Mont Ventoux, or the Géant of Provence, is a mythical mountain with endless steep grades, strong winds and a barren moonlike summit. From Pro Tour rider to the most trained weekend warrior, the mountain strikes fear into all who dare to ascend. Those with common sense stay clear, but that’s not me, or the 400 other riders at the inaugural 3-day Haute Route Ventoux. Organized by the same folks who put on the 7-day Haute Route Alps, Pyrenees and Rockies, Haute Route Ventoux offers the same Pro-like experience both on and off the bike in a perfect 3-day weekend format. Based in the quaint French village of Bédoin the route covers 270km with 7800m of climbing, including three ascents of Ventoux. Think of it as a picture-perfect, end-of-season, Pro-like stage race for the time-crunched rider.
Stage 1: Mistral Madness
Bédoin – Gordes – Sault – Mont Ventoux 106km, +2900m Climbs: Trois Terme 9km 4%, Liguière 10km 6%, Ventoux 25km 5%
The day begins with a bit of logistical madness courtesy of Provence’s legendary Mistral wind ( a strong, cold, northwesterly wind that blows from southern France into the Gulf of Lion in the northern Mediterranean) that blew 150k/hr on Ventoux. For safety, the stage finish is moved just below the summit, but that still leaves 100km of riding with The Mistral. From the start, a tailwind pushed us down narrow lanes, through villages rich in cycling culture and past century-old vineyards. Negotiating roundabouts and road furniture adds excitement, especially at 50km/hr. With the colorful peloton strung out ahead and behind as far as the eye can see, it’s a breath-taking sight.
The tailwind section was short lived, as we turned into the Mistral winds we climbed Trois Terme and begin to suffer like dogs. For me, the suffering didn’t stop for 80km. That cold Mistral wind is relentless, painful and demoralizing, pushing me around like a cork in the sea. Riding in a group to conserve energy is paramount and the smart thing to do – of course, I’m not that smart. After getting dropped just before the town of Sault, I suffered mightily for my stupidity. A few endless solo kilometers later I catch #32, Christian Dunand of France. He doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak French, but we share a common language – teamwork. Without a spoken word we took turns pushing into the Mistral, working together as a team. This is the spirit of the Haute Route, strangers coming together to help one another reach the finish. It’s a godsend.
In Sault we start climbing Ventoux, passing trees with red, yellow and orange hues of autumn. Continuing our silent teamwork, Christian and I climbed “on the rivet.” An hour later, and none too soon, we cross under the finish banner in 76th and 77th place. With ear-to-ear smiles and sweat dripping from our brows we pat each other on the back, both thankful Stage 1 is fait accompli.
Stage 2: The Good, The Bad, and The ‘Ed’
Bédoin – Sault – St Auban – Malaucene – Ventoux 141km, +3300m Climbs: Aulan 8km 3%, Peyruergue 4.5km, 5%, Ey 5km, 4%, Ventoux 21km 7.3%
It was a good day for a Queen stage on the second day with the crisp morning air, clear blue skies, no wind and the forecast high of 19C. Our route was a long counter-clockwise loop through the lumpy Provence countryside before heading up to the summit via Malaucene. I started at the back, riding with numerous groups for the first hour. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet riders, share stories and enjoy stunning scenery. Rolling up the impressive Gorges de la Nesque with its limestone walls, sheer drop-offs and hand-cut tunnels is breathtaking. Plus, it helps me warm-up for the first climb, Col d’ Aulan.
Winding up a narrow canyon on a one-lane road outside picturesque Montbrun-les-Bains this climb thrills the senses at every turn. It’s a real treat to see steep canyon walls and forest trees looming above us. By the top I settle in with a group including #139, Ed Milnes out of the UK. He starts the day in 103rd overall with a goal breaking into the top 100. At the top of Col de Peyruegue an aid station lures some riders away. I roll on. Ed wavers, should I stay or should I roll? He opts to follow as we carve our way down the mountain, passing apricot orchards and through a series of hairpin turns.
But soon the thrill is gone – for me. With a rear puncture I stand by the side of the road. Although Mavic’s bright yellow motos and cars chock-full of spare wheels and bikes are usually within sight, they aren’t now. The only thing I see is bad luck. Ten minutes later I fix the puncture and I’m back on the road. But soon the thrill is gone – for me. With a rear puncture I stand by the side of the road. Although Mavic’s bright yellow motos and cars chock-full of spare wheels and bikes are usually within sight, they aren’t now. The only thing I see is bad luck. Ten minutes later I fix the puncture and I’m back on the road.
The climb up Ventoux from Malaucene might not be the most well know, but with 21km at 7.3% it is certainly epic. No matter who you are, the long painful grind to the summit is a challenge. Like Ed, most Haute Route riders set personal goals to challenge and motivate them. Today I want to make the summit in 105 minutes.
With each km marked by roadside monuments, I only focus on getting from one to the next. In a 39×29 tapping out a smooth steady rhythm I feel pretty good, even catching a few riders from Mexico who cheer me on, calling my name or maybe calling me names…in either case it helps. At 10km the road pitches up to 12% for 3km without reprieve. Now pedaling squares in a herky-jerky manner with tunnel vision and hard breathing the roadside monuments can’t come soon enough.
Eventually, the end is in sight with Ventoux’s iconic white and red tower coming into view. I dig deep, very deep. We’re talking Grand Canyon deep and attack the final 500m with a vengeance. Crossing under the Haute Route summit banner in 102 minutes and beating my goal feels incredible, like I’m on top of the world – or at least Ventoux. There’s no place else I’d rather be. With a superb effort Ed is also riding high, sitting in 95th overall.
Stage 3: Living the Dream
Bédoin – Mont Ventoux 21km, +1600m
The race of truth. Just you against the clock. And gravity. And wind. Ventoux’s classic time trial route is short, but offers the most difficult ascent, the most famous too. Although the climb averages 7.5%, the devil is in the details: 5km at 4% through the countryside, 10km at 10% in the forest and finally 6km at 8% over barren slopes. Today, with the last 6km eliminated due to high wind, staying focused in the forest is the key to success. At 9:42 a.m. I roll down the start ramp in Bédoin through village streets lined with locals cheering. A gentle uphill helps me warm-up and find a nice rhythm. At Saint Estève curve it’s game on, or more like game up. The grade quickly changes from “this isn’t too bad” to “oh shite, 10k of this?” It’s a mental battle now. Trying to think of something, anything, to keep my mind off the suffering I stare down at the road. The answer is right there – Tour de France road art.
Painted from shoulder to shoulder are words of encouragement, rider names and team logos from the Tour de France. It’s everywhere. It’s motivating. Big names like NIBALI, BARDET, FROOME and VOEKLER help take my mind off the pain. “BRAILSFRAUD” gets a chuckle while “VDB” reminds how some face challenges much bigger than Ventoux.
Surrounded by thick trees and dappled light it’s a surreal sight. The only sound comes from chains, heavy breathing and an occasional sheep bell in the forest. Everyone, and I mean everyone, suffers in silence.
In a cross-eyed daze I imagine my name on the asphalt as 10,000 fans line the road, scream my name, take turns pushing me forward – a lot. Soon I round the final corner and surge across the finish line, finishing in 65 minutes.
I’m exhausted, completely spent. Left it all on the course, just like a Pro. It’s a great feeling – even if it only lasts for a day, or three. That’s the magic of the Haute Route.
Note: For 2018 the Haute Route is adding several new 3-day events including San Francisco, Asheville and Utah in the United States plus Stavanger, Norway and the classic Stelvio in Italy. What’s on your bucket list? Cheers