Mount Ventoux Beckons

Everywhere you look … Mount Ventoux.

Looming up above, off in the distance … daring brave cyclists to climb to the summit. This is the view from our hotel window here at the Hotel La Garance in Sainte Colombia, a few Ks outside of Bedoin, which is one of the base towns below the Ventoux.

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Not bad.

The summit of the Ventoux is the white cap way off in the distance.

Tomorrow we get our bikes, and begin riding. And, get this, Susan is getting a E-Bike, something we didn’t even think about until earlier today when we went to one of the bike rental places in Bedoin. And saw they had E-Bikes.

Maybe, just maybe, she will attempt the Ventoux on Tuesday with me.

Or maybe, we’ll do it on Sunday, as the weather forecast still calls for lots of wind on Monday and Tuesday (my birthday). The guy at the bike-rental place said there will be gusts of 100 Ks (62 MPH). At least it won’t be snowing.

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So, here’s something I learned today that’s hard to admit: Sometimes, when you tour Provence (or any other area) on a bike, you miss out on things.

I know, it pains me to write this, but it’s true.

Let me explain…

Today, we meandered our way over to Bedoin in our rental car, stopping in four of the Ventoux villages: Roaix, Rasteau, Cairanne and Crestet. All were little stone towns hundreds of years old on the top of hills of varying heights. I’ve cycled through all of them before, stopped, looked around a bit … and kept riding.

Not today.

We parked and wandered through each village, through the narrow stone streets, past the cathedrals and old houses, up and up to see the amazing views.

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The photo above is from our walk to the top of Rasteau, and this one is from the top of Cairanne…

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Crestet was probably our favorite of the four. It was the most medieval of the towns.

Here’s a couple of photos from Crestet…

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OK, tomorrow we get our bikes and begin riding. There are at least two bike-tour groups staying in our hotel, including La Vie En Velo, a British group. Some of their riders are going to do the Ventoux tomorrow, and a couple brave souls are going to do the three times in one day thing. I did this back in 2010 … and it was and is one of my most memorable days of cycling ever.

This year?

Once is probably enough. Per day. But I may have to do two ascents, one from Bedoin, and another from Sault.

Stay tuned…

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Seguret: Our Secret City in Provence … Shhhh, Don’t Tell Anyone About It

I just realized I haven’t been posting as much since Susan got to France.

OK, time to catch up. We’re in Seguret, a tiny and magical village we discovered together a long, long time ago…

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This is what Seguret looked like 500 or 600 years ago 

 

It was 1995, we were biking through Provence, headed to Vaison-la-Romaine, a fairly big city known for its Roman ruins and market. It was hot, we were tired … we passed by a sign for Seguret. Never heard of it. Looked in my Let’s Go France book and it said there was a nice youth hostel with a swimming pool.

A swimming pool! This was a rare treat back in 1995.

That settled it … we’re going to Seguret.

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The youth hostel turned out to be a combination youth hostel/hotel. There was a large room and a couple rows of bunk beds for the men, and a similar room for the women. And you could also get your own, private room … which we did.

And then we headed to the pool, which had a great view down and across the valley.

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Dinner: Everyone gathered at a couple long tables for a wonderful meal, which included all the local, red wine you could drink. I know, all the red wine you can drink … and a swimming pool.

Needless to say, everyone drank a lot of wine, and stuck around for quite a while to drink … and talk. There was a fascinating assortment of people of all ages from all over Europe, as well as several Americans, Brits and South Africans.

We wound up staying three or four nights.

Then there’s the town of Seguret, a true medieval and walled city built into the side of one of the Dentelles mountains, with the ruins of a once-great castle way up above.

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There was a café in town, and not much else. We climbed up to the café most nights with a constantly changing assortment of people from the youth hostel, and Pomme, the youth hostel dog, and our guide to and from the café.

Everyone in town knew Pomme.

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Dinner in the courtyard of La Bastide Bleue with a view of Seguret … and wine from the next town over (Sablet)

 

We loved the place: the youth hostel and Seguret. And returned later in that same trip. And again in 2000, 2007 and right now. There’s a lot more going on in town these days, and tour buses stop by. It’s still quiet in the evening and has a medieval feel, and you can wander the narrow, stone streets in silence.

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The youth hostel is long gone, and this place is now the La Bastide Bleue, and it’s a very nice hotel. The swimming pool is still here … the great courtyard is still here … and so is the town and castle up above. And the restaurant is excellent.

Seguret is still magical.

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Susan doing a Headstand For Humanity in the shadows in front of the ruins of the castle

 

It was in Seguret, in 1995, that I first learned about Mount Ventoux. I’m not sure if we’d ever heard of it, but even if we had, we had no idea that you could climb it on your bike and that people, thousands and thousands of people, came from all over the world to do this. Or that it was considered the hardest and most grueling climb in all the Tour de France.

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Near the top of the Ventoux

 

A rather drunk Belgian couple, whose English got better the more wine they drank, told us all about Mount Ventoux one night at dinner. Perhaps our first night in Seguret.

“It is like this,” the Belgian guy (Remy) told us, holding his arm at a ridiculously steep angle. “But there are many people climbing it on bicycles. Crazy people.”

Crazy people?

I looked at Susan, who was looking at me, and knew exactly what I was thinking.

Yep, a day or two later, I climbed Mount Ventoux on my bike. I’ve climbed the Ventoux several times since, from each of the three base towns (Malaucene, Sault and Bedoin) and in 2010 did this extra-crazy thing where you climb it three times in one day, once from each of the base towns.

Today, we climbed up to the ruins if the castle … and tomorrow we head to Bedoin.

 

We’ll rent bikes, and I plan to ride to the top of the Ventoux on my birthday: October 2. Susan will meet me up top in the rental car. She’s not quite as crazy as me.

However, the weather forecast calls for lots of wind on October 2 … and if it’s pretty windy down below, it’s dangerously windy at the top of the Ventoux. I know this from experience … and that you can literally be blown over the side of the mountain by gusts that reach 80 or 100 miles per hour. It’s dangerous up there at 1,912 meters. Once, in September, it snowed on top of the Ventoux … and I got hyperthermia. And almost got blown off the side of the mountain.

So, I may have do my birthday climb a day or two early. I’m crazy, but not an idiot. Stay tuned…

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My Favorite Rides: The Gorges de la Nesque

This is the first in an on-going series of my all-time favorite rides.

There’s something about a gorge that’s just … well, what else can I say … gorgeous. Sorry to be so cliche-ish. I’m sure several of my former editors just cringed and thought: “Oh Steve, didn’t I teach you anything?”

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Here’s the Nesque view a couple of kilometers past Villes-sur-Auzon

It takes millions and millions of years for a gorge to form, as the water from the river (in this case, the Nesque River, hence the name of the gorge) carves away the rocks, and the cliffs get taller and taller. It reminds me of that episode of the Flintstones cartoon, yes, the Flintstones. How’s that for a long-ago reference? Fred and Barney are out walking and come across the tiniest of creeks. And there’s a sign that says: Grand Canyon.

Anyway, the Gorges de la Nesque is one of my favorite rides. In fact, on one of my Nesque rides, I couldn’t help notice that I was smiling. Maybe you will too.

My Nesque ride usually starts in Bedoin, although it can also begin in Sault or Venesque. So, here we go, from Bedoin … you can click here to see the route.

nesque7From Bedoin (the base city for the most difficult of the three ascents of Mount Ventoux) head east and south toward the little town on Flassan. Then on to Villes-sur-Auzion and onto the D942 and the start of the gorge. Make sure you don’t follow the D1 signs to Sault. The D1 is a much busier and less scenic route.

Hey, what’s that? Off in the distance, looming above everything, all white and ominous at the peak? It Mount Ventoux. Which dominates this region of Provence. It’s everywhere. Mocking me and just daring me to climb it.

From Villes-sur-Auzon you have to climb up and over a preliminary peak to get “inside” the gorge. And once you do, the fun – and amazing views and smiles – begin. It’s a long, gentle – and sometimes a little steep – climb to the top and you pass through three tunnels carved into the side of the stone cliffs. Below, hundreds of feet down, is the river.

During one Nesque ride, I noticed several guys walking around, in the woods and brush above me … carrying guns. “Oh shit, this must be hunting season for cyclists!” It wasn’t. Found out later it was hunting season for … wild boars. And there’s a bit of a controversy, as the hunters may or may not sneak up on mothers in the midst of child birth and started blasting away. And the meat, some say, gives you cancer.

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The Ventoux is everywhere

As I warily rode by the hunters, praying none of them had an itchy trigger finger, a group of about 10 French guys passed me. I joined the pack and was able to keep up with them and even chat a bit as we climbed.

They were from Annecy and had come to Provence to climb the Ventoux, which they had done the day before. Several spoke English and one of the guys told me that one of the guys up at the front of the pack was born and grew up in New York and that I must talk to him when we got to the top. Being guys, we picked up the pace as we approached the last few kilometers of the climb, and turned it into a race. I was able to stay with the lead pack for a kilometer or two, as one, two, and then three riders dropped off the back and quickly fell behind. With a kilometer to go, my legs and lungs were screaming and I was beginning to crack. I wasn’t the only one, and our pack of about six split apart. It was like being in the Tour de France! Two guys surged ahead and the rest of us fell back and finished as an exhausted-yet-smiling group.

We regrouped at the top, next to the viewing station – and I chatted with the guy from New York. We compared route notes, Mount Ventoux experiences, etc. The guys headed back they way we’d come, while I headed down to Sault.

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On another Nesque ride, at the top, was a sheep. One single, solitary sheep. And he (she?) looked lonely. He was hanging out at the viewing station, wondering where the heck all the other sheep had gone.

There wasn’t much I could do … other than take his photo. He didn’t seem to mind

The ride down the gorge to Sault is fast and spectacular, as the valley on the other side is spread out in front of you, with Sault off in the distance, atop a hill. You can see the patchwork of farms, a sea of greens and blues.

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The view across the valley toward Sault … not bad, right?

As you approach Monieux, which is down in the valley, you’ll see the remains of a castle high up on a hill.

Sadly, our ride is coming to an end. There’s a bit of a climb into Sault, which is also usually packed full of cyclists. The Sault route up to the top of the Ventoux is considered the easiest of the three routes and … it is. Kind of. The first 20 Ks are actually easy, then you reach the Chalet Reynard turnoff and join the Bedoin route for the final 6 Ks to the top. The toughest 6 Ks.

nesqueThere’s a nice cafe at the edge of Sault, with a view across the valley and up to the summit of the Ventoux. We’ve stayed in Sault a few times, as it’s actually a nicer town than Bedoin. And, we’ve sat at the cafe, drinking a beer and eating a pizza

Heading back to Bedoin?

There are a few options. You can go back the way you just came and see the Nesque from a entirely different perspective. Or, you can climb the Ventoux and then fly down the final 21K to Bedoin. Or, here’s a nice option: Head back to Monieux. Find the D96 in the middle of town and follow it to the D5 which will take you up and around the south side of the Nesque, but without the view down to the gorge.

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Heading back from Sault … to Bedoin

For more great rides in Provence, check out my eBook: Biking Provence.

This is the first of several posts on my favorite rides. So, stay tuned.

 

 

The Great Guepe Attack

At first it felt like a tickle. On my eye.

And then it felt like a bolt of lightning shooting through my right eyeball and into deep my brain. Followed by another bolt of even more powerful lightning. Followed by lots of cursing.

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The mirror image of my swollen-up face

 

I swiped at my sunglasses, knocking them off my face and onto the road. Something, some sort of large, black insect flew away. I swerved and almost lost my balance, but kept pedaling. And then stopped.

It hurt. Like holy bloody hell. And seemed to get worse, as the pain radiated in ever-expanding circles until it filled my entire head.

This happened on July 8, 2007. We were in Maussane-les-Alpilles (in Provence, a little east of Arles).

First things first, I told myself. I have to find my sunglasses, as they’re prescription sunglasses. And I can’t really see without them. And I need to see in order to cycle my way back to Maussane. Walked back and forth, along the road, where I thought they may have landed, squinting like George in that episode of Seinfeld where he did all the squinting.

Couldn’t find them. Damn. What do I do now? Kind of need them to see. And my regular glasses are back at the hotel. Then I saw a flash of something reflecting in the sun. Under some weeds.

Voila!

It was my sunglasses. I can see again. Although my left eye seemed to be pulsating.

Made my way back to the hotel, where Susan was waiting by the pool.

“What … how did you … what the … does it hurt?” she said, kind of startled. And worried. Seems like my eye was already pretty much swollen shut.

I told her what happened.

“What was it?”

“I have no idea.”

Susan got some glacon (ice) from the guy at the hotel, which (especially back then) was kind of a big deal. Glacon seems to be a rare and precious commodity in France. And the hotter it is, and this was a pretty hot day, the more rare and precious it becomes.

Iced down my eye, took a few Ibuprofen and Benadryl (Susan’s a nurse and brings lots of meds on our bike trips), and a nap. Awoke and my eye was pretty much swollen shut and the entire right side of my face was all bloated up … and angry.

It was 8 p.m. and I was hungry.

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Hey, what are you looking at?

 

We walked down the street … and people stared. I was hideous. Children ran.

Walked into a restaurant and the woman at the front stared in horror. She didn’t speak much English, we didn’t speak much French, but we were able to explain to her that some sort of large (grande), black (noir) insect (insect?) had stung the hell out of my face.

“Guepe, guepe, guepe,” she said, repeating the French word for wasp over and over.

And then, the kind woman brought me some ice.