Mont Ventoux: Nos montagnes à la carte #6

When Napoleon wanted to construct the best naval fleet in the world, he naturally went for the toughest wood, and that came from Mont Ventoux.
In 1967, a wind speed of 320km/h was recorded at the top, the strongest ever recorded in France.

However, you don’t need a 20m-high antenna attached to a meteorological observatory to know that the top of Ventoux is windy – or that any tree that dared to grow near the summit would have to be extraordinarily tenacious and hardy.

Such intuition and tactical nous were characteristic of the great Corsican commander, but in truth, this solitary Provençal peak, which is scoured by the icy Mistral wind, was known for its wood far before that. People have been cutting it down, according to historical sources, since the 13th century when custody of the mountain was given to the village of Bédoin by the lord who owned it.

That was around the time that the Italian poet Petrarch climbed to the top.

He claimed, having done so, to be the first person since antiquity to climb a mountain purely to see the view – and the view from the top is spectacular.

Though geologically part of the Alps, Ventoux stands more or less alone, unencumbered by mountains of equal stature.

Just a couple of kilometres from Ventoux’s summit is the Col des Tempêtes, a narrow ridge that affords great vistas over the mountains of the Luberon and the Vaucluse, the pre-Alps to the east, Cévennes to the west, and the vast plains of the Rhone and the Camargue towards the Mediterranean Sea.

Ventoux was once known for its charcoal – another major factor in its deforestation – and is now famous for its truffles, its lavender, and the wine (the Côtes du Ventoux) that is made in its shadow. Even though it is in the heart of Provence, where summer temperatures soar to the high 30s, the mountain is snowbound for much of the year.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the trade in Ventoux ice thrived, with locals piling ice in shady nooks and then selling it – to make sorbets, chill fish or preserve cadavers – through the spring and summer months.

But for cyclists, it is the forest and its lack for which Ventoux is known. There are three ascents by road (and a hidden fourth, a rocky track), which take riders through the hot, heavy and oppressive woods before thrusting them into the glare of the upper slopes. Because, you see, the deforestation and the wind have over the centuries combined to sweep all the topsoil away, leaving only a dazzling white limestone rock, broken into jagged chunks by repeated frosts and thaws.

This is the ‘lunar’ landscape that since 1950 has made, and in a couple of notable cases – the tragedy of Tommy Simpson, the earlier collapse of Jean Malléjac – broken, the Tour de France’s stars.

Let us be clear: the road to Ventoux does not go anywhere and there is no reason to climb it by bike, except for the simple fact of its existence.

It exists only as a challenge, the ultimate mirror, says cycling philosopher Paul Fournel, in which riders, stripped bare, confront not only the grandeur of nature but also their essential selves. Perhaps this is why the legend of Ventoux endures, and new chapters keep being written.

Read more about where we ride and our local climbs in our Montagnes à la Carte series. Or visit us in Nice and experience them for yourself.

Photography : Greg Annandale

Words : Max Leonard