My 10 Hardest Climbs… 5th Hardest: Mont Ventoux

'That's a hell of a thing to do to a man. Take away all his glory and all the glory he's ever going to have.'

Location: France, Provence-Alps
Departure: Bedoin
Length: 21.5km
Altitude: 1,912m
Height Gain: 1,622m
Average Gradient: 7.6%
Maximum Gradient: 11.0%
Gradient: Hors Category

I've been fortunate enough to have climbed Mont Ventoux six times now; twice from each side. My favourite route by far is from Sault. It has a wonderful long stretch of road that climbs rather gently through magnificent forest until it reaches the intersection from Bedoin. It is here that the mystique of the climb truly begins. The following is an extract from my book which describes my journey, a treasured memory I'll never forget for a host of reasons:

Of all the mountains I wanted to climb, Ventoux was “The One”. For starters, it was rated number one in Trev’s cycling magazine, partly for its sheer difficulty and partly I think, due to the romance attached to it. It stands at 1,912 metres above sea level and is geologically part of the Alpine chain. But to look at it, you’d never know. Ventoux is a stand-alone kind of mountain. The kind whose company you’re made to respect the closer you get to its bare and isolated limestone face.

Fanned by the Mistral wind, which often reaches speeds of more than 90 kilometres per hour, the mountain’s upper reaches can play havoc with cyclists, particularly as they toil up its hot and exposed southern slope. When the wind blows, it’s at best a nuisance, at worst dangerous, unforgiving and incessant, factors that contribute to making it such a difficult climb.

Next is the sheer relentlessness of its gradients. Not surprisingly, the Tour regards Bédoin as its most favoured route. Seven kilometres into the climb it averages more than 9% through forest until it reaches le Chalet-Reynard, 9 kilometres ahead. There are no switchbacks, no flat spots or brief declines, just nine kilometres of unrelenting climbing. Once at the Chalet, the trees disappear and the brutal sun reflecting off the white rock begins to take its toll. The only reward for getting this close to the top is that the gradient is reduced, to just below 8%. And of course, the sight of the antenna-studded summit, which is almost entirely in view for the remaining 6 kilometres.

Not only can it be approached from Bédoin (along the D974): Mont Ventoux can also be tackled from two other directions – from Malaucène, also along the D974, and from Sault on the D164. All three villages are typical of those in the region – historic, picturesque and very, very livable.

The 21.2 kilometre climb from Malaucène was a wonderful experience, but it wasn’t the best, nor the most memorable. That was yet to come. Why I chose to climb it from Malaucène is anybody’s guess. Perhaps serendipity? Whatever the reason, it certainly wasn’t the result of thorough and calculated planning. It wasn’t until I reached the top and absorbed the view down the mountain’s southern slope that I realised I should have done my homework and tackled it from either Bédoin or Sault. But like most new experiences, you don’t fully appreciate what you’re doing until you’ve tried it, and most likely a number of times. Whether it feels good or bad, as long as it doesn’t kill you, you’ve probably learned something, and hopefully you’ll do it a little better next time.

All the shots I’d seen of Ventoux, the ones of cyclists struggling up the mountain, their faces contorted with pain and anguish, were taken from near the top of its southeastern face. The moment I saw my first black and white photograph of it, I was like the boy staring at the brand new bike behind the shop window. I just couldn’t wait to get to the other side – in my case, of the world – and give it a try.

The pained expression of the lonely French cyclist Louison Bobet, pictured against the stark mountain backdrop, somehow reminded me of the 1953 French movie, The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur). I first saw it as a teenager almost four decades ago. It was one of those black and white classics that featured way back when, either as the Late Movie, the Late, Late Movie or the Late, Late, Late Movie, on the Channel Nine Network. As I remember it, this trifecta of mouldy-oldies produced some of the best television you could wish for, certainly a whole lot better than the banal telemarketing served up to today’s insomniacs. For whatever reason, some of these movies stick in your head like fossilised footprints, lying dormant until their memory is triggered by some new or unusual thought, in this case Ventoux. Weird stuff, people’s thoughts!

Propelling French singer-come-actor Yves Montand to movie stardom, the film’s plot is pretty simple. Four desperate men have to cart two trucks of highly volatile nitroglycerin across 500 kilometres of rugged South American terrain, without blowing it, or themselves, to high heaven. In return, they will each receive the sum of 2,000 dollars. Holed up in the dirtiest and dingiest town you could imagine, inhabited by a veritable cesspool of low lives, including murderers, criminals, an ex-Nazi and petty thieves, they see this suicide mission as an opportunity to drag themselves out of their squalid existence. Filmed entirely in France, tension builds as they try to negotiate the dangerous mountain dirt roads. Like Ventoux, the terrain looks brutal, accentuated by the stark black and white cinematography. Superbly edited, it is edge-of-your-seat stuff as they toil recklessly, literally and metaphorically on the edge of a precipice. 

These men at least had a motive, be it a somewhat unrealistic one given their slim chance of success and ultimate survival. But what’s the motive behind climbing up a mountain, going down, then climbing up another, and so on until your neck veins throb and your legs ache with lactic acid build-up? In my mind, the answer is simple – for the sheer pleasure of it and even the pain.

Climbing Ventoux from Malaucène was like cutting your teeth on a new bike before realising that there are far better makes and models to be had. Getting to the top took me a little over two hours. I found it a surprisingly steady climb, sticking to its 7.2% average gradient for most of the way. It felt slightly steeper as I drew closer to the summit, but nothing more than a brief 12%, and certainly nowhere near as hard as Angliru, or even the Col d’Aubisque.

Earlier on, not more than 15 minutes into the ride, I came to another one of those ‘Route Barrée’ signs and a rather long line of traffic. The frequent loud kerthump and rustling of branches suggested it was a rockslide of some reasonable size. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before they re-opened the road and the steady train of cars, and by now three vélos, continued on up the mountain. But that was as tricky as it got. Even the heat of the day became more bearable, thanks to the shade afforded by the trees closer to the top.

In contrast to Malaucène, the climb from Sault (at 25.9 kilometres), is longer, more scenic and far more ethereal, given the six kilometres of lunar-like landscape towards the summit. Sault has a Mediterranean feel about it, with its creamy white and biscuit-coloured buildings and terracotta tiled roofs. It sits on a rocky outcrop, high above the Val-de-Sault, which in summer is dominated by vast stretches of golden cornfields and striking purple lavender.

The first part of the ride begins with a relatively short descent, followed by a pleasant meander along the valley floor. Hardly strenuous, it allows you to immerse yourself in the sprawling landscape before beginning the serious climb up the mountain. I found myself moving through a jumble of vibrant colours – purples, yellows and greens, intermingled with the white peak in the distance, and the soft blue sky above it. Once more, I was in cycling heaven.

The climb through the canopy of trees towards le Chalet-Reynard was just as enjoyable and only marginally more difficult. Almost 20 kilometres into the ride, it was hard to believe that this was the same mountain that many experts regard as the most challenging and mythical of them all. As I soon learned, it’s certainly not from Sault, though the final six kilometres (averaging almost 8%) was testing just the same.

I was incredibly fortunate, as there was no wind to speak of. Only the heat was a problem, and it made me appreciate the herculean effort that would be required to try to lose all your fellow competitors in a flat-out sprint to the top. It was difficult enough maintaining my paltry 11 kilometres per hour, let alone almost double the speed.

Buoyed from having already passed two younger cyclists around 5 kilometres from the summit, I steadily began gaining on another two riders who were about 100 metres in front of me. They seemed to be in their late thirties; one of them appeared decidedly more fit and agile than the other. Pathetic as it might sound, the thought of passing them sparked my competitive streak: without noticing, I’d increased my speed to above 13 kilometres per hour. It might sound funny – after all, it was just a ride up a hill on my Bianchi – but I felt as if I was beginning to garner a taste of what the Tour riders must feel when they’re competing against the heat, the mountain and other fierce competitors. I was Lance Armstrong and here was Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich just out in front of me.

Trying not to make my competitive intentions too obvious, I snuck past the pair and steadily increased my speed. With less than a kilometre to the top, I was confident that they’d never catch me, and, more to the point, who would be bothered? Mr. Agility, of course! I never looked back, that would be too obvious, but he’d obviously left his less fit and able buddy and taken off. In an instant he’d sprinted past me, not relenting on the pedals until he was a clear 50 metres out in front.

I didn’t bother with it, choosing instead to sit on my now pedestrian speed of 11 kilometers per hour. I would have preferred to think that like Armstrong, back in the 2000 Tour and up the same mountain, I’d just let Pantani have his day, but it was clearly not the case. I was never going to see him again until I reached the top. I gave a wry smile when he looked back as he rounded the second-last bend. As I knew he would.

Nevertheless, standing at the summit and admiring the view for the second time in one day was an amazing feeling. I was surrounded by a circular horizon of natural beauty, the Mediterranean to the south, the Rhône to the west andbest of all, the Alps to the east. What’s more, I’d completed my second climb in less than two hours, which I felt wasn’t bad for an old bloke.

Literally bursting with endorphins, I wanted to share my exuberance with someone who’d care, someone who’d know exactly how I’d be feeling, someone who would understand. So I rang my cycling buddy Lore, and boy would I regret it.
The phone call went something like this:

“Hi Lore! You’ll never guess where I am!”
“No, where?”
Still overflowing with excitement I exclaimed: “I’m standing on top of Mont Ventoux. I’ve just climbed it, not once but twice, first from Malaucène and now from Sault. The climbs were awesome, Lore, particularly the last seven ks up from Sault. And the views! I wish you were here to see it for yourself!”
“That sounds great,” replied Lore, in as monotone a voice as you’d ever hear. Then the killer blow.
“Surely you know there are three ways up Ventoux. You’ve only done two of them. What about the other one? Not really good enough, mate.”

While it took me almost half a day of busting my guts to build up my endorphin level to an all-time high, it only needed a few seconds for it all to be replaced by maudlin self-doubt.

Me on the right and my good mate Lore, at the Audax Alpine Classic.
“Yeah, thanks, mate. I know there’s the ride up from Bédoin but I’m going down that way. I was saving that to last, so I can celebrate having climbed it the other two ways.”
It sounded like a pretty good plan at the time but thanks to Lore’s tactless enquiry it now felt somewhat hollow. It suddenly felt like a pyrrhic victory. The battle is over and you’ve come out a winner, but in the end you’re left feeling like an absolute loser.

“But Lore, what about Meat Loaf’s song, Two Out’a Three Ain’t Bad?” I retorted, trying to put a positive spin on my rapidly declining day.
“Yeah, but when’s the last time he made a hit record?” Lore deadpanned.

I don’t remember much more of the conversation, only that I wished I’d rung someone else… in fact, anybody else. Climbing Ventoux was meant to be one of the highlights, if not the highlight of the trip. It took me the next five weeks to get Lore’s words out of my mind. Bonnie Tyler was gone, while Meat Loaf was now indelibly etched in by troubled psyche.

 Books by Mark Krieger:

‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books

Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante

“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike”.           

                                       John F. Kennedy