Cycling the Giant of Provence
”The Ventoux is a god of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering.” – Roland Barthes, French philosopher and cycling fan.
From the village of Bedoin, in the Provence region of France, the summit of Mount Ventoux didn’t look too far away. I could see the observatory at the top, a structure any fan of the Tour de France would instantly recognize.
But I knew it was further than it appeared. Coming from Colorado, I was accustomed to viewing mountains that typically rose 3000 feet above the valley floor. But Ventoux is different. It rises nearly twice that much from the surrounding valleys, and that’s where it earns its nickname as the Giant of Provence.
In addition to the mountain’s impressive vertical relief, the Bedoin route— a classic Ventoux test piece and one of three different roads to the summit— is also quite steep. It ascends 5300 vertical feet in just 13.5 miles. That’s an average grade of 7.5%.
A ride from Aspen to the top of Independence Pass climbs around 4100 vertical feet over 21 miles, at an average grade of 4.8%.
The steep grade and vertical gain aren’t the only challenges. The mountain’s name derives from the French word venteux, which means windy. Winds over 200 mph have been recorded at the summit, and 50 mph conditions are not unusual to encounter most days of the year.
Ventoux’s inclusion in the Tour de France further contributes to its legendary status. Since 1951 the race has ascended the mountain eighteen times, with five stage finishes at its summit. It almost always figures into who wears the yellow jersey.
In fact, in those years when it’s part of the course, it is often considered the most challenging climb of the three-week race. While many other well-known mountain stages also define the legendary race— the Tourmalet, Alps d’Huez, the Galibier— none are as sustained for such a long distance as the Bedoin route.
Bob Roll, the former Tour de France rider and race commentator, said, “Alpe d’Huez is the cathedral of climbs, where the angels, the climbers, come out. But it’s not the hardest. That would be Mont Ventoux.”
It is no surprise that Ventoux has earned a reputation as a bucket-list ride, a must-do for any cyclist who likes to test themselves in the mountains. And on a recent bike trip to the region, our group decided to ride the classic route.
As we rode out of Bedoin, it all felt very comfortable. We spun along, through vineyards and fields of trimmed lavender, at a relatively modest grade, around 4-5%.
However, the comfortable warm-up period was short-lived. Five kilometers in, the route turned towards the mountain, and the grade abruptly increased to 8%. As we settled into our granny gears, we headed into the forest, and the pitch steepened further.
The grade hovered around 9-10% for the next nine kilometers without a single break. Unlike steep climbs in the Roaring Fork Valley with occasional flat sections and downhills, the angle never relented. There were no breaks to catch, no places to coast and give the legs a moment to rest.
We grinded uphill in our road bike’s easiest gear for 5-6 miles, hoping that we might see the angle ease around each corner. But it never did. As my pace slowed to a crawl, I wondered how Ivan Basso rode this route from Bedoin to the summit in only 55 minutes. Of course, it was 2004 when doping was rampant, and riders weren’t all racing fair. But it was hard to imagine the pace required to cover 5300 vertical in 55 minutes.
Around the 14th kilometer, the angle finally eased a bit. The forest trees were thinning, and I could see the summit out to my left in the distance. Up ahead, I caught a welcome view of Chalet Reynard, the famous roadside cafe.
Chalet Reynard has been a fixture of Ventoux for 100 years, and for vacationing riders like ourselves, it’s almost a required stop. The chalet’s outdoor patio makes for the perfect pit stop for a coke, espresso, or a croissant— maybe even a cigarette if you’re French.
After a quick Coke, we continued, and the grade of the upper slopes of the route mellowed a bit for the next few kilometers— if 6% can ever be considered mellow. Out in the distance, I could make out the summit tower. Then, like a horse that smells the barn, the pedals began to turn over more easily.
The road continued on its climbing traverse, and we rode the perfect asphalt as it hugged the topographical contours of the mountain. Dozens of cyclists were on the route with us, with the periodic riders screaming by us as they descended. There were almost no cars.
We were feeling good, the end was in sight, and up ahead I could see the memorial to Tom Simpson on the side of the road. I wondered what it would have been like as a spectator when he collapsed here during the 1967 tour.
On July 13th of that year, Simpson— one of Britain’s top cyclists— died on the mountain from heat exhaustion. It was determined to have been caused by a lack of fluids and exacerbated by amphetamines which were found in his jersey pocket.
Spectators report he was weaving wildly and then fell. In a delirious state, he asked for help getting back on his bike. He continued for another half mile when he collapsed dead, clipped into his pedals.
After pondering that crazy bit of history, I looked ahead and could make out the final turn up to the summit. My thoughts pivoted to the historic tour finishes that occurred in this very same spot. Eddy Merckx won the stage in 1970 only to pass out at the finish line, Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong battled it out to the line in 2000, and Alberto Contador sealed his ultimate tour victory after winning here in 2009.
Thoughts of those moments provided a burst of energy, and as we all made the final turn, we were up out of our saddles, standing on our pedals, taking it all the way to the flat summit area.
After high-fives, we caught our breath and took in the expansive views from the highest point in Provence. It was amazing to ride along this route with such a storied history. And we felt fortunate that despite the mountain’s reputation for wind, it was completely calm.
Our group waited our turn to snap a photo at the summit sign. And then it was time to reap the fruits of our labors and descend the Giant of Provence.