Cycling Mont Ventoux Via All 3 Routes (Sault, Bedoin & Malaucene)

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Thursday 5 October 2017

Cycling Mont Ventoux Via All 3 Routes (Sault, Bedoin & Malaucene)

Almost 3 years ago to the day since we first cycled to the top of Mont Ventoux and we found ourselves back at the foot of the 'Giant of Provence'. After the spectacle of the Gorges du Verdon in all it's lush, autumnal colours, the summit of Ventoux was a stark contrast....grey and cloudy. Not that the rolling fields of Provence were anything other than vibrant and alive with the scent of lavender, but this only served to emphasise the baldness of the summit even more. When we first passed through this area in 2014 we didn't actually know that there were three different roads leading towards the top of Mont Ventoux. We just parked nearby and cycled up one them, which just so happened to be the route from Malaucene, and then we headed off to the Pyrenees. This time, however, we decided to try them all and see how they compared.

I've often seen it written that Mont Ventoux is the hardest of all the Tour de France climbs. Largely this mythical status derives from the notoriety of 13th July 1967, when the British cyclist Tom Simpson died within sight of the summit during a mammoth Tour de France stage, suffering from a combination of a stomach upset, heat exhaustion, alcohol and amphetamines. "Put me back on my bike!"  is what he asked of spectators as he veered across the road, before finally collapsing just 1.5km from the top and tragically dying in the helicopter taking him to hospital.

So, how did we get on over the three routes?

We started with the ascent from Sault......
Basically this is the easy way. You start at a higher altitude than the other two ascents (694m, meaning you 'only' climb 1218m) and the road to the top is much longer at 26km (giving an average of 4.6%). We didn't actually know any of this when we started the climb since we hadn't been online for days to check and had guessed the distance at 20km based on some inaccurate SatNav tinkering so it was quite a pleasant surprise to find the route towards Mont Ventoux so 'easy', relatively speaking of course.

After a short descent out of Sault the road climbs very gently at first, followed by a few steeper sections at 6 or 7% which take you to about the halfway point at 12 or 13 km to go. Visually there isn't much to see and I can't say it is the most stimulating climb in that respect. Still, since it isn't too steep the distance markers pass quite regularly. From 13km to go until 6km to go the road is even flatter to the point of being completely flat for the final 2km until you reach the cafe at Chalet Reynard.

The last 6km from Chalet Reynard are exactly the same as the Bedoin route, and make up the hardest part of this climb at 7% average with few 10% sections, but I'll talk more about this part in a minute as I outline the....



The Bedoin Route
This is the route that is usually considered the 'classic' and we tackled it the day after riding up from Sault. We weren't actually planning to cycle up Mont Ventoux again today and as a result Esther actually cycled, via the Gorges de la Nesque, all the way from Sault to Bedoin through Provence countryside. It was only when the evening sky cleared the summit came into view that we decided to make a later afternoon attempt.

Despite sharing the final 6km with the route from Sault it is, to put it mildly, a hell of a different climb. The town of Bedoin is at 300 metres altitude and so lies 1612 metres below the summit of Mont Ventoux and 21.5km away, giving an average gradient of 7.5%. This can be broken down into 3 basic sections, a short, easy bit to start with, a nasty, long bit in the middle, and a moderate, medium length section to finish (the bit that is the 'hardest' part from Sault).

The opening 5.5km is pretty easy going, averaging just 4.4% and is pretty much over before you know it. For me, my brain was saying "I'm climbing Mont Ventoux" and my speedo was saying "20 kph" and I was thinking "yeah, I'm awesome....." and then reality kicked in as the road turned up steeply for the next 9.5km with an average gradient of over 9%. This was real grinding cycling for me, with several sections over 11 and 12%. I'd see a marker that said "9%" and think "right, I'll get this out of the way".....and then there was another, and another and another as the road wound relentlessly up through the forest. There still isn't much to see at this stage, just a painfully uphill grey strip of tarmac to chase until the view finally opens out at Chalet Reynard with that 6km to go.

From here the average gradient is much easier at around 7% to the top, although the final approach is 10% again. This is the famous, exposed part of the climb. The bit that looks like a barren, grey cone from the helicopter pictures on the TV. Up close there is a little foliage around, but not a lot. In practice this means the wind can be brutal. On our ascent from Bedoin the wind was so strong that this final 6km took me almost 50 minutes as it alternated between a skin-stripping headwind and bike buffeting crosswind (the wind was actually so strong that on the descent I was blown off the road completely and was lucky to only roll about 10 metres downhill and get a nasty bruise on my thigh as a present). It could have been much worse, a stark reminder that these high mountains need to be respected at all times. Just because there is a road doesn't mean it should be attempted all the time. Despite the howling, intimidating wind, it was still moving to pass the Simpson Memorial 1500 metres from the top.

The previous day, when we had ridden the same section of road from Sault, it was completely calm although misty and we couldn't see a thing at the summit. When we cycled up from Bedoin the sky was clear and since it was so late in the day the sunset was beautiful, but the wind made it hard to appreciate very much at all.

The Malaucene Route
We took a 'rest day' after cycling up from Bedoin so late in the day and took a pootle through the rolling fields of Provence instead, which was lovely. There are loads of cycling loops outlined on boards tourist brochures in the region. The lavender fields had all been harvested and there was a wonderful, sweet, floral scent in the air since the sun was shining and the air was still. As a result we also felt well rested when we cycled up from Ventoux from Malaucene.

At 7.5% average (from 360m to 1912m over 20.5km)  this approach could be considered similar to the Bedoin ascent and it is certainly a hard one as well. Personally I found it slightly easier just in the way the gradient breaks down over the distance, but maybe I'd feel different on a different day. More importantly, however, I just enjoyed it more. Provided the weather is good there are more views riding up this side as there are more sections without dense trees on both sides of the road. I wrote about the ascent via this route back in 2014, but as an overview it starts steep for a couple of kilometres (7-9%), levels off for a while (meaning 4-6% which feels relatively easy) and then at 9km to go ramps up with some 11 and 12% portions which are very hard. There is another slight respite at 7km to go as the road passes a mini roundabout and the cafe at Chalet Liotard and then it is steep again to the top with the final approach at a fairly consistent 8%.

Visually, however, this is definitely my favourite side. It helped that the sky was both clear and sunny all day and there was none of the hellish wind that made our Bedoin approach so brutal. The views from the top on such a clear, calm day were stunning. All the places that we had been visiting were visible on the horizon, the Mercantour, Queryas, Ecrins...etc. Well worth cycling up Ventoux 3 times to enjoy.



Comparing the sides....
As I've said, I prefer the Malaucene side for the views and enjoyment and found the Bedoin ascent the hardest. Timewise they all took about the same, which for me was about 1 hour 50 mins.

It might seem dull to go to the same mountaintop 3 times in 4 days, but I have to say it was anything but. I did struggle mentally a little when cycling along the road from Chalet Reynard for the second time in two days and the wind was so violent (and in hindsight I should have turned around sooner given the accident it caused), but standing at the top 3 times was different on each occasion. Different view, different feeling, different experience going up.

As to whether I consider Ventoux the 'hardest' of all the Tour de France climbs I'd have to say no. Not because another climb we've done is, but because I don't think you can ever say this one or that one is always hardest. The Col du Galibier was also viciously hard with 2000m of climbing, as was the Col du Granon at over 9% average, as was the Col d'Agnel with freezing temperatures......That said, Ventoux is still one of the harder ones we've done and I don't think I'd enjoy it all in the heat of July.

p.s. it''s worth noting the irritating fact that the waymarkers fall around 500m short of the summit for each route. i.e. when it says 2km to go, it really means 2.5km! This also helps to explain why the numbers on the markers don't quite add up and I was left worrying that there must be a 25% final kilometre to account for the missing road.

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