Taking a beating on Mt Ventoux (in the land of the Marquis de Sade)

October 15, 2014

Uncategorized

I’ve had some incredible cycling experiences since moving to Switzerland two years ago, few of which I’ve shared on this blog. The truth is, given the choice between cycling in the Alps or blogging about it, I choose the former almost every time, so I seldom take the time to sit down in front of the computer and share a few words and images from some of the truly memorable days I’ve spent in the saddle here.

One kilometre to go on the Mt Ventoux.

One kilometre to go on the Mt Ventoux.

Hopefully I can rectify this with a few posts over the next couple of months (being realistic here), which should appeal to the cycling nerds among you, and hopefully others will also appreciate the spectacular beauty of the roads here, and perhaps a little bit of the cycling history in which they are steeped.

Today’s post is about a quick get-away trip to Provence that I did in September 2013 in order to climb the mythic Mt Ventoux, one of the toughest and most storied climbs in the history of the Tour de France. While I went down with quite mercenary intentions of ticking this famous mountain off my “must-do” list of climbs, I ended up stumbling upon a much more beautiful and memorable ride than the Ventoux itself, and had a surprising encounter with a notorious historical figure!

Mt Ventoux, bathed in evening alpenglow.

Mt Ventoux, bathed in evening alpenglow.

Mt Ventoux is a high (1912m/6273ft) and quite isolated peak that dominates the rolling, arid countryside of the Vaucluse region of Provence, about 20km east of the town of Carpentras. Mt Ventoux (which translates roughly as “windy peak”) receives its name from the legendary winds that roar over its summit at 90+ kph on far more days than not. The Ventoux’s distinctive white peak, a barren moonscape of limestone rubble that affords zero protection from said winds, can be seen from miles around.

The barren, wind-swept upper slopes of Mt Ventoux (image: RTS Deux)

The barren, wind-swept upper slopes of Mt Ventoux (image: RTS Deux)

The Ventoux has achieved mythic status among both professional and amateur cyclists as one of the most grueling climbs to be featured in the Tour de France. All three possible routes of ascent clock in at more than 20 kms in length, with gradients north of 9 and 10 per cent for long stretches. The Tour has come to the Ventoux over a dozen times, and it achieved infamy in 1967 when the popular British cyclist Tom Simpson collapsed and died one kilometre from the summit during the 13th stage of that year’s Tour, as a result of a mixture of heat exhaustion, dehydration, and alcohol and amphetamine consumption (crazy, I know!). A memorial now stands at the site where he fell, which has become a pilgrimage site for many cyclists.

The Tom Simpson memorial lies barely a kilometre from the summit, where Simpson collapsed and died.

The Tom Simpson memorial lies barely a kilometre from the summit, where Simpson collapsed and died.

Most recently, the Ventoux was featured in the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France (celebrated in 2013) as the summit finish of Stage 15, a monstrous 242.5km long stage won by Chris Froome.

Between the mountain’s epic proportions and storied, tragic cycling history, I was drawn to the Ventoux like a moth to a flame. So, one day in mid-September last year I made the 4 hour drive down to Provence and installed myself in an elegantly querky hotel located in a small chateau in the village of Mazan, about 10kms from the village of Bédoin, the most common starting point for climbing the Ventoux. Little did I know of the chateau’s surprising (and rather fitting) history when I booked my room, but more on that later.

The Chateau de Mazan, now a boutique hotel, but once the home of a notorious libertine.

The Chateau de Mazan, now a boutique hotel, but once the home of a notorious libertine.

After settling into the hotel in late afternoon, I set out on what I thought would be a short shakedown ride of an hour or so, just to loosen my legs for the following day’s planned ascent of the Ventoux. A little last minute research before departure had indicated that there was a pleasant ride nearby that lead up and through a canyon or gorge called Les Gorges de la Nesque.

The spectacular Gorges de la Nesque.

The spectacular Gorges de la Nesque.

Within a few minutes of entering the gorge, however, I knew I was in a special place. The Gorges de la Nesque is a deep and dramatic limestone canyon that follows a twisted, serpentine course for over 20 kms between the villages of Méthamis and Monieux. The road contours along the side of the canyon hundreds of feet above the floor of the gorge, ascending towards Monieux at a gentle grade.

The Gorges de la Nesque.

The Gorges de la Nesque, with Mt Ventoux in the upper right (source: the web).

I climbed at an easy pace for a while and enjoyed the increasingly spectacular views of the canyon walls, which were getting bathed in the warm hues of early evening sunlight. Because it was late in the day, I had the road and the gorge almost completely to myself. I was passed by one small group of cyclists in the course of an hour, and encountered just a handful of cars.

Cyclists beginning the descent back down the gorge.

Cyclists beginning the descent back down the gorge.

Towards the highpoint on the road one passes through a couple of short but fun tunnels, before reaching a spectacular lookout. From there I made a gradual descent for a few kilometres before reaching the sleepy village of Monieux.

One of the short tunnels along the route.

One of the short tunnels along the route.

Here I faced a choice: retrace my tracks back down the main road through the gorge; or take a more obscure road that climbed over a ridge before dropping down into a smaller gorge that eventually connected with the main gorge near the town of Méthamis (or so the map suggested), to make a loop of about 45 kms. Judging by the angle of the setting sun I figured I had just enough time to complete the loop and get back to Mazan before dark.

Nesque 3While the road surface left a little to be desired, I really enjoyed descending this narrow country road. It didn’t offer the same dramatic views as the climb to Monieux, but it had a nice remote feel to it, and I had fun chasing the final rays of the sun as they painted the provençal countryside a reddish gold. While my planned one hour shakedown ride turned into a two-and-a-half hour mini-epic, it was one was of the most memorable rides I’ve ever had.

As I returned to the chateau early that evening something rather surprising caught my eye. As I walked through the main door I caught a flash of the words “Marquis de Sade” in my peripheral vision …. Eh what?! I did a double-take and found myself staring at a dark marble plaque indicating that the Chateau de Mazan, now the boutique hotel where I was staying, was indeed once the residence of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), the notorious 18th century aristocratic libertine and author of erotic novels as well as radical political treatises.The term sadism – the derivation of pleasure by inflicting pain, suffering and humiliation on others – is derived from his name.

The plaque on the chateau wall, indicating de Sade's ownership.

The plaque on the chateau wall, indicating de Sade’s ownership.

Built by de Sade’s father in 1720, the Chateau de Mazan seldom served as his notorious son’s principal residence, but he spent a great deal of time in the area – where he resided at the nearby Chateau Lacoste – upon being exiled there in the early 1770s after a series of sex scandals. The Mazan property was used by de Sade, however, to stage a series of theatrical productions that were among the first theatre festivals in modern France.

The hotel dining room, where de Sade once staged a series of theatrical productions.

The hotel dining room, where de Sade once staged a series of theatrical productions. If the walls could talk!

De Sade was imprisoned in 1777 and spent much of the next decade writing erotic novels. He was eventually moved to the infamous Bastille prison, where he spent 5 years before being transferred to an asylum in 1789, just days before the storming of the Bastille, a turning point in the French Revolution.

The Chateau de Mazan and terrace.

The Chateau de Mazan and terrace.

Finally released in 1790, de Sade became a revolutionary politician in Paris and authored a series of political tracts before crossing swords with the revolutionary leader Robespierre, who threw him in jail again. De Sade later enjoyed a few more years of freedom before being imprisoned for good in 1801, this time by Napoleon Bonaparte. He would remain there until his death in 1814.

The Marquis de Sade.

The Marquis de Sade.

There is little indication that de Sade ever returned to his family property at Mazan during his brief periods of freedom. The  property was sacked and heavily damaged during the 1789 uprising anyway. Nevertheless, it remained in the family until 1850, when it was sold. In the intervening years it has served as a private residence, a school, a retirement home and, finally, the hotel Chateau de Mazan.

The hotel Maitre de, perhaps creepier than de Sade himself.

The hotel Maitre de, perhaps creepier than de Sade himself.

How fitting this connection and proximity between de Sade and Mt Ventoux, considering the punishment administered by the latter each day on the bodies of cyclists, and the strange pleasure we take in receiving it!

Ready to take my lumps, I rose at dawn in order to get an early start and beat the inevitable traffic, heat, and wind on the Ventoux. To save time I drove the 10kms to Bédoin and parked on the edge of town. I rolled through town as the local cafes were just setting up for the day.

The first 6 kms of the climb to Mt Ventoux were deceptively benign, as I spun up past vineyards on grades of 3-6 per cent, with good views up to the summit on my left. After negotiating the famous left-hand bend at St. Esteve, however, things got serious very quickly. Here the road enters a wooded area and the gradient kicks up to almost 10 percent, where it more or less stayed for the next 10kms, with a few long stretches close to 11 percent! With only the occasional bend in the road or fleeting view to add interest to the climb, there wasn’t much to do or think about except to hold a steady pace and endure.

Not far now!

Not far now!

At km 15 I finally reached Chalet Reynard, a small crossroads after which the gradient eases off to a mere 7-8 percent. After ascending a series of switchbacks the road starts to break out of the forest and contour across the open slopes of the Ventoux summit cone. From here the views out over the Provence countryside became ever more expansive, while the summit’s distinctive white radio tower started to come into view. With the summit now in reach I picked up the pace a little and was thankful for the relative lack of wind, which often plagues riders at this point on the climb.

The Tom Simpson memorial.

The Tom Simpson memorial.

Visitors often leave tokens behind. I left a precious Hardwood bottle.

Visitors often leave tokens behind. I left a precious Hardwood bottle.

Before I knew it I reached the Tom Simpson memorial, where I stopped briefly to snap a few photos and examine the various notes, memorabilia and tokens of respect that passing riders have been leaving at the site for decades.

It's a lonely ride to the top. Everyone has their own pace and needs to stick to it.

It’s a lonely ride to the top. Everyone has their own pace and needs to stick to it.

Onward to the summit I rode, whimpering up the final 9 percent drag to the top. By the time I reached the summit my legs felt like they had taken a beating from the very Marquis himself!

The distinctive white radio tower on the summit, visible for miles around.

The distinctive white radio tower on the summit, visible for miles around.

Me Ventoux summit

Once on top I took a long break to enjoy the view and take a few photos. Other cyclists slowly trickled in, one by one, and we exchanged “bravos” and handshakes. My final moving time for the whole ascent was 1 hour and 45 mins, a far cry from the professionals, who typically climb the Ventoux from Bédoin in an hour and a bit (Iban Mayo holds the record of 55 minutes in the 2004 Dauphiné).

The moment the race was won, Froome attacks Quintana.

The moment the race was won, Froome attacks Quintana. No such crowds the day I rode up, thankfully!

Speaking of the pros, just weeks before my ride, Team Sky’s Chris Froome sealed his victory in the 2013 Tour by dominating rivals like Contador and Quintana on the Ventoux. Froome crossed the summit finish line first, after a mammoth 242km stage. Fittingly, it seems, on Bastille Day.

Froome celebrates the stage win on the Ventoux, on Bastille Day. How fitting.

Froome celebrates the stage win on the Ventoux, on Bastille Day. How fitting.

Climbing the Ventoux was a stiff challenge and well worth the trip, although I much more enjoyed my solo evening ride up through the spectacular Gorges de la Nesque. If you ever have the chance to ride the Ventoux, go for it, but don’t miss this gem of a ride either.

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