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Tour de Vaucluse (Mt Ventoux)
   
 

 
Tour Summary

 

This was a six day 300 km tour, taking in the highlights of the Vaucluse region of France during the Easter week of 2004. The route started from the Lourmarin, South of the Luberon mountains, traversed the Plateau De Vaucluse, before climbing the Tour De France classic Mt Ventoux. The route then turned back South, through the Dentelles De Montmirail before finishing at the edge of the Luberon in Cavaillon.

 

 
Map

 

     

 
Commentary & Photos
     
 

This route started from the small town of Lourmarin on the South side of the Luberon. This area is south facing and takes the full effects of the Provencal sun. It is a typical small town of the area with stone houses, narrow streets and the hustle and bustle of activity in the mornings - until lunchtime arrives and a little siesta is required.

 

 
 

 

Our route immediately climbed out of Lourmarin via La combe de lourmarin. The Luberon mountains spread East to West for 60km but are only 10 Km wide. Along their entire length there are only 2 metalled roads crossing the range. These routes are therefore quite busy with traffic.

There wasn't much time to warm up after leaving Lourmarin - but plenty of exercise to help digest the food and wine taken in a little street cafe under the plane trees.

As the summit is reached it is noticeable that the vegetation immediately changes on the Northern slopes. The Southern slopes were filled with wild thyme, rosemary and lavender, with olive trees with vines lower down. Everything becomes greener, cooler and darker. The trees change from the Mediterranean pines to more deciduous varieties such as oak and lime.

 

 
Vines and cherry blossom near Lacoste
 
 
View from Bonnieux towards Plateau Vaucluse
 

 

Just over the top of the col the winding road comes to first of the delightful villages of the area - Bonnieux. Based around a small rocky outcrop with a church dominating the town. The old walled village, cobbled streets, red tiled roofs and the contrast between bright sunshine and the narrow, cool shadowy alleyways are typical of these Provencal villages.

The walk around the church is well worth investigating - especially for the views to the North - across the open Valley to the Plateau de Vaucluse and on towards Mont Ventoux.

The descent from Bonnieux curved around to the Village of Lacoste. Lacoste was made famous as being the home to the Marquis de Sade, and his old derelict chateaux is still clearly visible. The valley now flattened out and fields were full of almond and cherry trees in full blossom. Spread between the orchards were the vineyards for the Cotes de Luberon. A more gentle, pleasing landscape for cycling through would be difficult to imagine

 

 
 

 

As the road crossed the river Calavon there is the old Roman Pont Julien, a lovely old stone bridge worthy of a further investigation.

The region around Roussillon and Grignacs is famous for it's old Ochre quarries. A bright red, orange and yellow ridge lies from East to West and was quarried extensively since prehistoric times. The seam of ochre is the largest in the world.

Ochre is used as a dye in many manufacturing processes. The advent of man-made dyes in the 1950's brought an end to this local industry. The local industry of Roussillon has been turned over virtually entirely to tourism and the town itself is extremely busy.

A visit around the old quarries in Roussillon really is a treat for the eyes. It as if someone has turned the colour up to maximum - the saturation of the colours in the bright sunshine is something that a camera can never catch.

 

 
Roussillon
 
 
From Roussillon we pedalled off to our overnight destination of Gordes. Yet another picture postcard perfect hilltop town. The climb up to the town after the day's cycling was hard - and made harder when we discovered that the campsite was a further 1.5 Km out of the town - uphill. The campsite was on the D15 and was a lovely little site. Nice views, lots of shade a pizza oven to provide the nourishment.
 
Une village perchee - Gordes
 
 
Climbing up the D177 to the Plateau De Vaucluse
 

 

The next morning we picked up supplies from market in Gordes and had a tour round the narrow streets before setting of towards the Plateau de Vaucluse.

The D117 road journeyed North from Gordes gradually gaining height, passing the lovely Abbaye de Senanque with the lavender fields and orchards carefully tended by the monks. The Plateau de Vaucluse is a large area of high ground between the Rhone and Durance valleys and provides beautiful quiet walks in wooded valleys away from the busier, more touristy areas.

 

 
 

The descent towards Venasque was exhilarating as we passed through narrow gorges on deserted roads. This area was slightly busier due to being in close proximity to the Rhone valley and the associated agricultural activity of the area ie vineyards, cherries, peaches, almonds and vegetables. From this area we took the smaller backroads (as usual).

 

 
Descent from Plateau de Vaucluse
 
 
Gorges De La Nesque
 
The small hilltop village of Blauvac commands a tremendous vantage point. It is placed on a ridge overlooking the wide open valley towards Mont Ventoux. It is from this view point that one can see just how big "The Giant of Provence" really is. Blauvac has a small municipal campsite that surely has one of the greatest views in France.
 
 

From Blauvac we blasted down the excellent road to Ville St Auzon for a little bit of refreshment in a small cafe before our last jaunt of the day - Gorges de la Nesque. This is a wonderful quiet back route to the town of Sault. This was a climb of 500m over 25Km. The road is smooth and the gradient never goes above 6%. But with loaded bikes the climb still took just over two hours - and by this time the sun was beginning to fade and along with it the temperature. Evan in April the daytime temperature was about 23 degrees C, but during the night in Sault at an altitude of 750m the temperature dropped to 2 degrees C - a bit colder than we had expected.

 

 

 
Breakfast in Sault, before Mt Ventoux
 
 
Towards the summit of Mt Ventoux
 

 

The campsite at Sault was also 2 Km the other side of the town - it always seems to be this way for the weary cyclist. And on arrival at the campsite it was still closed until May. There was plenty of grumbling about the situation but only one option - put the tent up, get the food cooking and make the most of it. As it turned out there were a number of permanent residents at the campsite, so some minimal facilities were available. The most important facility being a warm (or even tepid) shower.

 

 
 

 

After a chilly night we awoke to bright sunshine and headed off to the town of Sault. There isn't much in any guide books about Sault - which is good because it keeps the town clear of hordes of tourists. Once again there was a local market on and we took advantage of the fruit, cheese and saucisson on offer. The town itself is a very relaxed place pervaded with a delicate smell of lavender from the shops and local lavender pressing mill. We stopped for some cafe au lait and a croissant on a terrace overlooking the valley with Mont Ventoux reaching up behind into the clouds.

 

 
 
The route for the third day was simple - cycle up Mont Ventoux, cycle down the other side and put the tent up. The reality of the route is somewhat different - the route was 56 Km with 1200m of climbing in 26 Km. We started off in T shirts and shorts at a good snails pace following the D164 from Sault. The traditional route for cyclists is from Bedoin - and this route has a brutal early section before reaching Chalet Reynard. Our chosen route was very quiet and climbed steadily to meet the throng of cyclists huddled around at Chalet Reynard. At 1450m Chalet Reynard is still 500m lower than the summit but even here the temperature had dropped dramatically and there was snow at the side of the road.
 
At the Summit of Mt Ventoux (very tired legs)
 
 

Despite the temperature there were scores of cyclists climbing to the top. Most of them were riding top of the range road bikes without a triple chainset. Some individuals were obviously elite athletes and were climbing with ease - others had clearly miscalculated their fitness. Some individuals were in a frightful state, coughing and wheezing with their nose dribbling mucus like a hosepipe. Other people has also badly underestimated the temperature difference and the effect of cooling on the descent - to the point where people had stopped and were pushing their bikes down the hill.

Chalet Reynard is the only refreshment stop on the climb and hence was unbelievably busy and overcrowded - we gave it a miss. The climb from Chalet Reynard to the summit is very difficult on a loaded touring bike. The barren, rock-strewn landscape and the unremitting 9% gradient is a real energy sapper. All the time the summit transmitter is in view and does not appear to get any closer. There is one bend after the other just edging towards the top.

The memorial to Tommy Simpson is a good excuse to give the legs a breather. It's a slightly sobering thought to see the memorial and then compare the other riders on the mountain who appear to be pushing there bodies beyond it's natural limit.

 

 
 
The Northern side of Mt Ventoux
 

The final 300 metres to the summit is easier as there are more changes in view and orientation to take your mind off the final increasing gradient. Once stopped at the summit we noticed the drop in temperature straight away and donned our warmest gear - it was just 4 degrees C at 2 pm. We skirted around the barriers which showed that the road beyond was closed and started our descent. We had the entire descent to ourselves as no one dared risk it on a road bike. The road was partially covered with snow and there were areas of rock fall. Further down the road is used as a ski piste in Winter and this was completely covered in snow.

 

 
 

Prudent choice of route and both feet sliding on the ground saw us past these obstructions and then to the Mt Serein ski resort. We had donned all our clothes and gloves for the descent - with the temperature now down to 2 degrees on the Northern Side of the mountain. The restaurant provided us with much needed hot chocolate, home made cherry pie and a wood fire.

Once we has thawed out we continued our descent with the other traffic that could drive as far as Mt Serein. The descent to the campsite at Malaucene is magnificent. The road is made of perfect smooth tarmac with wide sweeping bends - there's even the opportunity to overtake the huge camper vans that people insist on driving on small mountain roads.

By the time we reached the campsite we had descended 1600 metres from a cold mountain environment back to warm lands of Provence.

 
Sausages Again
 
 

 

We set the tent in the little campsite just before the town of Malaucene and went for a tour of the old town in the warm evening sunshine. We ate in the little pizzeria next to the campsite that stayed open just for us - a fantastic pizza and salad that felt well earned (until the pizza man told us how he runs to the top of Mt Ventoux, or cycles to the top off road - full respect!).

The following day we departed from Malaucene and followed another small backroad into the Dentelles de Miramailles. This region is famed by climbers for its great rock and sheer cliff faces. The winding little road was an absolute pleasure. The long twisting, turning descent to Beaumes De Venise has one reason - the purchase of one of the best Muscat wines available in France.

After the 12 bottles of wine had been purchased we were forced to wait for the now torrential rain to stop before leaving - it didn't stop. So we donned the waterproofs and put the "waterproof" covers on the Karrimor panniers. The rain was heavy for a good 2 hours as we trundled through endless vineyards towards Pernes Les Fontaines. This small town is famous for it's huge collection of fountains (about 40 but I forget the exact number). The other highlight was the small bakery which sold a delicious walnut bread that seemed to be as much walnut as bread.

The final days riding turned out to be 8 hours of rain. A stop at la fontaine de vaucluse for lunch and the amazing site of a fully fledged river emerging from the bottom of cliff helped to lift the spirits. At the end of the day we finished the ride absolutely sodden wet - including all the gear in the "waterproof" panniers. We managed to blag a night in a caravan to allow us to dry out and prepare ourselves for a friend's wedding in Cavaillon the following day.

 

 

 
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