Mont Ventoux – The Mythical Mountain

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The American accent cuts through the conversations on Bedoin’s main street, it’s early evening and the restaurant’s outside seating is full of diners in full conversation. “Have you rode up the mountain yet?” I overhear, “We rode up this afternoon” the American voice proclaims. They are a retired couple from America, in their late 60s, touring Europe and they had Mont Ventoux on their to do list. The giant of Provence seems to captivate the attention of so many as a cycling mountain, not just cyclists either, but anybody young and old who wants to challenge themselves. The array of people who attempt this mountain, on all manner of bicycles from basic mountain bikes to serious road bikes, is really something to behold.

As a follower of the Tour de France; Mont Ventoux has a history as one of the great battle grounds, and we see the torture of men pushing themselves to the limit as they race towards the rock strewn summit. Most famously in 1967, when through a combination of factors the British cyclist Tom Simpson died ascending it during the 13th stage of the Tour de France. A memorial stands for Tom Simpson 1km from the summit. Images and footage from the 1970 tour, with Eddy Merckx receiving oxygen, at the brink of collapse from the exertion of his ascent is not something easily forgotten as you head up the mythical mountain with intent on a hot day. Here in everyday Bedoin however we see a great spread of different people who’ve come to take on the mountain. Back at the hotel before dinner we’d seen the other more serious and dedicated side, a massage table being assembled in the hall way, a soigneur setting up ready for their rider’s return from training.

The climb itself has 3 possible routes to the summit, for me the climb started in Bedoin, the most commonly attempted route. From the small roundabout at the north of the town’s main street the route follows the D974 east out of the town and out through the fields and vineyards. The initial gradient is very low and the slight rise encourages a high pace, in the big chain ring and charging towards the forest in the distance. I’m out of the saddle through Sainte Colombe as the road pitches up to 6%. With the array of different abilities attempting the climb I find myself wondering if the people I’m overtaking on this initial section know something I don’t about what lies ahead, should I be saving my legs at this point? Or are they just more cautious and sensible? for we all know a long climb lies ahead.

At 6km the road enters the trees at the Saint-Estève bend, and this is where the climb really starts. As the trees close in around you the air becomes still, the perspiration starts to saturate your clothing as the gradient increases and the pace slows to a steady sustainable rhythm. I remove my glasses and dock them in my helmet vents as sweat drips down onto the inside of the lenses.  The road seems narrow and is hemmed in by trees, but the shadow cast by them is not enough to hold back the heat in the still air.

My pace starts to slow, it must have got steeper and I’m sitting back in the saddle and pushing my pedals forwards, grinding away slowly upwards. A group of flies, hungry for my sweat, have started to crowd my face. I up my pace to get away from them, they trail behind briefly until my pace slows once more. I’m breathing heavily and wiping the sweat from my eyes as I inhale one of the flies and it hits the back of my throat. I cough instantly, spitting it out; this mountain is not going to let me rest for a moment.

A tight corner really ups the gradient and It’s an effort to climb through this section. I’m constantly analysing the landscape, scanning for any signs that the forest is coming to an end. It may be wishful thinking but the limestone rocks seem to become more prominent between the trees as the bald rock strewn summit gets closer. “Look at all those rocks, can’t be far now” and “pace yourself, you’re not even out of the trees yet” run through my mind on a loop. The forest is hard, the hardest section of the climb in terms of steepest gradients lack of cooling breeze and seemingly endless length.

At 15km in I’m going up through the gears once more, really picking up speed across the car park at Chalet Reynard. I’m breaking out of the trees, and the mountain begins to reveal itself. Turning left and heading up, I wind around the side of the mountain and prepare for the exposure to the wind, but it does not come. The wind on Mont Ventoux has been recorded at speeds of 320km/h, and the wind blows at over 90km/h on more than 200 days a year. The winds have been known to blow the rocks through the air in extreme conditions so the road is not always open. I wasn’t sure I would be able to ride this mountain let alone get light winds at the summit.

I can see the weather station at the summit, the poles marking the side of the road, and the white rocks that cover the slopes around me. The view is iconic, and the view across the plains below are breath-taking, well they would be if I had any breath spare at this moment. After the lower gradients around Chalet Reynard it does slowly steepen, increasing gradually until the summit; but by that point I’m lost in the moment, past caring. It feels like I’ve just cycled to the moon and I can see the summit just ahead. I remove my helmet briefly as I cycle past the Tom Simpson memorial as a mark of respect, I’ll stop properly on the decent.

A collection of cars and cyclists are gathered around the weather station summit. A short steep burst and the summit is here, time for a quick summit photo in the cold air. At 1912m up it’s time to put on my wind proof for the decent. At 7.6% average gradient with a couple of spikes of 12% it’s a real adventure of a climb. From a street filled with cafes and restaurants, out through the vineyards and a steep forest, right up to a lunar landscape in another world. The popularity of the mountain is entirely justified by the experience, it just has to be ridden. The decent is pretty spectacular too, with great visibility through most sections including the forest, it allows effortless high speeds for the confident.

Logistics: We stayed at Hôtel, Bar-Restaurant Le Guintrand in Saint Colombe which had cycle storage, friendly owners and it was great to watch the eager cyclists heading up the mountain whist I’m tucking into my substantial breakfast. Next door was Hôtel La Garance and in Bedoin itself Hôtel Restaurant L’Escapade. From Saint Colombe it is just a short cycle into Bedoin and back if you wish to dine or drink in the town itself. Large car parks are available in Bedoin for the many day visitors. There are 3 different routes up the mountain that can be done, but there are no similar sized hills in the immediate area so a short stop here might be enough for most people. Cycle hire is available in Bedoin if required.

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