Up And Over Mont Ventoux: Part 5

By Ron Berry, PHASE IV Director of Rehabilitation

Part 1: 3 Months to Mont Ventoux

Part 2: 2 Months to Mont Ventoux

Part 3: 3 Weeks to Mont Ventoux

Part 4: Travel to Mont Ventoux


The day began warm and I had been sipping from my electrolyte bottle early and often. My breathing was measured and calm, even as I was telling myself that being at 5,600 feet wasn’t having an effect on me. I was keeping  my pedal strokes symmetrical. I came up and around a wide turn to see the red and white tower at the top of Mont Ventoux looming ahead. Closer to me than the tower, I could see the back of a French rider who had passed me earlier full of exhortations to pick it up, “allez, allez”. I had enough in me; it was time for full gas. It was time to meet the challenge.

Around 4 months ago I planned a 9 day trip to go to France and ride a bike around the Vaucluse Valley in Provence, culminating in riding up and over the “Giant of Provence”, Mont Ventoux. Although the trip was for 9 days, it really began the day I made the decision to go. The adventure of bicycling every day, around 45 miles per day, with a typical day involving 4,000 feet of climbing, required preparation. And, the preparation was as fun and thrillng as the event itself. The preparation began with excitement that turned into anticipation that turned into, “I better get myself ready.” So the process really began four months ago and evolved into an accomplishment that I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.

If you’ve read previous installments of this column you’ve read how I utilized a 3 month program to prepare myself metabolically and structurally. Metabolically, I prepared by getting a VO2 Analysis with the Exercise Physiologist at Phase IV in order to understand what my anaerobic threshold was. Anaerobic threshold (AT) is the level of exertion at which we begin to utilize less fat as fuel and more carbohydrates. As endurance athletes we want to use fat as our primary fuel source; it lessens the potential for “bonking” and allows us to sustain our efforts for a longer time. Once I understood what my AT was at the time that I was starting my training program I rode in various heart rate zones to manipulate my AT so that I could ride harder and still use fat as my primary fuel source. And, through the course of training I improved. In the third month of my training  I was able to sing entire songs while riding with my heart rate in the 150s without a problem. This could be interpreted as evidence that my AT improved because I was probably still burning mostly fats and not being overwhelmed by the waste products of burning carbohydrates. I might even infer that my mind was more clear as I became more fit because I can’t normally remember the lyrics to entire songs.

Structurally, I diligently worked on my flexibility so that I could be on a bicycle for 3 hour rides on multiple consecutive days and not over stress my joints and create pain. I did strengthening exercises for the muscles that my physical therapist colleague found were not strong during my Structural Exam and consistently did my basic trunk strengthening program of planks, dead bugs and side lying hip work.

Nutritionally, I increased my caloric intake to match my increased exercise and did it with mostly healthy foods. In the later stages of my training when I was riding over 100 miles per week I gave in to a few of my nutritional urges that I typically avoid,  like carrot cake with all the frosting and a few more double dips into the cookie jar. For “skinny guys” like me who have struggled over the years to not get too thin, especially when training much harder, it is much harder to bring in enough calories to sustain energy and a reasonable body weight.  So, during the harder phases of a training cycle, to live mostly on lean proteins, fruits and vegetables is often not enough. That’s another great reason to get in to a hard phase of training – to feel some past urges and know it’s okay to partake in those urges.  And, I can honestly attest that now that I’m not doing as much riding I’m not dreaming about that carrot cake with the cream cheese frosting nearly as much. It’s interesting how urges come and go. Sometimes you just need to give into them. Periodization training doesn’t just apply to the volume and intensity of exercise but to nutrition as well.

I also went through psychological changes in which my anticipation turned into hard earned confidence. There were challenges along the way that made me question why I would plan a vacation that I would have to train for, and potentially have stress about. But, I did my homework and created another level of self esteem from realizing the fruits of my labors.

So, what were the fruits of my labors? I suppose I could say some actually were fruits. The fresh Provence melons and strawberries under the prosciutto that I ate after the second day of riding in France were as delicious as I had ever eaten. Perhaps they were especially delicious because I felt great having completed the 80km ride up and over 4300 feet of climbing with the temperatures hitting 95 degrees near the end of the ride. I had prepared well and was well into a great week of cycling.

What I wasn’t entirely prepared for was the overall quality of the InGamba tour experience. It was obvious everyone in the organization prided themselves on  their product. Their slogan is, “Eat up the miles, drink in the culture”; I think they could justifiably add the words, with style and quality. I was picked up at the Marseille airport by the guide for the trip, Eros Poli. On the drive to our fine hotel, Le Mas des Herbes Blanches, Eros began telling me stories about pro bike races he had participated in, in the south of France, including his stage victory in the Tour de France,  up and over Mont Ventoux, in which he defeated cycling legends Marco Pantani and Miguel Indurain.

Eros is a large man, especially for being an elite cyclist, so for him to have won a mountain stage was remarkable and there were many layers to his remarkable feat that came out as he told his story. If you ever hear the story yourself, I am sure you’ll probably get some layers that I didn’t. He also was a teenaged 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the team time trial that was held on the 90 freeway in Los Angeles. Besides his resume and entertaining storytelling he was great at regularly helping the clients improve their cycling skills. Throughout the week he would give personal attention to each client. I personally never have descended better than those moments following his line and remembering his tips – or, maybe I was descending better because of the Pinerello F10 with the SRAM gearing and disc brakes that InGamba provided. Wow, that was a fine bike.

At Phase IV and Forster Physical Therapy we are big proponents of optimizing recovery, and InGamba did their part in optimizing recovery. At the end of the ride we would be handed a recovery drink and told to meet at the poolside café an hour later for a bountiful, well balanced salad, bread, cheese, and beer – all the main food groups covered. Between lunch and a shower, there was just enough time to get through all the stretches we teach in the Phase IV stretch clinics, and, a few minutes of floating and swimming in the pool to help the circulation in the muscles. Then, after lunch and some digestion time, came perhaps, the best part of the InGamba recovery plan. At Phase IV we love giving and getting good massages, and apparently so does InGamba.  After the rides during the middle of the week we would get a 40 ‘ leg massage from the soigneur. It was very professional. He kneaded and flushed out the muscles that would power us over the next day’s ride, just as if we were professional cyclists – super.

What else was super was the appreciation of fine food in even the tiniest of villages in Provence. As part of the all inclusive tour package, we would be taken to various small village restaurants in the evenings to appreciate exquisite sauces over unusual poultry or classic seafood.  Always accompanied by fresh vegetables, a rosé or chardonnay, and bottled water – flat or avec gas – the meals were simply pleasurable. I certainly can’t write pleasurable without mentioning the French desserts. My favorite of the trip was poached apricots and mint served with a goat cheese wafer.

The true highlight of the trip was obviously the final day of riding, from the village of Sault, up Mont Ventoux,, and down to Malaucenne. Because of the extreme heat this year, we chose to do the early part of the ascent from Sault, which is more forested and shady than the more exposed ascent from Bedoin, which is the route Eros took when he took the Tour de France stage 24 years ago. By the end of the week everyone in the group had become better riders and better friends. We were ready and as we worked our way up the lower slopes of the mountain there were many other cyclists doing the ride and a few other tour companies. It was like a festival with all the riders making the Saturday morning ascent. However, as the altitude climbed and we got above the tree line, the bald mountain really started expressing itself in the challenge it presented to the cyclists and the amazing views it offered of the valleys below. We all found our own rhythm and I tried to find a pace that I could sustain all the way to the top. It was the last day and I was on the iconic mountain; it was time for full gas. Our ever present support vehicle pulled up alongside me and handed me a final icy water bottle, which I mostly poured over my head to cool me down some. Even near 6,000 feet elevation, the day was very warm. I thoroughly enjoyed pushing myself up that climb, a bit surprised that in the photos I was smiling as much as I was. It can be joyous to express one’s fitness and accomplish goals, apparently. There were a lot of other happy cyclists at the top of that mountain. As challenging as the climb was, the descent was equally exhilarating, as leaning into the curves with the hands pushing into the drops at 40 mph tends to be.

What a day, what a week, what a 3 months of training that was. It all culminated in that glorious climb up Mont Ventoux but the good vibes from a great vacation continue weeks afterwards. What makes the vibes especially good is I felt well prepared throughout the week and very happy with how my body responded. Again, validating that a well thought out 3 month program using scientific principles, like we do at Phase IV, works. And, a final tip of my cycling cap to the tour company InGamba. They sure know how to put on a first class trip. I’m already trying to talk some friends into going on one of their trips next spring; maybe Tuscany, Catalonia, or closer to home and a little earlier, Paso Robles in February.

If you are interested in signing up for one of those trips, a different athletic vacation, a century ride, or a marathon run, come in to Phase IV for a consultation and I can share more of our preparation strategies and explain more about our services that can specifically help you achieve your goals. Ciao.

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