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 second of a series of blogs sharing the details of these memorable days in the saddle and sharing my love of cycling in Provence.
After the mammoth ride on day 1, day 2 was set to be a more relaxed ride – but with no shortage of Provencal charm.
Ride 2 // Les Baux-de-Provence & the Alpilles // 89km // +1035m
A Reluctant Rollout
After the tough ride around Ventoux on the previous day, I awoke today with legs like sticks of Brighton Rock – stiff, turgid and inflexible and threatening to crumble and shatter at any moment. These sensations, coupled with the throng of market day in the impossibly charming town of St-Remy-de-Provence left me questioning my desire to go out and ride.
A quick glance at the route whilst sipping coffee just off the main square got me pumped up though. I’ve been lucky enough to visit St-Remy a number of times in recent years and know some of these roads pretty well by now, so seeing the little red line snaking through the Alpilles, one of my favourite cycling landscapes, was all the encouragement I needed.
At 89km and over 1000m of elevation, I knew this wouldn’t be a walk in the park – but I also knew to expect beautiful scenery, quiet roads and relatively mellow climbs. The sun was out, two big bidons were full and I clipped in and made my way out of town.
Val d’Enfer – Valley of Hell
The highlight of the ride comes straight out of the gate – just a couple of km out of St-Remy. Known locally as the Val d’Enfer, which translates to the valley of hell, this stretch of road is a serious “hero climb” with a perfect gradient for a heavier rider like me and a stretch of compact switchbacks that let your imagination turn you into the pro you always dreamed of being. It really is like an alpine pass scaled down for mere mortals to play with.
I’ve been up and down this road a good half dozen times before – but something about it today was even more fun than usual. Knowing that I’d be heading back into town a different way later that day, I couldn’t resist pulling a U-turn at the top and hurling down the twisty descent just once – it’s a great road to climb, but the descent is unmissable – and as you can see below, very photogenic!
With the descent ticked off, it was time to ascend again. Fortunately the gradient barely reaches above 4-5%, so that little bit of fun didn’t come at much of a cost. In fact, these are the kind of gradients that a heavier rider like me can really churn through, which makes the climb just as fun. Emerging at the top of the road, the view opens up into a spectacular vista of unusually weathered limestone and the medieval citadel of Les Baux-de-Provence on the far side of a valley.
The road drops down, whirling past monolithic stones, some cut square when the old quarry was still in service, before a short punch up a couple of switchbacks to the top of the Col de la Vayede. A stop here is a little early for this ride, but Baux would be a great spot for a coffee with a view if you were taking this ride in reverse. This way round a toot from a bidon is plenty.
Into the Alpilles
A few kilometres of descending, mostly on pretty mellow gradients and wide roads, takes you into the small town of Mausanne-les-Alpilles and the olive groves that surround it. From here the ride heads up into the garrigue – the type of sunbaked scrubland that is typical in the more rugged parts of Provence. On a hot summers days like this, it offers an amazing sensory experience as the scent of wild herbs fill the nose and the rampant racheting of cicadas fills the ears.
The road here climbs gently as we turn back into the miniature mountains, as it passes by some mind-blowing villas and vast olives groves. With so few cars around, this stretch of the ride feels like a secret cyclists paradise. After cresting the climb, some 25km into the ride, a short drop down the other side takes you into another postcard perfect village, Eygalieres.
Eygalieres is the essence of Provence distilled into a single village. The pace of life is slow and it’s easy to see why; why rush in such pleasant surroundings? With the temperature rising, the water fountain was a welcome find, complimented by a frosty diet coke and an outrageous chocolate-filled pastry from the boulangerie opposite. That pace of life I mentioned starts to feel pretty appealing at this stage, so the stop was cut short and the ride continued – lest we get stuck here.
The next 20km of the ride take us around the northwestern corner of the Alpilles on mostly flat roads. There is not much of particular interest here, a few pretty villages, but none that stand out particularly. But that’s OK because the flat terrain sees the km’s fly by and the legs get a rest, ready to enter the Alpilles once again after passing through Eyguieres.
Back Into the Hills
The road starts to turn upwards again as the route turns back into the Alpilles. We ease back into the climbing with another quiet road through garrigue and cedar trees, soundtracked by those darn cicadas. The road, the Col de Meyrol, is another with an easy gradient that stretches over 7km in total (including the 5.3km shown above). It’s another one of those tucked away stretches of tarmac that make you feel like a local expert – off the beaten track and away from the tourists that can clog up the region in the summer season.
Dropping away to the south, the route takes us through the pleasant, but unremarkable towns of Aureille and Mouries, before familiar surroundings appear as it returns to Mausanne-les-Alpilles. There’s only 10km to go from here, but with another couple of hundred meters of elevation and temperatures by now in the low 30’s, another ice cold can of Coke was needed.
A Roman Return
And here lies the final climb of the ride and the last hurdle between us and an ice-cold glass of local rose. As with all the climbs today, it’s not a brute – but after 79km in the sun, it may as well have been Ventoux again. The road is wide and has a generous cycle path on the side – with some shade on offer beneath the trees nearer the top. We cruise to the top in a little over 12 minutes – pause in the shade for a final spot of hydration and hurl ourselves into the descent into St-Remy – flying past the Roman ruins of Glanum and the St Pauls Mausoleum in a flash and with a promise to come back on foot to pay them a visit.
But for now, all we care about is finding the van, wiping off the sweat, chucking on some civvy’s and finding that glass of rose.