How to climb Ventoux _ off road?

Cycling Ventoux

I'm sick at home with flu at the moment. I've spent a couple of days in bed and now I'm starting to get a serious case of cabin fever. Maybe it was a form of mental escape, but while snoozing earlier today I dreamed about a ride I did while in France last year. I thought I’d share the day dream. Maybe it’ll help with your own cabin fever or briefly take you out of the office?

I went on a summer road-trip around France last year with my fiancé. I had limited time to ride my bike during the holiday, preferring to spend time seeing the sights and soaking up France. However, our route drifted into Provence and I saw the opportunity to sneak out for day to ride up Mont Ventoux. For those who don't know it, Mont Ventoux has been the setting for many Tour de France battles over the years. It rises like a beast from the rolling hills of the Provençal countryside and the harsh conditions near the summit result in barren moonscape vistas.

Now I am not a big road rider, I'm more of a fan of dirt. Maybe it’s because I've never bothered to get my road bike set up properly? Anyway, the night before my ride I figured I’d try to climb Ventoux off-road. My planning was pretty basic – about an hour on Google Maps to see if any forest roads, trunk roads or hiking trails existed. It looked like they did. So with a couple of bottles filled, a bit of lube on the MTB chain, and a few muesli bars I went to bed ready for an early start.

I started in the little town of Bédoin, one of a few options for roadies when climbing Ventoux. Without any navigation device I thought I’d just follow a few roadies out of town until I found some dirt and just make sure I kept heading up. Luck was on my side and the plan worked well.

Before long I was into the lower foothills making my way between vineyards on hard packed gravel. The scenes reminded me of McLaren Vale in South Australia not too far from where I grew up. On smooth gravel roads I kept pointing myself towards the summit, the vistas of Provence below becoming increasingly spectacular. Yellow signs intended for hikers guided me on my way as the trail become rockier. 

Eventually I popped out onto the Bédoin-side road climb a few kilometres from the summit. I was amazed at the scene. It felt like I’d dropped into an amateur cycling race, but there was nothing special about this day. It was just another Tuesday in July on Mont Ventoux. A photographer ran beside me, snapped my picture and handed me a business card – you could download the photographic evidence of your climb later for a small charge. Amazing!

I rode on up the tarmac, a little disappointed to have lost the dirt. The disappointment was short-lived though as I found an XC ski trail to take me closer to the summit. No snow, but plenty of rocks. As I climbed vistas morphed into the iconic scenes from the Tour de France. Windswept moonscapes. Nothing but rocks, a weather station and few buildings up top. Harsh, windy, but stunning at the same time.

Finishing the climb on a final section of bitumen I was surrounded by jubilant scenes. There were tears from road riders as they made it to the top. Champagne and celebrations. These were the same riders I’d seen battling the climb earlier on. While they were zig-zagging all over the road with 10 km still to climb, there was no way in hell they were going to give up. They hadn't come all this way to fail.

Munching a muesli bar, I descended a short distance on the road, heading off to the other side of the mountain, staying alert for more off-road options. Along the way I spotted a lady, perhaps in her late 60’s, riding an old step-through, squeaking and creaking her way up the mountain. Maybe she was resupplying the lolly stall? I saw her pass a portly man on a carbon frame, carbon wheels, carbon everything! I doubt he noticed, while transfixed on his stem.

Eventually I spotted a dirt road. As it turned out it was the same trunk road I’d ridden on the other side of the mountain. It seemed that it circumnavigated Ventoux. Maybe it could provide more climbing options? I headed off to investigate. More smooth gravel roads carved through the moonscape.

After a few more failed summit attempts due to dead ends, it was time to head home. As luck would have it a sign-posted hiking trail further down the mountain took me most of the way back to Bédoin.

Somewhere along the rough single track I came across some hikers. When I stopped to greet them they asked what I was doing riding “that bike” on this walking track. I apologised for being on the trail, thinking that it was intended only for hikers and that they’d taken offence. But I'd failed to understand them. They explained that a dual-suspension bike would be more fun on the rocky descent than my carbon hard-tail. They continued to explain a better route back to Bédoin taking in some more single track. Their suggested route dished out a grand finish to a fine adventure!
The bakery in town still had some pastries left. I polished a few off in the late afternoon sun, before heading back to my holiday. Mission accomplished!
OK... With that done I'm off to bed to get rid of this flu for good!
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