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Riding Le Mont Ventoux
By Guest Contributor
Date: 8/12/2003
Riding Le Mont Ventoux

Story and photos by Tony Szurly

Le Mont Ventoux is an exposed peak just north of Carpentras in the Vaucluse region of Provence in southern France.  The climb up this mountain has been used many times in the Tour de France, as recently as last year.  It rises to an elevation of 1912 meters, or about 6,260 feet, at the summit. I was lucky enough to get a chance to ride up on Monday, June 23, 2003.

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There are three roads that access the summit, a northern road from Malaucène, a southern road from Bedoin and an eastern approach from Sault en Provence.  Because it had been over 95 degrees F the entire time I was in France, with some days over 100 degrees, I conservatively selected the more tree shaded eastern road, which joins up with the southern road at Chalet Reynard.  These routes run together the last 6 kms to the summit.  It's these last kilometers that give the real impressions of the Ventoux- exposed to all the elements, above the treeline and riding through the "desert of stones". There's wind, sunshine if you're lucky, stultifying heat if you ride up in the middle of a summer day and numbing cold if the Mistral is blowing.

Although my choice meant climbing for 5 km longer than the other options, the overall grade especially on the early part of the climb was somewhat gentler.  This suited me perfectly.  I had two wishes, to ride the 26 km climb from top to bottom in a good rhythm without stopping and to enjoy the scenery and experience as much as possible.  Both objectives were well met.

I rode a steel Colnago Tecnos frame with Campagnolo 8 speed Record and Racing T setup, 32-42-52 chainrings up front and a 12-25 cassette in back.  I've also ridden this bike up the L'Alpe d'Huez and Col de la Madeleine climbs.

We enjoyed a terrific dinner at La Fraisaerie on the Blvd Alfred Rosier Sunday evening in Carpentras, including a terrific cheese board and two bottles of Cotes du Rhone.  Maybe not the wisest pre-ride meal but it was my in-laws’ 46th wedding anniversary and the chef’s selections were too good to pass up.

Then off to bed at the Hotel Comtadin, a 3-star that has been used by many teams when the Tour passes through Carpentras.  The owner mentioned that USPS stayed there in 2002 but that he doesn't offer up the hotel anymore for Tour teams or press because they were such a disruption to his normal business.  He was a cyclist and a big fan, too.  He gave me two pieces of advice for my ride- start up as early as possible to avoid the crushing mid-day heat and pay out your early efforts slowly because you will need something at the end.  I planned to do both.

The next morning in Sault, I stopped in at a small boulangerie for pain aux raisins, filled the bottle and off I went on the D164, starting at 8:30 am. The temperature was already around 70 degrees. My wife and her parents would be having a quick breakfast and then looking for me up the road, following me up in our hire car.  Can't imagine there have been too many riders who have had a Jaguar as a follow car, but hey, we were living in style!

To me, one of the nicest things about Provence is how good the countryside smells.  The air was clean, the sky was scrubbed blue without a cloud to be seen and you could smell the fragrances, or parfums as the French like to say, of lavender, thyme and all the other things that make this part of the region such a joy to travel through.  I rode through lavender fields and nearby cherry orchards as I made my way onto the early part of the climb.

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The D164 from Sault was in good condition, with the ever-present kilometer "stones" along the way, marking the altitude and grade for each kilometer.  This part of the route passed through a well-shaded forest of larch, beech and holm oak.  The road rose gradually up the flanks of the Ventoux, with a few sections at around 6% grade.  There are black and yellow snow poles to mark the edges of the road all the way to the summit, they are about 12 feet tall, so that suggests it gets pretty wild up here in the winter. It was a completely enjoyable start to the day’s ride.

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Spinning up the road, enjoying the serenity of the morning and the pace of the climb, I only saw one other cyclist, on his way down.  I could only imagine what time he woke up!  The views that early on were only to the south started to open up in all directions as I approached the section that joined the D974 up from Bedoin and then headed towards the ski station at Chalet Reynard.  There were a few cyclists stopped here for drinks and a breather before tackling the final awesome section of the mountain. With an adrenaline-producing mix of anticipation and apprehension, I rode on.

It's in these final 6 kms where the real fun started.  Out from under the shelter of the trees, the summer sun was beating down under a cloudless sky, even at this relatively early hour.  The grade was increasing noticeably and would get progressively steeper until the summit, and fatigue was playing a part as I had been climbing now for over an hour.  These final kilometers are quite exposed and although I had taken off my cap and unzipped my jersey in the heat just a short while ago, I zipped up all the way in the face of the wind that was now blowing once I entered the desert of stones.

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Podofdonny tells me that the area near the summit was stripped of all the trees by Napoleon's Army looking for timber for Navy ships and the final kms were indeed like cycling on the moon.  On the road surface, the painted echoes from last year's Tour de France stage could still clearly be seen in the bright sunlight, with lots of support for French favorites Jalabert and Virenque and for some reason or another, Fredéric Guesdon; not a noted climber, but at least one fan felt he was worth a bucket of paint!  Now I saw more cyclists descending, most were in windbreakers. There were a few stray cars going in both directions now and then, but altogether the experience was like having the mountain all to oneself. 

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Tom Simpson Memorial - click for larger image

I passed the Tom Simpson memorial with 1.5 kms to go before the summit.  My wife and her parents, being English, stopped to have a closer look where the British former World Champion had fallen some 36 years before.  I took encouragement knowing there was less than a mile to go but this final mile was well earned.  This last bit got steeper, over 9%, and then I stood up to hammer out that last "sting in the tail" right before the summit where it's close to 20% for 100 meters or so, but it was such a good feeling to sense it was almost over that before I knew it I had arrived at the top of the Ventoux.

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There were some French vendors setting up some market stalls near the small stores at the summit and they cheered anyone who had ridden a bike up, shouting "Bon courage!" and clapping them on the back as they passed.  I talked to one of the men and although he was a bit surprised when I told him I was an American, he commented I was lucky to have such a fine day for my ascent.  I heard French, German and Dutch spoken at the top from the 8 or 10 other riders who had made the climb that morning; they were milling around, enjoying the views and trying to stay out of the wind.  Most took turns handing their cameras to other riders for summit shots.  I stomped up the stairs for a photo on top of the little souvenir store after buying and quickly downing a nice cold drink and a chocolate bar.

The road down the north side of the mountain to Malaucène had been freshly resurfaced.  The stark contrast between the jet black road, the white stones and the blue sky was striking.  I stopped off at the viewing table to admire the views towards the Alps before flying down for 21 kms of pure cycling heaven on a gorgeous, sinewy ribbon of black asphalt.  No ripples, no sand, no washouts in the outside corners of hairpins, and as grippy as velcro.  Before long, I left my beau-pere driving the Jag behind.

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Bombing down that perfect road on this perfect day, I actually laughed out loud, I was enjoying it so much.  I pulled my cap down tight because the wind was blowing pretty hard at the top and I was touching 50 mph on the descent. It felt more like driving a motorcycle than riding a bicycle.  There were no guardrails and some pretty wild exposure if you made a mistake or picked a bad line.  The views were fantastic on the top and then gradually the roadside became more wooded but still with great cliffs and turns and then the temperature warmed noticeably until I wheeled into the village of Malaucène about 35 minutes after leaving the summit.

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My enjoyment of the climb up Mont Ventoux came mostly from the ability to personally experience a little bit of Tour de France history, plus the satisfaction of setting a goal and meeting it.  The rewards are the absolutely spectacular views from the summit and the terrific winding descent.

There had been a lot of talk back home about the strained relationships between the French and Americans, but I never saw anything that made me feel unwelcome. We had spent the previous summer in the same area and although we noticed fewer American tourists (not always a bad thing!), the French were very friendly. As always, speaking a bit of French goes a long way - even if it’s only the pleasantries, be sure to try out whatever you know; it’s always appreciated.

For those interested in traveling with a bike, I use a BikePro case, which allows the frame to be locked in to a steel rail at the bottom bracket and front dropouts. I cover every square inch of the frame with pipe insulation (really cheap at the hardware store) use a lot of bubble wrap and masking tape for the fragile bits and generally try to tie, tape or wrap foam around anything that might move.

I’ve spray painted some stencils for "top," "bottom," "fragile" and "this end up" in both French and English on the outside of the case so the baggage handlers know how to position it in the hold. It’s on casters so it’s easy to maneuver around in the airport. The case can fit into the back of a Peugeot 306 and even a car as small as the Renault Clio. I use electrical tape to mark my settings for saddle and stem height before I take them out, but I take a card with all my measurements and a small tape measure.

I clean my bike thoroughly before packing and also take my chain off, clean it so that it is completely clean to the touch, stick it in a small ziplock bag and then reinstall it when I take the bike out. I find this is easier than having a dirty chain getting grease or lube on everything in the case or trying to refit a dirty chain. I’ve traveled with my bike numerous times to France, Belgium and England and never had any problems. Most Americans are always surprised to find out that your bike flies for free as part of your normal baggage allotment on international flights. When I can’t bring my own bike, a small bag with my own saddle and seatpost, pedals and shoes (with the right tools, pedal wrench and that measurement card to dial it all in) will make a rental bike almost as comfortable as your own.

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