Cycle tour of Provence and Mont Ventoux.
Some of the group and Mont Ventoux, contemplating what we were going to be doing all afternoon!
Like many of us there are a few life boxes that I want to tick, for far too long one of mine has been to cycle up Mont Ventoux in Provence! I’ve wanted to do it ever since I read the story of Tom Simpson, the English Professional cyclist who died of exhaustion near the top of this mountain in a vain bid to win the ‘Tour de France’, since then the mountain has been used many times in the 'Tour', each time my yearning to one day have a go at it myself growing stronger and stronger, so much so that this year I thought why not! I found a circular tour that took in the great mountain, starting and finishing at St Jeannet just outside Nice; it was a group tour with my girlfriend Louisa and I two of nineteen, organised by 'Bike Adventures', it took in many stunning villages that cling to the hillsides around Provence, passing through the stunning Verdon Gorge before a midweek ascent of the mighty Ventoux. I have been on cycling holidays with this company many times before so was the chance for Louisa and I to hook up with some old friends and hopefully make some news ones, which for us is always an incentive.
St Jeanette, our Tour start
This was my first time in the region, I've always known that Provence was famously picturesque but I have to say the whole route was stunning. From the very first 'til last day the sun shone and the clear blue skies only helped to emphasize the beauty even more as the roads threaded their way through spectacular gorges and up and down the frequent Cols and hills, many a ride lengthened for photo stops, not to mention gourmet lunches in one of the many picture post code villages that we seemed to ride through on most days at just the right time for lunch! Most climbs were between 5-8% so steep enough for most of us to hurriedly search for our lowest gears, especially in the heat of the day when we were often the only people who seemed to be out and about on what were often deserted roads.
'Vence' just one of the many villages that cling to the hillside
The second day had us Climbing up and down the steep sided hills that make up the Verdon Gorge, the scale of the scenery simply takes your breath away, all of which helps to take your mind off the fact that the much of the day was spent riding up hill! A descent to yet another recognised beautiful village called 'Moustiers Ste Marie' for what we thought was going to be a light quick snack, turned out to be something of a feast with the portions far outweighing what the price had implied we were going to enjoy.
'Verdon Gorge, the picture really doesn't do it justice
Now I would say I'm an experienced rider, with over a quarter of a million miles in my legs over the years, I know the pitfalls of having a large lunch then expecting not to feel like Lance Armstrong for an hour or so, but I confess it's a lesson I've found hard to learn and find a slap up reasonably priced 'Plat de jour' hard to resist, on more than one occasion I ate too much at lunch; but, I see these tours as holidays and for me the lunch stops embracing the locals laid back attitude to dining seems just so civilised that these stops are often a tour highlight, so much so that I'm happy to pay the price of a bit of waddling in the immediate miles soon after! For sure that last comment seems for easier to write after the event, at the time many of us groaned our way up a climb uttering “never again....” only to repeat the whole episode the next day at about 1pm ish....That said many prefer to eat lightly and ride at a faster pace than others, the advantage of a big group tour is that normally you can find someone who is singing off the same hymn sheet as you; so everyone is happy.
Group ‘Team Gourmet’ enjoying yet anothet fine lunch; on a sunkissed terrace at Cabrieres D'Aigues
The third day was slightly easier as we headed in the general direction of Ventoux, many of us treated this as a rest day saving our legs as much as possible. One pretty village rolled into another as the miles passed by to yet another gourmet lunch stop with an afternoon ice-cream, just to be sociable of course
The first view of Mont Ventoux
The fourth day will go down as one of the best days of my cycling life ever! The anticipation by us all heightened by the fact that for the whole morning and previous afternoon the mountain had been in view dominating the horizon, it looked massive, majestic, magnificent and very slightly frightening, as we all knew that it was sometime soon going to make make our legs ache, for quite a long time and quite badly! For many of us my 'quite badly' comment somewhat understates the whole jolly experience!
The morning on route to Mont Ventoux
We had already done quite a lot of climbing before we arrived at the town of 'Bedoin', the most famous of the towns at the foot of the mountain where the majority start their ascent, the route we were to take was up the most famous route, often simply referred to as the 'Simpson route'. This was a day where none of us dined like kings as we all wanted just enough to get us to the top. The atmosphere at lunch reminded me of my racing days, this was a meal for fuel as exposed to a culinary delight and although the banter was still ever present you could tell that some (me included) were starting to prepare themselves mentally for the soon coming effort. We started the climb just before 2pm, the sky was blue, the weather hot, windless and still; the mountain now dominated the view and consumed our thoughts as the road gradually climbed out of Bedoin and parrellel with the exposed peak before turning left and up into the forest that coats the lower slopes.
Drinking a toast to Tom Simpson at his memorial on Mont Ventoux, a shot of whisky, enjoyed by all who were there, that I had taken up in my ‘Van Nicholas Titanium Hip Flask’ just for the occasion (Van Nicholas also make my bike).
It is after the roads enters the forest that the climb started in earnest, the road just kicked up and stayed that way until the summit with little respite or chances to take a cheeky rest. Ventoux is not like many of the mountains I have ridden before. There is no roar of a mountain stream that has so often acted as a fanfare on the lower slopes of many a high Alp to inspire me to greater heights or at least give some kind of audible warning that something rather uphill and unnecessary is about to happen; the road just leaves Bedoin, gently ascending giving the impression that all will be well and far easier than feared only to then enter the forest and bosh, up you go!
The classic view from the top of Mont Ventoux
Ventoux like most mountains has markers that indicate the distance to the summit and the gradient for the next kilometer, with an average gradient of 9-10 % these markers appear rather slowly, especially on the lower slopes where the summit is hidden from view giving little visible encouragement that at least you are gradually getting nearer the top. At one point I noticed a rider walking pushing her bike, she remained in view for quite a long time as even at walking speed I was struggling to gain on her! Worse still Louisa was waiting for me further up the slope under a shady tree and I didn't seem to be gaining much on her either even though she was stationery!
The Observatory, famous sweet stall and summit marker at Mont Ventoux
After what seemed like an eternity, because to be fair it was, the road swept left as 'Chalet Raynard' restaurant came into view. This is where you leave the forest and the exposed volcanic rock is all you have for company for the last 3.9 miles (note accuracy as knackered cyclists' on mean mountains often know EXACTLY how far to go...). Now this is where I made a mistake, as I when I got here I knew that I could get to the top and mentally I switched off, excitement replaced determination, short lived as I soon realised that although I knew I was going to make it was going to make my legs hurt, a lot! The new friends that I hoped we would make were waiting for us at 'Chalet Raynard' and it was with these new friends that we left to ride to the summit together.
The last 3.9 miles are hard but spectacular, the exposed rock replaced forest, this mountain for these last few miles looks vast, unforgiving and barren, no photograph can illustrate what it's like to ride the last section of this historic climb, it's emotional and an experience I will treasure forever. Less than a mile from the top is Tom Simpsons memorial, a pilgrimage for many of the cyclists' who ride his route, naturally we also stopped there, I personally had taken a tot of whiskey to toast the man, a swig or two enjoyed enjoyed by us all as well as the other visitors to his memorial; I was hoping it would make my legs ache less for the last push to the top but sadly it didn't!
The view from near the top of Mont Ventoux, Louisa was near the edge here so that was a nervous smile….
The summit appears and reappears with each sweeping bend during this last barren section before one last hairpin takes you to the very top; then it's all over, you've finished. It had been a hard climb, I had found it harder than any climb I had ever done and was shattered; I'm pleased to say! Yes I had found it tough and yes I was on my knees at the finish; but if I'm honest I would have been disappointed if I hadn't been, they say never meet your heroes; well here's one that does live up to expectations! The best part was sharing this moment with Louisa and our new friends as we all finished as one, sharing the pain, the moment and the achievement together.
Winding along a gorge after Montrun Les Bains
The weather at the top was clear, warm and still so we had the luxury of indulging in the sights, a visit to the sweet shop was a must as well as the souvenir shop, silly but must do traditions that I had been looking forward to all the way up. After an hour or so when all the group on the tour had been cheered and clapped to the top we all descended to the evening town of 'Sault' for a well earned Pasta, washed down with a celebratory beer or two! The next day many of us were not exactly flying up the climbs so it was back to our 'gourmet' style of riding.
Early morning climb after Sisteron
The tour was now circling back to the start and many of us could feel our fitness improving, either that or the climbs were less steep! The deserted villages always a stark contrast with home life for me, as I live in a south London Suburb with all the hussle and bustle that goes with it, where as here as in most European tours I've ridden I can't help but notice their far more laid back civilised approach to life, I must try and take a leaf out of their example, easier said than done for many of us these days!
Louisa and Louise notice they have a fan club...
The last day had us descending to back to the start, it was only this last long descent that highlighted to how high we had been for the majority of the tour. Provence and especially Mont Ventoux had lived up to and even surpassed my expectations; stunning in every way. This had been one of the hardest tours I had ever done; according Peter, using the data from his Garmin GPS, in seven days of cycling he had climbed a total of 11,553m; put into perspective Mount Everest is 8,848m high! When I got home a customer said that I must be flying now after all that climbing, in actual fact I wasn’t, but I could now cycle very slowly, for a very long time, in a very low gear up a very long Mountain! As hard as this tour was as is often the case one I have to admit it was one the best, we were rewarded with spectacular scenery, spectacular weather, spectacular dining all topped off with sharing the experience with my friends old and new; doesn't get better than that does it really!
The 'Gourmet' group at tours end, Richard, Cliff, Louisa, Peter, Louise and Myself
click in a link to a slide show of this tour Ventoux Tour Slideshow