Known as The Giant of Provence, The Bald Mountain, nicknamed ‘Domaine des Anges’ (Domain of the Angels), Mont Ventoux was known to the Gauls as Vintur after an obscure local god reckoned to live up there, presumably because he liked the ferocious gales of the col des Tempêtes blasting through his frost-gelled hair. Ventoureso is the Provençal word for the north-east wind. There is also a claim for Ven-Top, ‘snowy peak’ in ancient Gallic. Mediaeval Latin records it as Mons Ventosus and Mons Ventorius. Ventosus (windy) transmutes into the French word.
The lower slopes of Ventoux, today, are thickly wooded but at the end of the 18th century they had been denuded by centuries of depredation, the constant attritional passage of men and animals and over-grazing. Flocks were driven up on all sides for the summer transhumance, trampling or cropping any burgeoning tree shoots. Since the droppings the animals left were insufficient nutriment for the soil, humus, mulch and ground box was gathered from the higher woodlands to rot down into compost. Timber was felled (without replanting) for the making of charcoal or to fuel lime-kilns. Add to this destruction the ravages of pigs, great devourers of acorns, the clamorous demand for wood by the naval shipyards and Arsenal in Toulon for the French royal navy during the 17th century and by nascent industrial enterprises in the 18th century – glass-making factories, lavender distilleries, manufacturers of faïence pottery and tiles – as well as the trade that had existed for aeons: firewood for heating and cooking, timber for house-building. The French Revolution delivered the coup de grâce, because many tracts of forest which had been the privileged property of aristocrats were vengefully ruined, if not destroyed utterly, by angry claimants to a new liberty. By 1838, the situation on Ventoux was catastrophic. On the southern slopes there was no woodland between 550 and 1150 metres of altitude, the zone dubbed ‘locale of thyme and lavender’ by two contemporary naturalists. To compound this disaster, the river Toulourenc, which flows along the northern base of Ventoux, flooded the whole area, devastated the agriculture of the valley and buried the fields under an alluvial mess. The floods of 1840, ‘41 and ‘42 were no less violent. Happily, a concerted campaign of replanting, afforestation, rehabilitation and restructuring began in 1875 and continues, still, with the result that Ventoux is now the most thickly wooded region in the Vaucluse département and supports a rich variety of fauna and flora. Its south face is covered with the largest gathering of cedars in Europe and the variety of its now-abundant woodland includes a number of pines – maritime, black or Austrian, Scotch, red – larch, spruce and fir, several species of oak, beech, maple, the service tree, mountain ash. Truffles from Ventoux go to the market in Carpentras but the culling of its mushrooms is forbidden without licence. Short-toed eagles cruise the winds, calm and at full spread of their wings, so too buzzards, ospreys, black kites, peregrine falcons and royal eagles. The long-eared owl – a comical-looking bird like a character in the Muppet Show – feeds on small furry mammals, the crossbill can crack open a pine cone to expose the juicy nut and the wheatear chomps on butterflies. The rare Orsini’s viper lurks on the slopes of Mont Serein, a named peak on the north side, some 5 kilometres below the summit of Ventoux, its sole habitat in Provence. Your Orsini’s viper can attain a length of 20 inches, according to some sources, but 38 inches according to others. It has coloration similar to that of a common adder, is docile some say, though others impute to it an irritable disposition, liable to strike if approached and deliver a bite that can cause fatal blood-poisoning. Or not. Don’t chance it. The small-toed eagle relishes it for sustenance.
Three ways up
1. From Malaucène 340m
HEIGHT GAIN: 1569M
MAXIMUM GRADIENT: 10%
This is a fairly routine climb for most of the way and, until the last few kilometres, offers little of the dramatic tension on the south side. The road is quite wide until those final cranks of the hairpins, long straights which eat into your will, a nasty spell of around 10% for 4 kilometres at halfway but, for those two contrary reasons on the way up, it does offer the best descent of the mountain. The views as you fly down into Malaucène are stupendous; as I say in a piece I wrote about Ventoux, you witness ‘pure geography through eagles’ eyes’.
The last 5 kilometres break well clear of trees and negotiate three sizeable bends onto the final narrow ramp up beside bare rock and the final turn onto the Col des Tempêtes.
It may, perhaps, seem unduly disdainful to say that there is little drama in this approach. For sure, the shock, and relief, of actually turning the corner onto the summit of Ventoux itself is always dramatic, from whichever direction you come.
2. Eastern approach from Sault 765m
HEIGHT GAIN: 1144M
MAXIMUM GRADIENT: 10%
Sault is a pleasant little town, and on any day in the season, cyclists gather outside the shops in its narrow thoroughfare, either about to ride or having just ridden the Bald Mountain.
The first 19.7 kilometres are easy enough, through broad hectares of farmland, descending gently a short way to 720m past lavender fields. As the climbing begins, stunted trees jostle the winding road and the foreground occludes any view of the ridges now, so there is that slight unreality juxtaposing the absence of menace here with what’s in wait up there.
Just past 19km, 1420m, Chalet Reynard hoves into sight. The road up from Bedoin joins from the left and, like Dante’s Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’intrate (Abandon hope all ye who enter here), a sign growls ‘Le Mont Ventoux D974’ at you.
3. Southern approach from Bédoin 300m
HEIGHT GAIN: 1609M
MAXIMUM GRADIENT: 10.5%
This, the way the races come, is the most interesting and the hardest.
Bédoin, founded in 1250, was burnt to the ground during the French Revolution and 180 of its inhabitants slaughtered on the orders of a local priest and a young cavalry officer from Marseille, Louis Gabriel Suchet, later one of Napoleon’s most brilliant and ruthless generals, in reprisal for the crime of incivisme – uncivic behaviour. Someone had sawn through the tree of Liberty planted in the own square one night. (Umbrageous plane trees were planted in towns and villages as meeting places and symbols of the new liberty and many still flourish.)
The D974 takes you north-east out of town. On the distant horizon above tree-clad slopes sits that frightful peak, its pallid cap like the unlanced head of a boil. Cherry orchards, a Caveau de Vin in Sainte Colombe, a nursery garden, olive grove and Les Bruns, a tiny hamlet, shows off extensive vineyards laid out below to the right. Black poplars line the road between trim meadows and then on a shallow climb over the Col de la Madeleine (432m) through oaks and firs.
Near a restaurant, Le Mas des Vignes, a vulgar daub defaces the road, ‘Pédales fuck you go home’ which is homo- rather than cyclo-phobic, pédale meaning ‘pederast’. As for ‘Kono Flamshit’ next to it, your guess is as good as mine.
(A mas is a farmhouse of the form typical in Provence, from the Latin manere, ‘to stay’, the same root which gives maison and mansion.)
The continuing re-afforestation, begun in 1861, gets lots of hearty notice on this road. Two varieties of oak, the ilex (French yeuse Provençal euse) and the kerm or scarlet oak, both evergreen species of oak, are good to see. The kerm is home to the kermes insect, coccus ilicis, whose dried carapace, a deep mulberry red, is used for the red dye cochineal. (Greek kokkos Latin coccum is the scarlet berry of the kerm oak.)
The opening salvoes of gradient are harmless, 6 kilometres of nothing more sinister than 5.5%. Then, brace yourself: thereon to the Chalet Reynard, it’s upwards of 10.5% all the way, but, you get the hang of things, you absorb yourself in the task, you settle to it . . . besides, what option do you have? Does this sign ‘15km 9.1% 630m’ help? The surroundings are very attractive, the multifarious mix of trees is encouraging, a lovely sylvan route, nevertheless overlaid with grim history – the photo of Simpson riding this stretch is grim indeed. Scant hours from his life’s sorry end, he looks horribly gaunt, haggard. From these woods, there is no sight of Ventoux, but it’s up there waiting, the sleepless giant balling up winds in its titanic fists ready to hurl them into the emptiness, ricocheting off you if he has a mind to petulance and wild aim.
Rocky fragments obtrude from the roadside and on one, a stone tablet fixed there by Le Moto-Club d’Avignon remembers ‘Son regretté champion Georges Berthier recordman de Ventoux le 20 sept 1936 le temps 15’ 25’. (Postcards in the souvenir shop at the col offer a number of grainy black and white images of those early racing cars hurtling round the bends on the upper slopes.)
At 10.4km, 989m, an abandoned mustard yellow building to the left bears the separatist slogan ‘Prouvenço Libro’ (Free – ie independent – Provence) and the road begins to step clear of older trees into a landscape of stunted scrubbier trees for a short distance. 12.6km, 1152m, reveals a board set up in a hêtraie (beech grove or plantation) on either side the road, alerting us to the presence of the pic noir – the black woodpecker – which shows an orange-red cap and a whitish bill. More boards follow singing the charms of other trees and heralding the cerf hart, the trickiest and most elusive runner of hunted game.
13.5km, a big left hand hairpin and a small settlement of wooden chalets with another call for Prouvenço Libro addressed to the Enfants de Bédoin and we are at Chalet Reynard. The Pierre de Champeville commemorated by a plaque, was an artist-painter-poet-engraver, passionate about the mountains, born in Saint-Etienne, 1885, died in Carpentras, 1950. He promoted a ski station on the slopes of Ventoux and described the mountain as ‘une île éblouissante dans un océan d’azur’ . . . a dazzling island in an azure ocean.
Here at Chalet Reynard is the beginning of the bare slopes, the wind-scraped upper heights of Ventoux, the final stretches of road to the col. Those kilometres look fearsome steep and nasty. There is no getting away from it and better to tell it plain: they are horrible, a graceless causeway cut into the rock as it might be the ramp of a Mayan sacrificial pyramid.
A narrow cycle path runs up the left-hand side of the road – a dotted white line and pale green cycle symbol.
And there, within immediate view, the radio mast, the observatory and the bleached, sun – and wind-flayed desert of lauzes and the big, hungry bends of the chute pelting you with a hail of gradient percentage. The arithmetic is guardedly mild – most of the way 6–8% and a leg-screw of 9% to the top – not as severe as the other side, but never underestimate the effect of appearance or what the gradients are actually meting out, for all their statistical innocuousness. (Regard such numbers with the sort of scepticism with which you would treat a banker telling you that your money is safe with him. Maybe safe with him, but not for you.) There are no more signs for distance or altitude either, as if such banalities are irrelevant now that you are in the breakthrough either to paradise or perdition.
Sight of the col atop the bare stone slopes comes and goes, your eye diverted, instead, by a rash of dark green trees across the slope below or else the road ahead, curving round the spurs of the mountain like a scar across knuckles.
The memorial to Tom Simpson, (24.1km), adorned with a cluttered heap of brightly-coloured bidons, has a new set of steps up to it, built with donations, particularly from the family of Bob Thom, mechanic for the British Tour team in 1955.
‘A la Mémoire de Tom Simpson, Médaille Olympique, Champion du Monde, Ambassadeur sportif Britannique.’
A short way on stands another memorial: ‘En mémoire du Gaulois P.Kraemer décédé en Ventoux 2.4.1983 Union Audax Français.’
The radio mast towers up, like an early rocket on its boosters.
Just below the final metres, a turn-off and car park entice to a restaurant, Le Vendran, perched on the edge of the cliff, from where the road up is very steep, very bleak and as scary as a wintry squall on the old grey widow-maker, the sea.
It is quite a moment to arrive on the flat ground outside the observatory, to see the open sky beyond the big bend leading onto the descent by a sign ‘Col des Tempêtes 1841m’.
The Etape Arrivé clutter may well shove aside an amply supplied stall vending variegated saucissons which usually stands outside the souvenir shop on the col.