July 15: Climbing Mt. Ventoux and a Tour de France Finish

I told Dan I could hear it whispering to him… Mt. Ventoux. The most sinister of all the Alpen climbs. Come to me, Dan, it was saying, and bring me a baguette. Speaking of baguettes, I sent Benny on an errand this morning to the boulangerie in the village. It was the second morning he’s had this responsibility – getting our morning bread from the baker. I give him two euro coins, send him out the door, and he trots down the little street, past the mairie, the hostellier, the pub, and on to the edge of town where the bakery is. There he asks for deux baguettes, and we are in bread for the day. I can almost see him all the way there by leaning out the kitchen window, but not quite. He is very very pleased with himself that he has this intense responsibility, and he takes it very seriously. The sight of his brisk, important little orange head bopping along through the village is so cute it almost tears my heart:

But today, we were on our way to bring a baguette to Mt. Ventoux, so we packed up our supplies and got on the road to Provence. We could see it in the distance, from the freeway even, with its antenna on top, shrouded in clouds. Ventoux is by itself, not in a range like the other big Alps – it’s solitary. Driving along in Provence on our way to the mountain, there were lots of vineyards, fruit orchards, and roadside stands selling melons and tomatoes. Every little village was planning a festival of something – apricots, watermelons, or some other resident of the produce aisle. It looks like what I imagine Tuscany looks like – clay roofs, Italian-looking churches, wine tastings everywhere.

Malaucene was the city from which we departed on our climb. It was a mad hubbub of cyclists, with lots of shops spilling out onto the sidewalks of the main area – flowers, dresses, postcards, drinks, cycling jerseys that said “Ventoux Finisher.” I tried to get Dan interested in one of those jerseys but he wasn’t having it. It’s a hilarious difference between France and Virginia: in France, people wear the cycling kits of their favorite team all the time. In Virginia, that would be considered simultaneously presumptuous and lame. You wouldn’t show up to a training ride wearing a Saxobank jersey, or a RadioShack jersey – and you definitely wouldn’t race in one. Here, cyclists wear jerseys in support of their favorite team, or even their favorite cyclist – we saw a Tom Boonen jersey for example: QuickStep team jersey with the Belgian National Champion colors. No one thinks anything of it. It’s like in the US if someone went to the mall in a Brett Favre jersey. Same thing.

We got Dan into his gear, and after a quick stop for the socks he forgot, he was off on his way up the mountain.

Mont Ventoux is a thousand times nicer for motorists (and photographers) than Alpe d’Huez! There were many many places for us to pull off and wait for Dan to come up the mountain. We did this many, many times, with the kids waving their flags and running beside him, and me taking pictures.

Then we’d get in the car and chase him down, and I was playing Carmina Burana out the window at top volume. The best thing about the climb was that Dan was motoring up at an amazing speed – he was owning everyone on the road and I had a lot of “That’s my boyfriend!” moments as I would pull over thinking I had lots of time to set up my shot, only to see Dan boiling around the corner far before I expected him, looking fresh as a daisy. He was talking to the kids, laughing, and pounding the mountain into paste at the same time. After all that ominous whispering from the mountain, Dan ended up eating his own baguette after all.

My weakness, on the other hand, was multiplied with every passing kilometer. At first I was interested in the vistas in the context of taking pictures, but when it gets to the point that the signs say you are actually on Mont Ventoux and no longer climbing to it, and you start peeking over the side of the road and seeing about a mile down to the valley, and the guard rails stop, and then you stop being able to look over the side at all. Because your mind goes a little vacant, and you feel like you’ll hurl yourself over the side, just to have it over. OF course if you actually hurled yourself over the side in most places you would fall on your face about 10 feet down. But in some places you could imagine yourself drifting on the air currents all the way down to the rocks below. Or at least, you could if you were me.

The scope is impossible to communicate, but you can smell clouds, and you can no longer make out individual things on the ground below. It is so high, it’s really like looking out an airplane. Except you’re just standing there, in only your skin. When you turn to the left, and look beside you, there’s a very ordinary bush or tree, or a piece of concrete, or your car. Then when you turn to the right, and look beside you, there’s a precipice that takes your breath away. Having been on Ventoux, I will no longer be scared of bell towers or manmade monuments of any kind. It was just in another dimension. I felt like I was on Mt. Olympus, tiny and huge at once.

We made one last stop before the summit, above the tree line to take Dan’s picture on the part that’s been compared to the surface of the moon. One last place to cheer and yell and wave flags, and then he was at the summit and we drove up to meet him.

At the very top is some kind of tower, and also an observatory, and a lot of ground up rocks. It almost looks like sand dunes. Creepy. After we met up with the triumphant Dan at the summit for some photos, and explored around the little cluster of vendors and shops up there, we continued on to the other side of the mountain. The road up goes up and over – while we were up there, a guy driving a small car misjudged where the road was and ended up dumping his car over a bit of an incline, and crashing into some bicycles. There was an audible gasp from the entire group at the top.

Here they are at the official summit:

Dan descended, I descended, and we met up at the bike shop in Bedoin, where I convinced Dan he really needed a Ventoux jersey, and he submitted to me purchasing one on his behalf. I want to watch him ride around Virginia with a Ventoux jersey, and everyone that thinks he’s bragging can suck it, they’re just jealous.

Collecting ourselves and our thoughts, we pointed the car for Valence and drove like hell. According to the schedule we had, the tour would be finishing there at 5pm, and we had just a couple of hours to get into place. When we got off the autoroute, the road into Beorg de Valence was closed, where we knew the Tour was coming, so we parked on the side of the road like all the other schlubs, and started hoofing it. We got within the final kilometer and stopped to watch the caravan drive by. We caught some madeleines, and Sadie caught a slap bracelet. I saw a grown woman mauling a child Benny’s age over a t-shirt thrown from one of the vehicles. These people take their caravan swag very very seriously. It’s also very hazardous standing there by the side of the road when people are hurling out bottles and newspapers and whatnot – they can whack you right in the side of the head and no one cares.

Benny went up and down the railing chatting with other Americans while we held his spot on the barricade. People will stomp you, push you, elbow and sit on you to get your spot. Only Benny has the completely insensate attitude that allows him to motor through a crowd like that and get to the front.

We waited and waited for the riders to come through, then finally spotted the camera helicopter and the crowd got even more intense. Then they were upon us! The lead group came through the S turn very fast, setting up for the sprint, and then lots of following riders and groups came through.

We were trying to get a good picture of the “You Got Dropped” t-shirt next to a dropped rider, but it was hit and miss with the shot and I didn’t know who was dropped and who was in that first group – I didn’t want my great shot to be Lance or Levi getting dropped!

So, after all the riders came through we walked down all the way to the finish line, just to see it. We saw the VIP lounge and trucks, and all the décor – picked up a blue parking sign off a telephone poll, and listened to them doing the podium presentation. We even got to see some guy in the Livestrong tent putting his hand in his pants:

Finally satisfied that we had seen it all, we hiked the mile back to the car, boiling hot, happy, dehydrated.

The children had been so excellent and were so hot and hungry, and we so needed air conditioning and Wifi, that we had dinner at McDonald’s. After they ate, the children played in the playground and we Wifi-ed to our hearts’ content.

Pulling ourselves away from news of the world, of the Tour, of our friends, and of work, we stopped at the grocery store next door – I needed milk and we needed Coca Light. We had ten minutes until the store was going to close – plenty of time, I thought. The security guard greeted me with his hands up showing “ten minutes” and I agreed. Sadie, with me, picked up a little cart to push, and followed me as we rushed through the bakery, rushed through the store on our way to the milk. Another security guard. “C’est ferme” he said. It’s closed. “Je besoin lait et ouefs” I pleaded. He escorted me to the milk aisle (unrefrigerated – also unrefrigerated eggs) and I got my stuff, then he escorted me to the check-out, where the lights were being turned off. When they say closing at 9:30, they mean they are actually closing at 9:30, and not just the doors.

Home, wine, Umberto Eco, children to bed, me in the bath, then sliding into bed myself. Couldn’t even bring myself to look at the pictures, I was so tired. I know this: when we get home from France I am definitely going to need a vacation!

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