It´s the end of May and my wife and I are off on a 6 day trip without the kids. From Palma we fly to the UK for a wedding in Stratford upon Avon, then to Provence for another wedding and then back to the London to watch Watford v Palace in the Playoff final.
The day before we left, it suddenly occurred to me that we might well be staying in range of the Mont Ventoux and that I could potentially sneak in a cheeky cycle up one of the iconic climbs in Europe. We were staying in Gordes, which is a beautiful village perched on a high plateau in the Luberon – only 35km from Bédoin, the village at the foot of the Mont Ventoux
Being a sentimental old sod, having read ¨Cycling is My Life¨, the Ventoux had that extra attraction. If I played my cards right and got organised, I would be able to pass the memorial to Tommy Simpson. ¨Major Tom¨, was British cyclist who tragically died on the ascent, during the 13th stage of the 1967 Tour de France at the age of 29.
The subject was broached and permission was duly granted from my understanding wife. Dragging my own wheels on this short European trip was not an option, it was time to find a bike. A quick search of the internet brought me to http://www.luberon-biking.fr. I phoned through and was very surprised to find an exceptionally helpful Frenchman on the other end of the line. He had the answers to all of my questions relating to Ventoux, just about got my humour and for 75€ was able to deliver a Specialized Roubaix Triple Ultegra to my hotel on the desired day. All set, I packed the basics for a ride (clearly not enough warm gear) and headed off on our trip.
My challenge was that I knew that time would be tight, even though we were taking off at 7am from Gatwick. I had to land, transfer with other wedding revellers, to the hotel and then get organised to pedal into the distance. By the time I was set at the hotel the mistral wind was an impressive 60kph and the inefficient front of house staff thought I was joking when I asked them to order me a taxi to Bédoin. I thought that at least if I got a taxi to the foot of the mountain, then if the conditions were not conducive for a potter up one of Europe´s challenging climbs, at least I will have seen the ¨Beast¨. As I left the hotel, I bumped into a team from another luxury cycling company (this one from the US). I mentioned my mission. Both the French guy and the American guy gave me one of those condescending ´You dick´ laughs and then looked at each other and walked off. Thus confirming that I was indeed bonkers to even attempt the ride.
Undeterred, I took the front wheel of the bike off, neatly placed it in the taxi and headed off on my mission.
Naturally I had picked the most challenging side of Ventoux to climb (see below) and with the direction of the wind, the most blustery. My female taxi driver, supporting a similar make up style to that Worzel Gummidge´s dream date Aunt Sally and despite her Colin Macray approach to tackling the windy roads, we arrived in one piece. I quizzed the driver about the area in a mixture of English and French and on arrival in Bédoin I had come to the conclusion that I would one day return with my own bike to explore the area. The route from Gordes to the Abbey of Senasque and then down to Venasque was simple stunning. The area not only grew grapes for the well known vin rouge du cote de Rhone, but also for general eating. They also produced a vast amount of cranberries, which due to the adverse weather conditions were still on the trees rather than being carted off to wherever they normally end up.
Dropped in Bédoin and left to my own devices, I got to work on setting up my hired bike. How handy it would have been to have the tape measure and details of my bike set up on that is currently sitting on the kitchen table in Mallorca. The next error on my part proved to be an absolute life saver. Leaving one of my fingerless gloves in the taxi, meant I was forced to seek out a local bike. If it wasn´t for the guys in the shop, I would not have got close to the top. The guys didn´t look at me as if I was bonkers, no laughing this time. They encouraged me to go for it and turn round if the weather got too “violent” (their word not mine). They also insisted I bought fingered gloves as well as fingerless. They gave me some tips, explained the terrain and told me the Tommy Simpson´s memorial stone was 2-3 kms from the top and that became my yard stick for failure.
The first 6 kilometres are very gradual (4%) and took us along gentle winding roads, the beautiful vineyards that produce the reputed “Côtes du Ventoux”. Above it was the classic big fluffy clouds with a plenty of blue sky. From the hamlet of St Esteve (centre of car racing) the road is enclosed by a forest and there was an erie quietness that added to the mystery. This is the Bedoin Forest covering 6,300 hectares of cedar trees. From a tactical cycling perspective, in good conditions, here it would be easy to over exert oneself and not save enough for the last 4km.
I passed a sign “16km at 9.1%” and started to grind out the climb, homing in on individual trees ahead to pull me up the light coloured road. The silence was broken only by a vintage cars hurtling down the hill, all with open tops, obsessed Biggles like pilots and unimpressed co-pilots lying low to avoid the blustery conditions.
At about 10km in, at about 4pm, I spotted my first fellow cyclist weaving & wobbling up the hill. At last, a yard stick and someone to aim for. I passed about 4 others whilst continuing through oak & beech woods before heading into the pines at about 10km. Discovering fellow cyclists on the climb gave me a new lease of life and a feeling that I wasn´t quite as bonkers as the American dude at the hotel had made me feel. Shaded by the trees, I caught up with a German guy and young French girl, both had completed the climb from Malaucène before and both were very prepared for the ordeal from Bedoin.
I sat with my new friends until the Chalet Reynard cross roads where the road is joined from Sault. I knew the bar / restaurant was only 6km from the top (1440m), not much more than the Col de Soller I thought and so I started to stretch my legs out. As the vegetation started to disappear, it gave way to the scree of white stones which cap the summit. I was exposed to the wind and the temperature dropped significantly. I started to feel the cold – my arm warmers, thin gillet and fingerless glover were not enough. But due to the gradient, the howling wind and just being a stubborn cyclist, crouched as low as I could and continued. You enjoyed the small moments of shelter from the wind, when you could, the rest of the time it was head down, angle towards the wind and stay near the centre of the road. I could see a guy in blue about 300m ahead of me which removed the need for me to consider turning round and gave me something to aim for. Metres after nodding to Tommy Simpson, with 2 km to go, I had to stop. My fingers were almost rigid in the claw position, I couldn´t feel my feet and the drew drop from my nose had frozen across my face. On went my summer drizzle proof top, my newly purchased cloves and my light over shoes. Hands went under my armpits and I hopped about in a Fawlty like way shouting the “F” word over & over again in an attempt to stop my shivering body from going into overdrive. At that somewhat strange moment, my young French friend mechanically soldiered on past me! With snow at the side of the road and the wind in excess of 60kph, the last 2km was dangerous and not even close to being fun. You are completely exposed to the ever changing elements, there is nothing at the edge of the road and at the end of it, you have to somehow get down. The wind chill factor meant that we were feeling temperatures of -10 to 15 degrees.
At the top, by the abandoned weather station, I re-enacted my John Cleese impressions and greeted my French and German buddies as they independently made it to the summit. True to form and well prepared, my German friend donned his ski like trousers & thick gloves for the descent, but not before dishing out handfuls of Haribo Tangfasties sweets (the ones that are coating in sharp sugar).
The descent was as bigger challenge as the climb, but in a different way. for at least a quarter of the 6km from the summit to the Chalet Reynard cafe my left leg was out of the cleat and I was down to under 10kph. I was the last person to be served a hot chocolate before they shut up shop for the night and I was officially shivering. It must have been after 6pm and the light was starting to close in. With wide roads, in normal conditions the descent though the forest would have been fast, but for me it was all about shiver management.
Back in Bedoin, I headed to the first bar I could find. I needed to get back to the hotel for the pre-wedding night out. Outside there was a group of 10 or so Belgium cyclists who were an hour into their post Ventoux beers. My quivering body was greeted with laughter, then cheering – I had not retort. I ordered a large cold Stella Artois and the taxi was ordered.
Mont Ventoux, an incredible experience. If you are in the area, give it a go.
Some snippets about Mont Ventoux
At 1,912 m (6,273 ft) the moon like summit (nicknamed the “Beast of Provence” or “The Bald Mountain”) towers over the local landscape and adds to the mystique of one of the most stunning regions of France. The challenge is as much the ever changing weather conditions. As the name suggests (venteux means windy in French), it can get windy at the summit, especially with mistral; wind speeds as high as 320 km/h (200 mph) have been recorded. The wind blows at 90+ km/h (56+ mph) 240 days a year. The road over the mountain is often closed due to high winds. Especially the “col de tempêtes” (“storm pass”) just before the summit, which is known for its strong winds.
South from Bédoin: 1617 m over 21,8 km (7.5% & max 12%). This is the most famous and difficult ascent. The road to the summit has an average gradient of 7.43%. Until Saint-Estève, the climb is easy: 3.9% over 5,8 km, but the 16 remaining kilometres have an average gradient of 9%. The last kilometres is where the strong winds really kick in. The ride takes 1h30m-2h30m for trained amateur riders. Professional riders take 1h-1h15 min.
Northwest from Malaucène: 1570 m over 21,5 km. About equal in difficulty as the Bédoin ascent, better sheltered against the wind.
East from Sault: 1210 m over 26 km. The easiest route. After Chalet Reynard (where the “lunar landscape” of the summit starts), the climb is the same as the Bédoin ascent. Average gradient of 4.4%.
The fastest time recorded up Mont Ventoux from the Bedouin side was Iban Mayo in the 2004 Dauphiné Libéré. He did it in 55′ 51″. The race has finished at the summit of Mont Ventoux eight times. The finish line is at 1909m, although in 1965, 1967, 1972 and 1974 the finish was lower, at 1895 m.