Mont Ventoux the Giant of Provence
No trip to Provence would be complete without a ride to the top of Mont Ventoux. This mythical mountain known as the “Giant of Provence” lies near the town of Avignon in the south east of France. It sits beautifully by itself surrounded by smaller hills and nestled just in front of the Alps. What makes it so unique is that Mont Ventoux is by far the highest mountain in the area (1912m/6273ft) making it stand out on the horizon line from miles away as you approach it. It’s always there reminding you that it watches over this stunning land. Mont Ventoux’s lower slopes are planted with vineyards which give way to hardwood forests leading you ever higher up its sides. The summit is a baron place of limestone and scree, scoured bare by the high winds and snow, then left to bake in the summer sun. It can be such an inhospitable place at any time of year with scorching sun on its lower slopes leading you up to a biting wind and mist on the upper slopes but this all ads to its mystique.
It has now become cycling folk law and legend after many a famous battle has played out in the Tour de France on its challenging slopes. There are 3 routes that take you to the top from Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault. The ascent from Bedoin is considered the classic. All 3 of the routes up are tough and provide their own unique challenge. Some cyclists even try to do all 3 in the same day but that is just plain madness. As you ride from Bedoin 22km’s of tarmac greet you and quickly lol you into a false sense of security. The first 3km’s or so are almost easy tipping up to just 3% but this is just the warm up. Once you enter the forest you are treated a solid 8km’s that rarely dip below 9% and often tip over 10%. What makes this section particularly tough is the lack or switchbacks/hairpin bends, building’s, civilisation and practically anything else you can think of. The road just grinds on constantly wearing you down. Just when you’ve had about enough and are ready for a change of scene the trees begin to thin out as your ride up onto the scree slopes of the moon scape above. 6km’s below the summit tucked into a notch on the stoney slopes lies Chalet Renard, the only respite on this long climb. Its a great place to hunker down with a coffee or hot chocolate before deciding to push on for the top. From here on in, its a lonely path all the way to the top as you battle through the elements with nothing more than the view of the concrete radio tower as your end goal in the distance. The summit makes you pay as the last ramp kicks up steep, zapping any last ounce of strength you have left in your legs but rewards you with a special view down the Rhone valley all the way to the Mediterranean. The summit of Mont Ventoux is not a place to hang about as the weather often changes quickly from calm one minute then chilly the next as the Mistral wind kicks up from the south.
Mont Ventoux has seen it all over the years, from bad weather to tragedy as the British cyclist Tom Simpson famously perished from exhaustion on its upper slopes during a hot Tour de France stage on the 13th July 1967. Near the summit lies a memorial stone to his name where cyclists stop to pay homage to one of the sports great riders tragically lost on the mountain slopes. Its customary to dip the peak of your cap whilst riding past or to stop and place an old drinks bottle or inner tube on his memorial stone.
So how long does it take to climb and slay this mighty beast? Well the fastest recorded time up Mont Ventoux was set by Iban Mayo in 2004 Criterium de Dauphine with a super human time of 55m, 51s. The last time the Tour de France rode up in 2013 Chris Froome posted a slightly more credible time of 59m but for the rest of us mere mortals, bank on a good 2 hrs. This summer the Tour de France will once again do battle on it’s slopes so lets hope for a safe passage and a good fair fight to light up the race.
All of this history just adds to the allure of the incredible Mont Ventoux. It’s a cycling pilgrimage well worth making.