Officials wanted a dramatic finish to the Tour de France. Well, having riders climb up Mont Ventoux in the race's penultimate stage is a way to do that.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I never liked Mont Ventoux; I swore to myself I would never climb it again after I retired from pro cycling.
I did return to the famed spot for the L'Etape Du Tour, an annual event where tourists and cycling enthusiasts get to ride an actual Tour stage. This year, it was Mont Ventoux. This past Monday, I rode with about 10,000 of my close friends, which included Specialized Cycling executives, previewing Stage 20 and doing a little recon work for Saxo Bank.
I must have set a record for "chamois time" (a little joke between us gearheads!). I woke up around 4 a.m. (something I haven't done in months) and put on my cycling shorts and didn't change until 6:30 p.m. Crazy! People were eating pasta in the morning (I can't look at pasta before a race anymore; do you know how much pasta I've had over the last 10 years?!).
Once the race started, we took our time and had fun with it. Other riders were not having as much fun. After stopping at the base of Mont Ventoux to stock up on some simple sugars (Cokes, bananas, cookies), we rode through the climb in what looked like a war zone. People were cramping, sleeping or taking a break on the side of the road, or just flat-out throwing up.
I wasn't planning on riding for eight hours, but that's what it took. It was definitely a fun experience.
It won't be fun for the big boys when they ride the stage for real Saturday.
There are five climbs in the 167-kilometer stage. The first four climbs before Ventoux are not as hard since they are more a rolling climb than a steep climb. There are also good roads along the route; the roads are wider than your normal path in France, especially in Bedoin, which is right before the ascent to Mont Ventoux. These wider spots are where riders can safely reposition themselves and move up in the group. Part of the reason I think the Tour officials picked this route is because the bigger roads decrease the danger factor for such an important stage.
Then, riders begin the last climb of the day.
For me, the 18-kilometer climb up Mont Ventoux is like no other. You can see so much ahead of you on the road. You can see the riders up at the next turn, which can play mind games with yourself because you know it takes two more minutes for you to get to where those riders are. Plus, it's hard to tell if you're advancing or gaining time on those riders.
Then you're over the tree line of the climb and you hit the lunar landscape. The last six kilometers are straight uphill and you are riding those last kilometers at a higher altitude, which is a factor. I was never a great altitude climber, so that's likely why I suffered so much. You assume you can keep a quick pace at altitude, but you can't push as many watts and you can't gain speed.
It's a pure climber's stage. One of the marquee riders will win at the top -- Alberto Contador, Andy or Frank Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Andreas Kloden or Lance Armstrong. There is so much on the line for many riders, so they won't let any breakaway pull away from them this time.
With a bit of a breather stage Friday (if you can call any Tour stage a "breather") in between Thursday's last individual time trial and Saturday's monster stage, the top contenders may have been able to conserve some energy. But there will be a lot of tactics at play. Riders will be vigilant; they can't let their guard down for one second, otherwise something will come back and bite you.
Podium spots in Paris are on the line.
Yes, Tour officials are getting what they wanted: an exciting finish to cycling's biggest race.
Bobby Julich will be providing analysis for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. He retired from pro cycling in 2008 and is currently the technical director for Team Saxo Bank. The American finished third overall in the 1998 Tour and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.