Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round: Extracts From the Book. Fabled Climbs-Mont Ventoux

Subject: Fabled Climbs - Mont Ventoux

Sometimes things people say or plans we don’t fulfill stick in our craw and eat away at us, like a splinter that hasn’t been fully extracted from a finger. They’re often silly things, trivial things, which in the whole scheme of life aren’t terribly important. I kept telling myself this while on the long and tiring drive from Eygliers to the tiny village of Mazan, 11 kilometres from the foot of Mont Ventoux.

Two months earlier, if someone had asked me if I would have been happy to ride up Mont Ventoux just once, I would have said an emphatic, “Yes, of course.” Yet the fact remained that I’d only climbed it from two of its three alternative routes, a seemingly unfinished proposition, made all the more hollow by my “mate” Lore’s indiscreet remarks the last time I stood on the mountain’s summit. It might have been good enough for Meat Loaf, but to me, two out of three just didn’t cut it.

So here we were, back beneath the multi-antennaed peak that for centuries has stood majestically above northern Provence. Like most of the villages dotted around it, Mazan is not overly large, but there’s a richness and sense of history about it. Surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills, many of its buildings and houses hark back to the 19th century and beyond. It was a fortified walled city during the Middle Ages, and today, visitors can still enter through its original gates.

At our night’s accommodation, after being greeted by our host’s obligatory smile, the first thing we noticed was the collection of striking paintings adorning the walls. Each one, in its unique way, captured the surrounding landscape’s rich rustic tones. Finally, as if things couldn’t get any better, there outside the window of our first floor room was an absolutely stunning view of Mont Ventoux in the distance.

Virtually decimated, after many of its inhabitants were violently put to death, Bédoin lies at the foot of the great Mont. In one of its streets stands a memorial marking the site where the guillotine, a chilling symbol of the French Revolution, once stood. Otherwise, there’s little reminder of the persecution and destruction that swept through the village a little more than 200 years ago.

Well protected from the lashing Mistral wind, Bédoin has a distinctly Mediterranean feel about it. Surrounded by forest on one side and vineyards on the other, it has become a popular destination for travellers, among them hikers and, of course, cyclists. Though it is the most difficult of the three climbs, Bédoin offers the best approach up the mountain, with views of the summit—if you’re keen to look—for much of the way.
Le Chalet Reynard
A little like Sault, the ride is clearly divided into two halves, but this time the first half is just as unrelenting as the second. There are no switch- backs, no flat spots, just an incessant gradient that hovers between 6-8%. Until the intersection at Le Chalet Reynard, the only compensation is the filtered shade afforded by the verdant beech forest. As you climb, the beech becomes scarce, replaced by introduced plantings of cedar, which in turn shade into the barren white scree slope that gives the mountain its snow- covered appearance.
Of all the days to climb Ventoux, France’s most revered mountain, it was serendipitously July 14, France’s national day, patriotically known as Bastille Day. What Anzac Day is to most Australians and Independence Day is to Americans, so Bastille Day is to the French. The Bastille was a rather grim old prison renowned for incarcerating political prisoners whose writings opposed the royalist government.

Rather ironically, there were only seven inmates still locked up in the Bastille at the time of its storming in the revolution—July 14, 1789—none of whom held any political significance whatsoever. Sources suggest that one of them was a suspected murderer, another two were noblemen being held for immoral behaviour, and the remaining four were supposedly forgers. Hardly worth a full-frontal assault, in my opinion. Nevertheless, its capture, carried out by little more than an enraged and lawless mob, became a symbol of a modern nation’s uprising against the archaic laws imposed by feudalism and the power of the Roman Catholic Church.

In reality, the storming of the Bastille was not the first event of the French Revolution. The nobility had by now refused to pay taxes to King Louis XVI. Secondly, almost a month earlier, National Assembly members, forced to hold their meeting on an indoor tennis court, pledged a collective oath to keep reassembling until a new constitution was created. This event became immortalised in Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting The Oath of the Tennis Court. Ironically, the painting was never actually finished, primarily due to the fact that too many of the men depicted in it became suspects in the tumultuous events of the revolution that followed.
Less than two months after the symbolic attack on the Bastille fortress, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was officially proclaimed. From this point forward, France launched headlong into revolution, which effectively didn’t end until the beginning of Napoleon’s dictatorial reign 10 years later.

Though the declaration of people’s rights was not truly upheld—after all, a great many innocent people suffered at the hands of the revolutionaries— what better way to begin France’s national day than by riding up its most spiritual mountain? Few disagreed, as there were literally hundreds of cars and cyclists travelling up and down all morning, and, no doubt, well into the afternoon. It was as if all roads led to Ventoux—cyclists were out in force along the myriad of routes linking the provincial villages that surround it. I could only comment on the ascent from Bédoin, but judging from the number of riders at the summit, the roads from Sault and Malaucène were just as busy.
The summit of Mont Ventoux
Passing scores of French tricolour flags along the way, the ride from Mazan to Bédoin took less than half an hour. Though it was still only around 8.30 am, the heat was already beginning to bounce off the bitumen. Both sides of the road were lined with cars and people taking photographs of their loved ones, who, like their bikes, were a hodge-podge of shapes and sizes. It was a cavalcade of vélos slowly churning its way up the mountain. Despite the hot white rock which made the final 6 kilometres feel like an oven, it was a wonderful feeling to be back riding along the moon-like surface once more. Time passed quickly and I was more than happy to have reached the summit in less than two hours. Thanks largely to the carnival-type atmosphere, it turned out to be an even more enjoyable and memorable experience than the last time I’d stood on the exact same spot.

I didn’t spend a lot of time at the top. I didn’t need to. The reward was the climb itself.. 

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

“When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.”                        H. G. Wells

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