Wednesday, March 16, 2005

In the shadow of Mont Ventoux

Well here I am, some 50 km from the géant de Provence, Mont Ventoux. That means I am approximately in the vicinity of southern France and it's hot, damn hot. I was out in short sleeves today and no leg warmers, under clear blue skies, no wind, and 20+ degree temperatures. Argh. I guess the reward is all the greater after having suffered in Belgium for three weeks. I can't believe that just a week ago, I was frozen to the bone!

But it's not all about the weather.

I'll start at the beginning, approximately Tuesday morning, Belgian time. It was already a nice day when I left on the TGV, bound for Avignon, after having paid an exorbitant sum for the trip. But I knew it would be worth it, and even nicer down south! En route, not much happened except I was asked by three customs officers for my passport and whether I had any drugs. The thieving bastards - I didn't give them either, so they went away empty handed.

The only other thing that happened was that an English character, with an accent straight out of Aardman's creature comforts, was complaining loudly to his wife, girlfriend, sister, mother, unspecified, about the quality of the gourmet chicken sandwich that he had bought from the bar. "Call this gourmet, it's got four bits of chicken and a limp bit of lettuce!" And his wife, girlfriend, sister, mother, unspecified, laughed equally loudly and painfully. So he kept doing it, permutating the words but keeping the meaning the same. It was so bad and I was cringing, visibly. It seriously went on for 20 minutes and 34 seconds!

Then I braved the bar, and bought a non-gourmet ham sandwich and a tiny expresso for €5.50, which equates to about $AU9.50, and was thus outrageous. But I was hungry. Feed me Seymour, does it have to be human?

Scenery was nice but. Blue sky - not one cloud, hills, rivers meandering along, Chateaux parked on hillsides, old run down farming villages, vineyards, electricity power stations - all beautiful.

Anyway I got to Avignon and the blue skies didn't even vanish so it wasn't all a dream but it was reality, even more so than the best reality TV! Hedwig picked me up from the station and we cruised around Avignon, getting lost (as you do) before making our way back to Orange and her and Rich's very cool little apartment that overlooks a river and a street, not in that order. And it's only 50 km from Mont Ventoux.

I didn't realise how far south Avignon is until I looked at it on a map. It's only like 100 km from the coast and a couple of hours from Nice/Cannes. Even Italy and Spain ain't that fair away. I can understand why they chose to live here.

Today, being Wednesday, we went for a bit of a ride after finishing news. Blue skies were still extant, note, and it was that warm that I went out in a light jersey, shorts, arm warmers (which I took off) and no shoe covers! None of this 20 minutes to get dressed crapola. Finally.

We all three cruised on up to Châteauneuf du Pape, which is a rather spectacular wine village perched on a hillside and surrounded by wineries. They looked like Australian wineries, but a lot older, if you know what I mean. We didn't stop, which was a shame because I really wanted to try some peppermint flavoured burgundy.

Anyway, Hedwig turned around after 16.8 km, this being her second ride of the year, and Rich and I continued up to Entraigues, where we were to meet one of his clients (he's a dietician and trainer) at the Champion Supermarché. We were pre-warned that we were going to be riding with a junior girl whose dad thought she was pretty good, even though she got shelled in her first race of the year last weekend after about 25km. Admittedly, she does have to race with the elite women.

So the meeting was made, we exchanged bonjours and other pleasantries, and Rich informed the girl and her dad that I was Australien. Which is kind of like saying "he's from Barcelona." She was fairly short, not exactly built like a climber, had a frame that was way too big, cleats that were too far forward and a generally awful position on the bike. That's what Rich was for though.

We set off at a somewhat faster pace than before (now 28-29 km/h) and weaved along back roads around Cavaillon until we approached an ominous looking hill. It wasn't Ventoux, but we were at the southern foothills of the géant, and I was half thinking we were going to climb it. Not that I would have minded.

We turned onto a tiny road that went uphill fast, and Rich said "now we're going up Mont Ventoux". I actually believed him, but he was joking. It was still a really cool little climb on small, bumpy, narrow roads and I thought it might be the back way up. As we started climbing, the junior prodigy just lit it up and we were doing 18-20 km/h up what I would consider a fairly steep grade. Her fit looking dad was dropped pretty quickly and Rich followed suit soon after, leaving me in the somewhat awkward position of making sure she didn't do a Tom Simpson and expire on the mountain. Hell, I was having enough trouble staying with her. I'm reasonably fit at the moment and I was sitting on 160+ heart rate, but making sure I stayed half a wheel behind her because I wasn't sure what I was meant to be doing.

After a few km, we got to a flatter part, and she sat up and waited for her pa and Rich, who were both breathing fairly heavily. It turned out we were nearly at the top, as it was only a small climb, but I was still seriously impressed at her power, especially given the aforementioned bike setup.

We descended into one of those fantastic medieval villages that are built into the sides of hills in Provence, and I was cursing myself for not bringing a camera. I will next time. Then it was straight up another, even nastier climb, and the girl pounded up it, only to be passed by her dad who put in this huge attack about halfway. But I think she's been riding with him before, because she waited about 200m, then clicked up a gear and mowed him down, passing him without the slightest glance, intent on reaching the top. She hammered all the way and I was at 167 by the time we hit the summit, even more impressed now.

On the third or fourth climb she kind of ran out of gas, and me sitting on 140 was even too much. Her dad flew past us both again and this time I gave up at trying to ride steadily, and cranked it up to 160 again to the top. The girl did manage to get her dad, which was good, but I detected that she needs a bit more endurance because it's no good being able to handle the climbs in the first 40 km if you can't do the last 40. Anyway, there's a lot of potential there. I was in a better position to judge than Rich, because he was the first one dropped on each climb, having done 200 km for the year to date before today's ride, which got him up to 300 km.

The rest of the ride was good, because it was mostly downhill and we saw lots more awesome Provence scenery. Rich gave the girl a rundown of what to do vis a vis training and stuff - a few more 70 km rides like today wouldn't be bad! Then we went back to Orange via Carpentras and Châteauneuf du Pape, and Rich was badly in need of a peppermint flavoured restorative of some sort. But we didn't dally and managed to make it home before dark, with 110 km up on the clock and a fair bit of climbing.

So now it's late.

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