Mont Ventoux

This ride was almost an afterthought to my trip.  The basic, original concept had been to spend a week and a half riding in the French Alps, based out of Bourg d'Oisans and Briancon, then head directly to Figueres, Catalunya (near Barcelona) where I would spend a week with my cousins Dolors, Ron and Teresa before flying home.  I wanted to keep things simple and minimize the traveling.  However, there was no way to travel by train from Bourg d'Oisans or Briancon to Figueres in a single day.  But it turns out that Avignon, France is about half way along the route, and it is possible to ride the Ventoux from there.  Indeed, I found a description of such a ride on a very nice website.  So the plan became to take the bus back to Grenoble from Bourg d'Oisans, a milk-run train to Valence, then the high speed TGV to Avignon.  I mucked up the execution of this plan a bit by getting off the milk-run train at the Valence TGV station rather than Valence Ville as intended, but some quick work at the ticket counter (the agent at which was psyched to meet an American visiting Avignon just to ride the Ventoux) got me on a TGV to the Avignon TGV station, from which I took a bus to the downtown station.  From there I trudged the few hundred meters to Hotel Splendid with all my gear.  I arrived in time to get checked in, assemble my bike, and play tourist in Avignon for several hours.  The TGV ride was fantastic; in short order after departing Valence, a huge, bald mountain came into view.  It was awesome, and could only be the Giant de Provence, Mont Ventoux.  


Central Avignon was a shocker after 3 weeks in the mountains.  The place was teeming with tourists, young, trendy, artsy locals, and the occasional scumbag typical of such a city.  I visited a natural history museum, in search of information on the geology of Mont Ventoux, the Palaces of the Popes (where the Popes maintained the capitol of Catholicism during the 14th century), and the old bridge that was a crucial transportation link across the Rhone for many years.  After those efforts my legs felt like lead and my head was spinning.  I found relief in a very good bitter at an English pub in a large plaza off the tourist track.  Here I was treated to wonderful people-watching as the trendy drama types that haunt Avignon (famous for its theater scene) came and went.  I had a large late dinner then returned to my 7 by 20 foot hotel room (very very small but very clean, and with a firm bed) to make final preparations for the epic that I had planned for the next day.  

The ride was based on a route described by G. Soto on his website.   Basically, it was an out-and-back that included taking back roads from Avignon to Bedoin, at the foot of the Ventoux (through Pernes-les-Fountaines, Mazan, and Modene), and climbing the Ventoux from both sides.  There are two routes to the top of the Ventoux, and the route through Bedoin is the one used by the Tour (a third road intersects the road from Bedoin a bit over half way up).  After climbing the Ventoux from Bedoin, my ride would take me down the other side of the mountain to Malaucene, following the route Eros Poli took to a stage victory in Carpentras in the 1994 Tour.  However, unlike Poli, I would not continue on to Carpentras but would make a U-turn and retrace my pedal-strokes, up and over the Giant, through Bedoin and back to Avignon.  The stats on the ride would be something like 175 km and 3400 vertical meters of climbing.  Avignon is at about 19 m elevation and the Giant of Provence reaches 1912 meters into the heavens.    

Mont Ventoux is a storied mountain in the lore of cycling.  I vividly recall being captivated as a 14 year old by J.B. Wadley's description of Eddy Merckx's ride up it in the 1970 Tour.  That year was the first time the Tour had returned to the Giant after Tom Simpson rode himself to death climbing the fearsome mountain in 1967, and Eddy himself nearly collapsed and was taken from the mountain by ambulance after soloing most of the climb.  The climb is steep, long, and has a mythical quality to it.  Hell, Lance Armstrong calls it the 'most difficult mountain,' and he seems to have a pretty good handle on the climbs in France.  But despite this, as I departed for the Ventoux on the morning of August 3rd, I was unaware of just what effect the mountain would have on me.  


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Palaces of the Popes, Avignon

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Bridge over the river Rhone, Avignon
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Mt. Ventoux from near the Palaces of the Popes.


This ride is Hitchcockian - the suspense of the final assault on the Giant builds slowly but surely.  Mont Ventoux is clearly visible from Avignon, but is over 40 km away.  You stare at it - you can't help it - and it stares back.  Its like the Eye in Lord of the Rings: it sees all, and it sees you if it wants to.  It captivates you, makes you want to look at it, and draws you to it.  Once you are there, it looks into your soul.  For me, the suspense had begun in earnest the day before when I saw the Giant out the TGV window.  As I was sightseeing in Avignon, I got good views of it (and took the photo above).  As I rode to it from Avignon, it was almost constantly in view once I had crossed an overpass a few kilometers out of town.  I rode to it at a casual pace, having departed at about 9 am after a large breakfast of coffee and breads coated with jam and butter. 
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Getting closer.....
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and closer....


The ride to the mountain is pleasant.  It consists of flats, false flats and a distinct hill or two over roads with pretty poor pavement - especially in comparison to the roads we covered in northern Italy.  Bedoin is about 260 m higher than Avignon.  It took me 1.5 hours or more to cover the 40 km into a gentle headwind - but that was fine, I was enjoying the suspense and was in no hurry.   
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Very near Bedoin.  The sign gives directions to access Mt. Ventoux for the Tour stage that took place just over a week earlier.


In Bedoin I refilled my water bottles and downed a liter of Yop, a sweetened, drinkable yogurt made by..... Yoplait (the combination of carbohydrates, protein and water in Yop turned out to be a wonderful energy source).  I was fueled and thoroughly psyched for the climb that lay ahead.  At this point I was following the route of the recent Tour stage to the summit and riding over graffiti - painted roads, which is highly motivating.  


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The climb gets serious after the road enters the wooded lower slopes.  

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Soon the climb becomes downright steep.  It averages over 9% for 7 km.  Eddy rid himself of Poulidor, van den Bossche, Thevenet, Zootemelk, Galdo, and  the ever tenacious van Impe along this section of the climb in 1970.  Agostinho clung to his wheel until the 9 km to go point, where he cracked heavily and finished 13th.  Every kilometer there is a marker  - like the one in the photo above - that gives the elevation, distance to the summit, and the average gradient of the road over the 1 km of road that lies beyond the marker.   
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Tour graffiti.
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After about 14 km of climbing (and about 7 remaining), the woods peter-out and the road ventures onto the barren upper slopes.  The tower on the summit is just visible on the horizon in this photo.
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After a bit more climbing, the woods altogether disappear.  Contrary to what some cycling commentators believe, Mont Ventoux is not a volcano.  It is composed of limestone that was deposited in a shallow sea - I believe in Jurassic time.  As I understand it, the mountain is bald on top because it was logged heavily to supply the ship-building industry on the coast of southern France.  The thin limestone-based soils, left with no protection from erosion by the logging, were then completely eroded away and have not recovered at all.  
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I snapped this shot of the Tom Simpson memorial as I climbed to the summit.
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The final hairpin.  The road wraps around behind the position I  stood on for this photo.
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Next stop, Malaucene.  


I rode quickly but conservatively to the top.  My climbing rate stayed around 16 to 17 vertical meters per minute (vmpm) for the most part, although it spiked a bit higher on the steep sections.   That was quick enough to reach the summit in a bit under 90 minutes.  There were a lot of other riders and some auto traffic on the road.  As in other places in Europe, most of the riders weren't super-fit, but were having fun challenging themselves and were fully capable of making it to the top.  I noticed that one Danish fellow had a wife and daughter supporting him from a minivan.  They would park, give him a feed and some encouragement, then leapfrog ahead.  They also leapfrogged me a few times and even gave me a shout of encouragement.  The 7 km section that averages 9% is a real grueller - it ramps up to at least, I would guess, 13% in places, and it just keeps coming at you.  The tombstone - like markers along the side are entertaining and helpful - the average gradient for the upcoming kilometer is marked on them so you have a good feel if some steep ramps or a flatter section lies ahead.  Their elevation is written on them also - which is great because then you know how much vertical climbing is left (although my altimeter gives me the same info).   
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Looking back down at the final stretch of the climb from Bedoin.

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Malaucene.


The descent to Malaucene was fast, fast, fast.  There were plenty of 80+ kph sections.  Unfortunately, tight, technical turns were lacking.  The day was warm but not hot, so that the descent was not overly chilly.  Upon reaching the summit, my legs didn't feel strong - they were tight and seemingly fatigued.  I was concerned that the several hours of walking and standing that I had done the day before in Avignon had ruined my legs.   For a brief moment I considered shortening my ride, but quickly determined to continue, if nothing else because I hadn't ridden the Bedoin side 'au bloc.'  Had I given the first climb everything, I might have gone home satisfied, but that wasn't the case.  In Malaucene I purchased another large Yop and drank it greedily.  I also topped up on water before heading back towards the summit.

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Upon leaving Malaucene, the climb begins abruptly.  However, the climb is easier from this direction as it is fairly evenly spread over 22 km, whereas the climb on the Bedoin side is packed into about 17 km, as the first 4 km are at a low gradient.  I began the climb at a steady, conservative pace, so that my Yop could settle a bit and I could see how the legs would feel.  But before long, I was climbing at 17 vmpm, and singing, loudly, 'here I come again now baby, I got you in a stranglehold.'  Eeegads, its true, and damnit it felt good!  I was pumped.  Soon I was hitting 18 and even 19 vmpm on the steeper ramps and flicking down onto the small cogs wherever the gradient lessened.  The more I climbed, the better I felt.  I was in and out of the saddle, really putting the hammer down.  I don't know what it was, but everything felt great.  Pure fun; euphoric; riding at its best.  Ventoux was working its magic on me.  
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The last few kms to the summit from the Malaucene side switchback up the barren upper slopes.

As I broke out of the woods, I was still feeling my oats, although I was also feeling the efforts a bit and could tell that my strength would run out somewhere near to the summit.   Part of the reason for the great power and reserves I was feeling certainly was the low altitude, but near to the summit the air becomes noticably thinner.  Nonetheless I kept flogging it.  Finally, up on the switchbacks visible in the photo above, my day was made complete as I began to truly suffer.  But I held my tempo and ground my way up the last meters, at my limit.
 
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The Tom Simpson memorial.  

Back at the summit, I rejoiced.    The Malaucene side had taken me 88 minutes.  I had climbed strongly, I had surprised myself with my strength, and I had suffered.  I bought more Oranginas and a handful of postcards.  The salesperson looked at me oddly - I think she recalled having seen me over 2 hours earlier.  I milled about and took more photos before heading down.   I stopped just 2.5 km from the top at the Tom Simpson memorial, since I hadn't stopped on the way up.  I stayed there for perhaps 20 minutes.  As I looked upon it, read it, studied the offerings that had been left, and reflected on my day and life as a cyclist, I finally came to realize in a profound sense what Tom Simpson had done that hot July day in 1967.  It is irrelevant that he had amphetamines in his pocket.  One can argue that sacrificing your life to the goal of winning the Tour is idiocy regardless of whether you take performance-enhancing drugs.  No, what counts is that he gave everything.  Everything.  The brass plaque visible in the photo of the memorial is from his daughters, and it reads, 'there is no mountain too high.'    

The upper part of the descent to Bedoin is untechnical and actually a bit boring.  However, the lower sections are fantastic.  Through the woods the road is steep, the pavement is good, and the turns are tight and banked.  Indeed, there is an annual car race up the road!  

Back in Bedoin I downed one last Yop, tanked up with water and set out for home.  I slogged the big ring into a steady breeze, constantly vigilant for the bad pavement and traffic.  It was an effort, but a fun one, to hammer home.  The neck was seizing, the legs ached and the gas tank was nearing empty - all was exactly as it should be at the end of a great day of riding.  The final statistics were 7:39 rolling time, 9:29 total time, 176 km, and 3600 meters of climbing.  

Back at Hotel Splendid, I quickly showered and packed my bike in its travel bag in preparation of my early departure for Figueres the next morning.  Next up was food.  I walked the half block from the Hotel to the main road into the old town of Avignon, turned right, walked another half block and sat myself down at an outside table at a pub/restaurant.  2 beers and 2 dinners (one pizza, one plate of pasta + salad + bread)  later I was contented.  I just sat, ate, chatted with a Frenchwoman and her friend from Djibouti, and watched the people go by for hours.  
 


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