Here we go again! Another Haute Route adventure in beautiful Provence. Haute Route Ventoux is a 3 day stage race with 2 full length road races followed by a time trial on the final day. Each day would scale Mont Ventoux taking in the three classic ways up this iconic beast.
For me this would be just my second visit to Ventoux. My first experience of it in the Etape du Tour of 2009 was pretty disastrous so I had a big score to settle with this hill. 3 days here was going to be a fantastic experience, shared with Adrian Beer, Paul Martin and James Richens. Regular Alpine Cadence riders and great guys to be with.
This event would also be a perfect training block in my preparation for the Taiwan KOM in 3 weeks. 4/5 hour stages culminating with tough summit finishes would replicate Taiwan’s course really well and the physical demands required.
As I arrived in Bedoin, the host town for this event, I discovered some of the other riders who were registered. Roedi Weststrate, Richard Scales and Liam McCrory were all here. They are all in my over 50 category, my ‘race within the race’. Roedi had well and truly beaten me in the Pyrenees this year, Richard and I had enjoyed numerous neck and neck battles over the summer and although I’d never raced against Liam, I knew he was good! This was going to be fun!
Stage 1 was a 114km ride culminating with the ‘easy’ way up Ventoux from Sault. A couple of climbs would keep us busy prior to Ventoux, most notably La Liguière with its 9.5km at an average gradient of just over 6%.
A chilly start for us in Bedoin. We assembled at the start with Ventoux and it’s famous tower looming over us and waiting for our arrival 4 hours later. We had 1.5km of neutralised riding before the timing started just out of town. Quite surreal to be just behind the commissaire’s car with Frank Schleck right next to me, Stage winner and on the overall podium in the TDF. He was there to ride with his guests in his cycling enterprise.
As the flag went down the pace inevitably went up. Straight away there were attacks. I went with the first one but we were all reeled in within a minute. A few minutes later 3 riders get away, I’m too far back and miss it. Maybe they’ll stay away. They get 10 minutes of glory but are reeled in by the rest of us before we head up the first climb.
By the time we start climbing it’s been a busy start to the day, attacks and chases but all together now, or at least 80 or so of us from the original 270 starters. The first climbs of the day are not steep by any means but are ridden briskly enough by the leaders to whittle down the field. Adrian and myself find ourselves in a lead group of about 25 riders as we crest the Trois Termes. There’s no one in sight behind us. The main selection of the day has happened.
We forge ahead together through some beautiful Provençale country. The pace is firm but I get enough chance to glance at the gorgeous place that we’re are toiling in. I know that 66km into the ride the La Liguière climb will start to shake up our group of 25. If I can just get to that point with this group I’ll be happy, then our different fitness levels can manifest themselves.
There’s a fairly slow speed crash just ahead of me, 4 riders down, I get round it and the pace eases as we let the crash victims get back on board.
50kms in, our 25 splits. I don’t know how I miss it but I find myself in a second, sub group with a dozen riders up the road, including Adrian. I’m annoyed, I haven’t paid attention, I should have been nearer the front. I chase and do most of the work on the front of our second group. I’m angry. I should be sitting in behind the leaders, not hauling these other guys along the road.
We get to the foot of the La Liguière. Maybe a minute behind the leading group. As soon as the road ramps up I drop my chain. I’ve had niggling gear issues all morning but this is a disaster. I haven’t dropped a chain for about 2 years and what a time to do it now! Now I’m really pissed off. I can sometimes get a chain back on on the go but not this time. Off the bike and get it back on. Probably cost me 20 seconds but felt like an eternity. I ride on seeing my people that I’ve towed for the last 10 minutes all up the road. When shit happens the adrenaline flows. My adrenaline spiked and I was back on board with the group very quickly. It was splitting already. Richard and Roedi were away. It took me a bit longer to reel them in but I did.
I carried onto the top with those two and started to feel happier. Roedi is an immensely strong rider. Being near him in a race is a pretty good indicator that things are ok. The lead group was out of sight but as we crested the top and started down the other side we swamped 3 riders including Liam who had been spat out by the leaders so we were now a second group of 6 riders with an estimated 8 riders up ahead.
As we approached Sault I started to assess how I was. I was happier and in an ok place in the race. I was still frustrated at not being with the lead 8 as I knew a couple of riders there that I was more or less the same level as. Anyway, it is what it is, things are not too bad…..apart from my legs.
Maybe it’s the fairly long lay off from racing, about 5 weeks since the Haute Route Alps. My legs were cramping, not badly, but the signs were there. All my efforts that morning were taking there toll, all the on and offs, my legs were not happy. I needed to show them a bit of respect or I was going to be in deep trouble.
The first few kms out of Sault rise up gently and no one seemed keen to push things too much. This was a perfect environment for my legs to recover. I started to be more and more hopeful that I’d get through the cramp. My ‘race within the race’ old boys were all there. Roedi, Liam, Richard and myself all together and poised for a good battle at the top.
The whole climb of Ventoux from Sault is about 25kms long but the only tough bit was the last 6.5km from Chalet Renard to the top. An average of about 8% and I would need good legs there.
As we approached Chalet Renard I was surprised to see Roedi fall off the back of our group, we were down to 5. Into the last section and Mont Ventoux lived up to it’s name with some strong headwinds every time we swung round to the right. Nobody wanted the front. Everybody wanted to hide. I still had twinges of cramp but otherwise I was feeling pretty strong. As we got closer to the finish I fancied my chances of beating the rest in my group. I’ve got a decent kick on me and it was just a question of when to go.
I have no idea how the others are feeling, are they tired, are they plotting their own attack? 2 kms out I push ahead, my 275 watts goes up to about 375 watts for about 10 seconds, a bit of a tester, I look back and they are still there. Oh, now I’ve shown my hand! Still feeling good. When I crank up the power I can hide it well, I stay seated and the onlooker doesn’t see much change. Some riders will go into a completely different mode and body language when they attack but I think I hide things well.
700m out (or so I thought) and I go again, this time it’s to the finish. I look back and I’ve gapped my rivals. No one on my wheel. Now I’ve got to sustain it. My maths is wrong and the finish is further than I thought. This will look pretty stupid if I get pulled back in through mistiming this. I hold on better than expected and finished strong up the steep final ramp.
Very happy to finish that one. 6th on the day and taking a few seconds out of my old man rivals. All in all a good day although it didn’t always look like it would turn out that way.
Adrian finished well in 23rd, James 64th and Paul 105th.
We enjoyed a fast descent back to Bédoin and then a welcome massage and lunch. Even a chance to console Mr Schleck who couldn’t keep up with us today!
Tomorrow is longer, 133km. Finishing up Ventoux from Malaucène. Time to sleep!