Saturday, September 4, 2010
One word: redemption. Who knew that a girl could redeem herself on one of the hardest climbs of the Tour de France?
Much has transpired: after death on the Alps, I rented a car and headed down to the south of France. My intention was to spend my days drinking wine, eating good food and exploring all the beauty that Provence and the Luberon have to offer.
Its interesting to note the difference in climates between the Alps and the south-central part of France. The dry mountain air of the Alps and the weather systems that roll in in a moments notice often result in rides that begin sunny and end cold and wet (or vice versa)! The Luberon is also dry but, contrary to the Alps, it is consistently hot and windy, much like a desert. Both environments offer their own challenges when it comes to cycling any distance.
I made my way to the famed Chateauneuf du Papes region of France. Despite what many people think, this is a wine-producing region and not a single winery. As a result, the options for tasting wines from many different producers was endless. The way it works in France is that you can either go to the winery itself or you can go into Chateauneuf du Papes (which is a town) and go to a place de degustation (a place for tasting). Because the town was so beautiful, I chose the latter. I found myself across from a woman who,while speaking broken english (as I attempted french), pulled out bottle after bottle of wine for me to taste. Apparently, lighter wines are best tasted first (white, rose and reds with less tannins) so the palate is not obscured. After these, then the richer wines come into play: the deeper, full-bodied reds. The experience was exceptional! The wine is better than any that I've tried and comes at a much more reasonable price than anything imported to Canada.
I couldn't stay too long though for fear of getting completely annilated and not being able to drive! So after a quick bite to eat, I headed off the the chocolate factory for a tour of continued indulgence. By the time I had my fill of rich, dark chocolate it was late in the day .. just enough time of daylight left to drive up Mt Ventoux and then back to Fontaine de Vaucluse (to my hotel). At this point, I honestly thought that having spent a week climbing in the Alps, the drive up to the top of Ventoux would be enough to satisfy my curiosity about the mountain so I could let go of the thought of climbing it on my bike until my next visit to France. It was quite the contrary: I began looking at the km markers on the side of the road that indicate what km of the mountain you have reached. I began evaluating the grade % and thinking about how my legs would feel at various parts of each km. Then something else happened. Something that happens to every athlete: there was a nervousness in my stomach, an anxious yearning to be on my bike, the need to get to the top driven by strength, perseverence and will instead of gasoline! And so, the decision was made: I was coming back the next day to climb Mt Ventoux on the bike.
The thing about Mt Ventoux is that the last 3-4km is completely exposed to the elements. At one point this mountain was covered in trees only to be clear cut. Unfortunately, because the soil has dried and eroded so dramatically, this mountain will never successfully be replanted. What this means for cyclists is that, after you've already ridden 18km up steep inclines, you are faced with the last 3-4km of insane sun and wind that whistles across the top of the mountain like a hurricane (I could not get out of my car at the top the evening before for fear of being blown away)!
To the day of the climb: you know those days where everything just comes together? You've eaten well the night before, are well hydrated, the legs are rested, you've sleep long and deep and you wake up ready for the challenge ahead? This is how I started my climb up Mt Ventoux.
I will not lie to you: Mt Ventoux is probably the hardest climb that I have done. The wind at the top is insane, the gradient of the climb is steep (11%) .. hence my celebration at the km marker that indicated 10.5%. It is amazing how much easier 0.5% can feel! In addition, climbing alone brings with it an entirely different experience: you are forced to dig deep within yourself and find the strength and drive to keep going. There is a satisfaction that comes with this that is difficult to describe. I talked to a few guys enduring the same pain - a couple of which I passed and one of which passed me - it was nice to know that we were all up there suffering it out. The top was the most incredible: happy, tired people (all men, not a woman is sight!) that were all smiling and taking photos. My legs at the end of it were tired, but I didn't crack like I did on the Madeleine. There was a beauty in the experience, a patience with the process of simply one pedal stroke at a time and a personal power obtained with the last few hundred meters to the top. Mt Ventoux has taught me why people love climbing mountains so much: it is a spiritual journey with one of the greatest rewards.. standing at the top of the world and almost touching the heavens.
I am back in the Netherlands now .. back to flat, windy riding. The mountains have changed me - like they have changed every rider that I know that has ever climbed them. Suffering aside, I miss the journey and look forward to the day that I can return.
I will leave you all with these words of climbing wisdom given to me from Steve: when climbing a mountain on your bike, leave your tires a little flatter(10-15psi less). Air expands with altitude and the tires will get firmer as you go up. On descents, be sure you don't break too much: this heats up your rims and may predispose you to a flat tire. And lastly, if you are a woman that rides a bike, get out to the mountains!! We need more women out there!