Monday 16 July 2012

Le Mont Ventoux, the Provençale Giant and Very Windy Place

45 years ago nearly to the day, the 1967 Tour de France cyclist Tom Simpson fell off his bicycle unconscious when he was nearly at the end of the days gruelling ride. He was in sight of the summit of the Mont Ventoux a classic of the world famous race. Sadly the intense heat, 35°C, the lack of water, the cognac given by “helpful” fans, and the massive intake of amphetamines got the better of him, and he died in the helicopter on the way to Avignon.

The memorial for Tom Simpson
just a short distance from the summit of the Ventoux
This tragic story is known to all Frenchmen, and women (my mother remembered it when I asked her yesterday and she's not exactly a Tour de France aficionado) and to all followers of the Tour de France. 
Luckily nowadays, the cyclists have water to drink, lay of the cognac and consume a much better class of drug, although apparently that last bit is a malicious lie. But the heat of the Provençale sun in July and the Mont Ventoux haven’t changed. 

Determined cyclists with only a few hundred yards to go
In 1902 Frenchman André Benoit sent a postcard to a friend after driving in his rudimentary motor car up to the summit of this legendary mountain, he said that it took 7 hours by car, 6 hours on foot and for a very fit cyclist 3 ½ hours. It took me just over 25 minutes by car (with water, no cognac) and most cyclists do it in 1 ½ to 3 hours depending on their form. The Tour de France record is 55 mins 51 s by Iban Mayo in 2004.
The shingle rock, that from a distance can lead
you to thinking the summit is snow covered
The name Mont Ventoux, comes from Venteux, meaning windy, the wind here blows at over 90km/h (60 Mph) for around 240 days a year, the strongest gust was recorded in 1967 at 320km/h (200 Mph). The summit of the Ventoux is bare, nothing grows here in the rocky shingle bar a few brave little plants that stay low to the ground to avoid being blown away to the Mediterranean. It is this naked summit that often leads to confusion in the winter (and even in the summer) about whether there is snow cover or not.

At top of the Mont Ventoux, the altitude panel,
and a variety of stickers from passing cyclists.
So you may ask, why would anyone ever want to go up a windswept, barren mountain whose claim to fame is the Tour de France and a deceased cyclist. (There are others but for dramatic effect I have purposely left them out)

Here are 5 good reasons, (it's very popular to make lists apparently) and you can add more in the comments if you like.

  1. At the height of Summer, when the temperatures in Provence are regularly in the mid 30's centigrade, the temperature at the summit lowers significantly, providing a welcome blast of cool air (remember the wind) and escape from the stifling heat below.
  2. The views are simply stunning. On a clear day you can see the Alps and the Mediterranean, the Montagne du Luberon and all of Provence spread out below. 
  3. Pretend you're Raymond Poulidor, or Lance Armstrong or any other famous cyclist and set of to establish a new record for the ascension of the "Provençale Giant". You can rent a bicycle in  Bedoin or from your hotel (I particularly like L'Hotel Crillon le Brave, and their mini spa is just the thing upon your return to ease the muscles after your ascent)
  4. Just to meditate. There are many places to get away from the photo taking crowds around the summit to just sit and relax and meditate.
  5. Simply because there is nothing else like it. Individual summits like the Ventoux have something magical about them. In the Alps it's the Eiger or the Matterhorn, and in the mountains of Provence the Ventoux is often the part of the skyline that draws the eye. 

Below are a few more pictures I took of the Ventoux, click on them for a full sized view.

Leaving the village of Sault 
One of the impressive final
bends before the summit
Summit in view
The lunar landscape of the Mont Ventoux
Yep, and you can buy some of these on the summit too!
La Montagne de Lure in the distance,
another Provençale mountain worth visiting
The stunning views from the Summit of the Ventoux are worth the trip.

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