When the final road race event has ended in Sweden and the autumn leaves start falling from the trees, we head down to Provence to extend the season with a three-day race leading up to legendary Mont Ventoux. A mountain that takes no prisoners.
The roundabout in Bédoin
While the summer heat still lingers in Provence, a bunch of gentlemen play Pétanque in the park. On the outdoor seating people enjoy the October sun that lights up the stone houses in the small town of Bédoin. The narrow street is lined with maple trees and a woman stops the traffic so that the schoolchildren can cross. A little further up are some bicycle shops and a sign at the roundabout shows that the road on the right leads up to Mont Ventoux, 1909 meters above sea level. In the summer of 1970, during stage 14 of Tour de France, Eddy Merckx swung right in this roundabout and got away from the peloton. After pushing himself to the limit on the steep climb he finished the stage as the superior winner. But he was so exhausted that he collapsed and had to be given oxygen to recover. The Giant of Provence has put many cyclists on hard tests.
We are five hundred amateur cyclists who have gathered this weekend for a three days race event on Mont Vetoux, organised for the second year by Haute Route. In the centre of Bédoin there are sponsor tents, bicycle service and a massage studio. On Thursday afternoon we line up in the queue to get our back packs with jersey, bibs and race numbers. Our photos are taken and in the evening there is a meeting where the stages are presented and what we can expect from the weekend. Everything ends with pasta buffet before we, full of anticipation, head back to our hotels for a good night’s sleep. I stay with a bunch of other cyclist a few kilometer up the road to Mont Ventoux, at charming hotel La Garance.
Promises of sunshine
The next morning we roll down from the hotel to the start. The air is a bit chilly, but no wind and a blue sky give us hope of a warm day. I make sure to get a good position in the front and at half past eight the leading car guides us out from Bédoin in southern direction.
As we are leaving Bédoin the peloton take up the complete space of the road. The few cars we are meeting pull over and stop as we are passing by. We carry on south and roll through the narrow streets of Mormoiron, lined with stone houses.
First climb splits the peloton
On the first climb, the difference in strength is revealed. The previously so tight peloton that has taken up the entire width of the road now splits and narrows to a slim line of cyclists.
In pure desperation of wanting to hang on, my power meter shows figures I normally only hold on short intervals. Of course this cannot last and it does not take long before stronger cyclists pull away. Later I will be punished for my eagerness to hold on. We have many hours ahead on this first stage of 113km and 2700 meter to ascend. Soon, groups of equally strong cyclists are formed and I find myself in a group of maybe 15 to 20 cyclists of different nationalities. Several British cyclists, a few from United States, Germany and of course from France. I also see a guy from Belgium. The climb ends in Blauvac from where we have a short descend.
Olive groves and cherry trees
From Malemort de Comtat, lined with olive groves and cherry trees, we can discern Mont Ventoux in the distance. And 5km later, at the picturesque Venasque, the second climb of the day starts, taking us up to 600 meters of altitude on a moderate incline of 4%. After the climb, we pass through Murs, surrounded by vineyards and a castle from the 14th century. The area south-west of Mont Ventoux is rich in vineyards, where they are sheltered from the strong mistral wind. The wines from this area are called Côtes du Ventoux AOP and the full bodied red wine is distinctly characterised by its aromas of black fruit, spice, and pepper. Although red wines dominate production from the 150 wine producers in the area, a small amount of rosé and white wines are also made.
An Englishman takes the lead
An Englishman in red jersey leads our group through the fertile landscape where the sun is now warming us. The road winds through olive groves, vineyards and small villages with medieval stone houses. No one makes any effort to help out in the front, but the Englishman seems pleased to be in the lead. As we approach 70 km, we begin the climb Col de Lagarde that will take us up to eleven hundred meters with an average incline of nearly 7 percent. Now there is less conversation and more heavy breathing in the group. Our red-dressed Englishman continues to lead us up the mountain. Cyclists in front of me stretch their hands to the rear wheels and lighten up the brakes. I do not dare, with the risk of forgetting to tighten them before the next descend. I feel strong so I advance in the field, and soon I’m on wheel after the Englishman. Now I make my second mistake. I pass the guy in the red jersey and leave the group behind and reach the top alone. I stop at the food station to refill my bottles, but without waiting for the group. The road now varies with downhill runs and long straight stretches where I cycle alone. It takes a while before two cyclists pass me in a downhill. I follow their wheels, but are soon struggling to keep their pace. It does not take long before I’m punished for my optimistic start, when I feel the cramp coming in my thighs. I have no other option than to stop and stretch out my legs, before I can continue.
Tourists from China
We pass the medieval town Sault and its lavender field which attracts tourists all the way from China. Here at the foot of Mont Ventoux, the climb to the summit begins. It is considered to be the easiest of the three, but also the longest with its 26 km and an average incline of 4.5 percent. I slow down to avoid further cramps. We reach the coniferous forest and I’m in a group that keeps a decent pace. Together we struggle and sweat in the mid-day heat, and it’s a long way before we reach the lift station and the restaurant Chalet Reynard where the road from Sault branches with the one from Bédoin. The ski system consisting of two smaller lifts and has an elevation difference of two hundred meters, so it’s not really comparable with Chamonix or other famous French ski resorts. The wind and the southern facing slopes makes it difficult to keep the resort open every winter. So maybe you should look elsewhere when you book your ski vacation.
Put me back on my bike!
Now it’s getting tougher when we get out of the woods and into the rugged lunar landscape of white limestone. High up there I can see the well-known tower in white and red at the old meteorological station. The road winds up the mountain side, curve by curve. It is only a few kilometer left now, but significantly steeper than the part through the forest. Soon I can feel the cramps coming back to my thighs again in one of the last curves, just below the memorial monument of Tom Simpson. I have no other option than to stop and get off the bike. Many cyclists have been punished in one way or another for their struggle on Mont Ventux, but for Tom, it all ended here, one km from the top. It was during a 200 km stage from Marseille in the 1967 edition of Tour de France. The heat was exceptional as they reach Bédoin and started the climb. In the last steep parts, close to the top, he began to wobble, and soon fell of his bike. “Put me back on my bike!”, rumours claimed he said. The spectators helped him back up, but Tom just managed a few hundred meters before he collapsed and fell, unconscious and still with his shoes fixed in the pedals. He died during the helicopter transport on his way to the hospital with both amphetamine and alcohol in the blood. Tom Simpson was one of Britain’s finest cyclists and the first to wear the yellow jersey.
I continue the last kilometre after the cramp has released, and it is with great relief I reach the top. We are many exhausted, but happy cyclists relaxing, taking pictures, drinking and eating what is offered before we roll down to Bédoin.
Once back in the hotel, I relax by the pool after a long awaited shower. Two Swedish couples also enjoy the sun and the heat. They are here for a week’s cycling holiday and have stopped in Bédoin for the night. But without plans to get up to Mont Ventoux. I linger by the pool for a long time to recover. Tomorrow’s stage is both longer and tougher, when we will climb the north side from Malaucène. By some considered the toughest climb. During 1951 edition of Tour de France, Mont Ventoux was part of the race for the first time. And so far, the only time from Malaucène. All other years has been from Bédoin.
I finish the evening at La Colombe restaurant opposite the hotel, where I eat duck confit with half a glass of locally produced wine. It’s not every day you’re in Provence.
The start is one hour earlier, so we are having an early breakfast. From Bédoin we are cycling southeast. The road is relatively flat and the peloton is keeping a high speed. The first climb begins after 12-14 km, and quite soon the tight peloton stretches out. There are several cyclist that I recognize from yesterday, and the Englishman in red jersey is leading our group once again. I have no plans of repeating my mistakes from yesterday and am hiding in the middle of the peloton without any ambition to increase the pace.
Gorges de la Nesque
We ride up along the mountain ridge on road D942 and reach the ravine Gorges de la Nesque. The narrow road winds around the mountain massif. At best, we have one meter-high stone wall separating us from a several hundred meter precipice down to Nesque River in the valley. It’s stunningly beautiful where we cycle through short tunnels carved in the limestone. When the descend down towards Monieux starts, the asphalt is soaked by a rain that must have come during the night. The curves are taken with caution. We continue to Sault where we passed yesterday, but instead of taking the closest road up to Mont Ventoux we continue east towards Col de l’Homme Mort which takes us up to 1211 meters. An increase of almost 800 meters which causes the pulse to rise. If you know French, you might react to the name, which would be something like the Pass of the dead man. However, I do not find any explanation for the name. After the climb we pass through Montbrun les Bains where the sandy stone houses are surrounded by pine forests, cherry trees and vineyards. The small community on a hill has been designated as one of France’s most beautiful villages.
A motorcyclist from Norway
After a shorter climb, when we have cycled 80 km, we arrive at a food stop. Some in the peloton ride on, while I and several others stop to refill our empty bottles. Now I will not make the same mistake as I did yesterday. I wait for someone else to leave. A guy in a black jersey gets ready to continue, and I follow behind. It starts off with a gentle decline where he is catching decent speed, and I try to follow his wheel. His race number tag is folded in a way that I cannot see from which country he comes, but after a while I notice his socks with the Norwegian flag. I cycle up sideways and ask: “Are you from Norway?”. “Yes, yes”, he replies with a smile. I apologize for being on his wheel. “It’s cool,” he answers. “I was on your wheel all the way up”. After a while we see the group who chose not to stop. We take turn breaking the wind to chase the group and after a while we catch them and can slow down. My new Norwegian friend – Lars Tore, comes from Western Norway but lives in Geneva where he works as an engineer at Particle Accelerator CERN. Lars started cycling to stay in physical shape when he competed in road racing. After having finished his motorcycling career, he still continues to ride his bike and likes to go on long routes from Geneva. Sometimes up to 400 km. “This is my first Haute Route,” he explains, “but I’m thinking of cycling the Haute Route in Oman in March.”
We are now a group of six cyclists heading for Malaucène. The road goes up and down on mostly narrow roads without any real ascend and with almost no traffic. After just over 110 km, we reach the capital of Ventoux. Parts of the stone wall that once surrounded the city remains and in the centre lies the medieval fortress. Just before the climb begins, there is another food stop where we make a short stop to drink coke. We have a long climb in front of us and there is no soft start. It is 21 km to the summit with an average incline of almost 8%. This will require strong legs, perseverance and a stubborn mind. On flat roads you can suck the wheels of stronger cyclists, but now you have to do the job yourself. I have yesterday’s cramp in my head and try to keep an exertion level I can handle. It doesn’t take long before our group splits and I try to ignore those holding a faster pace. With high cadence we cycle into the pine forest, passing the remains of the old 6th century monastery Notre Dame du Groseau and continuing eastwards towards the top. This road is considerably wider and has better asphalt than the road up from Bédoin.
I pass a cyclist who has stopped next to the road where he receives support from mechanics from Mavic. Like in Tour de France, they support cyclists from their yellow cars with bikes on the roof and the cars loaded with wheels and other spare parts. I use their service after the stage when Jean Patrick fine-tune my gears. Never have a more experienced mechanic serviced my bike. He has participated in no less than 35 Tour de France. After a while, I get passed by the cyclist who had stopped for help. Now on a yellow bike from Mavic.
Life is more important than my job
As we get out of the pine forest and see the top of Mont Ventoux from the north side, I’m being passed by a few cyclists. One of them is a small woman in a pink jersey who seems to pedal without effort. I decide to follow their wheels. The increased speed causes my pulse to rise, but now there are not many kilometer left. The road winds up the bare mountain of limestone and far up there I see the well-known white tower with the red mast. Just a few curves left now. But then I feel the pain coming back to the groin and have to slow down the pace, while I see the group continue up to the top.
The strong woman’s name is Gretchen Miller. She is from New Zealand but has lived in London for many years. When I finally get to the top I praise her for a strong effort. She started cycling ten years ago, after becoming unemployed in the financial crisis 2008. “That’s when I realized life was more important than my job.” When I ask if she has any background in any other sport she shakes her head. “I used to be good at drinking,” she says laughing. “But I stopped partying and started cycling instead”. Gretchen made her first Haute Route in 2012 and has participated in several tours in the Pyrenees, the Alps and in the Dolomites. The years of cycling has made her strong and when I later, on my way home, look in the results list, she is number three of all women.
Clouds are gathering
During the night to Sunday the clouds pull in and a light rain falls in the morning. The mountain is hidden in fog and the temperature has fallen considerably. Today it is a time trial with individual start from Bédoin, and I have got a start time at 10 o’clock. We are under the provisional tasks in the starting area and are waiting for our trip. Now it is man and woman against the mountain and against the clock. It is not allowed to lie on wheels. From Bédoin up to the summit is 21 km with an altitude difference of 1600 meters.
The cyclists roll down from the ramp one by one and cycle up the main street and turn right in the roundabout. The first kilometer are quite easy before getting into the barrels forest, then it directly becomes steeper and doesn’t flat out before we get out of the woods at the lift station. I start quite cautiously but slowly increase the pace, always with an eye on my computer. It feels good when I overtake a few cyclists, but soon I’m also passed by faster cyclists. A mixture of sweat and rain flows down from my forehead and I’m wet straight through. The legs feel good today and I’m increasing the pace.
In tweed and beret
The road from Bédoin was opened in 1882, but it was only at the beginning of the new century that someone got to the summit on bike for the first time. In September 1903, three moustachioed men left all the way from Saint-Étienne on bikes, with the aim of climbing the giants of Provence. But when they passed Bédoin and cycled into the forest they were taken by a rain storm and had to seek shelter. Eventually they had to turn around and spent the night in Bédoin where they dried their woollen clothes. Early the next morning they made a new attempt. Dressed in tweed and black berets they left Bédoin on their heavy bikes for a new attempt. This time, it all went well and they reached the summit as first cyclists ever. The sports journalist Adolphe Benoit from Marseille, one of the three cyclists, was so excited by this climb that he arranged the first bicycle race up the Mont Ventoux starting in 1908.
In a blurry dream
As we get out of the forest at Chalet Reynard, it flattens out for a short while as we pass the restaurant at the ski station. I grab a coke on the go before it’s getting steeper again. It’s the last kilometer of the stage and of the race, and the last race of the year. There is nothing holding me back. No need to play it safe or hold back. The last kilometer I go all in. In a blurry dream of pain and sweat I ride with the ghosts of Pantani and Coppi, side by side through the narrow path of spectators cheering and shouting our names all the way to the summit.
Cold and slippery descent
Arriving at the top, the cold wind quickly awakes me from my dream. Significantly contrasting the previous days. I find my backpack and put on all my clothes. The road down to Bédoin becomes slippery and biting cold. I see a couple of cyclists who have fallen on the wet asphalt, and back at the hotel, I get to know that my Dutch friend is on his way to the hospital with a broken collarbone. Really boring. But the Haute Route has been a great experience with nice and demanding cycling. There are many reasons to visit Provence for those who love cycling, whether you just want to venture between vineyards and medieval villages or visit flowering lavender fields. Or why not challenge yourself on a cycling race on Mont Ventoux? The mountain is waiting for you!
Haute Route has organized cycle races since 2011 and specialized in multi-day events for amateurs. The events was first held in the Alps. Now they organize race events in the Dolomites, the Pyrenees, Colorado and also in Norway. The 3-day race in Mount Ventoux was arranged for the second year. The races runs for 3 or 7 days. All information is available at www.hauteroute.org.
For best tourist information about Provence please visit www.provenceguide.com.
Nearest airport is Marseille. The Haute Route organizes transfer from the airport.
Historical information about Mont Ventoux is taken from – Ventoux: Sacrifice and Suffering on the Giant of Provence by Jeremy Whittle.
Photo Credit: OC Sport / Magnus Wiström – Fishcube Media
Text Author: Magnus Wiström