I was lucky enough to get an invite for a space in my current guest’s van for their trip down to Mont Ventoux. It was a toss up between that and possibly getting on TV – as TF1, one of the main TV channels in France was doing a piece on the upcoming Tour de France stage, and our club had been contacted to provide local cyclists to film! However as I’m not interested in fame and fortune 🙂 I decided that Mont Ventoux was the way to go, especially as I’ve never ridden there before.
We set off just before 8, and took the back roads to enjoy the scenic view on the way there. From Bourg D’Oisans the motorway route takes a big detour loop (goes nearly the wrong way via Grenoble for 45km), so I thought that taking the alternative back roads would not impact our journey time too much whilst being shorter…as it turns out, I should have listened to google and it took just over 4 hours to get to Bedoin (it’s 3 hours by the longer but quicker motorway option). There are three ways up Mont Ventoux, but Bedoin is the most popular, having a good road surface, the most amount of climbing (Bedoin being the lowest start point), and also being the route usually used by the Tour de France.
If you are good/crazy enough you can ride up all three routes in a day (or even do it all twice to make six times up!) and gain membership of the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux (the club of crazies of Mont Ventoux)…maybe I’ll try that next time! Today everyone was happy with just the one ascent of the mountain :). We set off out of Bedoin having stuffed our pockets full of extra layers/gloves/arm & leg warmers etc) and headed up the road. Even though it was late May, it was unseasonably cool – Bedoin was 16 degrees when we left not long after midday. Despite this the sun was strong and everything that could be was unzipped or taken off, and I wondered if I’d overdone it with all the extra layers.
As you leave Bedoin, the road climbs fairly gently and winds it’s way through a number of villages. There was a strong tailwind at this stage and this helped make the first part a nice warm up (literally!) and eased us into the harder section, which begins after a left hand hairpin through the last village.
After this turn the road points up and enters the forest, and you need to settle in for a near 10km stretch of 9 – 10% gradient. There are road markers at the side of the road – encouraging you or demoralising you every kilometre depending on your frame of mind! They also state the road gradient for the current kilometre stretch – a nice touch for anyone without a Garmin to tell them these things. After a little while, despite being sheltered, the air temperature began to drop quite rapidly. As we were taking a sensible pace (holding something back for the last part) I started to feel the cold, and arm warmers and zips were pulled up . Eventually the trees began to thin out, and the tower at the summit occasionally became visible, along with the famous Ventoux ‘moonscape’.
It was also at this point that we became much more exposed to the wind, and therefore the cold. It was still comfortable as we were working hard, but I knew that I certainly hadn’t carried the extra layers for nothing! The gradient eased off a little at this stage, but the gusts of wind meant that although you might get a breather for a while, it wouldn’t be long before you were hit by another gust and had to push harder on the pedals than ever. And this was apparently a ‘calm’ day! As we continued to make our way up (I made a quick stop to switch to full length winter gloves) and the road twisted and turned, each time the summit appeared, it didn’t really seem to be getting much closer! I think that as you can see the tower from such a way off, you don’t really appreciate how far away it is, so progress is difficult to gauge. Adding the fact that you are probably getting quite tired by this point to the gusting wind makes the last part quite tough!
You’ll notice that there is snow by the side of the road…..Mont Ventoux does always look like there is snow up there (due to the very pale rocks) but this time there really was! Nik, the hardy Aussie in the picture still had his short sleeved jersey and shorts on but I was well wrapped up by this stage. So we battled on – luckily even though there were some fierce gusts that did get stronger as we approached the top of the climb, they were intermittent, except for a few short stretches of 100 metres or so where the road turned directly into the wind. I think if we’d have been battling a headwind all the way up that last 6 km, it would have been a very tough climb indeed. As it was, thanks probably to a sensible pace earlier on through the forest we made it to the top in good shape. This was despite a gust on the last bend sending one of the guys veering into the other and across the road! Shortly after we’d arrived at the top, it was clear just how cold it was. The wind was blowing ice and snow off the tops of the buildings onto the unwary, and the wind stripped any heat that was left from the climb out of us really quickly.
Once stopped, it was a race to get every item of clothing on a quickly as possible – there is a small gift shop you can go into to gain a bit of warmth, but there was only so long we could cower in there whilst trying not to think of how cold the descent would be. Luckily for us, one of the guys noticed that despite the freezing air temperature, the big green plastic bins were quite warm from the sun – so we stationed ourselves by there for 5 minutes with our hands flat on the tops to try and get a bit of pre-descent warming. It did the trick for the fingers, but there was no point putting it off too long – so we mounted up and got on our way back down. The first part of the descent was very tricky – the cold, and more so the wind, made it quite treacherous. Gusts could easily push you a metre or so off your line, so the edge of the road and oncoming cars (luckily not too frequent) needed a lot more attention than usual! I’m pretty relaxed whilst decending, given that I have the chance to practice on a regular basis, but I have to admit that I did not enjoy the first 5 km one bit. After a couple of kilometres or so the cold really got to me, and I could add whole body shiver induced ‘speed wobbles’ to the mix. Not a pleasant combination! I sometimes think I might need a more stable framed bike than my razor sharp handling Giant (however arguing that I need a sixth bike might be a tough one….). Once we were back in the forest, with the added protection from the wind, it began to get a little better. There are some swoopy corners mixed in with strings of shorter corners, and the fast changes in direction were ideally suited to my Giant (luckily now with less frequent shiver induced speed wobbles). Descending was suddenly fun again, and we probably overtook more people on the way down than the way up.
Eventually the steep sections were over, and the road turned back into the wind. Despite it still being dowhill, the wind was strong enough to nearly make it feel like the flat – but I was happy that I could pedal again to try and drive out the last of the cold. As we came back into Bedoin I’d fully defrosted and was ready for a celebration beer and pizza! I’d like to say a big thank you to James for driving for 7 hours (Bourg D’Oisans to Bedoin and back), and the rest of the guys for giving me the chance to join them in tackling one of the worlds iconic cycling climbs. And as for how it compares to the other big names…..I’d have to say that I’d put Alpe d’Huez ahead with regards to the atmosphere (in summer you can get up to 1000 cyclists riding up in a day), but Mont Ventoux is definitely a more challenging and harder climb. With regards to the Galibier (including the Telegraphe or Lautaret as either one needs to be climbed first), I think that the sheer length of the Galibier along with the additional climbing (1924m for the Galibier via Telegraphe vs 1622m for Ventoux) make the Galibier a winner for me. But given that the two are quite different, ideally you should do both!