Sitting in the north of the Vaucluse, on the border with the Drome, Mont Ventoux dominates the sky-line. This mountain, with its white-scree summit, is an iconic landmark and its profile is instantly recognisable from afar, even as far away as The Camargue.
The Giant of Provence rises to over 1900 metres, (it’s been as high as 1912 m and as low as 1909m since we arrived) and many believe the name Ventoux relates to the severity of the winds at the summit, which is understandable, as they can reach incredible speeds, even causing the Tour de France finish to be changed 5 years ago, due to the dangerous wind speeds (and that was in mid July)
It is though, more likely that the name dates back to the 1st century, and is based on the word Vintur, which was the Gaulish name for the god of the summits, or is possibly based on the celtic origin word ‘ven’ neaning high place, as it could be seen from far away.
On its steep north-side there is a small ski resort, Mont Serein, which is battered by the winter weather, and I’m told that due to the patches of ice that form there, that if you can ski there, you can ski anywhere …. I’m not sure that is the case, but with my track record for accidents, I don’t think I’ll test the theory.
Then at the base of its slopes, to the south there are the lavender fields of Sault, and the cherry orchards around Flassan and Bedoin, which look stunning in late March and early April, when the trees are covered in a froth of white blossom.
Of course though, it is probably best known for its roads, winding up to the summit from Sault, Bedoin and Malaucene. This iconic climb, not only draws professional riders, but also cyclists from around the world, prepared to take on the challenge of riding to the summit, or for some, completing all 3 ascents in one day.
And that is really where this story begins ….Sometimes in life a simple question leads to an unexpected answer that in turn leads to you taking on a challenge that you had never considered possible and one that you will remember for the rest of your life.
It all started over supper 7 years ago, whilst we were on holiday here, and I asked what anyone fancied doing the next day. I suppose it must be said at this point, that we had had a particularly slow supper with a rather lovely bottle of chilled Provence Rose, so Andy immediately replied (with a grin on his face) ‘How about we cycle to the top of Mont Ventoux??’
Much to my shock, as I was still trying to take in what he had actually suggested, the boys, who were only 16 & 13 at the time, excitedly (and much to my surprise) shouted ‘Yeah’ with Tom following up with ‘What can I have if I get to the top?’
Before I had the chance to think through anything that was being suggested, Andy replied that he could have ‘Whatever he wanted’ adding that ‘a Ventoux shirt would be good!!’
So that was it, with no further discussion the decision was made we would cycle to the top of Mont Ventoux the following day. Now perhaps I should explain why Ventoux was even suggested.
Like so many we loved watching the Tour de France & the climbs in particular, but the previous year Andy had gone prepared to do the climb with his treasured road bike to celebrate his 50th birthday, with us acting as a support crew to cheer him up the mountain.
However much to his annoyance he (and about100 others) were stopped at Chalet-Reynard by security staff protecting the set for a Belgian Film Crew, filming on the road to the summit. He isn’t known for being a rebel but tried his best to break through the line, not easy on a steep hill from a standing start, however was caught and pushed back, having to accept his attempt was over for the day. Since then it had been playing on his mind and he had been spitting venom about a Belgian Film with a plot seemingly about a man wearing pyjamas, rollerskating behind a bus – so after a glass or 2 of wine the idea just fell out of his mouth.
Whereas the previous year he had gone prepared with his sleek roadbike, cycling shoes & all the other kit needed to make a serious attempt – that was not the case this time. This was a family holiday, which as ever included nice family cycle trips on our 3 old mountain bikes and a sit up & beg hybrid fitted with panniers. No lycra, no cycling shoes & certainly no training had taken place!!
So that was it, the following morning we drove to Sault, by this time wondering what we were doing and unloaded our bikes amongst others, who certainly looked a little surprised as we unloaded our kit and started cycling towards the Mountain. I could understand it as our clothing was almost as bizarre as our bikes, the boys in t-shirts and trainers and me in a vest top, a pair of shorts & my favourite strappy sandals – we weren’t planning on it being anything other than about 25 degrees
If we’re being honest we didn’t really think Tom, who was riding the sit up & beg with the panniers would get more than a few miles up the slopes, but he is a very determined lad and before we really knew it we were able to tell him that he was already 25% up the climb so a few Haribo & water stops later we reached ‘Chalet-Reynard’ just under 6km from the top.
By this time though, the temperature had plummeted and we were told that it was a very cold & windy 5 degrees at the top, so we took the opportunity drink hot-chocolate & to buy the promised ‘Ventoux Shirts’ and a lightweight jacket to try to prevent the onset of hypothermia as we went on.
Incredibly, we realised that somehow, we were all in with a chance of actually reaching the top so set off again on the final stage, up through the bends winding through the scree slopes towards the summit.
That final ascent, was a blur, and even 7 years on I can’t really remember much about it, other than there being a constant stream of (well prepared) cyclists shouting ‘Bon Courage’ & ‘Allez’ as they whizzed past us heading back downhill, probably wondering what on earth we were doing….
So after a while and despite the cold & exhaustion we finally reached the summit, although we didn’t linger, as to say it was bitter was an understatement – who would have thought we would have to consider the possibility of hypothermia in July in Provence??
I have to say though, that the sense of achievement was huge and through misty eyes, we were incredibly proud of our boys, who rose to the challenge and exceeded all our expectations. No one can take away the fact that we cycled to the summit of Mont Ventoux as a family & have that shared experience.
If I’m honest, I never imagined it would be a ride that I would do again, but I have, several times, as have the boys too, and we have done it as a family a few times as well
There is something about the mountain that makes reaching the summit very special, not just the first time you do it.
We have ridden it to watch the sunrise, we’ve ridden it to watch cycle races finish there, and we have ridden it for fun too.
But that first time will forever be etched on my memory, when we, as a family, on our hotch-potch, eclectic collection of bikes, with me wearing a pair of strappy sandals, took on the Giant of Provence and survived.