Driven to Write takes a road to nowhere.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.