Climbing Mont Ventoux on a fixed gear, four times

Editor’s note: Paul Rozelle is an endurance cyclist who completed the 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneur in 2011 and writes about his experience in Issue #16. While he was in France, he decided to climb all four ascents of Mont Ventoux on his fixed-gear, only days before PBP. He shares that story here.

Why?

By Paul Rozelle

A lot of people asked me why I was climbing Mont Ventoux four times on a fixed-gear bike in one day, just three days before starting Paris-Brest Paris. Most inquired with some degree of bewilderment, like, "Why ever would you do something like that?" by which they meant, I think, that what I was going to do wouldn’t be any fun, I’d likely not succeed, and in the process I’d seriously jeopardize the likelihood of completing PBP.

I have a greatly over-developed sense of adventure. How do you explain that?

There’s a nice medal for climbing Mont Ventoux by all three paved routes in one day, and an even more elite recognition from conquering those climbs plus the unpaved forest road. That’s 116 miles and more than 19,000 feet of climbing (and descending), including two Hors Categorie climbs plus an unpaved route on a mountain known for its bad weather. As far as I know, this had never been done on a fixed-gear bike.

Fame and glory (and masochism) aside, I believe that just about anything that can be done on a geared bike can be done on a fixed- gear. Ventoux has been climbed by fixed-gear riders before. It was probably the usual means of ascent for a long time, but that was so long ago that most people have forgotten. I wanted to restore some of that memory and perhaps inspire people to push their own limits in cycling. Doing both Ventoux and PBP in the same week would help make the point in a more extreme fashion: if this can be done on a fixed-gear bicycle, then tell me what, exactly, cannot?

Ventoux: Final Preparations

It turns out that driving from Paris to Provence — a mere 400 miles — takes all day. What I thought would be a mid-afternoon arrival after a leisurely drive through the countryside turned into a 12-hour, stressful slog through traffic. We picked up the official route card (similar to a brevet card) at a bike shop in Malaucene and then drove up Ventoux using the Malaucene route and down the Bedoin route so I could see those aspects, at least from the car, before riding them just a few hours later. Driving those two climbs focused my mind on the enormity and difficulty of the project. Our rental car needed second gear to clear several of the pitches and both climbs were "as advertised": hardly a meter of road that didn’t go straight up the enormous mountain.

My wife and I barely made the 8 p.m. check-in time at our B&B in Saint Columbe, just a few miles up the road from Bedoin. Checked in, we ditched our stuff and ran into Bedoin for dinner and to get my route card stamped at the first checkpoint. Because I would leave so early in the morning, I was permitted to have the card pre-stamped the night before. With that stamp, I was now committed to climbing the Bedoin route — the most difficult — first.

Well fed, stamped, and now back at the B&B, we sorted gear and readied the bike. I gave the weather a final study. There is no better person to have on hand than my wife when you need to get a lot of stuff done quickly and correctly and by 11:30 p.m. the bike and I were ready to go.

I’d be lucky with the weather. It was forecast to be sunny, hot, and not very windy. I could travel light. I would be able to carry all my stuff in jersey pockets, the largest item being a light jacket to keep me warm on the descents. I could fill bottles and buy food in the towns and at the summit. I made the final call to try 48×18 (70.2 gear inches) for the gearing. All set and ready to go, I made the decision to push my start time back to get a little more sleep due to the late hour and the travel delays. I’d get up at 5:30 and plan to roll by 6 a.m., several hours behind the schedule I’d originally planned.

Ventoux: The Bedoin Route

A little after 3:30 a.m., though, I was awake and it was clear I wasn’t going to fall back to sleep again. I got up and ate breakfast — some fruit, bread, and peanut butter crackers — and tended to a few final issues with the bike. I walked out into the totally still, moon-lit night and looked at the clock: 4:20 a.m. I had 24 hours to return to this spot with four summits in the bag.

The first order of business was to descend the hundred meters or so from Saint Columbe to Bedoin. There is a marble line embedded in the road in Bedoin that marks the official start of the climb. I paused to snap a few photos and was off.

The first 6km of the Bedoin climb are variously described as "easy" or "flat." They are neither. There is perhaps 100 meters of road in the town of Saint Esteve that is flat riding, but the rest of it heads up, and some of it significantly so. Even before returning to Saint Columbe, I was out of the saddle and focused on maintaining a pace that would not make me anaerobic. If I taxed myself here, I would never make it, a reality that inspired some dark thoughts and doubts. This climb was already tough, and I hadn’t seen anything yet. I paused in Saint Esteve to top off a bottle in the natural spring in front of someone’s house and the sound of trickling water got me calmed down and focused.

Immediately after leaving Saint Esteve, the road from Bedoin turns sharply left, enters the cedar forest, and goes straight up for 10km without a single flat section. It’s utterly relentless. Even the long lines through the switchbacks are steep. I did the best I could to ride the longest (and hence, the flattest) line I could up the mountain and even tacked to keep from bogging down in what I now realized was a ridiculous gear. I knew I would be out of the saddle without a single break for this entire pitch. The grade isn’t that bad — it’s mostly nine to 11 percent — but what hurts is that there is so much of it, with no rest whatsoever.

Despite my best preventative efforts, I was quickly anaerobic. I stopped a few kilometers into the pitch and rested on a guardrail until by heart rate recovered and then I set back to work. I completed the 10km climb with only one more brief stop.

As I rounded a turn toward the top of this section, I saw the first rays of sun strike the mountain’s summit cone. Down below, the countryside was still enshrouded in total darkness and the lights of Avignon twinkled in the distance.

Soon after, I came to Chalet Reynard, a ski lodge that sits at the tree line and that marks the start of the final, 1,800-foot push to the summit through a lunar and barren landscape. The Chalet wasn’t open yet, so I rode on. This section of the Bedloin climb is the scene of the Armstrong-Pantani duel and of many other achievements, and tragedies, before that.

I won’t say it’s easy, but the grade moderating to a mere eight percent was noticeable to my heart and legs. There were even a few sections where I could climb seated, though there was, again, not a single flat spot on the climb. I distracted myself from the pain by reading the now constant stream of inspiring and encouraging words painted on the road and left over from previous Tours de France. A giant drawing of a snail, though, brought me back to the reality of my situation.

I kept a lookout for the Tom Simpson memorial on the right and was afraid I had somehow missed it. It’s closer to the summit, only 1km, than I had thought. I spent some time there resting and reflecting. It’s an oddly moving tribute and shrine.

The final push to the summit met with some 40mph crosswinds courtesy of the aptly named Col de Tempêtes. Surviving that, you then climb the final, very steep pitch to the summit and you are there — on top of The Giant of Provence. At 7 a.m., I had it entirely to myself. I’d made the climb in 2:32, including all stops. Hardly a record pace, but I was very happy with it under the circumstances. I had three climbs left. Having cleared the toughest one, I thought I could manage the other two paved routes. The real trick would be the forest road. I knew I’d suffer like a beast to get up that. These were my thoughts as I snapped a few photos, validated my card in the punch clock, put on my jacket, and began to descend to Malaucene.

Above left: Stopped at the Tom Simpson memorial. Right: At the summit.

Ventoux: Malaucene

The descent off the Ventoux required full concentration, a lot of braking, and a huge amount of upper-body strength. Frankly, on a fixed- gear bike, you just want it to be over with. There are spectacular views all around you, but you’re not looking at any of them. This would have been a joy on a bike with a freewheel. On a fixed-gear, it was an exercise in extreme focus: focus on the road, on your line, on your speed, and on anything else other than how much pain you were in and how quickly your legs were moving.

The last few kilometers I began to see cyclists ascending the route. The sun was out and with was going to be a gorgeous, and hot, day.

In Malacuene, I stopped at the Blueberry Café and gorged on breads, jams, croissants, O.J., and two cafés au lait. I filled my bottles in the natural spring in front of the café and was off at 8:15 a.m. for climb number two. With the toughest climb behind me and still feeling fresh, I had little doubt that I’d finish all the paved routes. I had concerns about the time (this was clearly going to take all day) and about the unknown forest road. All the way up Malaucene, I thought about whether to attempt the forest road third or save it for last, which was the original plan. Part of me wanted to get it over with and to face it when I was fresher. Another part thought that it would break my will and that if I failed, I’d only have completed half the climbs. I thought that if I had three climbs in me, and if the only thing that stood between me and success was that forest road, then I’d find some way to get up it. But I also thought about what a beast it must be. Think about it: if the grade were better than the Bedoin route, then the “forest road” wouldn’t be the friggin’ “forest road,” It would be THE road. The fact that it was a crappy, unpaved, rarely used road meant that it must truly suck.

Unlike my solitary ascent of Bedoin, Malaucene was filled with cyclists, which added a nice distraction both from my present work and my fears of the future. Most riders seemed to be fairly serious, middle-aged roadies, the majority of them French. In fact, I would not encounter a single American on the mountain that day.

Once guy I passed shouted out, “What gear?” (in French), as I rode past and accelerated to match my pace. I backed off so we could chat. Recognizing the bike – a “pignon fixe” – this exchange was the first of several of the day that went something like this: “You have strong legs!” “No,” I’d reply in French, “I have a small brain.” Before I departed, the rider asked me to move farther left so he could shoot a photo of me and the bike from the drive-train side. The French are awesome.

About halfway up, I passed the first of two people on the mountain that day who blew me away with what they were doing. This guy was running up the mountain, and he was moving fast. I was barely faster than he was, and he was faster than a good many cyclists. We had a little mutual admiration society going as we leapfrogged each other. I’d have to stop to catch my breath and he’d just keep flogging it up the mountain.

Malaucene is easier than Bedoin, but it is still an HC climb. What makes it easier is that it has a few kilometers that average “only” 5 percent or 6 percent, but it makes up for it with one especially ugly kilometer where the average pitch is a whopping 12 percent. There are parts of the climb where you ascend 600 feet in a mile. One part of the road is, in the winter, marked as a black-diamond ski trail.

By the time I reached the ski lodge on the Malaucene side (different from Chalet Reynard, on the Bedoin side of the mountain), I badly needed some rest. Forty minutes and two more cafés au lait later, I was back at it.

I think the summit cone from the Malaucene side is tougher than from the Bedoin/Sault side. There’s a long, murderous stretch that I had to rest on twice. And, as with the rest of it, there’s not a meter of ground that’s flat. The Malaucene side is also more scenic than the (admittedly stunning!) Bedoin side. The views of the valley 6,000 feet below are sweeping and the summit cone from the north side looks more dramatic. It’s a wall.

I rode the last pitch from Malaucene with two Englishmen who were at the same pace. The difference was that there were seated, spinning away, and chattering while I was out of the saddle, totally out of breath, and nearly cracked. At the top, the Brits introduced me to their wives, who had driven up to meet them. We talked and took photos. The summit was now crowded with people, including a few older French guys who were there to watch the cyclists. I spoke with one guy briefly who then summoned his friends and explained to them what I was doing. I got a chorus of “Courage!” and “Chapeau!” from everyone. Neither word is administered lightly by the French, so I began my descent to Sault feeling honored.

Dawn on the climb.

Ventoux: Sault

Descending the route to Sault is the same as the route to Bedoin until you reach Chalet Reynard. There, instead of turning right and descending into the cedar forest, you bear left, leaving the main drag, and head to the south-east toward Sault. The descent of the summit cone this time was trickier than earlier. Now, the narrow road was filled with cyclists, both ascending and descending, and with autos. I let it rip on the descent because I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way. On a geared bike, the descent would have been epic and fast and I didn’t want to block anyone who had earned such a sweet reward. I was surprised that I overtook more riders on the descent than who overtook me.

I took the left fork to Sault, having finally decided after much deliberation to do the forest road last. I’d just have to find some way to get up it. The Sault descent is, relatively speaking, gradual and leisurely but the road surface is in poor condition and the road is in places quite a bit narrower than either the Bedoin or the Malaucene routes. Sault is not a popular climb and so it had little auto or cycle traffic on it.

Nearing the bottom of the descent, I witnessed an awesome feat of cycling. A couple was headed up the mountain: The guy was riding a hybrid bike and towing their kid, who had to be four or five years old, in one of those Burley-like trailers. I’d see them a few hours later at the summit. Now that’s tough!

Another especially memorable moment occurred as I approached the valley floor. There are endless fields of lavender growing on the Sault side, and you can smell them long before you can see them. The smell was just sweet and divine.

Unlike Bedoin and Malaucene, the town of Sault is built on a hill. A big hill. After descending to the valley, you then have to climb a very steep, 300-foot hill to get into town. It was one of the more difficult pitches of the day, and not just because it stood between me and lunch. Finally there, I got my stamp and had a rest at a café with ample water, Coke, and jambon et fromage. I was refreshed, but it was now officially hot. The temperature would rise into the 90s before the day was over.

The Sault climb back to Chalet Reynard is easy and it was good recovery. I was glad to have chosen this route over the forest road for my third ascent. I was riding fast and strong, and felt good. There were many pitches I could handle from the seated position, which provided some much-needed rest and recovery.

I made good time to Chalet Reynard where I stopped briefly to fill bottles before tackling the summit cone from this side for the second time. It was much harder now, with two other ascents in my legs and in the full heat of the day. By reputation, there is the “windy” Ventoux and the “hot” Ventoux. I got the hot one, and I’m probably lucky that I did. As a Florida boy, I can deal with hot.

The route was now choked with cyclists from every conceivable background, from pro-looking guys on bling carbon bikes to young girls in tank tops on rental mountain bikes. Climbing Ventoux seems to be a rite of passage for cycling fans visiting the south of France, and with the good weather, there were many people making the pilgrimage that day. Many people were hoofing it and looking positively worn out.

I made the top in 2:10 total time, and repeated the scene of interacting with impressed French spectators. I didn’t linger long. I had a date with the forest road. I quickly set off to descend to Bedoin. I made quick work of the familiar summit cone, but the descent into the cedar forest was new terrain. It was steep! The 10km pitch below the Chalet was, in a word, insane. I stopped mid-way down to cool my rims with what water I had remaining, a necessary task. My upper body and hands were in agony from the braking, and I was very glad once I got off that pitch safely.

I stopped at the B&B in Saint Columbe. On the descent, I had decided to put on the lowest gear I had to tackle the forest road. I simply could not believe I had made it up the paved route earlier that day and, with three climbs in my legs, I doubted my ability to clear it again in 70 gear inches, especially this time on an unpaved route. The lowest I could go was 48×19, but it would have to do. (Yes, I was very much regretting leaving the 45T chain ring and the 20T cog on my work bench at home….) I changed the gear, changed clothes to feel a bit more fresh (which always works!), and then set back out on the road to complete the descent to Bedoin, obtain my final town checkpoint stamp, and to begin the fourth and final ascent. It was about 5:15 p.m.. I’d been at it for almost 13 hours.

At the summit once again.

Ventoux: La route forestere

The forest road is the same as the Bedoin route for 8km. It climbs out of town through Saint Columbe and Saint Esteve, and then turns straight up through the cedars for two brutal kilometers before turning off the Bedoin route onto an unmarked dirt road. The paved bits were definitely easier in 48×19 than with the 18T cog on, but it was still a mighty effort to power the bike past Saint Esteve. I kept thinking, “When is this ‘forest road’ going to appear?” I really wanted to get on it and get it on!

Soon enough, my request was granted. For the first kilometer, the forest road actually had some pieces of old pavement visible. It was seriously degraded, though, and was covered with loose stone and debris – sticks, rocks – that made good line choice critical. Still, I made it up the first pitch and thought, “That wasn’t so bad!” I even entertained delusions of descending the forest road, which I thought would be more “pure” than taking the paved Bedoin descent, although taking the paved descent is permitted under the rules.

After an initial steep kilometer, the forest road begins a climbing traverse. What little pavement there was disappeared and was replaced by two ruts packed with dirt, stone, gravel, and all manner of forest debris. Mostly I was out of the saddle but at times I could remain seated and handle the grade. Daylight was fading. Clouds were moving in. The temperature cooled significantly. In the forest, there was no sound other than my breathing and the crunch of my wheels on the ground. The smell of the cedars was strong.

As the climb went on, the road-to-gravel ratio decreased significantly. Picking a line that would let me keep the rear wheel from spinning out became increasingly challenging. In places, the road was washed out entirely, which meant traversing loose sand and some mud.

I was still making forward progress on the bike, though, until I fell victim to good intentions. Suddenly, huge amounts of loose stone appeared. A road crew had decided to remedy the washed-out and eroded bits by filling them with gravel. I was good for a short while, as long as I could stay seated. But when the pitch kicked up significantly and I pushed the crank all the way down without the bike advancing one centimeter, I knew it was time to hop off and start walking.

I walked for a bit until it looked like I might be able to get purchase. I’d re-start and get maybe 50 or 100 meters up the road and then I’d have to dismount again, lest I eat gravel. I repeated this exercise a few times before I looked up the road and the reality of my situation set in: the road remained very steep, uniformly covered in loose stone, and there was no end in sight. I was about to go for a very, very long walk.

Soon the flies found me. Remember those old guys photographed in National Geographic, sitting in their remote African villages totally covered in flies? That was me. I was all Zen about it – just like those old wise-looking dudes – until the flies wanted in my ears and nose and mouth. I didn’t want to spend precious energy yelling and swatting. I tried negotiating with God: “Please. Anything but the flies.” When the mosquitoes showed up, I asked for the flies back.

Then I fell victim to French energy bars. I’d picked up a few at the bike shop in Bedoin I’d used as my final town checkpoint. They looked like chewy fruit bars. I cracked one open. Inside the wrapper, the bar had two little, dainty wax paper bits that that covered the bar, as if you cared about getting your fingers sticky. I tried to peel this off. No-can-do. I ended up with little bits of paper in my fingers and more little bits of paper stuck to the bar. I gave up trying to peel off the wrappers and ate all three of them, which was all I had left for calories until I completed the “ride.” I figured my stomach wouldn’t react negatively until this project was complete, one way or the other. At least I’d been distracted from the flies for a few minutes.

After 90 minutes or so, the “road” leveled to a degree (meaning, it probably dropped below 10 percent) that I could ride it without standing. I’d covered barely more than a mile in that time. I hoped back on and as long as I remained seated, I could get enough purchase with the rear wheel that I could move more quickly on the bike than off it.

Now some of you may be thinking, why not ride the margins, Paris- Roubaix style? Not possible, mes amis. There was no road shoulder. The “road” at this point was five feet wide. One side was a cliff going up. The other side is a cliff going down. Instead of the little annoying rocks that I could not ride on the “road,” what little margins there were covered in boulders and logs and all kinds of ridiculous crap that was not rideable on a road bike with 23c tires. My problem wasn’t the “road,” it was the bike. A much lower gear and I’ve have been loving this stuff. In 48×19, though, I was trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.

Back on the bike, I was at least faster than the flies. I made good time up to where the road hits a plateau and forks, with one branch going to Chalet Reynard and the other topping out on the southwest ridge and heading over to rejoin the Malacuene route. My directions called for the Malacuene ascent, so I turned left.

Soon after this junction, I came upon a cyclotourist who was illegally camping by the side of the road. He was as surprised to see me as I was him. I took his presence as a good sign that I was near the road junction and that I didn’t have much climbing left. This guy wasn’t going to ride far or descend much (only to have to reclimb it in the morning) from the paved road on a fully-loaded touring bike. I was pushing hard now. I wanted to summit before sunset.

The forest road rejoins civilization just above the ski lodge on the Malacuene side. Real pavement combined with the lower gear, plus knowing I was on the home stretch, had me totally pumped up and I hammered on the pedals. At this hour I had the road entirely to myself, just like I’d begun. It was now raining, but I didn’t stop to add the jacket. As long as I hammered, I’d stay warm.

Toward the top, I encountered a local who had driven up to photograph the sunset. He was just packing up when I passed him. He was pretty excited to see me and cheered enthusiastically as I went by, with all manner of arm waving, jumping around, and shouts of “Allez!” He hopped in his car, drove up the road a few hundred meters, and repeated the serenade. He did this all the way up the summit, where all the vendors, cyclists, and tourists had long since departed for the day. At the top, the French guy drove on and I was greeted by a Dutch couple, who were equally surprised and enthusiastic to see me there at that hour. We chatted briefly and I punched my card in the time clock for the final time: 9:18 p.m.

It had been a very long day, but it wasn’t over yet. I had to descend more than 5,000 feet in the dark. I was tired and the road was wet. Needless to say, I took it really easy. After a few kilometers, I rode out of the rain and I could see all of the lights in the valley shining below me. It was gorgeous, and I permitted myself a few glances of something other than the steep, twisty road in front of me. The second descent through the cedars was less terrifying than the first, only because I could not see far enough down the road to be scared of what lay ahead.

At 10:05 p.m., I was back in Saint Columbe, my mission complete. I am certain that I now hold the record for the slowest descent of the Ventoux. Iban Mayo went up it to set his record in nearly the time it took me to come down it!

Paul’s stamped brevet card, with all four routes completed.

Ventoux: The Damage Done

Back at the B&B, Susan rounded up dinner (God bless the French and their late dinner hour!) while I soaked in the tub. I had bits of crushed gravel embedded in every place imaginable. I’d be picking the stuff out of my hair and ears for a day. And my poor bike! I’d never seen a granite-colored chain before: It was encased in dust and bits of stone.

Clean and fed, I could assess the damage. My hands were very bruised. My upper body felt like I had worked every muscle to failure. My triceps were especially fried. My lower back was the worst. Turns out that hours out of the saddle, wrenching on the hoods for leverage, really does a number on your lower back. Who knew? Surprisingly, my legs felt pretty good. Tired and sore, sure. But they didn’t even rate compared to any of these other maladies. My real fear was my hands – in addition to being very sore, it looked like I’d have a few blisters to remember this adventure by (despite wearing gloves and changing them out mid-ride for a fresh pair). They were really, really sore. I could manage PBP with all these other deficits, but you can’t ride 1,230km without touching the bars.

As I cleaned up, ate, and began to heal, I thought about how I didn’t succeed in doing all the climbs in one gear. I’m a bit comforted by believing that there’s no one, single combination of cogs and chain rings I own that would have gotten me up—and down—Ventoux fixed in one day. And, had I not changed to 48×19 for the forest road, my walk might have been a lot longer, which might have put me on the mountain in more rain and more dark and cold, all of which might have jeopardized my safety or a finish. I don’t get a fixed-gear purity award for my ride, but so be it. I’ll leave doing all four routes in one single gear to another rider in the future. Still, I was pleased that I didn’t walk a single meter of any of the paved routes. Especially in 48×18, that’s more than I thought myself capable of.

The one statistic from the ride that I’m most happy about is that I took no pain relievers before, during, or after it. I’ve been trying to get away from using that stuff for years and getting up and down, and recovering from, Ventoux without any drugs (liberal amounts of caffeine aside) is an accomplishment I’m proud of. It sounds a bit foo-foo, but I think by listening to my body and what it was capable of, I was able to select an effort that made the climbs successful but that also let me recover quickly and be in shape to start PBP just three days later. There’s no doubt I could have done this faster, and that some Vitamin I would have produced a faster pace. A faster pace, though, might have wrecked my PBP. Pain was good: it slowed me down to something sustainable. And it would have alerted me to any kind of issue that wasn’t just muscle pain. Tweaking a knee or an Achilles would have ended the ride. Had I been doped up, I wouldn’t have felt that until it was too late to do anything about it. And, what’s the point of a faster ride, anyway? The goal was to do it, period, and to give everyone who told me — even during the ride! — that what I was doing was "impossible" something to think about. No one cares whether it took me 18 hours or if I did it in half of that. I’ll leave a faster fixed-gear ride to another rider in the future, too.

In the end, I had fun—even while doing it and even while wondering if I had the strength to lift myself out of the bathtub after my post-ride soak. I made it up and down. And up and down and up and down and up and down. Although I had some serious recovery to do, I thought as I drifted off to sleep that I’d probably be ok for PBP. I’d be fortunate to wake up the next morning and see my blisters looked more like calluses. I’d be ok. And I’d definitely given some folks something to think about when it comes to what’s possible on a fixed-gear bicycle.
 

 

 
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