Not so Cinglé after all: A love letter to Mont Ventoux
"Men go to admire the high mountains and the great flood of the seas and the wide-rolling rivers and the ring of Ocean and the movement of the stars, and they forget themselves."
Confessions of Saint Augustine, as read by Petrach as he climbed Mont-Ventoux in 1336
In a country where the Alps rise well above 2000 meters, one might wonder why Mont-Ventoux has such appeal for cyclists the world over. This 1909 meters-high mountain in the South of France is an icon of the sport, crossed 16 times by the Tour de France, and described by Cycling Weekly as “the most fearsome climb in cycling.”
Of course, France does not lack climbing opportunities: Col du Galiber, Col de l’Iseran, Col du Tournalet, to name a few. Yet none of these cols are like Ventoux. In French “col” means “mountain pass”: it must be crossed to get to the next valley, it is a road used for travel; a “mont” however is a peak, far above its surroundings. There is no reason to climb a “mont”: it has no use but that to fulfil a need for challenge and conquest. This is what I love about Ventoux.
Growing up in the nearby city of Marseille, Mont-Ventoux has always had a mystical dimension for me. Driving through the area with my parents, I remember seeing the “Giant of Provence” from miles away, standalone creature perched in a landscape of vineyards and lavender fields. I thought that it was covered in snow, tricked by the brightness of the white limestones that crown it.
When I started to ride bikes, it only seemed natural to me that my first climb should be Mont-Ventoux. I did not even know its full Tour de France history, how it had claimed the life of Tom Simpson and defeated the legendary Eddy Merckx. All I knew is that I needed to see whether I could climb it.
In September 2017, my husband David and I went to France, rented bikes, and climbed Mont-Ventoux from its most famous side, Bédoin. Yet, after we reached the top, we felt thrilled but slightly perturbed: we had done it, but so had many other people around us, posing for pictures at the top. The Giant of Provence felt too easy to defeat – we needed more!
Most cyclists are sufferers: I hardly know someone that excels in the sport who is not somehow slightly addicted to a form of pain. This is perhaps why clubs like Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux (i.e. “Club of the Crazies of the Windy Peak”) exist: in 1988 the club created a challenge consisting of climbing Ventoux by the three main roads of Bédoin, Malaucène, and Sault, all on the same day.
Les Cinglés is a great challenge for any cyclist: 137km with 4400m ascent seemed like the type of ride that would truly test our strength against the mountain. On the last day of our stay in Provence, pretty much on a whim, David and I launched ourselves on the challenge.
Starting from Bédoin again, the climb had no more surprises for us: first a gentle slope through farmlands up to the village of Saint Colombe until a turn where a 9% gradient hits you and the work truly begins. The road is almost strictly straight and offers no rest: we had to keep on pushing for 10km, chasing after Chalet Reynard with determination. Once we reached this last remnant of civilisation, we entered the famous moonlike landscape. The view was, as always, captivating, the pebbles and boulders looking like fallen from outer space, so white against the deep sapphire sky. In this desert, the iconic telecommunications mast appears and disappears from a turn to the other, tricking you into believing the end is near when it is not.
Bédoin’s ascent felt much harder this time: we had left too late in the morning and the heat was unforgiving. We descended to the village of Malaucène and stopped there to rest a bit before the second ascent. For those who know Teide in Tenerife, Malaucène might feel quite familiar: with its pine trees, smooth tarmac and sharp 25% slopes in places, it is my favourite side of the mountain. The view at the top of the climb is magical, with afar the Alps appearing in the horizon. Contrary to Bédoin, Malaucène’s slope has softer sections, which despite its reputation of being the hardest side, makes it easier to tackle. As a beginner though, it took me over 2 hour and 32 minutes to climb it after riding Bédoin: I was feeling fatigued and needed to rest.
The final climb would be from Sault. The village is up a hill overlooking lavender fields. On the main square a lovely restaurant with views on the mountain will feed your hungry stomach and let you fill your bidons for free. After a stop at the local shop for some candies, the ultimate climb could start: a soft gradient all the way to chalet Raynard and a very sinuous road. As it was autumn, the sun was setting as we got to the top: the rocky summit tainted itself pink, and we gently slalomed between sheep getting home for the day. If it had not been for the cold temperature, we would have stayed forever to enjoy the spectacle of the twilight falling on the land. We were exhausted but in awe, like only people who have pushed themselves and struggled to get somewhere can feel: we had accomplished the challenge we had set for ourselves and Ventoux was all the more beautiful for it.
I have come back to Ventoux many times since I climbed it with my husband. Every time, the mountain has surprised me: sometimes unforgiving and rough, sometimes generous and quiet; yet never easy. The most memorable ascent was at night during an ultra-endurance race in 2019. Mont-Ventoux, the “windy peak”, was transformed by a cold and dry mistral violently sweeping its summit with gusts of winds over 80km/h. At the top, an organiser had to hold my bike at the final hairpin to prevent me from being swept off the road. In 2020, I completed Les Cinglés again, faster this time, but under the burning sun of July; Bédoin was as unforgiving as ever, Malaucène still offered the best descent I have ever experienced, and Sault, this time, smelt of honey and lavender in bloom.