  It is about 40 cm right of the central line.  The reason for this is that it is there unlikely to find those stones, glass, nails, screws, and all the little pieces that provoke flats, since they will have been swept or thrown away by the natural passage of cars before yours.
Regularly visually check for your tyre pressure (every 2 minutes when you can).  This is easily done, even at high speed, by taking a quick look at the bulge under your rims.  If uncertain, and you start to feel a funny movement with a lack of response in bends, brake, stop and check.  Some slow punctures can be totally silent, but make you lose control in a bend further down.
If like me you are seeking the highest speed on your way down, extra care must be applied while you are in an aerodynamic position.  In particular, make sure you squeeze your frame top bar with your thighs at any time when you are not sitting, or when you need to change hand position (I call that a “balance weakness time”).  Make sure your necklace doesn’t catch the computer, or whatever could be caught on the stem.  Be cautious if you have gloves with these little quick-take-off straps, cut them! That can play adversely by catching the handlebar hoods at the most unwanted time.

If you get onto a bend too fast, this is the proper way of doing an emergency braking: stay vertical as long as you possibly can, put your arms straight and keep them this way; transfer as much weight as possible towards to back of the bike by seating as far back as possible, and possibly going further back than the seat, while holding your frame with your knees.  Practice before you need it! Then brake hard first, 70% front 30% back, until your speed drop under 25 km/h, where it becomes safe to brake 50%/50%.  Assess if it is safe to exit the road.  It sometimes is much better than slipping and falling.  If you are still on the road, and you have lost that much speed, tilt your bike and look far away while turning.  Your bike should follow.  If your speed is not too high, you shouldn’t slip.

If what you are looking for is to fly around bends, this is a braking technique:

  • hold the handlebar low
  • transfer your weight back by putting your arms straight, holding the frame with your knees, and seating as far back as you can, possibly further back than the seat, by holding the seat with your thighs.
  • get to about 30m before the bend at speeds not exceeding 50km/h
  • quickly brake 70 front/30 back until you start to turn, and lower your body as close to the horizontal frame bar as you can, so you lower the gravity centre of the whole you+bike system.

  • release the rear brake completely as you turn, and look as far as you can towards the exit of the bend.

Remember, in any vehicle, especially on 2 wheels, you go where you look.

There is no particular need for a flashing lamp for the way down.  The brightness is sufficient at this latitude, and people do watch for bikes in Europe.  However, if dusk is coming, and you are wearing dark colours, think of switching it on.

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revised 10 February 2017 by M. Fabien Haddadi M Sc. Fab
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