What it takes to Everest on Mont Ventoux
by Tristan Cardew
If you’ve been in the cycling world for a little while you’ve probably heard the term ‘Everesting’. Maybe you’ve done it or at least considered it - this crazy act of riding up and down the same hill until you’ve amassed the same vertical elevation in one ride as the height of Mount Everest from sea level: 8848 meters. I think some guys from Melbourne came up with the idea originally and now it’s a pretty standard measure of a zealous cyclist. Done an Everesting? You’re part of a club with a growing number of equally mad and passionate cyclists as yourself.
The idea for this Everesting came about when one of my best mates from Girona, Brian Canty, decided to quit his job and go bike packing for four months with his girlfriend, Cassie. Brian wanted to kick off the trip with a bang, so we hatched a plan to drive to Provence, do the Everesting, and the following day they’d continue riding north while I headed back to Girona. Like most cyclists, both Brian and I have always had a fascination with the Mont Ventoux. I mean, who doesn’t? It’s this mythical beast of a mountain and when Le Tour goes up it every few years, it seems to draw the biggest crowds and the most hype. It has long, steep straights and a moon-like landscape at the top. The perfect place for a challenge...
So what does it take to climb 8848 meters on the Mont Ventoux? About five and three-quarter repeats, to be precise. Ventoux has three sides: the side from Malaucène, which is said to be nice, consistent and enjoyable; the side from Sault which is said to be the easiest side; and the most famous side, Bedoin, with it’s never-ending 10% gradients, very few places to recover and a view of the top that never seems to arrive. This is the side we would be repeating: 21 kilometres long at an average of 7.7% for a total of 1567 meters of climbing each time.
On four hours sleep due to nerves and last-minute bike adjustments, we rolled out around 5:20am. Sunrise was 6:15am so we expected to be around two-thirds of the way up the first climb at first light, and from there the day would progress. We estimated each climb to take around an hour and a half or slightly longer, with a five minute stop at the top each time before a 25 minute descent back to Bedoin to start the process again.
Climb number one was a bit of an unknown. I’d never ridden Mont Ventoux before and it had been more than five years since Brian had, so we nervously laughed our way up the initial flatter sections before the chatting stopped and the reality of what lay ahead hit us. Oh, and the gradient. I should mention the gradient. Ventoux is most famous for it’s last few kilometres: the barren landscape, the weather tower, the wind. But what most people don’t see during race coverage is just how brutally unrelenting the lower slopes in the forest are. Almost 10 kilometres where the gradient doesn’t dip below 9.5%. It’s a slog, and while the first climb should technically have been the easiest, it was anything but. You can’t draft because you’re going too slow and you can’t really get comfortable or spin your legs because it's too steep, so you just have to grind it out until you’re out the other side. This is part of the reason I love the challenge of an Everesting: you have only yourself on which to rely. Sitting behind someone makes very little difference and unlike a distance-based ride, the downhills don’t help in achieving the end result. It’s all about the up.
Eventually the sun rose, and before long we popped out to the famous view and the last 6 kilometres where the road very slightly flattens (down to 7.5% average…). After so many years seeing photos of the place, it was pretty bloody cool to be riding it myself – feeling the temperature drop as the elevation increased, passing the Tom Simpson memorial in the last kilometer, eventually reaching the sign I’ve seen so many people stand in front of with huge grins on their faces. I can see why it’s such a well-loved and highly-revered mountain. Now we just had to climb it another 5 times…
Over the next 8 hours or so, both Brian and I ticked off the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th repeats, individually. It was pointless trying to ride alongside each other on such steep gradients – you can’t really chat and you really only want to stick to whatever pace makes you most comfortable. Everesting Ventoux is a feat you really have to do solo – not just because of how tough it is, but because of where it takes you mentally. This is largely why I ride. You have highs and lows, come to great conclusions about yourself and your ability, have all kinds of thoughts about why you love the sport and what makes you hate it, and of course there was the sense of internal satisfaction I’d feel every time I reached the summit. Everesting magnifies all these things intensely. We’d share these thoughts every couple of hours when we’d meet back up on the lower slopes before going up at our own pace again. The journey, largely, is an individual one, and I think that’s the beauty of it.
Around 6pm, after both of us had bonked horrendously but completed our fifth climb, we made the decision to take a breather and recuperate at the house we had rented 100 meters from the start of the climb. We planned to ride the final climb together, at sunset, so we could share stories and soak up the day's effort. We rolled out for climb number six at 7:30pm and slowly but surely watched the numbers tick upwards, collecting both in distance and in vertical meters. Each minute nudged us closer to the magic number of 8848. As we debriefed, we learned that Brian had found the second ascent the easiest while I found the third the toughest. We’d both stopped and asked strangers for food on the fifth. The part of the climb I liked the most was where it got steepest, mainly because I knew I was putting the greatest dent in the task of accumulating vertical meters, whereas Brian had favoured the slight tailwind we had between kilometres 14 and 18 on the climb. Both of us had suffered, and both of us had found a new ceiling within ourselves.
Sometime around 8:40pm, I watched my the little ‘M Climb’ number on my Wahoo tick over the 8848 and Brian and I gave each other a solid pat on the back. We’d accomplished what we came to do. Brian wanted to head to the top in time to catch the sunset, so he jumped in the car with Cassie and our two mates Sergi and Franc, and I opted to keep riding. With eight kilometres and 600 meters of vertical still to go, I pushed on and let the experience of the day sink in. From the sunrise over 14 hours earlier, to the mid-morning chaos of one of the world’s most famous cycling climbs packed with people undertaking the challenge of riding up it, to the heat of the mid-afternoon in Provence, and the bonking due to mis-calculated food consumption, to being alone at that moment as the sky turned purple and the wind gently pushed at my back. It was a moment worth savouring, and one that’s etched heavily into my memory. I stopped at the Tom Simpson memorial and took a couple of photos, left my bidon as an offering, and then went and met the others at the top.