Up the Ventoux - A Cycling Holiday in France with a Difference;-)

Or - How to arrive at the top of France's most famous cycling peak, whilst carrying all your camping kit...

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OK – I know what you're thinking, what kind of maniac would ride a fully loaded touring bike; camping gear, tent, cooker etc, all the way up one of the hardest mountain climbs in France? Well judging from the view at the top – where apart from my band of nutters, there was not a single pannier to be seen amongst the hundreds of French cyclists up there – it's a fair question...

But the thing was, that our group - average age near 60, and about as far as you can get from the 30-something lycra-clad 'sportives' around us – looked in fine shape, and certainly more smug than you'd expect.

Because we cheated;-)

But only a little bit...

At the top we saw several vans unload helmeted tourists and their bikes so that they too could experience the Ventoux, but only the downhill, which ironically was in fact the worst bit of the whole ride – we did not cheat like that of course...

So having peaked (sic) your interest here's how we did it:-)

6 months before the planned assault I was pondering routes and campsites and the like. One of the group had climbed the Ventoux before (unladen), doing it the 'easy' way up from Sault. This route has its attraction in that only the last five kms are really steep – going from 8-11%. But that is VERY steep and my worry was that in order to do it this way involved a pretty hard run in of 20 kms, much of it climbing over 5% before the final push. Yes I thought most of the group could manage it at a pinch but it wouldn't be fun and keeping the group together was of course a major concern.

 

There are two other ways up The Ventoux and both are hard and almost exactly the same distance at 21 kms so the same average gradient. The most famous is the climb up from Bedoin – this is the way the tour riders usually come. It starts fairly hard from the bottom and then gets progressively more difficult from 6 kms in, with the climb rarely dropping below 8% and touching 10% in places – the last 5 kms being identical to the Sault route.

The other 'hard' route is from Malaucene and it's interesting in that despite the same average the actual profile is quite different from that of the Bedoin route. From Malaucene the climb starts with a bang – running 7-9% for the first 4 kms but then easing right off to a rather gentle 5 kms or so of 2-5% (with the odd short steep section). Now from a purely personal point of view I quite liked the look of this – a hard start, then some gentle climbing allowing recovery and a bit of sightseeing. The snag was that the payback was then another 5 kms of 9-11 or even 12% before another 1 km gentle section then a final 5 kms at 8-10%. It's easy to see why some people consider this to be the hardest of all the routes – it depends whether you profit from the 'rest' sections enough to attack the 'killer' sections..

So which to choose? When all's said and done you still have to haul your carcass over 1500 vertical meters to 1912m – none are easy...

The loneliness of command....

Then I saw the answer;-) As I was pondering over this conundrum using Google Maps, I saw that at 1400m, coming up from Malaucene was a campsite at the tiny ski resort of Mt Serein! Not only that, but with the power of the internet it was but a moment to suss it out, phone them up and decide that here was the answer to a maiden's prayer – a get-out;-)

Now looking at that Malaucene profile things didn't look quite so bad. It was only about 1000m ('only' he said!) up to the campsite, and with all day to do it it was highly unlikely that anyone in the group would fail to reach the camp – even if they had to push (note – nobody did).

Then the following morning would be a hard, but not super-hard 5 km climb to get to the top looking calm and relaxed;-) As a bonus, if anyone did get into serious trouble they could retreat to Malaucene and we'd pick them up the following day after everyone else had got to the summit.

Bingo! All bases covered! Result!

And dear readers that is pretty much how it worked out. The route plan from Lyon to Malaucene was deliberately pretty hard going (savage) so everyone was nicely hardened up. The campsite at Malaucene 'OK' and so on the morning of Saturday 21st September 2013 we hit the town for the traditional coffee and buns, and then set off at about 9.00 am.

 

One of the rules of mountain-climbing is to do it alone. If you've loads in reserve you can ignore this, but for mere mortals carrying 20 kg of camping kit I firmly believe that you have to climb at you own pace and just get on with it. Trying to keep up with someone else, or even hanging back for a friend is a recipe for disaster. So most of the group split up and climbed solo – I set off at the back as I like to keep an eye on things if I can, but also because it stops me being competitive (inevitably) and thus 'blowing' (inevitably) by trying to keep up with faster cyclists.

We were fortunate in having absolutely perfect weather; warm, not hot and no wind. Three days before the wind at the top had topped 100 kmh. Incidentally The Ventoux holds not only the record for the highest ever windspeed in France, but also one of the fastest in the world at 320 kmh – the clue's in the name... There are lots of risks in climbing in bad weather that I wasn't prepared to take, so my luck was well and truly in...

The 'profile' you see on climbbybike.com didn't seem to exactly match the signposting on the ground which gave 11% for a couple of km at the bottom (and felt like it) but the road was very wide and furnished with cyclelanes which along with a good surface made climbing that much easier. A classic car run made up most of the traffic even on a sunny Saturday so very relaxed all round, and of course the views just got better and better.

The easier mid-section arrived as advertised, and as planned I for one recovered completely whilst still climbing at a respectable rate. Then the very steep section from 1000m came in – again the roadside markers told a different story to the on-line profile with several 11 and 12% km sections before I arrived at the roundabout that marked the turn-off for the campsite at about midday. Well I was well chuffed. Not only had I made it, but I made it with plenty in hand and those I'd passed didn't look to be in any trouble.

It's always hard to gauge the terrain without actually being there, but I was pleased to see that the road to the campsite followed the contour rather than drop us down losing our hard-won meters – and the ski 'resort' was very much a low-key affair mostly for cross-country and not at all like some of the monstrosities that deface some famous climbs (La Mongie on the Tormalet for one). And after 500m or so I swung into the campsite to find a few of our group already there quaffing beer. Two of our number – Pete and Ted had failed to resist the inevitable and chosen to go on to the top and to be honest I couldn't blame them as I was tempted myself. I really think that most of the group could easily have done the same, but the point was that they didn't HAVE to and so were, like me, much more relaxed on the climb. The idea was to enjoy the experience after all.
Between then and 1.00pm all of the group rolled up including the Pete and Ted (which was quite an achievement).

 

And at this point I shall reserve a paragraph for the campsite - Camping le Mont Serein – go see their website here – www.campingventoux.com. This place is an absolute gem. I'd expected a pretty rocky – mountainside site full of mobile-homes, but no. It was small, pretty, grassy, flat, great facilities, stunning views and boasted a little bar/restaurant and shop. But as any camper will tell you the most important thing is the welcome. The couple running the show were delightful. They didn't bat an eyelid when we sat outside and demanded food-with-menaces and provided a 'salad compagnarde' that was so loaded with cheese, potatoes, duck and the like that everyone struggled to finish it. Now considering our appetites by this stage you get the idea...

 

There followed a very lazy afternoon of sleeping, taking pictures and generally making a mess in our tents followed by pizza in the evening. Oh yes – the pizza... The owners of the site were really sorry about it, but the restaurant was closed that night, but they could provide pizza and pitchers of red wine if that was OK? And of course we could use their covered area and chairs and tables – and yes they'd put the heating on. They couldn't do too much. They also said that they thought a pizza between two would be enough – I seriously doubted this, but we took them at their word and boy were they right!

So from me, and everyone on the trip, a very big 'thank-you' to 'Camping le Mont Serein' for making what was already a very special day into what can only be described as a 'perfect' day...

 

And of course they also provided breakfast;-) Thus fueled we all set off on the final assault of the summit – and it was to be honest, a steep but not killer ride to the top – there's a hell of a lot of difference between those last 5 kms on fresh legs rather than at the end of a 20+ km climb. The forest quickly gave way to what I can only describe as a 'moonscape' familiar to anyone who saw this year's Tour de France. There's nothing really to say that can't be better seen in the pictures.

 

The arrival at the top, after an hour or so had us greeted by clapping cyclists amazed at what we'd done (we didn't disillusion them:-) and we all took pictures, and generally caught our breath for the next hour.

 

And then the descent... The ride was something of a personal pilgrimage for me and so I dutifully stopped at Tommy Simpson's memorial with Pete, just 1 km from the top. Looking back you could see just how close he was to making that final climb and how that, as much as anything else must have driven him to the limit, and fatally beyond on that baking hot day - the 13th of July 1967.

 

The road remains wide and sweeps down the first 5 kms or so and then at Le Chalet Reynard the road splits one route to Saute and the other to Bedoin – we followed the latter.

And as I hinted before, this was the worst part of the whole ride. The descent is very narrow, very bumpy (surprising for a Tour de France climb) and twisty – all bends being blind and with little run off. It must have been some charity ride or some-such because the road was packed with cyclists struggling up. Mixed in with this hoard were cars weaving about and worst of all, racing cyclists risking their lives at 50+ mph, overtaking on blind bends and arriving silently by your shoulder. I was glad, and not a little surprised that we all made it to the bottom unscathed.

So there you have it. I never said it was going to be easy, but if you want to take on one of the most fearsome climbs in France and do it as a proper, loaded-up cyclecamper than I can think of no finer way of doing it and it has been added to my memory as one of my favourite climbs in France.

For many other photos of the trip please click on the picture below

Ventoux Led Trip Sept 2013

A Small Favour

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