Monday, 18 November 2013

more than Ventoux

There are more than a few things in our quest for cycling excellence that bear repetition. Reps upon reps to reach those perfect intense numbers. In the case of this particular guffer the mighty Ventoux is a perennial draw. Whereas those training reps are an attempt to iron out variation the mountain defies any averages and offers up a unique experience on each ascent

Attempts have been made on the Raid that invites the rider to ascend by each of the three routes between sunrise and sunset. It goes without saying that the Ventoux is a cruel mistress. Sunstroke dehydration wind and snow have blocked attempts at glory. The mountain remains the constant. It sits there dominating everything in the area inviting you to make an attempt on the summit on the off chance that you may be allowed to pass. This year was no exception and cyclesguff heeded the call. The original plan was the Raid but as noted in previous posts injury lack of fitness and road miles have been a painful feature in the guff year. A compromise was called for and after longing glances at local maps there was realisation that I too had been bewitched by power of the mighty Ventoux. There are in fact other climbs in the area worth visiting. A six/seven col run out followed by the ‘true Moloch’  (thanks Roland Barthes) for what proved to be an intense two day trip. The warm up as it made some sense to call it started at Montbrun with southern ascent of Col du L’Homme Mort via Ferrassieres.

 That’s Dead Man’s Hill (roughly translated) topping out nicely at 1213m with a swift and short descent to the Col de Macuegne before a further 10km descent back through Montbrun to the D159 and the Gorge Toulourenc to the Col D’Aulan at 845m. The ride through the gorge has picturesque overhanging cliffs and vistas deep into the gorge itself. Dappled sunshine adding texture to what was becoming a pleasant ride indeed.

 Col d'Aulan southern ascent
The descent off the mountain is fast with a left turn onto the D546 coming all too soon. A headwind into the valley before a right turn onto D65 in the direction of the Col de Perty. The climb starts in earnest about 10km in with a small ramp preceding a series of hairpins that snake to the 1302m summit and a pleasant increase in sunshine and temperature. From the top you can see the north side on Ventoux in its hump backed whale glory complete with radar mast to mark the blow hole. It was at this point that a school boy error became apparent. Only half of the cols complete but all of the water finished. A stroke of good fortune meant that a group of riders going the other way arrived at the col at the same time. Even better they were supported with a van that held their bags and presumably oodles of fancy kit and water. In my best plaintive French water was duly provided though I am pretty sure the man with the van spoke the international language of bike.

Ventoux from Col du Perty
The group left and in their absence it became apparent that there was a vista just beyond that was just a wee bit tasty.

The descent to Laborel is twists and turns at high speed with a brief glimpse of the hills ahead before reaching the town itself and a bar that was open and serving drinks. Aaah! A left onto D30 direction Orpierre and a swift regular descent through the valley to the junction on the D130 back direction Col de Pierre-Vesce that proved to be a bit of test as the km were beginning to stack up. The 20% ramps were a bit tricky as was the steep descent back to Laborel before an exit right for Col de St Jean which in the gradient and sinuous bends felt way longer than the 13km to the top.

bit of a provencal cliche but a distraction on the route out of the valley

Antoine has been here evidently
The descent was no less challenging with tight and steep sections and rough surface before taking a right to Sederon and beyond onto the Col de Macuegne this time counting around 7km of climbing to the 1068m summit.

descent Col de St Jean

at this point in the day even the sign looks tired
Too much faffing earlier in the day put paid to a second ascent of the Dead Man. Notice I am avoiding obvious puns here and the final run involved whizzing down the hill and a rush cross country in time to reach the hotel a shower and some dinner. 128km 2675m Climbing. So much for a quiet day.

day two

The second outing proved to be a far simpler affair if one that required a wee bit of forward planning and reassessment at intervals across the day. The forecast was for high winds between 80 and 100km per hour. For anyone who has been on the Ventoux on a so called calm day you will appreciate that this was cause for caution. The start was in Sault, that much maligned other start town for climbing Ventoux. The direction however was away from the town and Ventoux into Gorge de la Nesque. Serendipitously the road was closed for the day to allow for a bike ride running in the opposite direction. This seemed popular with the whole range of cyclists from sleek mountain goats to casual city shoppers and their offspring. The gorge proved itself another secret treasure with good road surface tunnels and stunning scenic views. 

Gorge de la Nesque looking north
And one turn where the Ventoux rears above the gorge sides that had thus far protected from the wind. The run from the end of the gorge at Ville sur Auzon (surely someone could have thought of something less generic for a village on a river) across to Flassan and Bedoin proved something of a test as the winds that had been forecast made their presence felt. Curiously the wind subsided in Bedoin and as the temperature warmed again it seemed like ascent was the only option. 28 degrees and sunshine on the start of the D974 or as it is known ‘Route de Ventoux’. On the Guff Glasgow thermometer that is ‘roastin’. The ascent proved a slow affair and it is true the road plays tricks with perspective since there are very few corners to regulate your relationship with the landscape. The Esteve hairpin comes early and the glimpse of the radar station at top is just plain intimidating. William Fotheringham esteemed writer and biographer (see below) talks about how the ride through the forest is harder because the surrounding trees make for an airless strength sapping experience. I can only agree amidst what proved to be a sluggish grind ever onwards. A couple a number of years younger I hasten to add passed along the way but were passed as they took respite at Chalet Reynard. I may be slow but I am not-stop. My delight lasted a few minutes at least before they to passed again just beyond the Simpson memorial. The final 6km of the ascent on the white barren rocks felt less difficult than the routes through the forest. I am not sure why this should be since the summit seems tantalisingly close but just out of reach at the same time. And having managed to get close the steepness of the final ramp preys on your mind in the kilometres leading to it. 

The indignity of falling at the very last hurdle would be hard to shake off. In the event it was just fear, not real just a symptom of the mental and physical demands of the climb. In the end the summit was clear and curiously calm and positively balmy at 19 degrees. 

An Italian man asked why this particular Scotsman was not wearing his kilt. I did try to convince him that it was a bit removed from the sartorial elegance of six panelled lycra but in retrospect maybe he had a point and it would have made for a well ventilated ascent. Needless to say the view at the top is matched only by the intensity of the feeling of having got there. Tradition dictates paying respects to Tom Simpson on the way down. His memorial surely now a monument to anti-doping. 

It is worth a cautious descent while on the white rocks section. The wind even on a calm day swirls and sets traps for the unwary. The descent to Sault has been resurfaced which made for a smooth run down the mountain to the last kick into the town for 88km 1886m climbing.

In planning my route I am grateful to William Fotheringham who in a very fine biography of Tom Simpson in Put me back on my Bike evokes, in the last chapter, something of the magic of riding on the mountain.

Also to the person(s) behind this website who lovingly describes 24 other cols Having realised that it was possible to ride other places near Ventoux the photos and descriptions made the option all the more real. They have clearly spent a lot of time effort and love on the site. Thank you and thank you for the help it provided planning the route.

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