Les Cinglés du Ventoux
In September 2019 I cycled 1000km from Dieppe to Nice, calling in on Mont Ventoux along the way in order to climb all three of the mountain’s ascents in a single day. People who do this are entitled to join the 'Club de Cinglés du Ventoux': the madmen of Ventoux. Here is the account of what it was like to take on the Geant de Provence.
There are still more than 60kms to go when I first see it. A glimpse, when crossing a bridge in Bollène, of something monstrous rising in the east. It seems impossible that I might still be so far yet be able to see quite clearly the shining peak, the white beacon of the weather station at the top. My eyes must be playing tricks on me. But no, that really is it. Famous for dominating the landscape to such an extent that it is visible for miles around. My main purpose in having done this mad ride in the first place: Mont Ventoux.
Many things have been written about Mont Ventoux. I have even written things about the mountain myself: “The name puts fear in the heart, not scared fear, but a kind of reverence and respect, the kind of fear you might have for God. Because this is what the Ventoux is: a god. A god of evil, some say, to whom sacrifices must be made. And Ventoux would certainly take sacrifices. Its slopes have humbled many a cyclist, amateur and pro; even the great Belgian Eddy Merckx needed oxygen after his 1970 ascent. Most tragically, it claimed the life of Tom Simpson, the British cyclist who collapsed less than a kilometre from the summit in 1967.” (Peaky Climbers, 2018). I also wrote the words, “Hills are a necessary part of each journey, and while few cyclists seek them out…” (Eat, Sleep, Cycle, 2015) yet here I am, having cycled more than 500 miles with the sole purpose of riding up a bloody mountain three times.
The main road out of Bollène strikes a trajectory straight towards the mountain. It’s now unmistakable: that’s Ventoux, and that’s the peak, and that’s where I’ll be going. Three times. And for the rest of the day I follow the road and try not to think about what the Tuesday will bring. I can’t wrench my eyes away: it is there, at every turn, from every town, across every field, reeling me in.
I hit the hills at Beaumes-de-Venise. The landscape is extraordinary: masses of exposed, overhanging rock in yellow sandstone, with clumps of cacti protruding from the cracks. The rocks are larger than anything I have ever seen. An evening pink stains the road, and despite the pain in my knees, the rumble in my stomach and the fatigue in my muscles, I crawl the remaining six kilometres to Bédoin with a broad smile on my face. I am finally here, at the mountain.
The moon is bright at 6am when I set off from Bédoin. The hope is to get the first climb out of the way before the heat starts to kick in, so it’s an early start. The road is completely empty, and even beneath the cloak of darkness I can sense the looming presence of Ventoux. A red dot shines on the beacon that stands lonely in the blackness, high above.
There is a magnificent stillness in riding before dawn. The faint suggestion of fields flank the road, and the moon is so illuminating that I soon ditch the front light. As the road out of Bédoin leads into the forest and swings upwards onto the ascent proper, I’m glad it’s dark. I can’t see the next bend, the kilometre markers, or how steep the road really is. It makes the task much more simple not to know. The moon gives enough light to keep riding, and that’s all I need; it’s invigorating to be out here, alone, privy to a pre-dawn world.
This is not nearly the steepest road I’ve ever climbed, but that’s not the point. With every pedal push I’m understanding more and more why Mont Ventoux is so renowned. I feel like a flea, climbing the back of a great beast. Not the steepest, but steep nevertheless, and constant. The greatest challenge is in there being no rest, so I can’t just relax and maintain an easy spin. Every push requires effort and I’ve checked at least a dozen times that this really is my lowest gear.
A light appears behind, weaving in the blackness. I wonder if it’s one of the two men I met in the bike shop yesterday who were also hoping for an early start. I had spent the day wandering around Bédoin, enjoying the simple pleasure of walking after having sat on a bike for the seven days it took to get here from Dieppe. My creaking knees were relieved, and that was all it took for there to be no more pain. Monday is market day, so the town was heaving when I descended from the camp site, the through-road blocked with scores of market stalls selling everything from nectarines to hats to dinky key-rings with miniature versions of the kilometre markers that line this road up Ventoux. The draw of the mountain is strong, even for the tourists who have no intention of riding. Every other shop sells Ventoux paraphernalia, and there are at least three bike shops catering for the many cyclists that pour through the town. I had wandered around in my summer dress, eyeing up each Lycra-clad, sweat-drenched rider, wondering if they had just come down from the mountain. My sole job was to rest, and eat a lot. It was a good day.
The light behind slowly gains on me, until eventually someone passes. “Bonjour!” I say. He garbles something back then finishes with “Bon voiy-aige”. He’s definitely British. But it’s not the fellas I thought it might be – perhaps they slept in.
By the time I’m halfway up, the blue-grey smudge of dawn has given way to a pale daylight, and there’s a first glimpse of the summit. It looks so close, it seems hard to believe there’s another hour or more until I reach it.
I like having the slopes to myself. Apart from that one cyclist and the occasional driver I am having a private conversation with the mountain. Me and the mountain and the hundreds of riders who have gone before, keen amateurs like me, or sportive riders, or professionals, or the celebrities of the Tour de France. Their names are scrawled on the road at intervals, along with motivational phrases: Allez allez allez! Don’t give up! Pain is temporary! The tarmac is smooth and any cracks have been patched over. This isn’t a road after all, it’s a racetrack.
Chalet Reynard appears after two and a half hours of solid climbing. The large restaurant and bar are closed and the out-of-season ski lifts hang redundant behind. There's no sign of anyone as I roll up to the empty bike hangers and take a seat at one of the many wooden benches outside the restaurant to finish off my breakfast baguette. It's still only 8.30am.
Three roads lead away from the car park: the one that I've just climbed from Bédoin, one signposted Sault – I’ll be heading down it after the second summit – and the final road heading upwards, towards the sky, the stretch that is often likened to cycling on the moon. It's only 6km long, but is renowned as the hardest part, with a sustained gradient and no shelter from the weather.
OK, let’s go. The lunar scree that lines the road is pocked with cacti. The actual moon hangs in a pale blue sky ahead. The road is a series of wide, sweeping hairpins leading steadily upwards, where I’m alternately blasted by a fierce headwind and hidden in the lea of the hill. Progress is almost indiscernible on the headwind sections, but I can’t stop smiling. I even manage a laugh as the gusting wind throws my bike about the road, mainly in wry appreciation that this was exactly what I’d expected. Each hairpin nudges me closer to a summit that has so magnetised me for the past 24 hours. It's like meeting a celebrity, so familiar is the scene.
Another hairpin, another smack in the face. Then, at the side of the road appears the memorial to Tom Simpson, less than a kilometre shy of the summit. I wonder what it must be like to fight the mountain in a race, and to lose that fight with the end in sight. There are steps up to a headstone that, as the day passes, will gradually be covered in water bottles left by riders as a tribute to the man.
It’s been 45 minutes since I left Chalet Reynard and finally I pass beneath the weather station. The road doubles back on itself with a final, brutal effort to reach the summit. Last push! At last I’m there, and the road opens out slightly to reveal a small parking area and a souvenir shop that’s not yet open. Wooden barriers mark the centre of the road and at the very edge stands the famous summit post. I've seen this photograph a hundred times. Now it's my turn.
Just by chance another cyclist is there, in front of the sign, having just taken a selfie. Could it be the guy who passed me earlier? Unlikely, given the time that has elapsed since then. He glances my way then re-clips and moves to start his descent. Attend moi! I shout. I haven’t climbed all this way not to get a good summit picture. He waits as I roll up (it turns out he’s Italian, so my schoolgirl French was lost on him), and I hand him my phone then hoist my bike onto my shoulder. It’s not as conventional as the bike-above-the-head picture, but with a solid steel touring bike it's the best I can manage. Grazi! I say as he takes the shot, hands the phone back, re-clips and disappears over the lip of the hill.
Once more I'm alone. This is it, the summit of Ventoux, a place that has been in my mind for the past seven days’ riding through France, and every day of the six months before that since I hatched the idea. It’s almost incomprehensible that I’m actually here. The land far below is hazy, blurred at the edges. I’m 1912 metres above sea level. I take a deep breath. One ascent down: just two more to go.
It’s 10am when I reach Malaucene – still officially petit déjeuner time. I take my ‘proving I’ve been here' photograph at the town sign then ride onto the high street and find a supermarket where I buy avocado dip to eat with my boulangerie baguette. Perhaps it’s because I just cycled to the top of Mont Ventoux, but this definitely tops all other baguettes eaten on the trip so far.
The descent was horrible, the tendons in my wrists screaming by the time I reached the bottom because of permanently grasping the brakes. I hate a downhill and can never just let go. I had to stop completely on one occasion because of a high-pitched squeak coming from the overheating rubber. My neck is sore from craning my head upwards for so long – even though there’s no peddling involved, 20km still takes time. So I’m actually quite looking forward to going back up. At least the ride will be more comfortable, and without fear of hurtling off the road.
There are far more riders out now. On my descent I saw them, crawling up in pairs or threes or solo. Allez! I had shouted as I'd zoomed past, repeating it depending on how many riders were in the group. Now I’m the one climbing, and not a single person on the descent says a thing to me. Miserable gits.
I’ve ditched the Lycra. ‘Official’ cycle clothing has never been my thing anyway, but now even the padded shorts have gone. It was a moment of clarity when I realised they were the reason for my saddle sore – it was the padding holding the day’s sweat that caused the chafing. And the padding scrunches everything together in a very uncomfortable formation – and it doesn’t even cover my sit-bones, the part that most needs it. My decision feels like freedom – no elastic clinging to my thighs, no uncomfortable squishing, just a light, breezy perch on the saddle.
The panniers are gone, too – everything is back at the campsite, where I've booked three nights. So I’m climbing Ventoux in shorts and a sleeveless vest, on a touring bike with a backpack. I look very much unlike anyone else on this mountain.
The second time, the summit is heaving. The previously empty carpark is now full of stalls selling sweets and memorabilia, and the wooden barriers are covered in bikes and people. I roll through the throng.
It’s the cyclist who passed me on the first climb this morning.
He sounds surprised that I’m English. My ‘bonjour’ was obviously better than his ‘bon voiy-aige.’
“You started early.”
“Yes,” he says. “That was my third ascent.”
I must have misheard. Third ascent? At 6am??
“I’m doing the double-Cinglés, six ascents in 24 hours,” he explains. “I started at midnight, did a couple of climbs, went to bed, then carried on. I’m on climb number four now – two ascents from Sault then I’m done.”
Over the past few months, many people have asked me why I want to cycle up a mountain three times. It’s a question that becomes tiresome after a while. Despite this, I can't help myself: “Why?!”
“Why not?” is his answer.
My mind is reeling. Three is a challenge. Six is just nuts! But each to their own. I wish him luck.
It’s now 1.30pm – I’m keeping a good schedule of three hours per climb and one hour descent/eat. The climb from Malaucene was less of a challenge than I’d feared – a solid, sustained ascent with some very steep sections but enough levelling-out that it wasn’t too hard, and even some sections where I barely pedalled. The peak stays hidden right until the last three kms, which helps psychologically, and the final push to the summit is not as drastic as it might be. But here I am, back on the southern face, hurtling towards Chalet Reynard. Three ascents in one day doesn’t leave much room to rest.
I stop at the Chalet to fill my water bottles, and while I’m racking my bike I hear someone call my name. What are the chances that I know someone on the mountain? I turn around, and sitting at one of the now-busy benches is an ex-colleague, Howard. He’s here leading a group who are also riding to Nice, along a slightly different route to mine: they will stay in Sault tonight, having ridden over Mont Ventoux from Malaucene. ‘Howard!’ I laugh as I sit down – the schedule temporarily loses all importance in favour of catching up with my friend. But after 30 minutes of animated conversation I reluctantly take my leave: there is still half a descent and another climb before I can say goodbye to this mountain. It is time to follow the signpost marked Sault.
This descent is much easier than the first: the gentle gradient hardly requires any braking, and I flow down the curves of the road as it steadily brings me to the lavender plains for which this area is so famed. There are no purple fields, though – the lavender has been harvested, leaving endless rows of hedgehog-like tussocks. Despite the ease of the descent, I still long for it to be over. Psychologically, it’s tough going downhill for so long when you know that all you will have to do is turn around and go straight back up. Every metre in height that I lose is going to be a struggle to regain.
But Sault is worth it: a typically charming French village stacked upon the hillside, where the many cafes spill out with cyclists and tourists. The thud of boules carries across the green to where I’m sitting, refuelling, with the iconic summit of Ventoux just visible across the fields.
I’d been told many times that the ascent from Sault is easy, but I was nervous to believe it. But Sault lies at the highest elevation of all three villages, so though the road is long, the 20km has an average gradient of just 4%. I can almost stay in my middle chain ring. And I needn’t have worried about the afternoon heat – the thick forest provides just the right amount of shade.
Four kms shy of Chalet Reynard I see a cyclist lying by the side of the road.
“Ça va?” I say. “Are you ok?”
“Cramp,” he replies, grimacing.
“I have some pretzels if you want? The salt might help. Do you have enough water? Pretzels really dry your mouth out.”
“Thanks.” He takes a handful as I transfer some of the water from my bottles to his. “My friend is up ahead. Can you tell him I’m here?”
Around the next corner I see another cyclist, heading cautiously back in this direction.
“Have you seen someone in a red cycling jersey?” he asks.
“Yes, he’s just down there. He's got cramp,” I say, indicating around the corner. He continues down the slope and I resume the climb.
The final part to Chalet Reynard is easy, but it’s clear that I’m exhausted. Ten hours in the saddle has taken its toll. I pull up to the nearly-closing restaurant, quiet save for a few hangers-on enjoying a pint. I ask for water and sit down outside, taking a bar of Kendal Mint Cake from my bag. It’s come all the way from the Lake District for this very moment. 6km to go. The sugar hits my bloodstream in a glorious surge.
Around the corner come the two cyclists, Red Jersey being guided by his friend. They reach the Chalet Reynard and join me at the table. “Thanks for the pretzels. I think they're kicking in now.”
We chat for a while. It turns out they are regulars in this area, coming often to ride the Ventoux routes and the glorious Gorges du Nesque. They won’t be going to the summit today – not just because of the cramp, but because they’ve both done the Cinglés before and there seems little point now. The day is getting on. “This is the best descent. We’ll find a bar at Bédoin – come and join us, if you like.”
I’m so tempted to go with them now: the 20km descent to Bédoin will be over quicker than I can climb these last 6km. But I’m here, mind and body numb but so close to the completion of the challenge that I can't not do it. I watch them disappear down the Bédoin descent as I prepare myself for the final part.
The second time up this section could not be more different to when I first climbed it at 8.30 this morning. Before, the whole thing was new and exciting and I smiled the whole way up, laughing in the face of the gods. I am not laughing now. It's steep, windy and late. There’s no longer a freshness in the sky, but a tired edge to the colour. The general emptiness of the road felt special at the start of the day. Now it’s as if we’ve run out of conversation. The last few stragglers have headed home. Why haven’t I?
It's at these points thoughts turn to what got you here – struggling up the passes of the Lake District in the rain, riding up the Tumble in Wales three times just to get my head around thrice summiting the same peak, the first training ride, so long ago now, and laughable: ten hills in North London that were short and insignificant and basically just an excuse to go for a beer.
Creeping up the last few hairpins I reach the final 180º turn up to the weather station, and struggle over the lip of the hill and onto the summit plateau. It's not so much elation as relief. All that pushing, smashing out the miles to even get here in the first place, the doubts that had been forefront throughout the journey, and all that worry that had been lingering for months: “Can I do this?” It’s the case with anything I’ve ever taken on: much of my round-Britain ride was spent wondering if I was capable of the next section. Then I’d get there and it would all be fine. The truth is, you never know what you can achieve until you do it. And now I've done this.
There’s someone coming out of the gift shop – good timing, for the rest of the place is deserted. All the stalls have been cleared away. ‘Could you take my picture, please?’ I ask. This time it's a triumphant pose. Then I ask for one more, and lie prone in front of the summit sign. They laugh. But as I lie there on the asphalt in a comedic sprawl, I realise that I'm not entirely joking. This mountain kicked my ass. But here I am, at the top, for the third time in a single day. I almost can’t believe it’s true.
In a moment I will begin that last, glorious descent, the most-loved by those who climb Ventoux for the easy speed and gentle bends that give just the right amount of adrenaline. It will be accompanied by that deep sense of satisfaction that settles in one’s stomach, made all the more complete for not having to turn around and go back up again. But before I go, I’ll drink in this view one final time. It’s nearing 7pm and the sun is sinking in the west. Provence is laid out like a blanket draped over the rocks and bumps of Ventoux’s foothills. The haze that has blurred the horizon all day is still there, bringing with it the darkening blue of dusk. Yes, it’s been tough, but I now have a deep affection for this mountain. This bloody mountain that has exhausted and stretched me, thrilled me and ultimately given me the ride of my life. Au Revoir, Ventoux, and chapeau.