Raid super domestique Peter Hitt recently attempted the Cingle de Ventoux on his day off. His aim to not only conquer all three sides of the mountain but also complete the acents in a sub-six hour time. A feat achieved by few. Read on to find out if he managed it.
Mont Ventoux- the windy mountain. One of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France, and the setting for some of the most dramatic racing in the history of cycling: Merckx and Poulidor, Pantani and Armstrong, Froome and Quintana. It’s also the setting of one of the greatest tragedies of the sport; in 1967, legendary British cyclist Tommy Simpson collapsed and died less than half a mile from the finish line. His last words; “put me back on my bike.”
As a result, Mont Ventoux has gained an almost cult-like following in the cycling community- Le Club des Cingles du Mont Ventoux, or “The Brotherhood of the Mads of the Windy Mountain.” It’s far catchier in French. Anyway, the challenge laid down to join le Club is to ride up all three sides of the mountain within the course of one day, climbing a total of over 4300 vertical meters. So when I was offered the chance to take it on, how could I refuse?
I started my challenge fairly late in the morning, basically so I wasn’t freezing on the descents. Just to add a little bit more to the ride, I set myself the target of completing the climbs in under six hours, including any stops, whether they were mechanicals, food stops or toilet breaks. My plan- start with the hardest climb, and finish with the easiest. If I paced myself well and didn’t waste too much time, I should finish well within my target time, right? Wrong.
I hit the start button on my Garmin as I rolled past the sign for the Ventoux out of Bedoin, and settled straight into a comfortable rhythm- in my head, I was treating it as one exceptionally long time trial. I spent the first few kilometres just turning the pedals over- there was no point burning matches on the shallow lower slopes. Then, as the gradient started to gradually increase, I started putting some more power down. I knew from experience that the most time was saved by pushing hard through the steep sections- but what I was finding out quickly was that the entire mountain was a steep section!
My legs felt strong though, and I managed to maintain a steady power output the whole way up to Chalet Reynard- then suddenly, as I made my way past the tree line, the famous Ventoux wind hit me. I had no choice but to go full gas just to keep the pedals turning- the gradient had eased off, but suddenly I was pushing even harder than before. Thankfully as the road curved with the mountain there was some protection from the wind- which just served to remind me how hot the sun was!
I finished my first climb in just over hour 1 hour 20 minutes, and feeling strong I threw myself straight into the descent on the other side of the mountain. Descents seem like an obvious place to freewheel and let the legs recover, but I knew that if I stopped pedalling for 20 minutes then my legs would just seize up. That said, I couldn’t help but push it a bit on the descent- I maxed out at 93 km/h, overtaking cars and cyclists alike. However I couldn’t help but feel a slight sense of foreboding; I’d be riding back up this in a minute!
As soon as I passed the checkpoint in Malaucene, I slammed on the brakes and turned the bike around. I was well ahead of my planned schedule, but there was still no time to waste- what if I punctured or had a mechanical? So I got back into my rhythm, mentally ticking off each kilometre as I passed the signs on the road.
It was with 5km to go on this climb where things got tough- the gradient ramped up to 14% for most of the remainder of the climb, and even with a tiny 39-32 gear ratio fitted to my bike I was out of the saddle and grinding the gear. I started to feel the onset of cramp in my thighs, and when I checked my bottles I realised I’d only had a few mouthfuls of water in the three hours that I’d been on the bike. Big mistake!
Thankfully I was able to refill my bottles at the top, and some rather grim looking clouds encouraged me to grab a rain jacket as well. I headed back down the mountain towards the town of Sault, the base of the final climb. It was only when I started to wind it up that I realised how much the Malaucene climb had taken out of me- my legs had turned to jelly.
I arrived in Sault with around 1 hour 40 minutes left to finish within the six hours. It’s a 25.7km climb, averaging at around 4.5%; I did the maths, and figured I’d need to ride at just over 15.5 km/h. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me- but as soon as I hit that 4.5% I knew I was in trouble. I was struggling to hold the bike in a straight line, and even in a small gear I was struggling to keep my cadence up. This would be an incredibly long 25.7km.
As I rode, I kept doing the maths to keep my mind off the pain that was going through my legs. This is my normal technique for when I’m suffering on the bike: how far to the top, what speed, what wattage? But eventually even that started to fail as I became acutely aware that I was getting it all wrong. I eventually switched my brain off, and just focused on my stem- ride to 200 Watts, make it to the top. That was all I had to do, and I should just about scrape inside my six hour target.
As I passed to Chalet Reynard for the second time that day, I was greeted not by howling winds- but a cold, damp fog. The top was completely invisible- if I hadn’t been so close to finishing, I would have turned around and gone back down. I also helped that I was being encouraged by a car full of Belgians shouting encouragement at me as well as their own friends riding the mountain. Cheers, guys!
I was still checking my Garmin to see if I’d scrape within my time cut, and I was rapidly running out of time. I still couldn’t see the top, and I had five minutes to go. Where was it? Then slowly, the final hairpin rose out of the mist. Honestly, I’ve never been happier to see a corner. I put in one final dig, filled with one last surge of adrenaline, gasping in the cold thin air. As I passed the sign at the summit, I hit the stop button on my Garmin- 05:58:21. YES!
Despite how much I suffered that day, it was still one of my most memorable days on a bike, and if there’s one thing I learned from that ride, it’s that there is no “easy” way to ride Ventoux. It is a real challenge that all cyclists should attempt. I genuinely can’t wait to go again.
Peter will be resuming his domestique duties on The Raid Ventoux in September. Click here to sign up now and attempt the legendary ‘Cingle de Ventoux’ challenge for yourself. If that seems a bit too much set your own challenge and ride the mountain once or twice instead with full support from The Raid team.