Day 4 – Mt. Ventoux – 78 km

Today was a rest day for the TDF so we had the opportunity to ride Mt. Ventoux, a giant mountain which in previous years caused much pain for TDF riders. This year it wasn’t on the course, so I’m sure they appreciated the break. It is famous for the death of Tommy Simpson in the 1960’s, but more about that later.

After an early breakfast we piled on the coach, except for the fanatics who had decided to ride all the way from town. This added about 80 km to what was to be a very hard ride, even though the terrain is relatively flat it was still a bit over the top so a few of us decided to do a 78 km circuit instead while others did the shortest possible distance at 55 km.

I set off with Pierre  back towards the town of Carpentras which we had earlier travelled through by coach, passing some lovely old towns with towering  churches. That was to be the setting for the day, at least until we got onto the mountain.

At Sorres, just before Carpentras, we needed to turn east and then connect with the main road back to the mountain. The road was not signposted so I asked a local. The combination of his (a) rapid speech and (b) local accent made it a very one sided conversation well beyond the abilities of my  high school French. However, I managed to work out that I needed to turn right at the third road and then keep bearing right, directions which proved to be true.

As we cycled, the mountain dominated our horizon. The photo below gives some idea. There are relatively gentle foothills for a short distance and then you climb, and climb, and climb for a distance of 21 km with an average gradient approaching 10%.


The road took us through many small villages and we joined with Robin from our coach. we passed many vinyards, with the occasional sunflower field. It was interesting to find so many villages only a few km apart. We wondered what the local industry was which could support so many small towns. I recalled my trips through America with many derelict and dying towns, all placed a day’s ride apart. It didn’t seem to be that way here so somehow the French have managed to maintain their rural way of life. Perhaps there is something to be said for the CAP.

The town of Bedoin is the jump off point for the mountain. At a roundabout before the town there is a steel artwork of a cyclist. The three of us stopped and posed for a photo which was kindly taken by some local tourists. They couldn’t believe that we were holidaying and planned to cycle up the mountain for fun. Later in the day neither could I.


It was market day in Bedoin and the streets were absolutely jam packed with people. It was very difficult navigating our  bike.  I had arranged to meet Bryn and his wife Christine at the Tourist Information Centre but that was at the other end of town so I had to battle the crowds to get there. Eventually we met up and it was great to see Bryn again. Christine was at the other end of town – where I had just come from – so it was back through the crowd again. We had a delightful lunch and catch up on a bridge in the shade. Bryn and I hiked to Everest Base Camp in’96 and we couldn’t believe that it had been so long. It’s such a blessing to get together with old friends.


They had lived in the UK until late last year when they moved nearby so Bryn could learn French and Christine could be near her family. His French was coming along very well – sure beat mine which is not that difficult – and their plans were to return to NZ at the end of the following year. I’ve always respected their no worries approach to life, and willingness to let God lead them as He sees fit.

Bryn had recently been ill so had not been on his bicycle much. That was a a worry but he brought shoes with him in case he needed to walk. He also had not managed to get low mountain gears for his bike, which was sure to make a hard ride harder, but Bryn has always been game to try anything and was not worried.

We set off from town and soon began climbing. Many cyclists passed us zooming their way downhill, all with smiles on their faces. Quite a few passed us on the way up, but we weren't overly concerned as with 21 km of uphill riding to do the best approach is to adopt a steady pace and stick with it. My wife Lis and I went to a lecture at the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. on ‘extreme survival’ which discussed incidents where people got lost in the wilderness and should have died but didn’t. One of the common threads to survival was to break down an insurmountable problem into small, achievable bite sized components. This applies to climbing a killer hill like Mt. Ventoux. I just count to 100 over and over again.

The first half of the climb is the steepest, but it also is in the part of the mountain below the tree line so we were graced with the earthy smells of a pine forest and, more importantly, shade. It was a clear sky with temperatures in the 30’s so not the best weather for climbing the mountain. Weather can change quickly on mountains so I was prepared for the worst, but fortunately it was not needed. Pierre had mentioned that four years ago he cycled the mountain at this time of year and it was –3 degrees C at the top. One rider died of hypothermia. Three days later when the TDF passed through it was 35 degrees.

It was great catching up with Bryn again and he did well on the mountain. We had regular rest stops and I ended up giving him my Gatorade but it all helped. We passed quite a few riders resting or walking, including Charlie and Denise from our bus. That was great since it was clear that we wouldn’t make the 16:00 planned departure time but with them behind us we weren’t the only ones. Later, at the two-thirds way-point the first riders from the fanatics who road all the way from Arles passed us which meant that there was going to be quite a few of us missing the 16:00 departure.

There was a water stop and restaurant two-thirds up the mountain. It was very popular with tired cyclists, especially the water fountain which we used for filling up bottles. There were quite a few vans unloading bikes – this gave the cycle tourists the joy of descending the mountain without having to do the climb. Not my style. I even saw one cyclist being pulled up the mountain by their Backroads tour van. That is really cheating.

Further up the road I heard a cyclist swearings so I turnedt back to see if he was OK. Greg from Vermont was out of water – he hadn’t filled up at the fountain. I offered him some of my water which he initially declined but then relented. He obviously needed it as he knocked off a bottle almost immediately. Bryn and I cycled with him to help him along, especially after he needed to stop since he got dizzy. His wife was at the top with provisions and he was soldiering up the hill to meet her. I respected him for his commitment but I was concerned that he might collapse.

It would not be the first time. In the 1960’s the English rider Tommy Simpson was leading the Tour de France in the Yellow Jersey going up Mt. Ventoux. At one point he collapsed and fell off the bike. He told the crowd to put him back on which they did. He got 500 m further up the road and fell off his bike dead. Officially it was heat exhaustion but the fact that he was stoked up on amphetamines must not have helped things. There is a memorial to him at the point where he died and cyclists (at least the superstitious ones) leave a small offering for good luck. I of course declined, but I did get my photo taken...


It was a relatively short distance to the top. We met Greg’s wife on the way  who was amazed that he  made it this far (so were we) and together we got to the summit. When one is supported  one finds reservoirs of strength that we don't know we have. We had the photo below taken to prove we made it.


I met quite of few others from the coach at the top and one of them had just paid 195 Euros for three cycling jerseys from Mt. Ventoux. Since he had no way of getting them down I offered to put them in my hydration pack, which by now was almost empty of water, food and clothes. The latter were important since it can be quite cold on the way down. Elisha had been waiting for some time for her boyfriend Martin and was obviously cold so I gave her my leggings. As long as my core temperature is OK I don’t mind too much. Then it was time for the downward run! We had earned it and, despite the sign below calling for ‘Prudence’ (which translates quite well), a 20 km 10% grade instead called for something closer to reckless abandon.


We zoomed down the hill thoroughly enjoying the fruits of our hard labour. There were lots of hairpin curves which were challenging – I’m not confident on tight curves – but sufficient straights to get up to 75 km/h. Sure, we would have made a big mess if we crashed (especially going over the edge) but times like this are the hight of pleasure for a cyclist. A few times we stopped to give our brakes a rest (they were overheating) , but compared with the 2+ h for getting up, we were at the bottom in about 25 minutes, even allowing for a stop at a spring to fill the water bottles.

When we arrived at the bus, most of the others were waiting, some with an ‘attitude problem’ according to Carol since they wanted to leave earlier. I passed on the message from Elisha that she was waiting for Martin and that Charlie and Denise seemed to be having problems and Jonathan the tour guide was not impressed. Within minutes, however, they all arrived! It seems that Charlie and Denise got a lift the final distance to the top which was a brilliant (and probably essential) move. We all hopped on the bus, including Bryn who they had kindly agreed to drop off in Carpentras and went back to Arles.

On to the next day or Home

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