Road Cycling in Provence // Part 1

Credit: BSpoke/Rupert Shanks

Road // Multi-Day // September 2020

I’m lucky to have had the chance to ride in Provence on a half-dozen or so occasions in recent years (before the dreaded C-word struck) – sometimes for pleasure but mostly as a part of my work for BSpoke Cycling Holidays. But let’s be clear – even when visiting for work, pleasure always takes over when hopping in the saddle around this heavenly part of the world for cyclists.

On this occasion the aim of the game was capturing some photos for BSpoke’s website, to promote a newly launched “Tour de la Provence” road cycling trip. I had a few days to squeeze in a few rides alongside the more professionally managed shoots. This is the first of a series of blogs sharing the details of these memorable days in the saddle and sharing my love of cycling in Provence.

First up – was a loop from Mazan taking in the spectacular road through the Gorges de la Nesque and a climb up old Monty V.

Ride 1 // Gorges de la Nesque & Mont Ventoux // 114km // +2456m

The aim of the game today was to explore the Gorges de la Nesque – a road recommended to me by locals as a more spectacular and considerably less hectic alternative to Mont Ventoux, the giant of Provence that loomed on the horizon at our starting point in medieval Mazan. Pre-ride research got me plenty excited, with Google images flooded with great scenery – but it didn’t even come close to the true spectacle.

Climbing the Gorges de la Nesque

This sinewy snake of a road twists upwards from Villes-sur-Auzon, through a spectacular gorge, rising for around 20km at an easy gradient that rarely tops 5%. You will never be grinding your granny gear to get to the top, but that’s part of what makes it so enjoyable – you can actually look up and soak up the spectacular scenery all around you. A few stretches might trigger a bit of vertigo in some, but trust me – it’s worth it.

A summit comes on a left corner – you’ll know you’re there when you see the viewing platform – before an enjoyable descent takes you into the town of Monieux and onwards into Sault, past the typical fields of lavender that plaster Provencal postcards. At only 41km in, this may not seem like a sensible lunch stop, but knowing what’s to come on this ride I certainly didn’t want to miss a feed here.

Climbing Mont Ventoux

Topped up with frites and Orangina, I set off on the climb of Mont Ventoux from Sault. Known as the easy route up, at “just” 4.5% for 25km, it’s easy to start off thinking you’re heading the wrong way as the first stretch out of town drops down by 65m. But you’re soon climbing again on the gentle slopes as they pass through fields of lavender and forests of cedars. After 19km of this, you burst into the sun at Chalet Reynard, meeting the route up from Bedoin for the final 6km to the summit.

Posing at the summit of Ventoux, summer 2019.

This is where it gets tough. There is no escaping the 8-10% gradients up to the top, through the famous moonscape of bright white rocks and past the Tom Simpson memorial – even on the “easy route”. After a steep final km spent grovelling over your stem, the world opens up at the top with spectacular views stretching out in all directions.

With 67km of climbing in the legs and 50km or so to go, I skipped the traditional summit shot this time, so we’ll have to make do with this corker from a previous ride from Bedoin – but you get the picture.

After another quick sugar load from the tourist shop at the top, it’s time to take on the fun part.

Descending Mont Ventoux to Malaucene

The key stats for the descent into Malaucene.

Buckle up. This is a fun one.

Dropping over the northern side of the mountain, with the Alps on display on the horizon, it doesn’t take long to get up some hair-raising speed on the descent after navigating a couple of tight switchbacks right at the start. the descent opens up into some pretty steep, but non-technical stretches where you can either relax and enjoy the ride, or push on to try and hit some personal speed records!

After touching 90km/h and overtaking a couple of day-trippers in there overladen cars, the adrenaline took over and any ideas of taking it easy down here flew out the window. I was fully invested in getting down as quickly as possible – and I had the time of my life doing it.

After flying into the town of Malaucene and slamming on the brakes to bring myself back to the typical Provencal pace of life, I found myself shaking from the adrenaline that had flooded my system. A small sit down was in order, along with another can of Coke and another bag of Haribo.

The Final Stretch – and one final mini-Col

Once settled down, the small matter of getting back to the van hit the top of the to-do list. As the crow flies, Mazan was just 13km, but the pretty route I wanted to take was 23km, with another 200m of elevation to go.

That elevation came from taking the picturesque Col de la Madeleine over to the town of Bedoin, famous as the starting point for the most popular route up Mont Ventoux. The climb on it’s own is nothing serious, some 5km at 3%, but at this point in the ride it felt like a Hors Categorie beast. The heat, apparent by the volume of the cicadas, sapping power from the legs with every revolution.

After topping out, its a fast descent into Bedoin, where the picturesque village is often flooded with cyclists ranging from naively excited to haggard and broken – both of which I can relate to.

This is the last stopping point before the end of the ride but at this point I decided to push on, get back to the van and get out of this salt-stained Lycra asap.

Yeah ok, I’ll have another climb.

Flat, or slightly descending, country lanes take you back to Mazan, twisting through vineyards and giving a chance to ease the legs back into a normal state and to reflect on the ride. It’s a bit of a monster, but without a doubt is one of the most picturesque rides anywhere in Europe. If you’re in the area, have a day to spare and are happy to work for your views, then you really would be a fool not to try it.

That was just day 1 – how on earth could I top that!?

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