Ventoux: Three Ways, Three Days

In case you weren’t aware, there’s three ways up Mont Ventoux, the infamous ‘bald mountain’ that dominates the landscape of the Vaucluse area of Provence.

Many people have heard of the Bédoin ascent, famed to be one of the toughest climbs in Europe. But the mountain has more ways to punish you than just that ‘bucket list’ climb from the sleepy town of Bédoin.

These are my thoughts on the trio of possible ascents to the summit of the so-called ‘Giant of Provence’, based on my experiences of twice racing the Haute Route Ventoux.

Sault

25.7km @ 4.7%, 1,152m+

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It’s a climb, but it’s sort of not a climb. When you hear the phrase ‘pass’, this is what you think of. A gentle rolling path, winding its way up the hillside. Of the three ways up the Ventoux, the Sault approach is possibly the prettiest, more in line with a typical French mountain road (as opposed to a ski station approach road like Alpe D’Huez or Les Deux Alpes); a strip of tarmac that feels as though it’s been haphazardly placed on the map, taking second place to the forests and mountain it snakes through, squeezing itself in where nature allows. It showcases the beauty of the region well, the dense forests, the magnificent plains behind you the endless acres of vineyard.

5% average lulls people into thinking it will be a doddle. However, sometimes, it’s not about how steep they are, its about how hard you go, and  the mental journey. I find Sault a bitch.

Those opening 12km of 5-6% grades, set amongst the wide-open vistas and empty roads of Provence, have never been kind to me.  I’ve only ever ridden them in a race, and the gentle gradients are not suited to someone my size and shape – someone who needs some serious steepness to benefit.

It’s mentally tricky too. ‘Am I be climbing?’, ‘Should I be small ring or big ring?’ You know you’re climbing, but you forever feel in the foothills, and it messes your sense of knowing when to really push on, knowing whether you should be hurting or not yet.In 2018, I hit the base of the climb with someone about 10kg heavier than me but a similar w/kg. Whilst I felt like my tyres were stuck in the perfect tarmac of those opening false flats, he powered away, unperturbed. It is a nice gentle climb, but it still hurts, hurts in the sense that the road truly does feel quite flat, yet you seem to be moving oh-so-slowly, like riding into a headwind.

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In the middle, the ‘climb’ totally flattens. From around 12km to Chalet Reynard, the road wends and wonders left and right, a little bit up, a little bit down. It dawdles, aimlessly You’re pleased to take the torque out of the legs and maybe get a guilt-inducing freewheel in here and there,  freshening yourself for the final 7km; those infamous slopes of ‘moonscape’.

However,  whilst you may well ease off in those 5-6km of relatively kind gradient, at the forefront of your mind is those brutal final stretches, and it lurks there, unbanishable. I spent a lot of this point of the climb looking at the ride distance on my Garmin, trying to calculate how long I had left til Reynard came for me. When not looking at my headunit, I was straining to see the guy in red I hit the base of the climb with, watching him slowly ease out the gap, probably 4-500m ahead already. Feeling cooked, I wanted the steady yet steep finale through Ventoux’s infamous white rocky slopes to arrive so I could get it done, but I dreaded the thought of it…. A feeling akin to that when you’re about to encounter the final interval of a turbo session.

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You hit Reynard after 19km and around 700m of ascent in the legs. From there, it’s 7km and around 500m more climbing to go, and you know the hard work is going to truly begin. Let’s hope you made the most of those gentle slopes at the start. I only started to find my rhythm at this point; the steep and consistent grades suiting me. Slowly but surely, those 4-500m to the man in red started narrowing. The gradient is pretty consistent, and steep, but not as gnarly as you’ll find lower down the Bedoin or Malaucène approaches. The major difficulty is presented by that radio tower at the summit, visible from at least 4km away, and it’s presence always reminds you of the work you’ve got to do to get there, always keeping the remaining length of the effort in your mind – not allowing you to block it out.

IMG_1012As we rounded the sweeping bends that take you closer to, yet somehow further away from, that haunting white mast, I could see Mr Red looking back at me every now and then. It’s like he knew I was watching him, and I swear we made eye contact across those bends a few times. I was desperate to catch him, he was desperate to not be caught. We were fighting for a fairly trivial place of around 40thon the stage, but a race is a race, and with a number on your back, everything counts. He ceded a lot of ground in those final minutes, and finished only 100m in front of me. I didn’t catch him, but I somehow felt like I won.

For me, Sault is the worst side to climb Ventoux. Slow, sticky, and somehow unrewarding until you hit Reynard. Sure, it’s the ‘easiest’, but the sense of climbing and progress just isn’t there.

Malaucène

21.2km @ 7.2%, 1,535m+

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Malaucène is perhaps the most overlooked and under-revered ascent of Ventoux. Not the ‘easy’ option of Sault, not the rock n’roll prospect of Bédoin.

However, write it off at your peril. Some days it will feel far harder than Bédoin, some days it will feel maybe marginally easier. It never, ever, feels significantly easier than Bédoin though. This is one tough cookie, and possibly the toughest of the three. The stats don’t lie, in terms of average grade and length, it’s only marginally easier, by the matter of fractions, than the Bédoin climb.

The first 14km or so feels quite different to the Bédoin side, the road feels quite big and functional, there’s a bike lane, and a few more cars. Comfortingly, the road is more open, and there’s a view – you can get a sense of building elevation that you don’t get with the Sault or Bedoin climb, where there either isn’t much growth in elevation through the open landscape, or there’s just too much vegetation to see anything respectively.

For me, this ascent is difficult in it’s awkward, ramping irregularity. After a regular first few km, the road flattens to a kinder grade, but is interspersed with occasional little kickers that make a rhythm impossible and can play havoc with tired legs. On the two occasions I’ve raced this climb, it’s been with around 100km already in the legs, having already romped through the Gorges de la Nesque and various other testy little climbs around the area. Sometimes, at that stage of the day, with a fried head and toasted legs, a steady gradient can be a blessing that you often aren’t provided.

The irony however lies in the fact that when the regularity of gradient arrives, it does so in the cruellest of ways; at around 9km into the climb, the Ventoux stops taunting and playing with you. The gentle jabs to the ribs and torso are over, and you’re smashed with a right hook of around 4km of constant 10-13% climbing, with not a hint of mercy. Those that aren’t natural climbers, or are maybe having the slightest of off-days, will be ruthlessly exposed here.

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As we climbed this section on Haute Route’s queen stage in both 2017 and 2018’s races I passed many; those who had burnt more than their fair share of matches holding the hitters in the front group, those that had flourished in the short punchy climbs of earlier in the day thanks to a heavier, stronger body shape, or just those that hadn’t quite got enough snacks into them through the day.

The first kilometer of this evil pitch goes by reasonably enough, then the markers with their constant proclamations of 11, 12% gradients start to get tiresome; you cease to want to look at them, sometimes ignorance is bliss and no matter what it says, that climb ain’t gonna conquer itself.

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There is a light at the end of this particular tunnel however; like Chalet Reynard on the Bedoin side, you do have one landmark to aim for, the brief respite in hostilities around the  junction for Chalet Liotard and Mont Serein. The junction falls at about 15km, and so it’s located at a similar point of the ascent as Reynard on the Bedoin side – around three quarters the way up, and affords you the briefest of easings, the opportunity to sit on a wheel, the time to take down those final sugary packets of strength in your pocket. I was lucky.

Make the most of every second of these few kilometers of kindness, the Ventoux’s acknowledgement of its savagery. As you leave the small reminder of humanity afforded by this small hostelry, you’re rudely awakened to the true nature of the climb with a section of 10-11% , and it feels like this marks the gateway into the otherworldly nature of the Ventoux as everyone knows it; the wide open ramps, the grey rocky slopes, the isolation. The woods and signs of humanity are long gone, and it feels like it’s just you and the mountain.

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Mouthful-of-food selfie. Not one for the ‘gram

Unlike the Bédoin side, where  you’re taunted by the sight of the weather station at the summit in the distance, seemingly never getting any closer, when climbing from Malaucène, until the final few minutes, you have no idea where the summit is, before the mast pops out, directly above you, seemingly so close you could touch it above your head. Those final kilometres feel exactly as the Bedoin side, similar gradients, similar exposure to any winds, similar sense of desperation for it to be over.

The final hundred meters arrive before you know it though. You see the 1km marker and then the radio tower disappears behind a headland over your shoulder – the Ventoux again messing with your head and idea of progress. You ride blind for a few minutes, thinking you’ve still got the best part of a kilometer left, but then you bend hard right over the shoulder of the summit, and it suddenly appears; the tower, the masses of cyclists and motorcylists, the noisy clamour that fries your tired head.  You feel robbed. There was a mental bullet still reserved in the chamber ready for use. For me, at least, being able to see the summit for longer enables you to gauge exactly how to pace that final effort, and it feels like you’re denied that process. Ventoux never makes life easy for you.

Bédoin

21.4km @ 7.6%, 1,639m+

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The one and only, the most-hyped climb in Europe. More feared than Alpe D’Huez or Sa Calobra, stats akin to or greater than the Tourmalet, Stelvio, or Galibier, yet with a legend and mythical status that far surpasses its mighty cousins.

It’s the stories, the legends, the tales, that fill your mind as you leave Bédoin and start climbing the gentle first kilometres. The stories of gale force mistral winds, unrelenting gradients, barren landscapes, and tragic death – that of Tommy Simpson, British racer. Before you’ve even started, you can let yourself fall into a mental hole.

As you roll through the opening 6km, you feel a bit like you’re being lead to the gallows. The gradient is shallow and the views across the never-ending Provençal vineyards are expansive, yet to those riding the climb for the first time, the anticipiation of what’s to come builds with every pedal-stroke, the ease of the gradient at this point making your fear of what lies ahead even greater. You know a lot of it is hyperbole , the Chinese whispers of mates and peloton-pals who’ve been up there before, but you’ll never know for sure til you’ve made it up there.

This mental struggle is the foundation of brutality of the climb from this side. For me, the Bédoin side is a climb that batters your mind as much as your legs, whereas the equally tough Malaucene climb is purely physical.

Battle truly commences at around 6km; you round a steep-ramping bend, and those kind gradients of 5-6% and wide open views are over. You enter the dense forest, and the next 10km, all the way up to the brief respite of Chalet Reynard, are 9%+.

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Both times I’ve raced this side, it’s been as part of a Haute Route time trial. It’s like watching a slow-motion bike race. The sluggish pace of riders taking on a climb of this severity after two hard days’ racing, even in ‘full-gas final stage mode’, is exacerbated by the environment. You’re surrounded on both sides by deep swathes of larch and beech trees, and the road commonly reveals itself directly in front of you for hundreds of meters, taunting you. You can see the minutes and minutes of climbing ahead, and without a sense of progress coming from a view back down the mountain due to the forest, you feel like you’re not moving; there’s almost an optical illusion of flatness to the gradient. In 2018, we rode through dense wet clouds and fog, something increasing the claustrophobia and intensity, as it felt like the environment was closing in on us.

As we raced up the climb, you could watch opponents in front of you for minutes at a time, as you locked your tractor beam onto them, slowly winching them in, or desperately attach a rope to them as they pull away.  Those 10km to Reynard leave you stuck in almost a vacuum of time. The world seems to stop as everything looks and feels the same, except for the growing hurt in your legs.

The one kindness of the climb from the start of the steeps up to Reynard is that the gradient hardly shifts and you can stay pretty much in one gear, finding a rhythm. If you can switch off the brain and cut out the monotonous mind-fuck of the climb I just described, and reach an inner-peace and sense of zen, it’s almost soothing. You think about nothing and just pedal. If you’re impatient, if you’re on a bad day, it feels endless.

As you hit chalet Reynard, the brief shallowing of gradient almost makes things harder; you lose rhythm and have to re-find it again as you take on the final challenge; those infamous 6km of exposed rocky pitches that make all the photos. The gradient is slightly easier, but you’ll be nearing an hour in by now and your mind and body are starting to suffer. During the 2018 time trial, this is where the men started getting sorted from the boys, the natural talents and pure climbers were able to do their thing, whereas those that had made it so far on brute strength and adrenaline started notably fading.

Any weakensss becomes even more apparent when the radio tower comes into view with around 3km to go. Unlike the Malaucène side, you know exactly where the summit is, yet you never get any nearer. You stare at it, wishing it to get closer, and it feels so close. The kilometer markers at the side of the road tell you something very different.

In the final kilometer, you pass the Tom Simpson memorial, a tribute to the British rider who died at that point in the 1967 Tour De France, the amphetamines and alcohol coursing through his veins combining with the burning heat and savage climb to push his heart beyond its limit. It’s traditional to leave a momento at the memorial. Whilst I’m not superstitious, it always feels creepy riding past it, and it’s impossible not to cast a thought towards such a tragic character, a very British equivalent to Marco Pantani.

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The end does come, eventually. But be warned, you really have to work for those final hundred meters. As you turn hard right at a hairpin, the Ventoux delivers one last poke in your eye by ramping up to well over 10% until you hit the summit; a physical test to end an experience that is perhaps as much in your mind as your legs.

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Ventoux? Completed it mate.
Images: Haute Route, ClimbByBike, JIM!

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