The hardest climb on Zwift is certainly Ven-Top, Zwift’s GPS-accurate virtual Mount Ventoux. It’s long and unrelenting, with an average completion time of 1:33:28 according to ZwiftPower. (That is 28 minutes longer than the population average time to complete Alpe du Zwift!)
When I was creating my Midweek Mountain Massif TT, my original plan was to have the event the exact same distance (12.1km) as my two other events, Monday’s Mountain Massif – TT and Friday’s Mountain Massif – Powered by Muc-Off. However, when I raced 12.1km flat-out on the Ven-Top, it was far too difficult and the fun factor disappeared. So I shortened the route to 10.1km, making it roughly match the others in duration.
I haven’t raced the complete length of the Ven-Top course very often because it is so difficult. It was whilst I was creating the Midweek Mountain Massif TT that I raced the Zwift team Greece Climbing TT, back in October. To my surprise, I completed the climb in 60.39.3. I was absolutely delighted but equally exhausted. Once I had recovered, I started wondering if I could go it under an hour. It would mean holding 5 w/kg for an hour… a mammoth effort by any consideration.
I quickly shelved that idea and began training with Rowe & King. Over the next 2 months, through structured training, my form and fitness reached a new level. And thus, once again I started thinking about the possibility of tackling the mighty Ven-Top and trying to do it in under an hour.
The Norseman Holiday Quest seemed the appropriate event to attempt this challenge.
I lined up at the start and the field consisted of roughly 100 people. My plan was simple: break the race into three parts. Part one was the initial 10.1km, where my Mountain Massif event finishes. Secondly was up to Chalet Reynard. And finally, the 6km moonscape third section to the finish.
Part 1 – The Lower Slopes
As we started, I quickly got into my rhythm. I was disappointed that the event had pre-selected a bike, which meant I wasn’t on the most optimum climbing setup for the challenge. I did, however, ensure I had the Lightweight Meilenstein wheels.
Within a few minutes I was out front with two others, Juan Oeste and Daniel Greenstein. This was going to be a long ride as these two excellent riders were matching me “pedal stroke for pedal stroke,” so I decided to announce my plan of trying for a sub-60 minute ascent. I explained I wasn’t interested in crossing the finish line first, just getting there under 60 minutes. Juan replied that he was also up for the challenge, so we decided to work together as best we could, climbing 1500 meters at just below threshold.
Daniel didn’t respond, but this was the theme throughout the ride. I assumed his continued presence meant that he was up for the challenge too.
We noted the minute we crossed the line to signify the start of the climb, 3:37, give or take a second. Before we were steadily ticking off the kilometres.
The lower slopes of the climb are relentless. The lack of hairpins and straight roads means there is never a chance to recover. The conversation I was having with Juan ensured the challenging first section was covered without incident and we kept pacing to reach our goal.
Soon we had passed where my Midweek Mountain Massif TT event would finish. 30 minutes in and I was feeling in control and making sure I stayed hydrated by drinking plenty of water and GU Energy drink.
Part 2 – To Chalet Reynard
This is where we had our first concern. Daniel starting dropping back, at one point 6 seconds behind Juan and I. We both started frantically messaging him, to check if he was in trouble. At this stage, we didn’t know each other’s first name so we were using the surnames we could see on the screen and because we were frantic, “Greenfield” got shortened to “Green”.
(Little things like not being able to type were the first indicators that things were heating up.)
Fortunately, Daniel came back to the group and went straight to the front. Whether it was a lapse of concentration, I will never know but Daniel did not message us and so the three of us continue onward and upward, over the stone bridge.
Part 3 – Summit Assault
I can’t remember exactly when we came out of the forest, but it was nice to see the end of the climb in the distance. After nearly 50 minutes of climbing I was getting tired and started getting a pain in my side. I was relieved when Juan said the same as there is comfort in knowing that we were both equally suffering.
Again, nothing from Danie, but he was looking strong.
As the kilometres went by, and we kept holding our pace, I was beginning to feel confident. This monumental undertaking was looking achievable! But this is me and nothing is ever straightforward, so with 3km to the summit I suffered a mechanical.
I had a Bluetooth drop-out. I didn’t panic at first. I jumped off the bike, hopped over to the iPad and went into the pairing screen. I kept getting the “NO SIGNAL” warning. So I pulled the power out of the trainer and waited. It finally connected after what felt like an age, and now I was 40 seconds behind Daniel and Juan.
The great chase began.
I messaged them to explain what happened. Well, it wasn’t a cohesive message – it read more like “Power drip our” instead of the “Power drop out” – I opted for the use of word “Power” as I could not write “Bluetooth.”
My thinking was that they would have held a steady pace and if I could just bridge to them, then “no harm done.”
With a mixture of panic and adrenalin flowing, I was able to put down over 500 watts for a brief period, and was able to close the gap to 23 seconds. My heart rate during that period spiked to 177 bpm, which was high for me as I had been keeping it under 170 bpm.
I could see Daniel accelerating away from Juan and with 0.6km to go and under 2 minutes to do it, I knew it was going to be close. When climbing, I work on the notion that I can do 500 meters in 2 minutes, so I was going to come up short.
So, I channelled my inner Thomas Voeckler. Over the years, I have witnessed many incredible cycling moments but one that stays with me was stage 13 of the 2004 Tour de France. Thomas Voeckler, who was leading the race, put in a monumental climbing effort to retain the yellow jersey, pulling some of the most iconic cycling pain faces along the way (view this clip). It was in the last 600 meters that I was pulling the same faces.
I was in a world of pain, my vision was blurred, and I was wrestling with the handlebars trying to summon the last bit of strength from my failing body. My face contorted as I gasped for air, and I was now in the final 250 meters. The distance was counting down quickly, but so was the time!
Juan had just finished and was cheering me on, I could see he had finished in 59.40.3. It was getting close, the finish line, the time, I was at max effort, was this ever going to end…
I sneaked over the line. I looked to the left of the screen to see my time. 59:58:1.
I was as much relieved as I was happy. Mission accomplished, by 2 seconds. In this case, every second did count!
Juan and I swapped battle stories as we both recovered from our mammoth effort.
This put me 128th on the all-time ZwiftPower standings, with Juan’s 59:40 giving him 112th position and Daniel’s 59:09 putting him in 101st. It was nice that we all achieved our target. (Well Juan and I did. We never did hear from Daniel if this was also his goal, although I left message on the event to congratulate him and he responded noting he was pleased for us all.)
So how does that stack up with the times up the real Mount Ventoux?
Well, the answer is still some ways off.
The fastest time recorded up Ventoux from the Bedouin side was by Iban Mayo in the 2004 Dauphiné Libéré in 55:51.
Chris Froome put in one of the fastest ascents of the mountain during the 2013 Tour de France, climbing in 59 minutes while Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador completed it in 58.46, during the 2009 Tour de France.
I’ll have another go, but it won’t be anytime soon. The key takeaway advice from me is that if you find yourself in good form, be sure to tackle all the challenges you thought were out of reach. Like me, you may surprise yourself.
Have you ever set a Ven-Top goal and beat it? Share your story below!