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Mad Men of Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux Summit

Mont Ventoux Summit

Mont Ventoux, le Géant de Provence, has three routes of ascent, from Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault. To ascend all three in one day involves 4400m of ascent and a cumulative distance of 137 km. The club for those who successfully complete this series of climbs and descents is called the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux or the Madmen of Mont Ventoux, and until last week Southport boasted two official madmen, Pete Gawthorne and Malcolm Heathcote. As part of my ongoing 60th birthday celebration, I resolved to attempt to join their illustrious company, although I didn’t get round to filling in the entry form, so my ride was strictly unofficial, unsanctioned, and verified only by Strava.

My base was Malaucene, due to my accidentally contacting a bike rental shop there rather than Bedoin, and I arrived by bus having flown to Marseilles. I collected the bike, a very nice carbon Pinarello sporting an electronic Ultegra Di2 groupset, which I have never used before due to my dark suspicions that the battery would inevitably fail at the most inconvenient moment, probably on some distant Bowland fell. Following a Road to Damascus conversion after about 5 minutes of using it however, I am now completely won over and have resolved to convert my best bike to Di2 as soon as finances allow.

Montbrun les Bains

Montbrun les Bains

I had two days available – day one was unsuitable for the main event, due to high winds on the mountain. Ventoux means ‘windy’ in French, alluding to the fact that the mistral blows across from the north at speeds of over 50mph on 240 days of the year. Speeds of over 200 mph have been recorded – fortunately the bike was not fitted with deep dish carbon wheels, which might have presented a problem. The fallback plan was to do a circular Tour of Mont Ventoux, which is a fantastic route in itself, and almost worth the journey alone. To the north lies the Valley of Toulourenc, a rolling collection of verdant hills, complete with medieval hilltop villages perched atop rocky outcrops. To the south, beyond Sault, the landscape is dominated by the vast Gorges de la Nesque, a great rift in the landscape with the road clinging precariously to the hillside as it descends for over 20 km, a truly stunning road to ride.

Gorges de la Nesque

Gorges de la Nesque

Day two dawned fine, with the promise of much less wind, and temperatures that stayed within the bounds of reason – it can be 40 degrees C at the summit, or snowing, sometimes on the same day. After a wasted half hour trying and failing to persuade the Garmin to work, losing yesterday’s ride in the process, I set off from Malaucene, the road immediately rising through the cedar forest that completely covers the lower sections of the mountain. Two hours later, during which time I neither passed nor was passed by any cyclists or other vehicles, I emerged from the forest and on to the shattered limestone moonscape of the upper reaches of Ventoux. Soon the observatory looms into view, and pausing only to arrange my features into a purposeful grimace for the roadside photographer, for whom it turns out I am the first customer of the day, I shortly arrive at the summit sign, and persuade a passing tourist to record the moment for posterity.

First time at the top

First time at the top

No time to waste, I begin the descent to Bedoin, passing first the Tom Simpson memorial, which I have decided to visit on the ascent, then the Chalet Reynard, and now for the first time seeing large numbers of cyclists grinding their way up the long 9 km section through the forest at gradients of between 9 and 10%. I expect this to be the toughest section of the climbs. In no time at all, I arrive at Bedoin, and consume a large bowl of tagliatelle carbonara, washed down with Coke, coffee, a Snickers and a caffeine gel – I understand this dietary regime was utilised by Sir Bradley Wiggins when winning the Tour in 2012. Now I retrace my descent path back into the forest, only this time much more slowly. The temperature has risen but the trees offer plenty of shade, so apart from the brutal gradient, there’s no problem. Another couple of hours pass, and I’m back at Chalet Reynard, and once more the moonscape opens up around me. I stop to pay my respects to Tom Simpson, possibly I should have looked less cheerful for the photo, and once again assume a steely-eyed expression for the roadside photographers, who thrust their business cards into my back pocket. I suspect one of them may have stolen my cape at the same time, as it was missing at the end of the day.

Tom Simpson Memorial

Tom Simpson Memorial

After another short summit stop, it’s back the way I came as far as Chalet Reynard, where the road splits. This time, I bear left, and now descend the far more gentle slope down to Sault, on the eastern side of the mountain. At the foot of the descent. I rapidly conclude that there is no need to ascend the vertiginous climb up to Sault itself, and turn about to commence the 26 km back to the summit. At a much more forgiving gradient, this ascent, although longer, starts at a higher altitude, and is by far the easiest route to the top. Chalet Reynard is passed for the final time, and the last 7 km through the barren limestone, and eventually I arrive at the summit for the third time today, on this occasion taking some time to enjoy the stupendous views which stretch to the snow-peaked Alps on the horizon.

Third & final visit to summit

Third & final visit to summit

The descent to Malaucene is a very fast stretch of road, and with almost no traffic of any kind, is a superb end to the day. I arrive back in the village to be assailed by a rowdy group of men who seem to know me – it turns out to be SCC member Lindsay Whittaker and his chums, here for a three day assault on Ventoux from all sides. They kindly invite me to join them, first for a quiet pint, and then several more noisy ones – when I mention my trip is a birthday celebration, a candle is stuck on my tarte chocolate and the entire party sing Happy Birthday, before I retire to bed to reflect on the day’s events.

Southport CC Training Camp at Malaucene

Southport CC Training Camp at Malaucene

The next day, I bid farewell to Lindsay’s party, as they set off in what seems to be much higher temperatures than yesterday, and head back to Marseilles for the flight home. Two days of superb cycling, but I am well aware that success on the Ventoux is primarily a matter of good fortune as far as the weather is concerned, and it would have been a very different story had conditions been different – Lindsay’s group reported snow at Chalet Reynard on their third day, after two days of blistering heat.

Climb Statistics:

Northwest, from Malaucène: 1570 m over 21.5 km. Average gradient of 7.5%
South, from Bédoin: 1617 m over 21.8 km. Average gradient of 7.5%
East, from Sault: 1210 m over 26 km. Average gradient of 4.4%

Riding time: 8:48:50
Elapsed time: 10:30:00
Distance: 85.8mi
Climbing: 16,253 ft

The route for the Tour of Ventoux is here:
https://ridewithgps.com/routes/13787313

The Strava for the Mont Ventoux X 3 is here:
https://www.strava.com/activities/582250275

Route profiles here: Veloventoux.com

Gorges de la Nesque

Gorges de la Nesque – Report & photos by Simon Kirwan

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