It’s always difficult explaining to a non-cyclist, what it means for us climbing an iconic climb.
The closest thing that can give an idea, it is what for a football fan have the chance to play in the Maracanã, or the Old Trafford or the Santiago Bernabeu. So what happened to me and my team mate Daniel Slotte, was literally having a week tour in a week in the best football stadiums in the world. We were going on a journey starting from the Pyrenees and ending in the French Alps. A tour called, not by chance, King of the Mountains, where we had the luck to climb all the best French mountains.
Daniel and I trained quite well to tackle this week, we knew it was going to be hard, especially when we don’t have that sort of climbs in Uk, where we can replicate that sort of efforts.
We flew to Tolouse, at the arrival the guys from Le domestique tours transferred us in the heart of the Pyrenees. In a parking space we put our bikes together (Daniel took his Specialized Tarmac with Ultegra groupset and Dura Ace wheels, I brought my custom stainless steel Tommasini x-fire, with Campagnolo Super record and Fulcrum Zero racing wheels. Both with a compact!), put our 5th floor kit and straight to tackle the nasty Hautacam first and the spectacular Luz Ardiden then. Only 2500mt of climbing, but enough to understand who could climb in our group: Daniel showed that he was one of them, along with Alec (a young and light American kid) and Jon, who unfortunately spent most of the time in the van because of illness. I wasn’t that far off.
After a good breakfast, we jumped on our bikes, because we need to climb the beast of the Pyrenees: the Tourmalet, no time was going to be wasted. Blessed by a beautiful sunny day, we did possibly the best mountain of the area, 19km avg 7.5%, but the surroundings were worth the efforts. Daniel managed to get the little prize, getting the best time on it!! After descending to Saint Marie, we started the Col d’Aspin, were on the early slopes I’ve snapped my chain. Always carrying an extra link, Rob from LDT helped me to fix it, back on the bike. Shame not to cycle with the rest of the guys, because was the only climb of the tour that I did a better time then them (Strava talks!). Last mountain of the day was the Peyresourde, were Daniel, Alec and I started with a fantastic pace, that they kept till the summit, I “died” few kms before. After those mountains, we had an optional climb, the Superbagneres, but the weather wasn’t looking that good, so we opted to call it a day.
We started under an annoying rain, fortunately we left it behind when attacked the first Col of the day, the unexpectedly stunning Col de Menté. A relatively unknown gem nearly 10k long, with some steep and steady gradient (avg 9.1%!). It looked pretty unreal, pedaling out the clouds, definitely increased the appeal of this gorgeous place. We ended our final stage of the Pyrenees, with the Portet d’Aspet (another problem for me, a puncture this time), where Fabio Casertelli left his life in 1995 (the memorial in his honour, is the most beautiful and touching I’ve ever seen). A short climb, less than 5km, but with ramp that reach 15%. Not bad for a recovery day! After descending, we packed our bikes and we transferred to Provence, for the main day of the week. While in our vans, driving to destination, we could spot it: huge, bald, with its unmistakeable weather station on top, definitely the most iconic French mountain, the Mont Ventoux. Visible from 100km from every direction, it gave goosebumps to all of us. I wouldn’t have thought that the sight of the giant of the Provence could have caused this effect. Emotions mixed with fear, Mont Ventoux can be pretty unforgiving!
It was the main day for most, possibly the most difficult, definitely not the longest, but surely the one with most climbing. We were going to attack Ventoux, not once, but three times, from all its sides. Possibly you have heard of the Club of the Cingles of Ventoux (the madmen of Ventoux), a virtual club of 7000 people, so far, that have been able to climb all three sides of Ventoux in one day. We set off in the morning around 7.45, from Bedoin, the hardest side, 21km at 7.4%. The first 6km are gentle and nice, the second part till the 16th km, it’s the hardest, 9-11% all the way up, fortunately the trees were offering nice shades and weren’t allowing the hot sun to hit our heads. At this point Alec and Daniel were already few minutes ahead. The last 5km were in the bald top, no shade, but fortunately no wind either (Ventoux means windy and is famous for its strong Mistral), the top is reached, the support car is there for the drinks and the food , the card of the challenge is stamped (you need to get a stamp after every time you climb the side), but we are just at one third of the challenge. The descent to Malaucene was magnificent, at the bottom bump into Daniel, so we get the card stamped together (he wasn’t very happy to see that I’ve wiped all his advantage climbing, with my descenting, but being heavier helps downhill!!) and we are back on the second side, from Malaucene. This is supposed to be the medium side, same length, same gradient, but to me it looked tougher than the Bedoin side, maybe because the temperature rose to nearly 30 degrees, maybe because the first side worn me out enough, maybe because 3km in the middle were averaging 11.5%, but I had to put my feet down for a minute. Fortunately the guys of LeDomestique, were doing a great job, filling our sticky bottles on the way like the pros do! (can’t rave enough about having a support on ride, bottles always full, food always there and jackets and gloves ready at any use at any moment!) Even the second side was done, it felt that the challenge was over, knowing that the third side was the easiest. Descending, and ascending from Sault, was a joy. 28km at 4.5% between lavender fields of Provence. From Chalet Raynard, was the same as the first side. Daniel made the best time, and won the inside challenge, me, Alec and Jon, set a good pace, till the last km, where they both popped. The adrenaline kept me going till the top. After 140km (70km uphill) and 4400mt of climbing, we all managed to write our name down on the Cingles des Ventoux’s website. Before doing this mountain, I’ve heard so many stories about it. I couldn’t understand why it was so worshipped…so what’s so special about it? Difficult to explain, definitely it’s one of a kind, you can relate mountains to others, the scenery, the feeling can be felt again somewhere else, Ventoux no, is unique, there is no other place like it. It’s definitely magical, goes from the village through the forest to a lunar landscape to lavender fields, just unbelievable. If I have to recommend one climb out all the ones we have done, I’d definitely go for this one!! After the challenge we all reunite in Bedoin for the first celebratory beer of the trip. Back to the beautiful hotel, for some recovery drink and some rest. Again, and naturally I was sharing the room with Daniel, where you could come across his maniacal order pre ride, so scientifical and calculated, while mine was the usual Italian mess!
It’s a sort of transfer day, from the Provence to the Alps. Doesn’t start in the happiest way, heavy rain take us in the first 20kms, after the sky clears and becomes totally enjoyable. The stage is 170km long, fortunately with “only” 3 Cols to climb: Col de l’Homme Mort, Col d’Espraux and the Col de Festre. In between there were flat bits where we could create a “train” where we could hit high speeds and taking changes, going through surprising amazing sceneries, valleys and lakes. By the end of the day, the fatigue started to make his victims: cramps, bonking and heavy legs were all over. Definitely Monsieur Ventoux has a lot to answer about! We arrived in Corps, hungry and tired, managed to find a shop where Daniel and I raided their stock of bananas, apples, peaches and dried apricots and prunes. There were only two days left, but what days!!
We left Corps and after few kms we tackled Col de Parquetout, with its really steep ramp toward the end, not an easy one for sure. After a difficult and technical descent, we were on the beautiful and gentle slopes of Col d’Ornon that led us straight to Borg d’Oisans, village famous because it’s at the bottom of some big climbs. After lunch we were ready for a big one: Col de la Croix de Fer. 31.5 km with a lying 4.1% gradient. It sounds easy, but the gradient is given by the irregularity of the climb, in reality is a monster. There are some small descent in the middle and some cruel ramps. Definitely the Col where I’ve suffered the most, I’ve really struggled halfway (Daniel says that was because I didn’t wear compression tights the day before!). I was on the edge to ask the support van to take my bike and carry me, I had enough. But I didn’t wanna quit, Daniel had possibly one of his best performance of the tour, while I was really struggling. Fortunately I wasn’t the only one, everybody else looked pretty exhausted, but slowly and with the help of the beauty of the surroundings, we all made it to the Iron Cross at the top!! At that height, the temperature went down drastically, jackets and leg warmers from the van where highly welcome.
Last day and among the hardest. Today some big and iconic climbs. We started with the Telegraphe, which leads straight to another monster, the mighty Galibier, the highest point of the tour, 2646mt. This was for me the most enjoyable climb, quite regular, not very steep, breathtaking views. Plus Alec put his music on from his phone, and definitely Radio Galibier helped us to reach the top with a huge smile on our faces. It was a bit emotional when we cycled past where Pantani did his famous attack in 1998, and where now sits his memorial. Definitely my second favourite Col of the tour. After a stunning and long descent, we started to get light and ready for the final climb of the tour, the infamous Alpe d’huez. I attacked at the beginning and on the approach of the climb. I knew that if I had to get some seconds I had to do it at the beginning, knowing that Alec and Daniel, would have get me. And of course it happened. At the height of hairpin 7, I had no more juice in my tank, I was exhausted. I just digged deep to make sure I was going to finish the climb in the top three, and luckily I made it! Alpe d’Huez is an historic climb, even though I can’t really understand where this appeal is coming from: no particularly tough, not really scenic, not as near as magic as the Ventoux, I guess its status sits on the epic battles and on the fact that is the first mountain where tv had live coverage back in 1952.
Everybody finishes the climb, and it’s celebration time. Another beer that ends an amazing week.
More than 800km rode, more than 21000mt climbed, fantastic people met, stunning mountains climbed, loads of food and drink consumed, unforgettable views seen and some hours spent on a bike that I will keep with me for the rest of my life!
Many thanks to the guys at Le Domestique Tours for the fundamental help and support, it wouldn’t have been so enjoyable without you.
- Pasquale Chionchio
Photos : Le Domestique Tour – Check out the full set here.