Mont Ventoux - Southern France's Most Monumental Climb
If you have even a passing interest in professional cycling you'll probably have heard of Mont Ventoux. Despite having only being used in the Tour de France since 1951 (many of the giant climbs of the Pyrenees and Alps date back to the early 20th Century) it is probably the most famous and feared of the great climbs of the Tour. Unfortunately, the mountain gained even more fame because of tragedy when, in 1967, top British rider Tom Simpson collapsed and died nearly within reach of the summit. There is a monument (pictured at right) near the spot where he fell that has become something of a shrine for those climbing from the southern routes.
Even if you aren't a cycling fan this mountain presents an awesome challenge and, unlike the big cols of the Alps and Pyrenees (actually, Mont Ventoux is considered to be part of the Alps, geologically), Ventoux is smack dab in the middle of 'civilization' - there are virtually no other mountains of any size nearby. This makes it simple to access and the climb is within an easy day trip from Avignon, Nîmes, Montpellier, Arles, Aix-en-Provence or Marseilles.
The Three Routes
Most of us know the climb of Mont Ventoux because of the Tour de France, and therefore we know the climb that starts in Bédoin. However, there are 3 routes up Le Geant de Provence and each one is special (scroll down for a map of them).
If you want to make sure you are riding in the pedal strokes of legends then this is your route. The most popular route by far is from Bédoin, a village on the southern flank of the mountain. This is also a wonderful place to stay if you are in the area for cycling since the atmosphere is buzzing with cyclists all day long. The climb starts as the D974 turns out of the village to the east. You cannot miss the way to Ventoux - there are plenty of signs pointing you toward it. After you turn, start your timer. The climb is on.
Follow the D974 for around 6 km, through the hamlets of Sainte-Colombe, Les Bruns and finally Sainte Estève, where your road makes a famous left hairpin and the climb really begins. From here to Chalet Reynard, nearly 10 km away, the gradient almost never goes under 9%, and indeed stays closer to 10% for much of the way. It's a relentless grind that will quickly let you know whether you've come to the mountain prepared or not! Don't worry too much, though. If you have the time there are plenty of shady spots to stop and rest, many with picnic tables.
At Chalet Reynard you can take a rest, if you think you deserve it, then push on for the final attack on the summit. You are now above the trees and the bald, rocky peak is visible for much of the 6 km you have left. The gradient is a little less forgiving, but it can be ferociously windy at times (especially before the Col des Tempêtes, 800 meters before the summit), plus Ventoux saves the best for last, and the final 2 km are at, or just under, 10%.
Malaucène, much like its southern sister, Bédoin, is a most enjoyable town with a vibrant feel to it from spring to fall. To get to the top of Ventoux you take the D974, just like Bédoin. After a gentle first 2 kilometers you pass a campground on the right, cross a little brook, turn right and begin the fun! This climb is not nearly as steady as the southern route, which means you get more breaks from the non-stop steepness of the Bédoin climb, but it also means it's a little more difficult to get into a steady pace because the gradients change up and down. There are sections on this climb of 12% as well, and one long unforgettable steep straight that seems to never end. Even though the Tour always takes the southern route up the mountain, we don't find this side easier at all.
Around 6 km before the summit you reach Chalet Liotard, with it's great views over the Southern Alps (the views are generally better on the north side), then a hard right-hander takes you onto the road again for your final push. With only a couple km left you exit the trees and see your goal, along with the steep hairpins you need to negotiate to get there. This can either be incredibly motivating or unbelievably demoralizing. I've felt both, so much depends on the kind of day you're having.
The route from Malaucène has a good number of cyclists at all times of the season, but it is far less crowded than the other side. If you'd like the road a bit more to yourself, choose this one.
The forgotten third road up the mountain is the most serene. For those who may not want to try the other two, for whatever reason, Sault offers something of a 'Ventoux-Lite' experience, at least for the first 20 km. This route is the longest, at 26 km, but the first several of those are through the beautiful lavender fields below the pretty village of Sault. This is one our favorite areas in all of France, especially when the lavender is in bloom (early to mid summer). Note: in 2013 the entire road was re-paved and this climb/descent is like riding on a billiard table now!
Once you make your way out of the valley on its western side you start into the forested flanks of Ventoux. It's really an easy climb and a very pleasant ride. Enjoy it because when you get to Chalet Reynard (meeting the climb from Bédoin), you have the same tough 6 km to get up as those attempting the first route above.
No matter which route up Mont Ventoux you choose, you will end up here, 1912 meters above Provence - and that's something you'll never forget.
The Ventoux Triple
If you are mad enough (we can say this because we've done it twice!) you can climb all three routes in one day. This would entail 72 km of climbing with 4300 meters of vertical gain, approximately similar to a major day in the mountains in the Tour de France (except far more concentrated). If you can do it you will be able to join the Club des Cinglés de Ventoux (literally the Maniacs of Ventoux Club!).
This is a mountain that frightens even pro cyclists – getting yourself ready is essential if you want to do more than just survive. Obviously you should be in good shape physically. Think of Ventoux as a marathon and train appropriately. The mountain will quickly expose your weaknesses, so come as strong as possible. Here are a few tips:
- Find the longest climbs you can where you live and train there.
- Interval training
- Long, sustained rides near Lactic Threshold
If you have never climbed a mountain like Ventoux you should consider a triple chain ring, or at the very least, a compact. Bring your own bike if you can, but don't worry if it proves too bothersome. There are a couple of shops right at the bottom of the mountain that rent carbon-framed road bikes.
Bédoin - France Bike Rentals
Malaucène - Ventoux Bikes
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