Around and Over Ventoux

Reprinted from Peloton Magazine

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What makes for a perfect week of riding? Traveling to the South of France? Spending days on the bike between the hills, vineyards and medieval towns of Provence, followed by evenings in the setting sun at a private vineyard? Refueling with local cuisine and more wine and cheese than you’ve consumed in months?

Robert Deeley’s CycleVentoux tour company provides just that framework: lodging amid perfectly pastoral landscapes, a physical and spiritual connection to the Domaine de Mourchon vineyard in the village of Séguret, and a seemingly endless supply of amazing roads. Throw in an impressive depth of local knowledge, rolling van support and a welcoming cast of local characters, and you might have that perfect week.

My journey with Cycleventoux dropped me in the mix with a gang of New Englander’s, who were already friends and acquaintances. While potentially awkward for me to infiltrate such a tightly knit group, I couldn’t have been more welcomed - and I slipped into the banter, jokes, and ride planning quite easily. All I had to contend with was just how fit, energetic and Strava KON - obsessed this crowd would be. It wouldn’t be a week of cruising through the countryside - these guys were here to ride!

I set about learning the who’s who of the posse - Mike, Mike, Terry, greg, Skip, John, Dee, Kate and Michelle - as we assembled at our home for the week, the former winemaker’s house at the Domaine de Mourchon. Once organized, we headed to a shop in nearby Malaucene to retrieve our bikes for the week ahead before enjoying a quick evening spin back to the house to help counter the jet lag that was about to hit us.

Among our hosts for the week was Gene, also a New Englander, who proved to be one of CycleVentoux’s greatest assets for our larger-than usual group. A talented and willing chef, storyteller and occasional ball-buster, Gene also knew the villages back roads of Provence as well as any Frenchman and he offered valuable insights as we planned rides for the days to come. Solicited or not, he also offered lessons on French cuisine and the art of la vie provençal.

The first real ride on our first full day in Provence offered a perfect opening salvo. We rolled from our hilltop perch in Séguret through ancient Vaison-la-Romaine and into the wildly romantic Toulourenc valley. We tasted our first extended climb, which of course was only a small hors d’oeuvre for the week to come. We completed a clockwise circumnavigation of the mighty Mont Ventoux, which loomed large in our view that day and in our minds as the primary challenge of the week to come.

No matter how fast the riding, how long the climbs or how much wine was consumed each night at the house, the energy of the group couldn’t be denied. It seemed only natural to tackle the Ventoux on our second full day of riding. Robert, our leader, charted what can only be described
as one of the best 55-mile loops you can imagine. Leaving from the house, with its unobstructed view of Mont Ventoux, we rode a perfect warm-up through the shady village of Malaucene, over the gentle Col de la Madeleine (not to be confused with its larger namesake in the Alps) and Bédoin, to begin the ascent of the Giant of Provence from the most famous of its three corners.

The aggressors in the group were quickly on their way as we turned onto route D974 and began the long, steady rise to the forested section of the climb. I settled into my own modest yet respectable rhythm. Riding a bike with a compact crank reassured me that my legs were going to make it just fine. I would not be setting any speed records though, now was I trying to.

I had climbed Ventoux by bike once before, 10 years ago, and with greater fitness. How I ever did it with a 39x25 bewilders me now that I’ve experienced more forgiving gearing. I knew this time that pacing myself would be critical. I had no intention of starting fast and blowing up. I had
looked forward to this ride for months and intended to enjoy it - as much as anyone can enjoy a climb that averages 7.6 percent for 21.4 kilometers that even Tour de France champions find daunting.

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After the long slog through the forest, I got me second wind on the approach to Chalet Reynard, the popular restaurant-bar that sits at the mental mid-point of the climb. I pulled over to take on a last gel for the journey and deftly popped it, oozing sticky sugar all over my hands. Having come across Robert in the support van at this critical juncture, I signed for a minimal rinse from a water bottle, eager to keep moving to the top. I pulled myself up the black ribbon of road winding between the mountain’s infamous white rocks to the summit - where the mountain goats were waiting for me and one other straggler. We regrouped, grabbed some photos, and donned an extra layer for the plunge down to lunch in Malaucene.

Amusingly enough, some of us experienced our worst bonk of the week during our tour of the Domaine de Mourchon’s winery that afternoon. We had conquered Ventoux, put in 55 spirited miles, and finished with one final, uphill scramble to the house in Séguret. Happy as we were to see the winemaking operation and hear about the property, we were eager to shut down and replenish calories burned on the mountainside. In due time, another meal cooked by Gene set us right, fueled of course by a ridiculous number of bottles of Domaine de Mourchon red.

Mont Ventoux provided ample challenge and reward, yet I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun going uphill than I did all the way up the Col de Murs on our fourth day of riding. Winding its way up from the hilltop town of Venasque, the Col de Murs offered 10 kilometers of sheltered, snaking ascent past rocky crags and pines with nary a motorist in sight. With predominantly gentle grades of 3 to 4 percent, it is mu kind of climb: as tame or as tough as you want it to be.

Climbs like this can be found throughout the area; stringing them together into half-day rides is almost too easy.The entire week followed this beautiful pattern. Morning rides stretched into the afternoon, lunches in small towns offered a chance to regroup and relax, and evenings allowed us all to unwind. Of course, unwind may be a relative term. Such was the level of statistical enthusiasm of the group that we seemed to relive each adventure with the daily download. Ride segments were discovered and dissected, and each outing was rehashed through tales of pain, glory and who ate what for lunch.

Weeks this perfect are hard to come by, and they pass too quickly, but we left no regrets out on the back roads of Provence. We rode to our abilities, tackled tough and beautiful terrain, enjoyed delicious food and wine, and embraced the charms of a region that remains a mecca
for those seeking the good life. What could be better than to discover that good life on two wheels with good friends?