Theme: Roads – A Ride to the Moon

Driven to Write takes a road to nowhere.

Image via Sean Patrick
Tommy’s nemesis – a desolate spot to meet one’s end. Image by  Sean Patrick

“Physically, the Ventoux is dreadful. Bald, it’s the spirit of Dry: Its climate (it is much more an essence of climate than a geographic place) makes it a damned terrain, a testing place for heroes, something like a higher hell.” (Roland Barthes)

The urge to ascend mountains is ancient and mysterious. It has been suggested it’s rooted in the notion of a spiritual journey toward the divine. Certainly there’s an altered state one feels at high altitude, but this probably has as much to do with oxygen deprivation than anything of a more lofty nature.

Image via guidetourisme
The view from the moon. Image via guidetourisme

A minor French road, the D974 in Provence is however one with a truly remarkable destination at its apogee. Although geologically part of the French Alps, Mont Ventoux sits alone amidst the lavender fields of the Rhone Valley. A brooding presence at 1912 metres, it dominates the surrounding landscape, frequently generating its own weather system. Apart from some stunted scrub, nothing grows upon its weather-lashed upper slopes; the bare limestone lends it the impression of being snow-capped. Being so exposed to the Mistral, wind speeds of a staggering 320 kph have been recorded at the summit.

In 1882 a road was constructed to provide a route to the incongruous Bond-villain weather station perched atop the mountain. In fact the locals, not satisfied with one road, built three distinct routes to the summit – possibly for the sheer loving hell of it. It’s an otherworldly place; especially those final kilometres, where the surreal topography and lack of vegetation conjoin with frequently harsh atmospheric conditions to induce a sense of disorientation. It truly appears more like the moon than a mountain.

The Ventoux of course is now synonymous with the annual Tour de France cycle race. The Tour first visited the so-called Giant of Provence in 1951 and since then, images of parched riders dwarfed against its bleached rocks have embedded it as an icon of the race. Even for those with no interest in the sport of professional cycling, the Ventoux exerts a powerful allure. But it was the tragic and gruesome death of Tom Simpson during the 1967 tour that cemented its notoriety. Simpson, in a classic rags to riches fable had become World Champion and tipped to win that year’s tour; collapsed and died on the Ventoux’s searing slopes. The black and white images of the British rider’s final moments have a haunting, nightmarish quality and it remains the most vivid example of a sportsman riding himself into the ground.

Tom Simpson - Ventoux 1967. Image via fotoleren
Tom Simpson – Ventoux 1967. Image via fotoleren

While it’s entirely feasible and undoubtedly much easier to drive the D974, to truly experience the Ventoux you really should ride it. A few kilometres outside the picturesque town of Bedóin, the D974 bears left and almost immediately up. You pass through the tiny hamlets of Sainte-Colombe, Les Bruns and Sainte-Estève before the climb begins in earnest and for the next 10 km or so, you face gradients of between 9 and 10%. It’s relentless and physically demanding, but here in the forestry, you’re at least partly sheltered from the elements. As you make your way past faded Tour graffiti still visible beneath your wheels, you feel a kinship – not only with the anointed ones from the pro-peleton, but also with penitents who would take such journeys for the betterment of their immortal souls.

Chalet Renard - Sanity checks are available here. Image via the author
Chalet Renard – Sanity checks are available here. Image by the author

The café at Chalet Renard represents humanity’s outpost before the final assault of the treeless upper slopes, giving you the opportunity to rest up, take the gentler route back down to the pretty town of Sault, or if you have the heart – (and indeed the legs) – the daunting prospect of negotiating the moonscape to the summit. This is for the strong in spirit – conditions here can turn what is always a challenge into a terrifying ordeal. Because, if the summit is shrouded in cloud, thinking twice isn’t the coward’s way out it might first appear. Your main enemy now – (gradient apart) – is the wind. It’s possible to be blown up one hairpin, only to be battered head-on the next. And even if the wind isn’t a factor, the relentless sun reflected off the pale limestone could well be. About 2 KM from the summit, lies the Tom Simpson memorial; a granite stone emblazoned with mementoes, flags and graffiti from cycling fans the world over. After all, there’s no hero like a fallen one.

If it’s a clear day, the weather station remains an ever-present visual focal point, by turns a lure and a taunt. Make it this far and the summit should be in sight. Taking the final hairpin, the sense of elation is overwhelming. The mind struggles to process the information at hand – especially the fact you’ve climbed so far. The whole Provençal plain is laid out as the mountain’s unearthly topography yields its secrets. It’s cold and often windy up here, so lingering is not recommended, although just below the summit sits a pleasant café festooned with photos and memorabilia from countless Tours – and that staggering view of course.

Or not. The summit under cloud. Not recommended. Image via the author.
Or not. The summit under cloud. Don’t try this at home kids. Image by the author.

Every grinding ascent must have its just reward and no car on any road could match the sheer childish glee of swooping down those hairpins at speeds I’d rather not admit to. There’s no room for ennui on a mountain descent by bike. Your brain has simply got too much information to process. The sensation of head, body, machine and gravity operating as one is not something you’ll necessarily experience during the daily commute aboard the 08.15 to London Blackfriars. But it can help you deal with your emails.

To date I’ve made two separate ascents to the lunar surface of the Ventoux by bike, and remain hopelessly transfixed by what Barthes described as the Damned Terrain. Its grasp unloosened by time, I hope to return again before long and perhaps get that D974 out of my head once and for all. Because this is what happens when you allow your obsessions too much leeway. They lead you over unlikely paths across difficult and often hostile terrain, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

8 thoughts on “Theme: Roads – A Ride to the Moon”

  1. I too have conquered The Giant, from both sides, but since I did it with an engine in front of me you can dismiss my efforts. But having driven fanatically over any pass or mountain in Europe that I’ve found the chance to, I can testify that Ventoux is unique. I once drove down from the scorching top, passing wavering cyclists entering the barren zone, the tragic grainy film of Tom Simpson’s last minutes coming to mind. Fifteen kilometres down the road towards Bédoin I was still passing cyclists, and even at that point some of them were beginning to waver, yet they were still hours from reaching the summit, if they were going to make it at all. But respect to them anyway for trying, to poor Tom Simpson, to Chris Froome for his impossible looking acceleration in 2013 and to you, Eoin.

  2. Since moving to Denmark, hill cycling has become somewhat more difficult for me. There are some steep bits but they don´t last very long. The big enemy here is wind, constant wind. I don´t mind battling a hill whereas the wind is just dispiriting. You never beat it while you can “beat” the mountain.

  3. Nice write-up. I have no interest in riding up mountains but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

  4. I was visiting this region last year. I understand the fascination of this naked giant for bicyclists very well. You can reach the summit – that is a real difference to the Alpine passes, where you often only reach the lowest point between two mountains. And this summit is the highest point in that region. The Mount Everest of Provence.
    Nevertheless i would prefer the seeaps or the Grenoble Region for climbing with a bicycle in France. More hairpins, less or mostly no traffic and in summer you don´t feel to get slowly cooked

    But reaching the Mont Ventoux summit and enjoying the fantasticview view from there must be very rewarding.

    1. I recall looking at the electronic speedometer on my first ascent and I was doing 5 mph. It felt like a standstill, although to be honest, the second time wasn’t much faster, despite the conditions being vastly more benign. To anyone contemplating riding the Ventoux, choose an slightly overcast day when the winds are light. That way, you won’t roast in the sun and you won’t get blown off the side either. Never attempt it if the summit is not visible. From personal experience, it’s terrifying.

      A bike with a triple or compact gear-set would be recommended unless you’re a complete masochist. My road bike is fitted with a Campagnolo compact gear-set. In consultation with those more knowledgeable, I went with the standard 10-speed set-up, which if I recall was 50-34 front chain-ring with an 13-27 rear cassette. This gave me a bit of extra push on the hills at the expense of top-end speed. Something I was very grateful for as it turned out.

      Psychologically, a triple gives a greater sense of relief on a tough climb, but in reality, there’s probably not much in it. Beyond a certain point, there is no advantage in having a lower gear. You can either manage the climb or you have to stop. Having said that, I’d never disparage anyone’s efforts and frankly if you want to ascend by car, motorcycle or pogo-stick, it’s all equally worthy in my view.

      I must also point out that while the view from the top of the Ventoux is wonderful, if you really want your breath taken away – (in more ways than one) – climb the Col du Galibier. The term ‘awesome’ has been bastardised, but the view out over the Massif des Écrins quite literally is.

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