Cingles de Mont Ventoux

Thursday

The alarm was set for 04:45 and I couldn’t decide if being awoken by cramp at precisely 04:44 was a good omen or not.  It did mean I could cancel the alarm before it woke up Rach, though my attempts to stretch had much the same effect.  Racing at Crystal Palace seems to be having a bit of a ruinous effect on my body.

Up and about I was already packed.  AndyC arrived a little early disrupting my carefully planned ‘just in time’ scheduling.  I chucked my bag in the back of the motor that we’d hired and set off to pick up AndyI and then off to DaveC’s popping the bikes on the back of the trailer thingy for our journey.

We swiftly made our way down to Folkestone and managed to sneak onto a slightly earlier train.  The Eurotunnel was on typically great form.  No hassle.  No queues.  No security.  No removing random items of clothing and other insults to my intelligence and dignity that I find impossible to bear at airports. And you can get a decent coffee.  What more can you ask?

The Garmin was up to it’s usual tricks.  Recommending innovative, alternative routes that, when rightly ignored, retrospectively calculating that the more conventional and straightforward options were indeed more efficient.  Is it possible for an English driver to travel any distance on French roads without passing favourable comment and speculating on the reasons for such stately progress?  Not in my experience.

Apart from an HGV driver learning the ropes on narrow, twisty rural roads the journey was without serious incident.  It was with just a little guilt that I somehow ended up the only one of the four of us that was not insured to drive.  Instead I was able to work away on a new website for a couple of hours on the laptop that will, almost definitely, be added to the growing pile of unfinished projects that form an unseemly pile in my past.

We found VeloVentoux with ease and got acquainted with Craig and Vicky who are like, er, famous in the cycling world.  The accommodation is beautiful and our welcome was very much according to the high expectations established from the books and articles they have appeared in.

We popped our bikes in the garage and unpacked.  We had two twin rooms separated by a shared bathroom which was an interesting arrangement.  Two unspoken rules seemed to establish themselves immediately – whistle while you work and any serious business should be done in the communal toilet on the floor below.

The view from the room was simply stunning.

We half listened to Craig’s advice on where to eat and we set off in search of a meal.  Whilst not our intended destination, we found a small restaurant and likely ‘made their week’ as we tucked in to a three course meal – not amazing by any means but decent enough and necessary fuel for the day ahead.

The original plan was to chill on Friday, maybe do a brief ‘loosener’ on the bike and generally prepare for the main assault on Saturday.  However, the consensus was that we would be better served to do the ‘bigun’ on Friday, leaving us free to see how we felt to ride on Saturday.  The weather was fantastic and it was a relief that we wouldn’t need any of the winter gear that we had packed.  We caught up with a couple of guys that had done the Bedoin climb that day and they confirmed that the conditions were fine.

Friday

Exciting.  Up at 7:00.  Look out of window – it’s a beautiful day.  The top of Ventoux in clear view from our room. Decent breakfast – yoghurt, muesli, crunchy, banana, coffee and cheeky croissant – one of the benefits of being in a cycling accommodation for cyclists run by cyclists.  Then pack – phone, brevet card, cash, camera, energy bars, gels, water bottles.

First stop Bedoin.  We had thought about driving out to Bedoin as it was a 25km ride, however the hassle of loading up the bikes in the motor was too much.  And it was a fantastic morning.  I haven’t been to Provence before, but if the bit around Ventoux is representative it is a beautiful place.  It was nice to stretch the legs on a ‘rolling’ course, through Malaucene (another of the starting points for the three ascents).  Every so often it was a privilege to be caught by a scene of such staggering beauty that the only response was involuntary laughter.

To qualify for the ‘cingles club’ it is required that all 3 climbs (Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault) are completed in one day.  This is ‘proved’, in a gentlemanly way, by getting the ‘brevet card’ stamped 4 times, at each of the start towns and once at the summit.  We dutifully got our cards stamped at the Bedoin tourist office and, after spending a few minutes getting the tourist shots done we set about the first climb.  Three of us (AndyC, DaveC and I) would be attempting to complete the challenge and AndyI content with carrying out a single ascent as part of his recce of the Etape route which he is completing in July.

Bedoin is the most famous of the ascents and is the one that is used in the Tour de France.  It roughly splits into three sections; the first few kilometres that are relatively flat, the forest section and the final 6km of barren moonscape.  The first bit is easy, varying a little between three and five percent and, for my money, shouldn’t really be considered part of the overall ascent.  It’s too flat and doesn’t feel like part of the mountain.  It also serves to flatten out the average gradient of the climb which is to do it a bit of a disservice.

However, you soon know about it when you hit the forest section.  Suddenly you are in the trees and the summit with the characteristic weather station is out of view.  And the climb ramps up, rarely dropping below 10% and long sections of 11, 12 and 13%.  Our legs were still fresh as this was our first ascent and set a good even pace.  Bravado prevents a lot of riders going for the ‘soft option’ of a 34×27 gear setup but I challenge anyone to find themselves ‘spinning’ at the sort of speeds that this type of climb necessitate!  Give me a higher cadence option any day.

Bedoin is at about 350 metres, and the next waypoint is at 1400 metres; Chalet Reynard.  After nearly an hour in the twisting forest section it’s a relief to make it.  The climb seems to play funny tricks on your mind.  The Garmin (the good bike gadget, not the bad car one) gives an accurate guide to the current gradient of the climb; unlike it would seem my senses.  Often the slope looks no more than a few percent, but is nearly 15% and vice versa.  Seeing is not believing in this case.

Once out in the open after the forest section the challenge, aside for the climbing, is the elements; particularly the wind.  Mont Ventoux stands proud in Provence and, whilst not being the only hill in the area, does rather dominate and I presume this is the reason for the famed conditions.  We worked our way up the famous ‘moonscape’ towards the weather station which has a kind of beauty I suppose, not least as it symbolises the end of the suffering – unless you’re planning a couple more ascents of course.

The top of Ventoux was a bit grim really.  It was very windy and chilly.  There’s a gift shop and that’s about it apart from a few windswept tourists.  There is also a complete absence of anywhere to shelter from the conditions which meant that, rather than being able to relax and celebrate the first ascent, we were quickly on our way – not before my first Twitter of the day of course!

Brevet card stamped we were on our way.  Not after an initial false start; the Malaucene descent was technically closed, to cars at least.  Up until last week the road was completely covered in snow.  Fortunately the road was pretty much clear for us, apart from a lot of surface water and debris.  We had to negotiate a couple of barriers on the way down but the descent, overall, was glorious.  Wide sweeping roads with a good road surface and visibility even tempted me up to a record top speed of 80km/h (50mph).  And it goes on for ever!  Naturally it doesn’t escape your attention that every metre of wonderful descent will be matched by a subsequent ascent, but that was for later.  Live for now!

Our second visit to Malaucene and a quick stamp of the brevet in the bike shop.  All of the business owners seemed very gracious about being disturbed for a clearly unprofitable transaction.  A quick bite to eat, another Diet Coke – why was I craving Diet Coke so much! – and away.

The Malaucene climb is much the same difficulty as the Bedoin being both similar in length and total ascent.  However, it kicked up harder and sooner.  So another 90+ minutes of climbing began.  We bumped into AndyI on his way down and we had a welcome breather and a quick debrief before we ploughed on.

A slight difference in pace saw DaveC slightly drop off as we made steady progress up the hill.  The Malaucene climb is more forgiving in a way as there are a couple of places where the gradient relents allowing a little recovery.  Ducking the barriers at the top we made it without too much aggravation and still felt OK – though my Twitter looks otherwise.

So that was the two hard climbs out of the way, and just the easiest one left to do; from Sault.  The Sault ascent shares the same last 6km from Chalet Reynard and it was this we descended before taking the older road towards Sault.  In contrast to the other climbs, the Sault descent was a bit hairy.  The road surface was rough in places and in others freshly tarmacked but no less scary for looking a bit molten. However, no complaints; it’s always good to be going downhill!  Which was why the little kick up to the town of Sault to get a last stamp was a bit of a blow.  The tourist office was closed, but the guys in the cafe were more than happy to stamp our cards for the last time and we were on our way.

The Sault ascent is much longer, and therefore easier than the other two.  However, that somewhat depends on the pace.  AndyC had been itching to push on all day, with me just about hanging on.  We pushed each other the whole way up to Chalet Reynard, doing 25km/h or more on the 3% sections and motoring past other riders.  I was right on my limit, or rather, the limit that I wanted to go to.

As soon as we reached Chalet Reynard I knew the game was up and AndyC’s superior fitness was to win the day.  I backed off a little and composed myself for the last 6km with the gap to AndyC rather depressingly growing.  I actually felt that I was going OK and made my own stately way up the climb – though I doubt it looked very stately frankly.  The gap stabilised at about 150m as both of us tired.  150m doesn’t sound very much on a 26km climb but it is.  When we reached the top we were both shattered.  The weather had turned a little and it was cold, very windy and raining.  On top of a little exhaustion that was a bit much.  Anyway, we congratulated each other on a job well done and took shelter in the gift shop.  For all AndyC’s superior fitness and climbing ability I think I did better in the dignity stakes and managed at least not to sit down in the shop.  DaveC joined us and none of us were in any mood to hang around.  I was shivering at this point and the first bit of the descent was pretty grim – exhaustion, cold, high speeds and uncertain handling in the wind not combining to make a pleasant experience.

Our final descent was to Bedoin which, having suffered up through the forest, was an absolute joy on the way down.  AndyC decided that it was insufficient to kick my arse on the way up, and showed my the way to go down too.  Bombing past a convey of vehicles I tried to keep up as we swept down through the trees.  By this time I had warmed up and it was truly exhilarating making our way down.

Having arrived and regrouped in Bedoin we merely had to get back to our accommodation in Faucon.  Which was not quite as simple as it might sound.  Our map-meister, AndyI, was already showered and safely ensconced in the comfort of VeloVentoux and, having set off with a little more confidence than we could afford, quickly realised that we didn’t know the way back.  However, in a mixed trip for Garmin inc, the Edge 705 came up trumps and navigated us safely back.  To describe the ride back as purgatory would be to do it a slight disservice, but having completed the challenge another hour or so on the bike in rolling countryside was not at all what any of us wanted.

DaveC iced his own personal cake by winning the day; albeit by rules that only became apparent after his fine victory.  Apparently CTC rules dictate that a sprint to the last town sign is the official manner of determining the winner – and who am I, or anyone else for that matter, to argue.

It was with tremendous relief that we arrived back at the accommodation and whilst not quite having a Steve Redgrave moment (if you see my on a bike again…) it was not far off.  AndyI gave us a cheery greeting and had been happily planning our following day’s recovery session.

Has a shower ever felt so good?  Probably not, especially when the first flood of salt from my hair was washed from my eyes.  That was a tough day.  183km (113.5 miles) of riding and 5113m (16775 feet) of climb.  That’s more than the Marmotte albeit at a less spectacular pace.  But we had done it.  As I was to repeat over dinner the following day, it’s like winning the speedboat in Bullseye – nobody could take it away.

We regrouped out in the courtyard basked in evening sunshine and AndyI announced that he had planned a 150km Etape preview ride for the following day.  I assumed he was joking.

If there’s one thing that cycling’s good for it’s making you hungry.  AndyI kindly drove us to a nearby town and we enjoyed a top notch meal. Amazing surroundings, a nice glass of wine and a ‘local speciality’ pepper steak which was like a normal pepper steak but with much, much more pepper than usual.

We had a relatively early night and got too bed trying to recover for the next day.

Saturday

It turned out that the Etape recce was not actually a joke and that AndyI was seriously suggesting that we ride nearly 100 miles after the exertions of the previous day.  This seemed totally nuts.  Anyway, same breakfast, pack up stuff and off.  I got to wear my glorious new Cervelo Test Team jersey which gave me a little boost.  The legs were feeling pretty tired but not unbearable as we made our way through the Provencal countryside.

The plan was to ride part of the Etape route enabling AndyI to get more of a feel for what he was up against come July.  For DaveC, AndyI and I it was an opportunity to see more of the countryside and have a social, relaxing ride.

The route took us a north of Faucon and would enable us to cycle a wide circle around Mont Ventoux.  It included a couple of minor climbs that would soften up the Etape riders before the major ascent of Ventoux.

We arrived at Sault after 4 or 5 hours of relatively relaxed riding and sat down for lunch.

It was our original plan to finish a tour round the mountain and head back to the accommodation.  However, it was hard to resist the lure of one last ascent.  In the end, DaveC decided to do the Sault climb and AndyC and I to complete more of the tour through a gorge and then tackle the Bedoin climb.  AndyI stuck to his original plan and sensibly completed his appraisal of the Etape route.

We set off going our separate ways.  I think that AndyC and I had the best views as the gorge was a delight – it struck us both as odd that this wasn’t the route that would be used for the Tour.

A bit of climbing was followed by a long, sweeping descent of about 1 or 2% which seemed to go on forever.

Climbing from Bedoin again was ridiculous.  Our legs were already tired and we were suffering a bit in the afternoon heat.  And we had already covered about 140km and done 3 categorised climbs.

We got off to a great start when a Belgian rider came sailing passed us with consummate ease.  Terrific!  We ploughed on, not quite grovelling but dignity was in short supply.  ‘Where is Chalet Reynard?’ was the unspoken question silently repeated over and again as we alternated sitting, standing, hands on levers,  hands on top of bars -  anything to ease the suffering a little.  Aggravatingly the forest section doesn’t even look that steep, but the Garmin confirmed the suffering constantly showing 10% or more.

Chalet Reynard was greeted with a silent cheer – ‘Straight on?’ AndyC asked.  Stopping was tempting but not a good idea.  Much better to press on.  Only 6km to go.  We knew at least that the toughest part of the climb was behind us and we slowly ground our way to the top.

I couldn’t decide whether constantly looking at the altimeter was a good idea but I couldn’t resist.  1,600, 1,650, 1,700 metres – I’d been reduced to counting integer multiples of the Toys Hill ascent remaining.

I’m sure if either of us had anything left we’d have attempted to push a little to ‘win’ the last climb.  But it was better in the end that both of us were shot and we both finished the climb at the same time with a quick shake of the hand.

All that was left was to enjoy the descent down to Malaucene and the final 12km back to Faucon.  It was a nutty ride but felt like a great achievement.  We’d covered another 174km (109 miles) and climbed 3224m and 10557 feet.

It was terrific to catch up with AndyI and DaveC back at VeloVentoux and I think all of us feeling rather pleased with ourselves.

We didn’t have far to go in the evening as we ate at the accommodation.  We had a great three course meal with a couple of beers and glasses of wine.

Sunday

Oh well.  The party had to end sometime.  We packed up and set off for Calais.  The guys did a terrific job of getting us to the Eurotunnel a good deal ahead of schedule and we were all safely home by 7:30.

What a great trip.  Granted we’d had some good luck with the weather.  One week earlier and some of the climbs would have been covered in snow.

VeloVentoux was everything that we had expected from their amazing reputation and was a perfect base for our trip.

No Comments on “Cingles de Mont Ventoux”

  1. 1 Davem said at 6:51 pm on May 12th, 2009:

    Great report as always. Quite jealous I was ruled out of this. Beginning to wonder if I might need a bigger sprocket than 25 for the Marmotte hmmm…

  2. 2 Peter Allen said at 12:46 pm on June 15th, 2009:

    Paul,
    I really enjoyed your report on the Ventoux. You have captured it’s magic and it evoked that feeling of the sun beating on me and the sweat dripping from my forehead all the way up. And the dewildering changes that the weather throws at you at the top. Do you have plans for any more Raids? I’m planning a Cingles Raid in August from Carpentras and have been struggling a wee bit with my instructions. I was wondering if you could tell me about the range of places there are in each town to have the brevet stamped and did you get 3 stamps on the summit? I’d hate to do this and not get the admin correct.
    Thanks for your help
    Peter

  3. 3 Cumbriancyclist said at 11:29 pm on July 30th, 2009:

    Excellent review of an epic trip. My son and I head out to do the same next week, looking forward to repeating your feat. Well done!