Hunting for the icons of the world's cycling
It’s a crispy cold late November day in Provence. Not the typical time to visit Provence you say? Wrong. Not for me, I love getting to the places in improper time, that’s when you see stuff no one sees!
So I start off from one of the hundreds of cosy little Provencal towns and I am heading to the top of Mont Ventoux. If you are serious about cycling and if you happen to be around, then you will end up doing the same. I take the route via Bédoine. I am pretty well packed in terms of what I put on myself. It was raining cats and dogs yesterday but today the sky is spotless and the air is frosty. And it will be more frosty up there at 1900 meters of altitude.
Mont Ventoux’s impressive profile with the antenna spike on the top is looming as I approach it from far and makes it an incredible view among reddish autumn trees and grapes. Something bothers me – I see snow on the top – the result of yesterday’s rain down here. The concerns turn out to be true, the road is cut by snow in some 3k to go the top. Machines are working to remove some half a meter thick layer of snow. Okay, this time the mountain did not let me in…
Fast forward. It’s a grilling hot day in late July in Provence. Asphalt is melting and lavender is evaporating under the sun so that just passing the field make you feel you are in one of those L’Occitane shops. I start off around 8 am with the same goal to go up Mt Ventoux.
The plan is to start from Sault, to go from the Eastern side to the top, then go down to Malaucène on the Western side, then back up to the top and again all the way down to the point of start, Sault.
I set off in a gentle rhythm eyeing for a long day. Sault is a kind of lavender capital of Provence, so the fields are plenty, even though many are already cut for this season. Many people start riding in the morning heading to the summit. All sorts of people, expensive and cheap bikes, fast and slow, old and kids. What strikes me is the amount of let’s say less dedicated cyclists – guys who probably fell into this ride as a one-off adventure of a kind. Could have been doing trekking in the same way. There are lots of bike rentals here, including e-bikes. Oh yes, e-bikes. First, you hear this wild noise behind and the next thing you see a heavy noisy machine overtaking you like you are not moving at all. I estimate the bike generated over 200 watts at that moment.
Ventoux starts to look like the one you have seen in the photos after Chalet Reynard, where the two roads converge, the one coming from Bédoine and the one from Sault. From that place, you ride out of the forest and start seeing the famous moon-like landscape and astonishing views of Provence around you.
Pale shuttered limestone, high black and yellow snow poles (road furniture) and the tower looming in few switchbacks ahead. That’s very much what you have come here for. It really feels gorgeous and you feel like you are touching the legend, especially if you have seen this many times on the Tour coverages.
Ascent from Sault is very mild, even if long, you will only see grades above 8% in the final few kilometres and mostly about 6%. Given the right gearing, it can be a very gentle and enjoyable ride.
The summit is crowded, there is some construction there, the wind is chilling my sweat-soaked body. So I feel like getting down without much ado.
Descent to the other side (to Malaucène) is very fast. Without any effort, you ride 50 or 60 km/h as the steepness is noticeable. I spot lots of suffering cyclist making their way to the top, with jealousy in their eyes so typical for this situation. The road is sleek and wide and you make it to Malaucène in time. I stop right before the village, refill bottles from the natural source – seems like crystal clear water running from the middle of a rock.
Ascent from Malaucène is the real thing. Very few people and the ones I spot are mostly knowing what they are after. No e-bikes. Lots of faces with pain grimaces. It picks up with 10% and barely lets you go. Few times it goes to 12% and sometimes you rest with 7%. The road is arguably less beautiful than the road from Sault. The tower is visible only from the last few switchbacks.
I don’t even stop at the top, and take the long and not so fast descent to Sault. There are plenty of cars so you have to be very aware. By the time I arrive at the bottom, it’s already afternoon and it feels like an oven. It’s this continental summer heat that melts the road, and brains. Luckily I am going down. Nice French lady prepares a decent pizza from the food truck in Sault and it seems like the end of the ride. There is a great terrace at the entrance into the town, just to take it easy after your epic ride and contemplate those idyllic Provencal landscapes.
So I ticked the box of Ventoux and I am happy. It’s a great ride and it feels symbolic. Ventoux demonstrates the power of legends that people put into places. Just a bold mountain became a pilgrimage site for cyclists around the world. And I think this is great.