“Finit à Chalet Reynard, finit à Chalet Reynard”

 

The motorbike roars past, the driver shouting as he reaches each of the riders strung out along the road. I’ve already gone too deep to sit up and offer a response but nod to myself. Finish at Chalet Reynard. Legs screaming, heart racing, lungs burning as the road continues to forge through the forest at an unrelenting ten per cent gradient. That’s what a time trial on Mont Ventoux will do.

I’m riding the Haute Route Ventoux, a three-day sportive based in the shadow of the Giant of Provence, and concluding with a TT on the Tour de France ascent from Bedoin to the 1,912m summit. Ventoux is renowned for its wind-whipped peak and the last time the mountain featured in the Tour de France, the stage was shorted by six kilometres to Chalet Reynard, where the forest gives way to the exposed summit road through Ventoux’s iconic lunar landscape.

With 100km/h winds gusting on the mountain above us, Haute Route organisers have decided to end today’s third and final stage at the same spot, so I rise out of the saddle and empty what little is left in the tank over the final kilometre, the unexpected arrival of the motorbike and shortening of the course acting as a virtual flamme rouge.

Ventoux’s forest road, where the gradient rarely dips below double figures, has taken its toll and, in truth, I’m relieved to see the Haute Route’s hastily-assembled timing mat come into view. I cross the line, slump over my handlebars as I gasp for air and the lactic acid drains out of my legs, and watch lifelessly as a medal is quickly hung around my neck, bringing to a close three days of riding on one of the most famous mountains in cycling.

One mountain, three ascents

The Haute Route Ventoux takes place in early October, offering riders the chance to test their end of season form, not just on the mountain that gives the event its name but the surrounding foothills and minor cols in the French region of Provence. The sportive is one of nine ‘compact’ Haute Route events, from Oman to San Francisco, taking place over three days from one base. Since the launch of the first three-day event in July 2017, organisers have quickly expanded the programme and reduced the number of point-to-point, seven-day events that gave the Haute Route its reputation as one of the toughest sportives on the calendar.

The compact events allow riders to sample the Haute Route experience in a bitesize format, with logistics simplified, less time required away from home or work, and, in truth, less commitment to training required, even if three days of riding around Mont Ventoux is no small undertaking. As I arrive at the Hôtel La Garance for my three-night stay in Bedoin with the south face of Ventoux burning an autumnal orange against the setting sun, and the foreboding summit visible for most of the 90-minute drive from Marseille airport, I can’t help but feel I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

The Haute Route pitches riders against all three of Ventoux’s ascents, with the first stage following a 113km route with 2,700m of climbing and concluding with the ‘easiest’ ascent from Sault. Day two sees riders embark on a 133km route to tackle the northern climb via Malaucène, while the Tour de France ascent from Bedoin is saved for day three’s 21km individual time trial, leaving riders time to enjoy lunch, pack up and catch an evening flight home.

Haute Route 2019 calendar

There are 13 Haute Routes taking place across the globe in 2019, with the endurance event making its debut in Oman and Mexico:

1-3 March: Oman – 3-day
17-19 May: Asheville, USA – 3-day
7-9 June (date TBC): Dolomites, Italy – 3-day
22-28 June: Rockies, USA – 7-day
12-14 July: Alpe d'Huez, France – 3-day
2-4 August: Norway – 3-day
17-23 August: Pyrenees, France – 7-day
23-25 August: Utah, USA – 3-day
25-31 August: Alps, France – 7-day
20-22 September: Stelvio, Italy – 3-day
27-29 September: San Francisco, USA – 3-day
4-6 October: Ventoux, France – 3-day
18-20 October: Mexico – 3-day

For more information and to find out more about the Haute Route Infinity Pass, a one-off payment that gives riders unlimited access to all events, visit the Haute Route website.

Stage one – autumn colours, soft sunshine and roaring wind

Day one is seen as something of a leg-stretcher, with two climbs – described as ‘small’ in the Haute Route roadbook – before our first ascent of Mont Ventoux. The peloton rolls out of Bedoin with the autumn sun quickly warming the chilly air and I stash my arm warmers before we hit the first climb of the day, the Col des Trois Termes. It’s an ascent typical of the area: a half-hour climb at an average of four per cent through a stunning gorge. The road swings left then right, climbing gently before cutting through the rock face, golden under the soft autumnal sunshine.

As I start the descent, the wind whips up, buffeting my progress and setting the tone for the rest of the day. We drop down to Gordes, a postcard-perfect hilltop town, before entering open countryside, vineyards to the left, lavender fields to the right. The group that came over the top of the climb has split up and the wind is roaring so I sit up and wait for a handful of riders behind me, before pressing on, each turn on the front sapping the legs as the gusts grow stronger.

The second climb of the day, the Col de Lagarde, is longer than the first at ten kilometres and now I’m climbing directly into a block headwind, adding an extra few degrees to the seven per cent gradient. The summit comes at 1,101m and I quickly re-fuel before rolling onto the descent, still having to turn the pedals to overcome the gusts and passing through the Provencal town of Sault before hitting the foot of Ventoux. By now the summit is hidden from view – this may be the ‘easiest’ side of Ventoux, but it’s also the longest at just shy of 26km, and once again the northerly wind is taking its toll through the open lavender fields that surround the opening kilometres of the climb.

"The Col des Trois Termes is half-hour climb through a stunning gorge. The road swings left then right, climbing gently before cutting through the rock face, golden under the soft autumnal sunshine"

The forest section that follows offers respite, both from the wind and the fatigue building in my legs, and the autumn colours provide a stunning backdrop to the climb, with the surrounding trees a rainbow of orange, yellow and golden brown. With the juxtaposition of average temperatures still in the 20s and the arrival of autumn colours, it’s easy to understand why this is such a popular time of year to climb Ventoux.

Gaps in the forest offer far-reaching views back down to Sault, the shallow gradient of the climb hiding how high I’ve now climbed. The road drops to a false-flat as I approach Chalet Reynard, where the Sault ascent joins the classic Bedoin climb for the final six kilometres to the top, but by now the wind has grown too strong at the summit and the stage is brought to an early finish. Ventoux may have struck the first blow, but there’s much more to come.

Stage two – perfect conditions for the monster of Malaucène

Of Ventoux’s three routes to the summit, the ascent from Bedoin is the most famous, having featured in the Tour de France on 15 occasions. However, when the Tour climbed Mont Ventoux for the first time, back in 1951, it used the route from Malaucène – often considered just as tough as the revered Bedoin ascent.

By the time I hit the foot of the climb I’ve already got more than 80 miles in the legs, via five climbs on the second day of the Haute Route Ventoux. That included the Gorges de la Nesque, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever ridden – even if I didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy the view.

Having rolled out of Bedoin shortly after sunrise, I arrived at the mouth of the gorge in a large group. The gentle gradient, averaging just over two per cent for nearly 20 kilometres, saw the peloton charge along the balcony road, cut into the sheer cliffside and passing through a series of rock-blasted tunnels with the gorge dramatically falling away. An event like this, where most riders, no matter of their ability, are trying to finish as quickly as possible, leaves you with two choices on a road like this: get spat out of the group and risk a sapping solo ride in no man’s land, or hang on for dear life and hope you’re not burning too many matches for the main dust-up of the day on Ventoux.

"When the Tour climbed Mont Ventoux for the first time, back in 1951, it used the route from Malaucène – often considered just as tough as the revered Bedoin ascent"

Fast forward a few hours and I’m now down to my final strike against the ignition as Ventoux rears its ugly head, the road steepening from its initial eight per cent to more than 11 per cent, where it remains for more than three kilometres. This is the toughest section of the Malaucène climb, with the double-digit gradient slowing my pace to a crawl and the dead-straight road making it feel like the suffering will never end.

The reward is a couple of kilometres of respite and breathtaking views north across the plains of Provence, all the way to the Alps. As I climb even higher, mentally ticking off the remaining kilometre markers, the views through the trees are all the more spectacular thanks to Mont Ventoux’s unique prominence above the surrounding land. On a clear day like this, it feels like I can see all the way back to London.

Eventually the forest gives way to Ventoux’s lunar landscape and the summit comes into view. There’s not a breath of wind today and I climb out of the saddle for a final burst, fuelled by adrenaline through the remaining hairpins that twist and turn their way up to the iconic mast that marks the top of the mountain and the finish of stage two.

Having been thwarted by the weather on stage one, I’ve conquered Mont Ventoux and, with the warm sun beating down, all there’s left to do is truly enjoy the view atop one of cycling’s greatest climbs, before starting the descent to Bedoin and rounding off a century after a truly epic day in the saddle.

Stage three – time trial day and a solo summit attempt

The Haute Route promises a ‘ride like a pro’ experience, with timed and ranked stages, leaders’ jerseys, closed roads and a daily massage for all riders. You may even pass – or more likely, be passed by – a pro on the road, with Frank Schleck and Dean Downing also taking on the Haute Route Ventoux.

However, if one element of the experience offers amateur riders a glimpse into life as a pro, it’s lining up on a start ramp for an individual time trial. All Haute Route events include a TT and, for me, that means 21km and 1,600m of ascent from Bedoin to the summit on the climb made famous by the Tour de France.

As the start marshall counts me down from five, I make a final pact with myself to try and pace the effort – not easy with a string of riders to chase up the road, and countless chasing from behind, too. After two stages I’ve found myself roughly halfway down the rankings.

Five, four, three, two, one – I accelerate down the start ramp and tuck in for well over an hour of pain. The opening six kilometres of the Bedoin ascent are relatively tame, gently rising through the vineyards, the foreboding bulk of Ventoux on my left and the weather station only a speck in the sky. It’s enough to strike fear into any rider this early into the ascent, not least in a time trial.

That soon disappears, however, with the arrival of Ventoux’s infamous forest section. The road turns left and, with it, immediately ramps up to ten per cent, where it stays for nearly ten kilometres. Surrounded by trees and with no view of the remaining climb to come, the road feels claustrophobic; the consistently heavy gradient, with no respite or opportunity to recover, quickly taking its toll. Immediately I ride into purgatory and there’s no escape.

"Surrounded by trees and with no view of the remaining climb to come, the road feels claustrophobic; the consistently heavy gradient, with no respite or opportunity to recover, quickly taking its toll. Immediately I ride into purgatory and there’s no escape"

When I left Bedoin the morning air was still but now, an hour later and more than 800m higher, Ventoux is beginning to stir, the wind whipping through the treetops and occasionally gusting through any gaps in the dense forest. I push on, eager to reach Chalet Reynard and escape the clutches of the forest road, regularly rising out of the saddle to counter the gradient, despite my mind, lungs and body saying otherwise.

The call then comes from the motorbike – the time trial is being cut short. I’ve got one kilometre to go until Chalet Reynard and, with the steep slopes beginning to ease, it’s time to make that final push for the revised finish. Having crossed the line and recovering, it’s time to descend back to Bedoin but the summit of Ventoux is calling. With the first stage also cut short, I’m yet to fully scale this side of the climb – Ventoux’s mistral winds can strike at any time and we’ve been unlucky – so I push on, determined to reach the summit and a number of Haute Route riders have made the same decision.

Soon after leaving the protection of the forest and Chalet Reynard, I can understand why the time trial was shortened. The wind is beyond fierce – far stronger than anything I’ve ever ridden in before – and it only grows in strength as I inch towards the summit, my front wheel constantly quivering, and regularly being thrown right or left across the road as the gusts nudge towards 100km/h.

I pass the aptly-named Col des Tempêtes (Storm Pass) shortly before the summit and am forced to unclip. The sky above may be blue but this is the other side of Ventoux – the side that, along with the severity of the climb, gives the Giant of Provence its reputation. The wind is strongest through the final hairpin, where it feels like I’m riding sideways and am nearly forced off the side of the road, but I’m at the summit. Ventoux via Bedoin.

With conditions like this, there’s not much time to hang around, so I quickly savour the view towards the Mediterranean and start the white-knuckle descent, inching my way back to Chalet Reynard before the wind finally drops again and I’m able to release the brakes. In three days I’ve truly learned why Mont Ventoux has such a fearsome name. It’s a beautiful and brutal climb in every sense.