May 3, 2015

Mont Ventoux

There was something unreal, or better surreal, about today. The morning was not lost, but enveloped, absorbed, in the count of cadence, the progress of two wheels, the feeling of legs and lungs inadequately trained, of brain about to explode, eyes to pop out of head .... and of doubt.

This trip was to be about warmth, about flaneurring, wandering by bike. And yet I positioned myself in Bedoin, at the foot of Mont Ventoux. Some say the most challenging ascent. Other cyclists might flaneur their way up this mountain, but not me.

For two reasons, there will be few photos, but here is one from yesterday, of the summit from very near Bedoin. If you don't want words, just quit now. Better, settle back and ride uphill with me.

And the stats: 21.4 K (13.3miles) 1639 meter ascent (5377 feet) Average grade, 7.5%. Max 12%. And the profile (It climbs like this, left to right. Then descends exactly like this, right to left.)

I know my legs don't have as much in them as they did last September, after 8 months of training with Coach Rob, days of riding in my Paris to Nice trip. I climbed then from Malucene, loaded. No big problem.  My head doesn't have as much in it this year, either.

So I knew to set out early, well early for France. The wind was forecast to pick up in the afternoon. And the given is always windy on Ventoux. Vent = wind. That's the name of the mountain. Mont Ventoux.

How is it, what is the biology, the physics, the psychology of it that I Do Not See the Grade when I am climbing. I have no visual sense for it. But, oh yes, I feel it. Today I felt every inch. I feel it, but climbs rarely look steep. That causes a disconnect ubetween brain, lungs and legs.

Climb, climb, climb, up, up, up. I see no serious hill, why am I feeling this challenged? Push, pull, push, pull. Pay attention. Push a harder gear? Hah, push whatever gear I can.

Past climbs in France I have wondered if the markers, the traditional ones that show the distance remaining, and the grade of the next K are helpful, or discouraging, salt in the wound. Today I learned that for me they are helpful. Without them I was lost, at sea, no idea of progress, or lack of it. And my bike computer ... also lost, on my first ride this year.

Early in the climb, the road went into the forest ... how steep can it be, in a forest? Dumb question. Don't stop for photos, just climb. I always am glad to use the need for an image as a reason to put a foot down. Don't do it. Climb, Climb. Climb, Climb. See how far I can go without a stop. Riders pass me, most everyone passes me. We say bonjour, courage, allez.

Left the bike lock in the apartment. And my wallet. And map. Took the rack off. All the extra weight is on me, and that is more than a few pounds. So this slowness and doubt is not the weight, well unless it is mine. And I ate well, for a change. It's the legs. Or the head. Or sad stupid useless thought, age. Can I actually still do this? Climb, climb. Climb, climb. Perhaps I'll give it up, admit to age, to lack of fitness. Ugh. Climb, climb. Don't stop!

More riders pass me, this is a cycling paradise, the goal of so many of us, from all over the world. I hear uncountable languages. At least uncountable in my condition.

Maybe I won't make it. I have no idea, none at all, how far I am into this ride. No map. No computer. No markers. Just ride. Push, pull, doubt. Push, pull, doubt. I stop. Pretend to myself it is to eat a banana, and take a photo. I need to stop.

Back on the bike. Still more riders pass me, many easily but not all. Some are struggling. Feels like my right eye is going to explode out of my head now. Mostly the riders are young men, but again, not all. OK, young means under 60. But a few young women pass by easily. Riders are on all kinds of bikes. With all kinds of gear.

Stop again, no need for an excuse now, sit for a while, consider. What's the difference if I turn around, go back, don't finish a climb. Well, this the difference: I don't finish a climb. So I rest a few minutes, wonder. Watch other riders. A very few put a foot down. I see one young man riding loaded, 4 panniers, a heavy bike. Now, that is seriously hard.

Me, I'm back on my bike, uphill. Stop? Descend? I don't think so. Climb. Climb. Push, pull, breathe. Ahhhhhh. There's my marker.

This I can do! Slowly, like a turtle. But now I am sure I can get there. How very much statistics, understanding, matters to me. I settle into the routine that I have developed in 6 years of climbing in France. Give myself permission to stop at every kilometer marker if I want to.  So, of course, I don't always want to, and I rarely stop.

There are bits of snowbanks left on the sides of the road .... just what I came here to get away from! But no matter, not much.

I do stop at this memorial to Tom Simpson, who died here July 13, 1967, during a climbing stage of the Tour de France. Also I wanted to say hello to the loaded cyclist, who was stopped. He is Guillaum, riding from Rome to Brussels. His work is hard today and deserves a great deal of respect. That is a great bike, a Surly. And a heavy bike. He is posting a blog, but I am unable to find it.

The wind has picked up. The world is in a fog, a literal fog,  not just my brain. Though my brain is indeed in a fog. Push, pull, push, pull. 123, 123, 123, I climb to a very slow walse, the downbeat changing from left foot to right. Remember to breathe.

The sky has lifted enough to barely see the summit, at least for a minute. Climb, climb climb.

Now, here are the photographers, who jump into the road, take rider's photos, try to make you look at them, hand over a business card, so a rider can buy their photo. Maybe I will someday.

1 K left. One very hard kilometer, windy, feels steep. But now there is no way I will put a foot to the road. Foggy. Windy. Come on legs! I see only the spot on the road immediately in front of my wheel.

And soon I make it! No walking the bike, though I have seen some doing that. Not the grace of cadence that I would like, nor the elegance of riding that I admire, but still ... here I am again, on top of a high summit in France. Yes, proud of that.

Also cold. I notice, that this early in the season, the summit sign is not yet here, but a small sign is. All else is lost in clouds. I find a bit of shelter next to the building, peel out of my soaked jersey and into a dry winter baselayer. Put the wind jacket over that. Nice. Warm.

Guillaume arrives, just moments after me. He was still at the Tom Simpson Memorial when I began climbing again.  At the summit we trade photos, talk a bit. It is too windy for me to linger long, though I would have liked to learn more of his story.

I eat a piece of chocolate, take some photos of the scene on top.

And then I head back down the mountain.

The descent. Ahhhh, the descent. Now I see the grade. See it very clearly. This is steep! And it goes on and on, steep! I see a few riders, unsure, uncomfortable with the speed, who have stopped, to catch, probably, their wits, their brakes, not their lungs. Still close to the summit, I realize that I need to ignore the cars, just ride down, braking at curves, marvelling at how steep it is, amazed that I actually rode up it. I actually am totally surprised at just how very steep this road is.  And soon enough am into the forest again, where it gets warm ... and steeper. Cyclists pass me, I try to learn a bit about descending.

There was some kind of accident, I saw emergency vehicles coming up, now see a helicopter in the air on the side of the mountain, below me.

I continue descending, can see the Dentelles in the distance, stop for a photo or two, the road moderates, and I am back in Bedoin.

The town is chock full of cyclists sitting in cafes, no doubt sharing the experience, and a piece of me would like to be there. But I know no one, and remember my comfortable apartment patio, and here I sit writing this, looking at the church,  happy, sharing the experience with you.

Thinking how surreal something about the last few hours has been. A recreational cyclist, turned touring cyclist ... now with this crazy notion of riding up impossibly difficult hills in such a beautiful place. Hah!



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