Friday, July 24, 2009

Ventoux: Géant de Provence

In honor of tomorrow's penultimate Tour de France stage, which ends atop the infamous Géant de Provence, le Mont Ventoux, I decided to relate my own account of riding up Ventoux two years ago. My journey lacked both the nobility and agony of the peloton's, but it still stands as one of the "great" experiences I've shared in my (nearly) twenty-nine years. And as is the case with many such experiences, its impact on my life grows in hindsight; the actual event took maybe five hours, but its significance is manifold.
JFL, AGB, and I had spent six days riding within sight of the mountain, from Vaison-la-Romaine up to Saou, and then down through Buis-les-Baronnies to Sault, from which we began our Ventoux ascent early one morning. We rode slowly up the "easy" flank, on a road lined with cedars and gravel turn-outs, and by mid-morning we had reached the restaurant that marks the beginning of the infamous moonscape--six kilometers of bare, windswept limestone at a gradient of roughly 9%.
I remember the wind--the infamous Provencal "mistral"--the legions of other (almost entirely male) cyclists, many of whom were riding hybrids or mountain bikes, and the sense that I had traveled thousands of miles essentially for those few hours, to ride up the mountain that Petrarch climbed in 1336 and that Merckx dominated in 1970. When I passed Tom Simpson's shrine I thought how I nice it would be to reach the top alive. And then I did.

At the top stood a market selling dried saucisson and Haribo gummies under the auspices of the giant meteorological tower, and clusters of cyclists huddled together against the wind. Because the sky was fairly clear we could see the Alps to the northeast and Provence to the south, and so we took pictures, and then zipped up our jackets and began the fast and steep descent to Bedoin.

I think, when reflecting on the significance of Ventoux in my life, that it shouldn't mean as much as it does. I've stood on higher mountain summits and undertaken more exciting rides. I've even shared more "meaningful" experiences, in the sense of experiences that have shaped the course of my life or the way that I perceive it. But Ventoux stands tall in my mind. If, as Augustine asserted, our history is linear, then Ventoux marks a definite before and after--the before my life in academia, and the after my life outside of it. But not, I should point out, without it, because if there's one thing that I learned in light of Ventoux, and as I imagined Petrarch scrambling up the Giant's limestone slopes, it's that the academy lives inside those of us who have been fulfilled by it.

And so tomorrow I tip my chapeau to Lance and Alberto, Frank and Andy, Andreas and Bradley, Cadel and George, Popo and Fabian, and to all the other cyclists braving the windswept flanks of the Géant de Provence, who sacrifice their very selves for reasons that few of us understand, and for little other than their desire to be there, suffering together. As Augustine said, dilige et quod vis fac--love, and do what you will.


  1. You make riding up Ventoux sound so romantic, I almost want to try it myself. Almost.
    I think I'd be more afraid of the descent.

  2. Romantic, not.

    I did L'Etape, check out the video at Report at in next few days.

    I also did it twice in the two days prior to L'Etape which turned out to be a tiny bit silly.

    Cost me 40 mins from my best time, and also moved me from a top 300 spot to 1300th or so.

    Respect though, she's pretty beasty.