Here’s an article I wrote for the summer 2018 edition of Cycling magazine, about a particular bump in France.
You cannot miss Mont Ventoux. Drive or take the train down the Rhône Valley, and there it is, on your left, perhaps 40 miles away, rising out of the plains as if it is the only mountain in the world.
From almost any part of Provence, just look up. Impressive enough anyway, with its bare limestone peak that looks like the surface of the moon, it means even more to a cyclist.
The most fabled of all the climbs in the Tour de France, where not only races but lives themselves have been lost. The Giant of Provence.
I went, for the seventh time, in May 2018 and I met some other British cyclists in the baggage hall in Marseille airport. There was only one question. Who was going to ride up Ventoux?
It has a particular place in the hearts of British cyclists, because it was here in 1967, only about half a mile from the top, that Tom Simpson died in the Tour de France. He fell off his bike from exhaustion, and insisted on being put back on, collapsing again a short while later.
Eddy Merckx lost consciousness and was given oxygen after his stage win three years later and in 2013, Chris Froome won on Ventoux on the way to his first Tour de France win. Two years ago Froome found himself without a bike after a crash and continued on foot.
But I wasn’t planning on winning any races on my visit, and certainly not riding myself into trouble. The reason I keep going back is simple: it’s a great ride for the reasonably fit and the whole area has some of the best cycling I’ll ever find.
The first time I rode up Mont Ventoux, in 2000, it was rather easier than I had imagined, at least for a while. It was the most northerly point of a week-long tour of Provence, so I stayed an extra night in a town at the bottom, and rode up with just one small pannier on my Roberts Roughstuff not-so-lightweight tourer.
About three-quarters of the way up, I was starting to think these professional cyclists are not as tough as they make out. It was almost easy. The road emerged from the trees and passed a cafe, the Chalet Reynard. I could see the tower at the top of the mountain, less than four miles away. I was feeling so good, I thought I could even pick the pace up for these last few miles. There was a rider struggling about 200 yards ahead. I’ll have him, I thought.
That was the last I saw of him.
As I came out of the trees, into the bare, windswept landscape that Ventoux is so well-known for, the temperature went up 10C, the gradient became harder and the wind picked up. I learned an important lesson about cycling up a mountain: don’t even think about attacking it.
By the time I got to the top, far from overtaking anyone, I could barely push the bike, let alone ride it. I’d stopped countless times in those last few miles, drunk all my water and eaten all my food.
There’s a memorial to Simpson near the top and from that point I virtually crawled to the summit.
I realised there are steeper climbs, and there are longer climbs, but there are none as tough as Ventoux.
These days I can just about get to the top with my dignity intact, although the only the people I seem to overtake are those having a cardiac arrest.
Last year, a group of three Dutch riders overtook me. I could sense they were going too fast, and a few minutes later, I heard the sound of retching a little way up the road. When I got to that point, the cyclists were gone, but there was a tell-tale pool of watery liquid in the road.
A little further up, one of them was slumped over a crash barrier, trying to force a gel into his mouth. His bike was discarded on the ground. I asked him if he was all right, his friends having apparently abandoned him. He gave me a limp smile and a thumbs-up, so I carried on.
Craig Entwhistle, who runs bike-specific accommodation called Veloventoux in nearby Faucon, said: “Once, I was driving up the mountain, and on one of the steepest sections I saw a man lying in the road, his bike by his side.
“I thought this was it: you hear of people dying trying to climb the Ventoux and after 15 years living here, I had finally seen it. I got out of the van and looked at him. He wasn’t moving. His arms were above his head; it didn’t look good. But suddenly, and this frightened the life out of me, he jumped off the ground and stood to attention. I jumped nearly as high. He had a look around, took it all in, and then tried to get back on his bike. He ignored me.
“I told him to take it easy, that I’d put the bike in the van, we’d go down to the bottom, get a cup of coffee, and then he could decide what he wanted to do. He was Scottish. ‘I’m going to get to the top even if it kills me!’ he said as he climbed back on his bike, pushing me away. I thought he might be right — but he did eventually get there, I think. I didn’t hear otherwise.’
Ventoux itself is the challenge that draws cyclists to the area, but if you just do that, you are missing out. The whole area of northern Provence has endless quiet roads of tough but rewarding cycling – and you can’t get a decent view of the mountain when you are actually on it.
A road clings to the side of the sensational 22km Gorge de la Nesque, south of Ventoux, where short tunnels mean trucks and large vehicles cannot use the road. I usually ride down the gorge rather than up it, to give me time to appreciate the scenery, but maybe it’s got more to do with being on the other side from the big drop on one of France’s ‘balcony’ roads, carved into the side of the mountain.
These days, I don’t take the Roberts (16kg, not including my lunch) any more. I either rent or take my own carbon fibre road bike (Dolan L’Etape, 9kg, plus a banana if I am lucky).
While Ventoux and the surrounding area is a mecca for the ever-increasing number of lycra-clad sportive riders, many from Britain, plenty do it in their own way.
There are three main ascents, from the villages of Bédoin, Malaucène and Sault. The Tour de France always goes up from Bédoin, probably the hardest of the three, although Malaucène is tough enough to make little difference.
You’ll see mountain bikers — there is also a fourth, less known off-road route to the top — and Ventoux has been climbed on a unicycle and on a Boris Bike.
On that first trip, the perfect holiday for me was loading up the Roberts and heading for the hills, a different place to stay every night. And while I still love to do that, there is an easier option. A fixed-base tour.
That has some big advantages over point-to-point touring. You don’t have to carry all your gear with you and you don’t have to worry that at the end of the day you just may find there is no room at the inn. Or no inn at all. And then it starts to rain.
There is plenty of cycle-friendly accommodation near Ventoux, and I stay at Veloventoux, where they will do almost everything for you apart from the riding the bike. There are enough loop rides to keep you busy for a week or more without going up the big one.
The big challenge on Ventoux is to do all three ascents on the same day. If you do this, and you pay the 30 euros fee, you are entitled to join the Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux — the madmen’s club. Almost 13,000 have successfully done this, each one of them with their own story, and British riders are the third largest group, after Dutch and French, with more than 2,000 riders. Plus a few of us who have done it without signing up to join the club. It took me 13 hours, including an extra 11 miles to and from my accommodation. It was 100 miles, with 4,400 metres of climbing.
Was it the hardest thing I have ever done on a bike? Not even close.
I was lucky enough to do the three ascents in perfect conditions, not too hot on the way up and not too cold on the way down. I didn’t have to look at a map, food and drink were plentiful, and after every ascent I had a long descent and a rest at the bottom before starting the next one.
Or the time in the Spanish Pyrenees where I finished a long day exhausted only to find the hotel I was looking for was just a restaurant, and closed anyway, and the next accommodation was another 30 miles away, all of it uphill. Or the day in Shropshire where I had to ride 10 miles on a rim, having trashed the front tyre.
We’ve all been there. Unforgettable experiences, but doing a fixed-base tour somewhere like the Ventoux, you can keep the good parts and dispose of the bad.
Some of them, anyway.
If, for some reason, you want to read this again in Cycle magazine, here it is.