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Road to the Summit

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By Marty Smith
Mt. Ventoux

Life is full of challenges. Getting old is one of them. Riding up hills on a bike is another. Facing challenges gives me an opportunity to grow and learn about myself. I haven’t always been able to do that. When I see a challenge coming, I can prepare; when I don’t, I have to improvise based on the experience and knowledge I have. Cycling has taught me a lot about challenges.
First, a couple of terms. As a cyclist I want to know two things about a hill: how high is it  and how steep is it (which is measured by the percent gradient)? There are actually two facets to steepness:
–  The maximum gradient refers to the steepest point on a hill. To get past the steepest point, as the Cialis commercial states, “it’s a question of blood flow.” Although in this case it’s how fast I can pump blood to my leg muscles, which is in turn determined by my heart rate – the steeper the hill, the higher the heart rate I need. Mine probably can’t get much above 130 anymore. A maximum gradient of 8% is like the hill on PD leading up to Target; over 14% is very steep. .For an old guy like me who’s also taking a blood pressure medication that lowers your heart rate, I can’t do anything over 18% without literally risking instant cardiac arrest.
–  The average gradient for an entire hill is important on longer climbs. In this case anything over 6% is hard and over 8% is really hard, because I have to sustain that effort for the entirety of the climb. Long hills with difficult average gradients take stamina, not rapid heart rates, as long as the maximum gradient is not too steep.

I haven’t always enjoyed riding a bike. I used to hate riding up hills. I had a mental block about it. The moment my legs started to complain, I got off the bike and walked. But that, and in some ways who I am in general, changed dramatically on a July morning in 2008. During a weekend getaway to APT, I was riding on Lakeview Rd, a little over a mile west of the House on the Rock, between Spring Green and Dodgeville. The road rises slowly some 450’ in a series of small climbs from north to south with an average gradient of something over 3% – challenging but not too difficult. I was in the lowest (easiest) gear. Every time I thought I was near the top, I could see the road rise a little more. It just seemed to go on forever. I kept pedaling. When I finally reached the summit, I got off my bike, feeling incredibly happy and proud. For the first time I had ridden up a challenging hill without getting off.

I may never understand why climbing that hill was so important to me, but it was. It wasn’t just the athletic achievement, although that was part of it. It was more like an unseen burden was lifted from my shoulders. My son Ryan told me last fall, “Dad, after that day you stopped saying ‘I can’t do it.’” The mental block was gone, and, without realizing it, I had lost my fear of failing – at anything. I started taking charge of my life in ways I never had before. I stopped giving up before I got started.

Of course, my transition from casual bike rider to avid cyclist also began on that ride. Not overnight, certainly. That fall I bought a trainer so that I could ride my bike indoors over the winter. Only a half-hour at a time a few times a week, but I got into the routine of exercising. I started to feel better physically.  In 2010 I challenged myself to participating in a 25 mile race – not to win, just to complete it in 2 hours. I did better than that. My training rides increased in length and started to include hills on a regular basis. I got married and moved to a house near the highest point in Madison, which meant I had to climb hills just to get home. I started putting in nearly 100 hours on the trainer during the winters.

In 2012 I signed up to do the Dairyland Dare, one of the hilliest bike races in the state. It offered six levels of self-induced punishment in distances that began at 50 km (32 miles) and increased in 50 km increments up to 300 km (180 miles). I chose the 50 km distance. I would still have to climb nearly 2500’ of hills, a few with maximum gradients of up to 16%. I doubted I could train for any more than that.

I bought a book of training rides from the bike store and got to work. I rode 2200 miles and ascended and descended 100,000’ of hills. On race day I finished 13th of 90 riders. Not just riders my age, but all riders. The following month I did a ride called Bike the Barns, covering 62 miles and over 3000’ of hills in northwest Dane County. I was on a roll. Thoughts of climbing mountains began to creep into my head.

Ryan got interested in cycling the following spring, and together we trained for the 100 km Dairyland Dare. This time the distance was 65 miles with nearly 4500’ of hills, including several difficult climbs of 300-500’. I finished in 5 hours. Afterward, it dawned on me that, if I could do that, I might be able to do something I had previously thought impossible – climb Mont Ventoux in southeastern France, a place I had visited twice in recent years as a tourist.

Mont Ventoux is an iconic place. It’s the southwest-most peak of the French Alps, although it is separated from the main body of peaks by well over 100 miles. At about 6300’, the summit towers above the surrounding landscape by over 5000’, giving it the nickname “the giant of Provence.” Starting in the 16th century shipbuilders from the Mediterranean port of Toulon systematically removed the trees from the top of the mountain. The trees never grew back so that the top quarter of the mountain is now just bleached rock and sparse vegetation, making it look like a moonscape. Because of its height and isolation, the view from the summit on a clear day is spectacular, taking in much of southeastern France. It’s a popular tourist destination.

Mont Ventoux is also a cycling mecca. The climb from the small town of Bèdoin to the summit is about 5300’ over 13½ miles, which amounts to an average gradient of just under 8%. Even professional cyclists think it’s one of the most difficult climbs in the world. The terms “a monster,” “brutal” and “relentless” are often used to describe it.  It is sometimes included in the Tour de France, most recently in 2009 and 2013.

The climb is divided essentially into 3 parts: a relatively easy three miles through vineyards, olive and fruit orchards, then a brutal 6 mile stretch through scrub oak and juniper forest at an average gradient of over 9% (remember, a 6% average is very difficult). This stretch ends along with the trees at a very brief plateau with a restaurant called Chalet Reynard, a bike shop and parking lot. The final ascent to the summit, which is only slightly easier than the previous 6 miles, starts immediately on the other side of the parking lot.

After another summer of training and another 100 km Dairyland Dare, I flew with my wife to France early in September last year, staying in a farmhouse bed-and-breakfast near the small town of Malaucene, at the northwest base of the mountain. I was able to rent a decent road bike in Malaucene. The iconic climb scales the southern face, so I had to ride about 7 miles to get to Bèdoin over a not-insignificant hill – the Col de la Madeleine. These were the same roads used in the previous Tour de France (although – full disclosure – I didn’t have to ride 100 miles just to get to that point). I didn’t mind because my legs would then warm up before the assault on the mountain.

My wife drove on ahead in my “team car,” stopping occasionally, with extra drinks, food and clothing in case I needed them for the summit. In what seemed like no time I was in the forest climbing up to Chalet Reynard. The gradient never got above 14%, but it never went below 5% either. It took me an hour and a half to do those 6 miles – 4 miles an hour; I could almost have walked as fast. A young, well-trained rider can do the entire climb in 1½-2 hours. I only had one problem – I tried to take a drink on a section of road that was very steep and lost control of the bike. When I realized that I was going to go off the road, I had to unclip from the pedals and dismount. Then, because it was so steep, I couldn’t generate enough momentum to get started again. The thought crossed my mind that I would have to walk from there all the way up to the restaurant, but after a quarter mile the gradient graciously eased enough that I could get back on the bike again. At some point about a mile from the restaurant I got a glimpse of the summit through the trees; by then I knew I was going to make it at least to the plateau.

Then things got interesting. When I got to the parking lot, the first thing my wife said to me was, “You’re not going any further.” “Why,” I asked. “Because the road’s closed right over there. There’s a film crew up at the top shooting a movie, and they’ve closed the road.” Disappointing, to say the least. I felt good and had plenty of energy left, so I had little doubt I could have made it to the summit given the opportunity. On the other hand, I had already climbed over 3600’ – I could at least be proud of that. It was about 11 o’clock. There were rumors that they would open the road for an hour at noon. I waited and debated, knowing that my legs were getting cold, and the rest of the climb would be more difficult without warming up again.

Noon came and went. Nothing happened. I decided to leave. My wife wanted me to put the bike in the car and ride back with her to the B&B, but I was still feeling good and knew I could make it back with no problem. I got back on the bike. Silly me – this was Mont Ventoux, not the roads of southern Wisconsin. It is easy, on a long, steep mountain road like this, to go 60 to 70 mph downhill; I’ve seen professionals do it in races. A guy in a YouTube video claimed he hit 81 mph on this descent. I get very nervous when I hit 40. You have no time to react to anything at that speed; disaster can strike instantaneously. At the same time, you can’t simply ride the brakes. This causes the metal wheel rims to heat up, and you can blow a tire. I gripped the brake handles hard when I had to, let up a little when I could. Somehow I safely managed to keep my speed under 30, but by the time the gradient lessened I was so tense I could barely move the muscles in my hands, legs and shoulders. It took 15 minutes before they relaxed. I was suddenly grateful for every one of those thousands of miles and hundreds of thousands of feet of ascent AND descent I had ridden on Wisconsin roads. I began to wonder if I really would have wanted to descend all the way from the summit. Maybe things worked out better after all.

A couple of years ago it was warm enough on Easter that I rode my bike to church. As I usually do, I wore bike clothes because they’re more comfortable for riding.

Leah Lonsbury, the assistant pastor at the time, saw me come in and said in her playfully sarcastic voice, “Really? On Easter?”

Without missing a beat I replied, “Sure. These are my resurrection clothes.”

“Yes,” she said, “they probably are, aren’t they.”