Climbs: Mont Ventoux (from Bédoin)
Updated: Feb 27, 2021
Location: Provence, France
Length (outbound): 21.24km
Maximum gradient: 12%
Average gradient: 7.4%
George's climb rating: 9/10
Unmissable from over 90km away as you travel down the Rhône Valley, the 'Giant of Provence' stands at large, providing a terrifying jolt to the heart of any cyclists making their pilgrimage. Goosebumps travel the arm and hairs on your neck stand to attention, as the white caps of Ventoux first come into view. The mountain looks immediately out of place, as though someone has drawn it onto an otherwise flat region. But it is not a drawing, it is one of cycling's greatest mountains and to climb it is a right of passage for many. There is such history and myth surrounding Mont Ventoux, that to climb the 'Windy Mountain', is to make a pilgrimage to cycling's history. The Ventoux, with its bleached white dome, is cycling's most feared climb, whilst simultaneously being the climb that almost every rider aspires to conquer.
Racked with nerves ahead of the ultimate test..
For the British, to climb Ventoux is to pay homage to the late, great Tom Simpson, who collapsed and died on the slopes of Ventoux, heartbreakingly only around 1 kilometre from its summit. Through a mixture of dehydration, intoxication and exhaustion, Simpson's body could not go on, despite his courageous pleas to his team staff to continue. 'Major Tom', on 13 July 1967, became another soul lost to this mountain which feasts on death.
"There are places that are possessed and places that have bad vibes for people, I suspect the Ventoux is one of those... the other place that compares to it is the Casse Déserte on the Izoard, these are both very inhospitable alien places... it's not a human place."
William Fotheringham, author of 'Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson'
The Ventoux is not simply a difficult climb, it is notoriously a dangerous place for human beings, as alluded to by William Fotheringham. It is not just Simpson that has died on Ventoux, so have many amateur cyclists in pursuit of the summit. But it is not only cyclists that have died here, so have many more unlucky souls, some struck by flying rocks, others involved in motoring incidents. The common underlying feature between the 10 or so unnatural deaths that occur here each year, is the Ventoux itself. Perhaps the French philosopher, Roland Barthes, was correct in his assessment, that 'Ventoux is a God of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made'. The term 'death climb' is often bandied around with Mont Ventoux, and not for hyperbole. With its inhospitable summit, stripped of trees by Napoleon to build his ships, and the extraordinary climate that batters Ventoux each year, this is a place where humans are not meant to be. Humans are not meant to climb Ventoux, we are meant to look at it from a distance, with fear and deference to this remarkable mountain. But cyclists are, as we have gathered by now, not ordinary humans. Cyclists are drawn to the impossible, drawn to the inhospitable. Just as Casse Déserte is the target of many cyclists, so is Ventoux. Although Ventoux may very well be a 'God of Evil' that requires sacrifices, we cyclists see this as a challenge, not a deterrence. To paraphrase the great English climber George Mallory, why climb Mont Ventoux(?), because it is there.
Far from the 'death climb', however, the Ventoux can also be a beautiful experience, something that, as Jeremy Whittle describes, can be 'liberating, cleansing, redemptive'. In fact, in response to the fear that grips you prior to riding Ventoux for the first time, the initial portion of the climb from Bédoin is remarkably comforting. For the first 5.6km, you could be forgiven for thinking this is going to be a beautiful and gentle climb through the vineyards of the Provence, as the road meanders upwards at an average 4.4% gradient to Saint Esteve. The fields are beautiful and green, the vineyards line the road on either side. The road itself is typical of southern France, remarkably smooth to the average British cyclist, who is used to tackling potholes more than anything else. If riding in the early morning (as you should do to avoid the burning heat), the sunrise will be stunning, rising above the lower slopes of Ventoux in front of you, with the road to Saint Esteve travelling eastwards. For the first six kilometres, the average gradient per kilometre does not rise above 5.8%.
Despite not climbing viciously, you quickly rise above the plateau that surrounds Bédoin, offering you a lovely view over your right shoulder as you skirt eastwards to Saint Esteve. Enjoy these first kilometres, the road is gentle, the vineyards are sumptuous and your legs are fresh. Saviour the moment, it will not last.
After passing through a pretty village called Saint-Colombe, where you can grab water from a fountain, the road will begin to bend to the right, heading south, and you will be confronted with what initially looks like the end of the road, before you realise you are approaching one of Ventoux's only hairpins. This hairpin swings you northwards and into the true 'death climb'. This hairpin is the infamous Saint Esteve bend and has put the fear of God up many a rider before you, even the professionals. Mont Ventoux has a long and storied history as a hill climb racing route, for motor vehicles that is. The Saint Esteve bend is as infamous to them, as it is to cyclists. For cyclists it marks the end of the gradual climb and the start of the Forêt Communale de Bédoin, where cyclists go to lose their marbles. For motorists, it marks the bend where Europe's greatest cars have tested their turning ability and slalomed their way towards the summit. Entering the forest at 544m in altitude, the following 15.6km will see an altitude increase of 1,365m.
"It is a bend so savage that it immediately fuels self-doubt. This is the bend of which Eros Poli, stage winner over the Ventoux in 1994's Tour de France, said: 'I thought I was dying'."
Jeremy Whittle, author of 'Ventoux: Sacrifice and Suffering on The Giant of Provence'.
As previously mentioned, the climb from Bédoin to Saint Esteve is smooth sailing, it invokes a false sense of confidence. You would be forgiven for entering the hairpin and doubting the legend of this mythic climb, but once beyond the hairpin, this becomes a game of survival. Whatever you do, do not go into the red...
It is awe inspiring at first, as through a gap in the trees, you can see the weather station that sits atop the peak of Ventoux.
The station will make sporadic appearances throughout the next 9.5 kilometres until Chalet Reynard, but it will not provide solace from the pain-inducing climb. Until Chalet Reynard, the average gradient per kilometre does not dip below 8.8%, reaching 10.5% average throughout the 9th kilometre. It is not simply the steepness of the climb that bites through the forest, it is the lack of mental stimulation as the road travels almost bang-straight, with even the slightest meandering of the road providing a welcome relief.
It is through this stretch of kilometre upon kilometre of straight road that you will be teased with the incredible speed at which cyclists descend Ventoux in the opposite direction, giving you a glimpse of what you could be doing, if you ever get to the top of this damned mountain...
If the legs are good through the forest section, and you can get your head down in the thoughts of the greats that have graced this climb, then you will be fine. In contradiction to the words I pen, I actually thoroughly enjoyed the entire climb the first time I summited Ventoux. My mind raced with the thoughts of Eddy Merckx storming to victory in 1970, Marco Pantani in 2000, Luxembourg great Charly Gaul (the first victor atop Ventoux in 1958). I was thinking back to watching Nairo Quintana in last year's Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, thinking of how easy he made the forest section look. There is pleasure in overtaking fellow cyclists, as harsh as that sounds. Some days you're the hammer, some days you're the nail, make sure you enjoy those days when you're the hammer, that's what I say! As the days begins to heat up, the forest can provide relief from the searing summer sun. It is not all bad. However, more fool the rider who climbs the Ventoux in the early afternoon...
Having completed my first ascent in the morning and having tucked into a lovely cold beverage in Bédoin, the thought of climbing Ventoux once more came to mind. I wasn't done with this climb, I knew it would be my last chance for a long time, so it was time to make use of it. There is clearly a romantic quality to Ventoux that draws riders back to it. It was this obsession-inducing element, that led James Welsh, AKA Kamera, to attempt to ride the climb four times a day, for five days, in search of inspiration for their electronic track which perfectly encapsulates the mountain. It is this alluring nature of Ventoux that leads riders to summit the mountain three times in a day to join the Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux Club. Cinglé du Mont-Ventoux: literally, 'Mont Ventoux crazed'. On a blisteringly hot summer's day last year, I was indeed Mont Ventoux crazed, and I am here to warn you of the dangers of cycling Ventoux in the early afternoon.
It quickly became apparent to me that cycling the Ventoux at this point was not the done thing. In the morning, the climb was reasonably busy with folk cladded in lycra, turning into a packed affair once 9am came. The climb was littered with professional photographers, all looking to make a quick buck with the stunning images they can capture of the amateur cyclists riding their hallowed mountain. But once it comes to 3pm in the afternoon, with the summer day's temperature at 40 degrees Celsius, there are no longer photography companies on the climb, there are only the most crazed cyclists left on Ventoux.
The issue with afternoon riding is not just the almost unbearable heat, but the beasts that the Forêt Communale de Bédoin unleashes. The beasts in question are horse-flies, hundreds of them! When speaking to The Cycling Podcast, James Welsh paid close attention to the flies and how nobody mentions them in the literature of Ventoux. Well, I am here to inform you of the horse-flies... oh the bloody horse-flies... If climbing Mont Ventoux was not hard enough, try being forced to sprint through the forest as a result of tens of horse-flies circling your body. Perhaps the best form of defence is to remain calm, because apparently wasps and alike are attracted to fear, or something you exude when in fear (Lord knows...), but humans are not rational beings all of the time. It takes a brave man to stay calm in the face of a horse-fly onslaught, I am not that brave man. Instead I frantically tried to out-sprint the pests (stupid, I know). This back and forth lasted for 20 minutes or more, until I finally accepted I had new accomplices on this ascent of Ventoux. Myself and the horse-flies were finally at one, but not before I had gone deeply into the red. The tale of this story folks... do not climb Ventoux at 3pm on an August's day that draws temperatures exceeding 40 degrees..
However, if you aren't the kind of rider to time yourself up Ventoux in pursuit of personal bests, I recommend taking time out to visit the shelter-turned-museum dedicated to La Course de côte du Mont Ventoux (Mont Ventoux Hill Climb), it has some fascinating photographs scattered on plaques on the wall. This sheltered building is situated halfway through the forest and was not my planned stop. This was instead my supposed refuge from the aforementioned killer horse-flies. You see my bike on the floor there? That is where I abandoned my reliable steed and legged it across the road in an attempt to escape my predators- to no avail may I add!
Just as on most Alpine climbs, there are kilometre stones to mark your progress, which can serve to provide hope, or bewilder the rider who feels the markers are passing all-too-slowly. It is the 7km marker to look out for, it is here that the forest is coming to its thankful conclusion. After battling the gradients that rarely, if ever, sink below 9%, a left bend is closely followed by a right-hand one, slowly bringing into sight the fabled Chalet Reynard, the finishing line for the Queen stage of the Tour de la Provence. It is at Chalet Reynard that Nairo Quintana grabbed the lead of Provence last year. It is at Chalet Reynard that Chris Froome gave Mo Farah a run for his money. This marks the end of the forest and the beginning of the iconic 'moonscape'.
Chalet Reynard, standing at 1,426m, is a refuge spot first opened in 1927, and its left-hand bend provides possibly the only 50 metres of 'flat' tarmac on the entire Ventoux climb. From here the difficulty is the weather more so than the gradient. This is why Jeremy Whittle speculates that the decisive moves on the Ventoux have often occurred prior to Chalet Reynard. In 2013, Chris Froome's blistering detonation on Ventoux happened before Chalet Reynard, for example. The café-refuge can either be used a rest stop on the ascent or descent, but beware of circling wasps and horse-flies who are attracted by the bins! OK, enough about the horse-flies, I promise.
Beyond Chalet Reynard comes the limest0ne surface of the final 6km. The trees slowly dwindle in number until there is no vegetation left. Soon comes the barren landscape that pilots flying south to Italy use as a reference point. I hope you said your prayers the night before, as the weather conditions on this part of the climb will dictate your Ventoux experience. The exposure on the upper slopes of Ventoux is remarkable, with views extending hundreds of miles in the distance, in all directions. With winds reaching 350km/h at their highest, this is not a weather system to take lightly. In fact, it is often the case that the Giant of Provence is closed due to high winds. Should you be faced with a headwind in the final 6km, I pity you... get your head down, grind it out, it will end- eventually.
'Its climate makes it a damned terrain, a testing place for heroes, something like a higher hell'.
After momentary glimpses in the forest, the bend immediately proceeding Chalet Reynard will bring the Ventoux summit into clear sight for the first time in a while. This is both a blessing and a curse; whilst serving as evidence that the end is near, let me just say that the end is not actually near.
It is on this barren landscape that Tom Simpson withered away under the heat of July 1967, collapsing off his bike once, before demanding to be remounted, and subsequently collapsing for one final time.
"... another world up there among the bare rocks and the glaring sun".
Perhaps the most jarring account from that tragic day is how Simpson's body reacted following his death. He most likely died before tumbling over, his heart gave up whilst he was upright and as he tumbled onto the scree limestone, his hands formed what is known as the 'death grip' on his handlebars. Even after his heart stopped beating, his hands still firmly gripped his handlebars in an echo of the man himself. Tom Simpson would notoriously drag his body to lengths that not even other professional cyclists could achieve. In his final moments, his body gave one last jolt of energy to grip the handlebars and resulted in a frantic struggle to remove him from his bike to begin medical attention. Unfortunately, it was too late for Simpson, Britain's first World Champion, and his death would transform Mont Ventoux into the mythical beast it remains to this day. "On! On!", Tom wearily demanded of the men who put him back on his bike... although Tom gave his final breath that day, he still lives on in the memory of all cycling fans. Each year, cyclists just like me make the pilgrimage to Ventoux, to pay our respects to Britain's first cycling superstar.
Following the first couple of kilometres after Chalet Reynard, the respite begins to end and the mountain punishes you with a last 4km kick to the line. In the final 4km, the average gradient per kilometre goes: 7.4%, 8.3%, 9.1%, 10%. You read correctly, the final kilometre stands at an average of 10%.
Once you have found yourself in the 'moonscape', do not think about attacking this climb, focus on survival, literally. Temperatures can soar on the top of Ventoux, with the scree reflecting the sun directly onto you, producing a sweat-drenched mess at the summit. But enjoy these moments. Mont Ventoux is famed for its limestone landscape, this is what stands out from 100 kilometres away in any direction. These upper slopes are where a cycling legend took his final breaths, these upper slopes are what you will wax lyrical about to your friends back home. This is where you make it count.
As the road travels north, the summit seems simultaneously near but oh so far away, dipping in and out of view as you weave your way across the scree. Make sure to take in the views to the west, and think of those who are simultaneously looking up towards the mountain, the mountain you are about to summit. Legends have been made on Ventoux. Legends have also been defeated on Ventoux. One of the most endearing qualities of Ventoux to me, is how this mountain brought Lance Armstrong to his knees. He never had a good day on Ventoux. No matter what Armstrong had in his body, he could never master the Giant of Provence. The Giant of Provence defeated Lance Armstrong. Thank you for that Ventoux, thank you.
"I consider the Ventoux the hardest climb in France, I don't think anything compares. Alpe d'Huez doesn't compare, the Pyrenees don't compare... the Ventoux is truly relentless".
Inside the final 2 kilometres of the climb, the Tom Simpson memorial will come into view as the road bends around to the right. Standing high on the scree slopes, the white stone will send jitters down your spine and provide one of those moments you will never forget. Riders often choose to stop here to pay their respects and perhaps leave a little something in tribute. Professional riders will often take off their casquettes as they as pass, although that is less common nowadays with the advent of compulsory helmet wearing. Whilst still a pro, David Miller would carry a casquette in his back pocket to throw onto the memorial as he passed. Millar rode up Ventoux with Bradley Wiggins in the mid 2000s, where upon passing the memorial, both riders took off their helmets and paid their respect. Wiggins would later go onto have a career-defining day on Ventoux in 2009, when a solid ride saw him hold onto fourth place on GC as the riders entered Paris, which was later promoted to a podium place in light of Lance Armstrong's confession to doping. On that day, Wiggins sellotaped a picture of Simpson onto his top tube, to provide inspiration as he chugged his way up the Giant.
"For England, God bless you Tommy", were my Dad's words to Tom as we passed his final resting place last summer. I must admit, he was looking weary at this point, but the words were said with gusto nonetheless. Tom deserves nothing less.
When the Tour finished on the summit just three years after Simpson's death, it was Eddy Merckx who won the stage, before needing oxygen at the summit (as did Chris Froome in 2013). As he passed the memorial, Merckx doffed his cap to his departed friend, in a touching moment from one great to another. Eddy was the only professional to travel across from the Channel for Simpson's funeral, the two had been teammates at Peugeot.
As previously mentioned, the final kilometre averages 10% and is a punishing end to the climb. However, with the summit in your sights, this provides the necessary motivation to exude every last drop of energy in your legs. In a very cruel manner, after serving as a brutal climb somewhat in part to a lack of hairpins (to split up the gradients), Ventoux provides a hairpin to negotiate 100m from the summit. Turning south, the hairpin brings you to the summit, at which point you will find views extending to the Pyrenees in one direction, Italy in another, and the Alps to the north. It is utterly spectacular and worth the time taking it all in. At the summit, you feel well and truly on top of the world. Having conquered cycling's most feared climb, the reward is a view that looks down upon the world.
If I had the opportunity, I would spend a week or more on this mountain, getting to know its every rise and slight bend, approaching it from every route. It is the most awe-inspiring climb in cycling. There is a reason it has only been used as a summit finish 10 times since 1958, because it is quite simply feared by all. Bad things happen on Ventoux, the 'death climb'. To reach the top in one piece is an achievement in itself. Your average club cyclist will simply not conquer this beast without training, it is that hard. Well done to all who make it atop the Giant of Provence.
For those wanting to know more about Mont Ventoux, I couldn't recommend Jeremy Whittle's book enough. It is in this book that you will find the stories, fables and memories that have made this mountain the most daunting climb in cycling. It will equally terrify you and inspire you.
Despite this article focusing on the climb that is Mont Ventoux, it would be remiss of me to not mention the incredible descent back to Bédoin that awaits. With the summit closed to cars last summer as a result of maintenance, it offered incredibly desolate roads that were mostly home to cyclists. With a fairly straightforward but steep descent, one can fly down Ventoux as though they were Julian Alaphillipe descending into Valloire. The road is beautifully smooth and there is little in the way of hazards. Whilst caution must always be taken on descents, let your wings spread on the way down to Bédoin, it is extraordinary.
Mont Ventoux is cycling's most revered climb, standing between the Alps and Pyrenees, a lone mountain in the Provence region. This is apt, as the Ventoux is a mountain of its own, with a history and reputation that sets it apart from all other climbs in cycling. Whilst many climbs are hard for cyclists, Ventoux is feared beyond cycling. Home to hundreds of unnatural deaths, such as a lightning bolt killing a spectator in the 1994 Tour de France, the Ventoux lives up to its reputation as a 'God of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made'. It is for that reason, alongside its brutal nature as a climb, that the Ventoux is such a daunting task. But this history is also what draws cyclists to the mountain year upon year, some wanting to conquer the beast, some wanting to make a pilgrimage in honour of Tom Simpson. No matter what the reason for climbing Mont Ventoux, cyclists will find an incredible challenge in front of them.
I urge any cyclist scaling Ventoux to take the Bédoin route, as it is the iconic route which has been tackled by legends and the route which drew the final breaths from Simpson.
There is a saying from the locals which sums up the difficulty of skiing upon Ventoux, 'Qui skie au Ventoux, skie partout': the ones who ski in Mont Ventoux, are the ones who can ski everywhere. I will summise this piece with a saying of my own: the ones who climb Mont Ventoux, are the ones who can climb everywhere.
Why climb Mont Ventoux? Because it is there.