Like most things that turn out to be great fun this trip was born from a flippant remark, this one came on a hard training ride between three friends “wouldn’t it be great to take a few long weekends and drive to a monument climbs and just bag them then go home?” roughly six weeks later he have driven down though the evening to Dover ferry port where we find ourselves hanging around for three hours as ferry’s leave empty as the port workers sort out a chemical spill. None of us are sure who’s idea it was to start with but we all agreed that it was going to be a long drive, so we had better make the most of it.
If you’re going to drive to Provence to do Mt Ventoux then you may as well do all three road routes up the mountain, and if that’s the plan do them all in one day, If you manage to do this then you are invited to join Club Des Cingles. When we finally got to Calais thing hadn’t got any better, it seems wet weather was going to be our companion for a while, taking two hour shifts driving as we had done before on other trips seemed a great way to keep everyone safe, and in France a service station isn’t hard to find to keep topped up with coffee, and it does have to be said that the quality of this brew is variable, if you can stop at a service station that has a Paul outlet, and if the staff are rude enough to answer a mobile in front of you when you’re trying to pay, don’t feel to bad about just walking away with your goods if they stupidly walk away and don’t come back.
We are happy to report as we travelled further south we weather did improve but as normal when we hit Lyon the traffic got very busy, if our plans had gone well we would have been through Lyon hours before this and would have missed the jams., but as they say “the best laid plans of mice and men”. Skip forward a few hundred km and have reached our destination a great little let we found on air B&B, with great views to Mt Ventoux, I have to say when I looked at it and how seemingly close it was I began to wander what all the fuss was about, I mean “it’s just there”. The first night was spent organising our kit in our rooms and the coffee machine and food we had brought with us, just like Brits on holiday taking tea bags they like with them, we took oats, peanut butter and our fave Veloforte energy bars to keep us going. The village of Mazan was a short bike ride away close if you needed anything and the bakery was great, on the first night we had some nice food with great service in a bar there.
We had found out there was a local market in Carpentras, so our first day riding Started of slow with a ride out to get food for dinner, I think we may have got a little too much but it’s better to have it and not need it than it is to want it and not have it and the local offerings had us salivating, all apart from the donkey sausage that is. With bags full we returned to base camp for 2nd breakfast, let’s face it, you have to keep fuelled up when having big adventures. After the fuel stop we headed back out to Bedoin to start the climb up to Chalet Reynard, this would be the route we had planned to take the next day. so it was going to be nice seeing it in the light, so we knew what to expect. Bedoin, or Chipping Bedoin as we came to know it is a hot spot for two wheeled lycra clad road warriors and seems to do a good trade in the hire of bikes for people who want to take things a bit easier with the aid of motors. Now at 16km it may seem a bit of a warm up considering what we are about to do the following day, and with a section of over 9% for 9.5km we thought it would be a great idea to start working on pace, I also decided after this warm up to use the 30-tooth cassette for the big ride. Once we arrived at Chalet Reynard we parked the bikes although it was hard fighting the urge to continue to the top, so we relaxed with a coffee as we talked about the next part of the days route, a descent to Sault where we would stop for more refreshments before the ride through Gorges de la Nesque. Jo had promised us it would be impressive, and it did not disappoint. The gorge itself is rolling so a small amount of drop is followed by some climbing, this keeps things fresh and makes you work for the buzz.
On our return our thought turned to dinner, thank god for that market, everything we wanted was local and fresh as could be, as long as you’re not a moron, good ingredients will always translate to good food. We sat looking at the mountain and ate quietly, well for at least a few minutes as there was a lot of planning still to do, drink to make, food to prep and cloths to get ready. Sunday was going to be an early start and a long day, so we had better get to bed early, or maybe we could sit have a coffee and watch a film, that seems like a good idea. 3am is happening, I know this as my alarm is waking me up but I don’t want to believe it, 3 hours sleep is never going to be enough, I get partially dressed and meet my team down stairs, the porridge is coming out of the fridge as the oats have been soaking all night and going into the microwave to be warmed though before the banana, honey and peanut butter is added.
One more coffee should do the trick, we tell ourselves as we sit looking more asleep than awake, lights on, Garmins powered up, it’s time to go. It wasn’t until at least a few miles did I realise that my Garmin wasn’t on yet alone recording, thank god this happened now and not half way up the mountain, as we all know “if it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen”. Riding in the dark has its own plus points, especially as it was just coming up to 4am, its cooler and the lack of light seems to make you more alert ,we had avoided falling on some moustaches as we had come to call the local traffic calming speed bumps and there was no one else to be seen, no one else means no cars. After Entering Bedoin and starting the first climb my electronics bad luck had continued as after only one hour my light was showing low power, lucky for me Jo’s and Matts together where more than bright enough to show the way. The down side to riding in the dark is that it plays tricks with your mind, those markers you saw the day before that would help you realise how far you had got into that first climb could not be found, occasionally you would recognise words painted on the roads but then you thought to yourself they hadn’t been there the day before, they were much farther up or down the road than they seemed now.
After we saw Chalet Reynard come into murky view several cars passed us heading for the top, maybe they had decided to get to the top to watch the sun rise as well, a quick stop at the Chalet was followed by us hitting the road again and the section from Chalet Raynard to the top is open, from the first time you see the tower on Mt Ventoux’s crest you think that’s not far, but then your taken away from it time and time again, finally the last slope to the top comes into view and you have to hold back from sprinting this last part, we joined all the sleeping bag people at the top who have flocked like primitive followers of a sun religion coming to pray to their god before continuing with the rest of the day, or maybe they will scurry away into the rock face not to be seen again until the next sun rise. Either way I can see why they have an assortment of sleeping bags and blankets, it’s sodding cold, 7 c at the top and the wind chill has us soon hugging each other to stay warm, the arm warner’s and gillet’s we carried up as luxury items to be used just in case have been deployed and I find myself looking at one man still sat in his car in a big coat unscrewing a flask of hot drink hoping he’s going to offer it around.
Sun rise here is spectacular, Mt Ventoux casts the biggest shadow across the area behind it, it’s like nothing else I have ever seen outside of a movie when the Aliens come to invade earth their attack ships block out the sun. We enjoy it as best we can before the assault on the first descent of the day, I say assault, but we are shaking from the cold so much it is hard to keep the bike in a straight line yet alone feel you have enough feeling in your hands to let go of the breaks to much. The Malaucene side is in the shadows this dose its best to keep our bodies cold, when we hit town the hunt is on to find a bakery we are told will stamp our cards, proof we have indeed completed our task. We find it and while cards are being stamped we order coffee and pain au chocolate, seeing how cold we are the girl behind the counter brings a table and chairs in from outside so we can warm up and closes the door behind her. This sort of hospitality is missing in the UK, once we have finished we return her furniture to where it came from and head out to find a toilet, we find an open café and order another coffee, once we realised this was about as warm as we are going to get unless we started riding again we went to collect our bikes, outside more cyclist are sat, they recognise the signs we have on our frames and wish us luck in completing the cingles. Climb number two is now started, there are argument to what side is harder to climb, the Bedoin side or the Malaucene side, another good point about starting early is you stay out of the heat for at least two sides and all of use agreed as we climbed that neither of them had seemed to bad, at one point Matt and myself lifted the chain into big ring lowered ourselves onto the drops and started to do our best impressions of Pantani. Jo did not seem to amused and reminded us to respect the mountain, moments after this she acquired a target, a male cyclist she decided needed to be “chicked” and as she passed him he said the way we were all talking and laughing he thought we would have been on electric bike, we took this as a compliment.
As the trees started to thin we caught up with a family, a farther taking his sons out for a ride, a ride up one of the hardest sides of Mt Ventoux, for a bit of perspective this route is a bit over 21 Km long, starts at 360 meters above sea level and finishes at 1912 meters above sea level. It has segments that are over 9% for more than 2 km and bits that peak at about 12 %, the children could not have been much older than 8 years of age for the oldest, we say hello, the kids sprint of after us and they stay there for some time. The last part of this climb is steep and constant, we keep a good cadence and soon the summit comes into view, we take another photo and get our card stamped, the best bit is we are all still joking about and in high spirits, it’s not that we didn’t think we could do all three sides but we hadn’t thought that we would have found it as comfortable as we had so far. More coffee is drunk, and some cake is eaten, so far the Veloforte bars we are carrying have kept us in check, loads of energy left and the pace is good but it’s nice to have a treat.
Now we descend towards Sault, but before we continue we pull over at the Tom Simpson memorial, if you think he is a sporting icon or a drugs cheat, it’s still a thing to think about what a person will do to be the best he can be, in this case it cost him his life, we are not talking about a scientific drugs program design to cheat and defraud, this was a man who just wanted to keep going. Many people have left personal items at this shrine, we spend a few moments in thought and then return to our mission, as we did I saw a man walking his bike up the hill in his socks, carrying his shoes in his free hand, I commented that he would never get his socks clean again “this hill is bloody awful” he said, he couldn’t turn another pedal stroke but he kept on going. The Sault side is a bit less interesting on the way down, it’s not as steep so free speed is a little harder to come by and the views are not as epic. The funny part again is a group of male riders ignoring Jo as she over takes and tries to exchange pleasantries. Never mind soon we are at Sault and the short climb into town to find our next stamp at the tourist information centre, on our arrival we received out next compliment, “your looking fresh, this is your last side?” asked the clerk as he cheerfully marked our cards, time for some refreshments and something savery, we stopped in the café we had been to the day before, coffee and croque mesure are the order of the day, whilst we sat eating our energy boosts a couple of riders asked what we were eating and sat on the table next to us. After a few minutes we started talking, the gent explained that they are here training and that he had just come back from the games in Scotland, he was working with the Luxemburg team and he was in the area as there had just been a mountain bike race on he was helping with. We explained we had come to do the Ventoux, then we said all three sides in one day, “why would you do that?” was his response. A little latter as we paid the bill and was just about to get under way we came across another Brit, he was in the same club as Matt’s sister, he told us he had done the cingles the year before and at this point he was ruined “but you three look fresh, you won’t have any problems".
The last ascent is back up from Sault, it’s the easiest of the three sides so most people leave it to last, but after doing the other two sides this 26 Km route is far from easy, it’s not as steep for the majority of the route back up, but it’s warm, the temperature is now in the 30’s and the ride distance and climbing is still adding up. On our approach to Chalet Reynard we are getting a bit cocky Matt has span ahead to take some photos and when we meet up again it’s time for some big ring action. When you get to Chalet Reynard though it is all change, you go back into the last steeper open Luna landscape as before, but this time the sun is up and it bounces of the ground and road, Matt has got juice left in the tank and starts to pull away as Jo and myself build the Watts up a little, the race is on but it’s a slow one, as we come to the last ramp before the final switch back Jo gaps me and I have to let her go. Everyone is happy to have complete the last climb and we are even happier to be heading back to Chalet Reynard for another coffee, all we need to do know is stay on the bike down the final descent back to Bedoin, and it is a fast one, with little traffic and a good line of sight it was easy to pop 46mph on the twisting road, Bedoin is coming into view as the road flattens once more and as we hit the town we head of to find the last stamp, it is acquired in the local tobacconists. That’s it, done in time for tea, just the small thing of riding back to base camp and having the pot of Emma’s banoffee pie oats that we had prepared the night before.