Cycling in France September 2014 for Tour de Talbot

    Many thanks to Gary Hughes of Bodacious Bicycles who helped me train the past four months and to the Cross Court Team and to Amy Haines, Jeff Horstman, Sean Fine, Kathy Kinsey, and Jim McMartin for their company on the road and encouraging words. Mike Murphy helped with the Dock Street kits and Paul Lombardo at Bike Doctor came through on some emergency bike repairs. And, thanks to Katrina Workman, Louis Marks and Kathy Bosin for creating the DSF website in record time.

     Also, thanks to Dylan and Gregory for taking the time to join their Dad on another great adventure. I recognize they have not had the same opportunity to train as much over these past months and, as young men, they lack the wisdom, experience and mental toughness developed over 63 years. I am certain, however, they will manage quite well and refute George Bernard Shaw’s words proving ‘youth is not necessarily wasted on the young’. Yes, we are a team, but a little competitiveness between a father and sons can be healthy.

     We will miss the company of my friend, Eric Hoffman, who has talked of little else these past two years then climbing Mt. Ventoux one day. Even the hip replacement several months ago was not to deter him, but when Cindy, Eric’s wife, was diagnosed with stomach cancer and in extreme discomfort of late, his presence at home naturally took priority. We ride for both of them.

     So now, joining us on our ride will be Tom Hollins, a friend of Dylan’s who just happened to be “ in between projects” in Nottingham, England when Dylan reached him two days ago. Tom was on holiday in Bruges, Belgium. With little hesitation, he booked a train to Avignon and arrived last night with a backpack and no biking gear. No problem. He is now ready to ride and comes with experience having biked Alp d’Huez and Mallorca. Mt.Ventoux was on the bucket list.

Day 1 - Sept 1 - Avignon to Mazan     112km/70 miles    

Climbing 2835 feet

      After a preparation and sight seeing day in Avignon on Saturday, we depart on our challenging journey. There are actually 4 other cyclists who signed on for the same tour: Mike and Lindsay from San Francisco and Ruth and Helen from London. We did not plan to ride together, but expect we will probably see them along the way and maybe will end up together before the week is over.

C'mon Dad...  

C'mon Dad...

 

a contrarian departure

a contrarian departure

     Clearly, a warm up day to start, but with 18 mph winds forecasted and a couple of nice climbs it won’t be a cakewalk either. We will travel southwest along the Rhone River to a region called Gard, home to the Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard. Then on to the wine growing regions of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel and, perhaps, an opportunity for a very moderate tasting or two. Finally, we may visit the town of Carpentras before finishing the day in Mazan near the base of Mount Ventoux, the Giant of Provence. Our goal the first day is to enjoy the scenery and culture and not to think about Ventoux.

     Well, we arrived in Mazan after a windy, but comfortable ride and are staying at the Chateau de Mazan, a hotel booked by Cyclomundo, the company that organized the tour. It’s a beautiful chateau with a pool and lovely gardens. The rooms are very comfortable and the entire interior is tastefully decorated. We were greeted warmly and are now looking forward to our dinner this evening in their elegant dining room.

     Back to the ride today… Some of the roads were a bit rough so with the wind, sometimes gusting up to 20 plus mph and some traffic (glad it was Sunday) and making sure we navigated properly with the GPS, it was important to stay quite focused. Ruth and Helen, who we did see on the way, informed me that the bad sections of roads we encountered were typical of most roads in the UK.  I am clearly spoiled biking around Talbot County! We stopped twice today for some duration, the first time at Pont du Gard to appreciate the majesty and artistry of the Roman aqueduct. Our second stop, 50 miles into the ride, was in Chateauneuf-du-Pape for lunch. Our route was along many vineyards, full with grapes, but we decided best to save any wine tasting for this evening.

     Our route tomorrow, at the moment, is now undecided due to the high winds. Climbing Mt Ventoux is a tremendous challenge under any circumstance and our planned route from Bedoin to Sault is 31 miles and encompasses 6,230 feet of climbs. The length of the climb taking the classic route once you start at the base of the mountain is actually 21.5 km, but the average grade is 7.5% with some long stretches in the 11-14% range. 

     The last 6m are above the tree line with zero protection from mistral. Venteux, as you probably know, is the French word for windy so we are not surprised, but chagrined to think we may have arrived at an inopportune time. The good news is there is no rain in the forecast and the temperatures, which can be chilling at the top, are to be around 50 degrees. The bad news is the winds tomorrow are peaking for the week. Forecast calls for 18 mph at the base of Mt. Ventoux, but as high as 38 mph above the tree line. We have been warned that you need to be extremely careful on the descent, assuming you get to the top, of course! 

Vineyards and Ventoux

Vineyards and Ventoux

     We have been given an alternative route from Bedoin to Sault via Gorges de la Nesque with beautiful views and landscaping and the scent of lavender ever present. The distance is only 25 miles, but has 4,230 feet of climbs so we would be challenged, but nothing like Ventoux. Our group has decided to confer and make a decision in the morning.

Group dinner at Chateau de Mazan at the end of Day One

Group dinner at Chateau de Mazan at the end of Day One

Day 2 - Sept 2 - Mazan to Sault via Mt. Ventoux

50km/31 miles  

Climbing 6,230 feet

     I did not sleep soundly last evening perhaps in anticipation of the big climb. I also should have passed on the after dinner coffee! Speaking of dinner, it was superb. I emailed Amy and suggested she try and come here one evening for dinner during her stay in Avignon. So, I would suggest if you are visiting this area, there is one more good reason to stay at Chateau de Mazan. In fact, though we biked 70 miles to get to Mazan from Avignon, it is actually only 13 miles on a direct route and should take no more than 30 minutes to drive. Mazan is also strategic to Sault, another charming town just 40 km away and our destination after the Ventoux climb.

Ventoux Bedoin profile

Ventoux Bedoin profile

      At breakfast, the eight of us talked about the day and saw the weather forecast was unchanged calling for clear, dry, and sunny, but with 18 mph winds between Mazan and Bedoin. The winds on top of Ventoux were gusting at 35 mph, classified as gale force and clearly not safe conditions. I noticed other cyclists staying at the hotel and spoke with two of them, Rick and Trevor, who were getting ready to leave. I asked if they were concerned about the winds above the tree line today and one of them asked, “Should we be?” I gave them the news. They were clearly surprised, but said they came to climb Mt. Ventoux and nothing was going to stop them. At this point, the receptionist, Veronica, at the front desk asked if we were all planning to cycle up Ventoux. She proceeded to explain that the top was closed today. I assumed due to the weather, but was wrong. Apparently, a Belgian film crew had received permission to close the last 6 km for today and tomorrow. We proceeded to ask many questions and learned that the Malaucene route was open since it does not pass through the same last section as the Bedoin and Sault routes. While it is not the classic route from Bedoin, it is considered by many to be an equally challenging climb. That would work for Rick and Trevor since they had a car to take them to the backside, but for us it would be off route and too far to bike.

Alternate route to Sault

Alternate route to Sault

     As I started back to the table to inform our group, Veronica said she was not 100% correct and upon reading the official notice realized she had overlooked one part. The last section would be open from 1-3 PM only. Rick and Trevor were satisfied and said au revoir while I went to tell our group the news. As we discussed our options, which included going directly to Sault by the alternate route and not chancing the weather, Veronica informed us that she had called someone at the top and was now told that the official notice of 1-3 PM was not longer correct and the top would be closed all day today and tomorrow. At that point I was thinking of a couple of French words to describe how I was feeling, but chose to keep them to myself. We all then kicked into overdrive and discussed our options. I will not waste time listing all of them as there were far too many to enumerate, but I did think Mike and Lindsay’s decision to just leave and take the alternate route to Sault was a good idea. We wished them well and went back to the drawing board. I also liked Dylan’s idea to plan to rearrange our schedule and plan to climb Ventoux on Wednesday when the winds would be much calmer. We would then just head to Sault, a nice challenging ride, where we would be staying that evening anyway and find another ride in the area to do on Tuesday. The only problem is we might then need motor transport to help us still reach St. Paul de Vence by Friday as planned. So, we decided to call Bruno, the owner of Cyclomundo, and break the news. He had not heard about the filming and suggested we wait and give him time to investigate. He called back 15 minutes later and said that the top would be open from 1-3 PM and we should get moving if we hoped to do the climb. Bruno did not let on that he knew about the winds on top, but I am sure he was aware. Having selected Cyclomundo and not wanting to be micro managed or pampered, my choice was affirmed at that moment.

exploring our options...

exploring our options...

      Knowing time was now a factor (it was already 11 AM), we made last minute preparations and hit the road for Bedoin in gusty, swirling winds. An hour later, after navigating through a vibrant market in the center of town, we started up the road to Mt. Ventoux. The first 3-4 kilometers were fairly easy, averaging 4% grade, but then the harder section started as the next 12 km up to Chalet Reynard at 4200 feet would average over 9% grade with plenty of sections between 11-13%.

     It was not long before everyone in our group was out of sight and I was on my own. Thankfully, the months of preparation served me well, however, and I was at the Chalet by 2:05. The trees blocked the wind during this section of the climb with only occasional gusts. Conditions, otherwise, were perfect.

     I did not see Tom, Gregory, Dylan or even Ruth or Helen sitting on the deck of the Chalet drinking hot chocolate so it meant they had chosen to brave the wind and tackle the last 6 km to the summit. Thankfully, despite our delays in the morning, we had all arrived during the 1-3 PM break by the film crew. I am not sure how many riders a day on average bike Ventoux, but I would imagine a hundred or so is not out of the question on days the weather is fine. Today, despite the forecast of high winds, there were still many cyclists and I was pleased to be one of them. Starting up the first section was not difficult and the adrenaline was pumping. By the time I turned at the first switchback, I could feel a nice tailwind pushing me and felt my confidence grow. It was possibly the first time all day I truly believed I would reach the goal and started hoping that the rest of the group were waiting for me and not getting too cold or anxious. I passed the marker showing 4 km to the summit and started pedaling harder. I hit some stronger winds after one of the switchbacks and an occasional gust made me get a stronger grip on the bike. I looked up after coming around another bend and saw Helen and Ruth coming down. They passed me and shouted, “It is much too dicey. Two people and their bikes were just blown over into the rocks.” I pedaled on and then there was Tom coming down. It shook his head. I asked about Dylan and Gregory and he said they were up ahead. What did that mean, I thought? Are they still going to try and summit? If Tom, a seasoned cyclist felt it unsafe, should we be up there at all? I pedaled on and then saw the boys on the side of the road at the apex of another switchback.

    Until that point, I had felt strong gusts, but nothing too extreme, though I knew it would get much worse in the last sections. Here is an excerpt from an article I read in this morning before we departed:

     The summit of Ventoux is one of the windiest places on earth. In 1967 speeds of 313 km/h were measured there. Col des Tempêtes (Storm Pass) -- 1 km short of the summit -- can often have scary strong gusts coming over the top into the side of cyclists. I once dismounted and walked down and almost always gingerly descend the pass as it can sometimes be near impossible to stay upright.

     The boys were chilled, but had waited for me to arrive and let me know their decision. It was a wise one. They were going to leave the summit for another day. If they had decided to take the risk, I would have gone with them. As it was, their decision influenced me; we descended back to Chalet Reynard together very carefully.

Gregory 2.5 km from the summit

Gregory 2.5 km from the summit

Ventoux summit

Ventoux summit

Richard 2.5 km from summit

Richard 2.5 km from summit

      I actually had not felt the full impact of the winds on the climb up, but was feeling them going down and we stayed as close to the edge of the rock berm as possible. Even then, in the middle of complete calm, a gust would hit and push us sideways. We all made it safely to Chalet Reynard and took a break for lunch before heading to Sault, a breathtaking 20 km descent on one of the smoothest road surfaces I’ve ever experienced. The winds and gusts were strong, but we maintained a comfortable mid to upper 30 mph pace all the way down.

     Later this evening at dinner, I learned that Tom had gone the furthest, within 1 km of the summit before turning back. Ruth was probably 1.5 km away and Helen perhaps at 2 km. Brave souls!! All of feel good about our accomplishment today.

     In the year 1336, the Italian poet and scholar climbed Mt. Ventoux just to experience the view. He “reflected that his climb was merely an allegory of aspiration towards a better life.” Much deeper reflections than the answer we often hear when asked the question, “Why did you climb that mountain?” Read it here.

Day 3 - Sept 3 - Sault to Roussillon     68km/42 miles 

Climbing 3,671 feet

Last night, we stayed at Hostellerie du Val de Sault - another great choice by Bruno, owner of Cyclomundo. The rooms were comfortable and the property had both an indoor and outdoor pool and spa in a lovely setting. A friendly peacock was up early with me as I walked the property in the morning before breakfast.

   There was also a nice view of Mt. Ventoux from the grounds. Each time I looked at the summit, it seemed to say to me, “I am still here. When are you coming?” In fact, I considered the possibility of trying again today, but the film crew was still controlling the access and the winds were only subsiding to 25-30 mph gusts. Another ascent will just have to wait for another visit when my friend, Eric, can join me.

     Today was to be a light day after the ascent yesterday, but a good friend and avid cyclist warned me to not be fooled. Days 3 and 4 can be difficult after much exertion on climbing Ventoux. He was correct, but the day was brilliant, nonetheless, with perfect weather and beautiful scenery as we passed through the Gorges of La Nesque.

     After a thrilling ride downhill from Sault for about 6 miles, we began a fairly steep 500 foot climb. Near the top, we encountered a man seated by the roadside, seemingly there to sell some wares. We stopped, said bonjour, and read the sign leaning in front of the crate standing on end in front of him. It seemed to note he was offering “essence of lavender, champignons, and truffles”, but in communication with him en francais, thanks to Gregory’s fluency, we learned he was not selling anything. He apparently was just there relaxing with his dog at the roadside in front of his home, though on being pressed about selling things (as I wanted to purchase something from him), he noted having tomatoes and, what Gregory translated to mean “bread crumbs”. We saw neither and so we wished him well and au revoir and continued on, but my thoughts then were not on the road ahead. They were on memories of my father and his love for the country and it’s people from his years in France after the war, particularly during his studies at the University of Grenoble. His affinity was genuine and I remember how warmly he felt when he spoke of his time here and his love of the culture and people. He even named his company Paris Produce and had the Eiffel Tower in the logo.

     The ride to Roussillon was fun with long descents totaling 5,100 feet and each of us taking turns in the lead. We still had a good 3,700 feet of climbing and the legs were not as fresh after yesterday, but it was a day to appreciate the countryside and the channels between the rocks in a canyon area known as La Nesque.

La Nesque Canyon

La Nesque Canyon

     There was supposed to be a scent of lavender in the air, but truthfully I did not notice. Perhaps it was the route we took which did not take us through the town of Gorges, known for it’s surrounding lavender fields. So, apparently we missed “one of France’s prettiest villages”, but we would not have had time to spend there anyway and we enjoyed getting to Roussillon early enough to walk around that beautiful town before dinner. On the way, however, we did stop for lunch in Venasque, an old medieval settlement, with old world charm and home to the sculptor, Etienne Viard. We arrived in Roussillon by 4:00 PM, in time to freshen up and enjoy the scenic town. We shopped a bit, relaxed and then had an excellent meal overlooking the valley and red rocks on the terrace at Restaurant David in the Luberon Hotel. Finished too late, actually, and should have been to sleep sooner, but no one was complaining.

red rock cliffs of Roussillon

red rock cliffs of Roussillon

girls and flowers in Roussilllon

girls and flowers in Roussilllon

     We look forward to tomorrow, a strenuous ride from Roussillon to Forcalquier. We are opting for the long route: 59 miles and 5200 feet of climbing. Better get some rest!!

 

Day 4 - Sept 4 - Roussillon to Forcalquier     94 km/59 miles   

Climbing 5,236 feet

       Knowing we faced a long day, we opted for an earlier start and were on the road by 9:30 prepared for a strenuous day, but confess I had my doubts and wondered if I was physically and mentally ready. Ruth and Helen pushed off a bit earlier, also planning the long route and Mike and Lindsay were still at the hotel when we left.

     We biked around and through the town and then had an exhilarating descent for several miles before settling on to a bike path flanking the main road that reminded me of the bike path from Aspen to Carbondale. I was glad the planned route was giving us a good distance to warm up before hitting the hills. We had not really discussed the shorter route of 55 km/34 miles with only 1870 feet of climbs, though it was an option to consider.

**************

I think now might be a good time to formally introduce the lads:

     Tom, a former classmate of Dylan’s at Leeds College, is British and our most accomplished cyclist. He has been the leader up most of the big climbs, but also seems to keep an eye out for anyone who falls back, which of course, is mostly me. He is quiet most of the time, but even more so while eating. I have observed he consumes prodigious amounts of food so our plates are clean by the end of each meal. We are happy he could join us on such short notice.

      My son, Gregory, also likes to tackle the hills and occasionally takes the lead. He seems content to ride in the middle as well, but mostly he lives for the rapid descents with much experience from biking in the Alps at school in Switzerland. Riding behind him can be a concern, however, since he likes to take many pictures and rides in an unusual rocking motion.

     Son, Dylan is our trusty navigator and has kept us from getting sidetracked or lost more than once. He tends to take the lead, which is very helpful, though his thin frame does not block the wind as well as Gregory’s so you know which son I try to stay behind when drafting. Dylan seems to cycle effortlessly, which is not to say he isn’t challenged. He just looks very natural when pedaling.

Dylan gets a fix on our position

Dylan gets a fix on our position

**************

     And so, we continue with our ride to Forcalquier and ride the bike path for at least 12 miles before stopping to check the route. There appeared to be one GPS option that took us off the path and onto the highway and another, which stayed on the path and had clearly marked arrows to Forcalquier. We opted for the latter thinking it would connect back with the main route at many points. At least that was what I was thinking, but it seems some of our team were not and were comfortable continuing a route that clearly was less strenuous, though there were still some good climbs that kept my heart rate up. With 25 miles down, it finally hit me that we were not going to get the mileage or elevation listed in the longer route. I resigned myself to the reality, and decided to push ahead at a stronger pace to get the most out of the ride. Once we arrived at Forcalquier, I added some extra distance and finished with 46 miles and 3700 climbing feet. All in all, a good day pedaling through the beautiful countryside, past pumpkin patches, vineyards and in and out of small towns. Cereste was particularly quaint. Wished we had stopped in Saignon since there is an ancient lookout there with an amazing view of Ventoux. Another day…

     A fun “sculpture” of Don Quixote and Sancho we saw on the way…

  Due to the shorter ride, we arrived at Hotel Charembeau, a couple of miles outside of town, in time to relax by the pool. The hotel felt more like a country villa. There were framboise bushes bordering the pool. The peaceful setting had great views of the surrounding hills. It was the perfect place to recover a bit before cycling on, especially the last day.

pool at Hotel Charembeau

pool at Hotel Charembeau

Tom at Hotel Charembeau

Tom at Hotel Charembeau

      In the evening, we taxied a few miles down the road to Niozelles, a small town with one very “local” restaurant and different from every place we have eaten dinner this week.

     Tomorrow, we cycle to Moustiers Saint Marie.

     Oh, kudos to Mike, Lindsay, Helen and Ruth for biking the very tough long route today. I was amazed they could stay awake during dinner!!

Day 5 - Sept 5 - Forcalquier to Moustiers-Saint-Marie 53 miles

Climbing 3146 feet

forcalquier to Moustiers st marie.jpg

      We awaken to another beautiful morning. Breakfast on the patio off the main dining room with a view of the courtyard and sculpture as the sun rises in the east, beckoning us that way.

     We start off backtracking to Forcalquier and then head south before turning east for our ride through the Provence region. This time I do smell lavender and marvel at the richness of the agricultural area. We pass many fields with signs in French reading No Pesticides. After a nice 5k climb, we race downhill for 10k, enjoying some sharp bends. I follow closely behind Tom and watch him maneuver the turns so I can learn proper positioning. What a thrill to take the hairpins on descent after working so hard going in the other direction. Unfortunately, the fun was over when we came to the bottom since we hit a traffic jam entering Manosque and the road from there to Greoux-les-Bains was not so safe with cars traveling at high speed and our traffic in both cities made it difficult. We found out later that Mike and Lindsay took a different route and avoided all the problems. Apparently, this road is usually only busy during the height of vacation season, but this year the season seems not to have ended. Bruno thanked us for the feedback. It was the only thing we questioned in an otherwise flawless plan.

      About 10 miles from our destination we stopped in Riez for lunch and found a nice restaurant with interesting patrons at the adjacent table. They seemed fine with Gregory taking their picture.

     It took a while for us to get moving after lunch, and the last few miles, though appearing to go downhill were actually a modest ascent. We struggled a bit (too much lunch) but arrived in Moustiers-Saint-Marie with a view of a town like none I've ever seen before. Yes, I have seen many towns on top of hills, both in France and in Italy, but never one on top of a hill with limestone cliffs rising from behind the town. The site was incredible and majestic.

Moustiers Saint Marie

Moustiers Saint Marie

     We checked into our hotel, cleaned up, and walked into town. Gregory and I nosed around past the many ceramic pottery shops the town in known for, while Dylan and Tom climbed the hundreds of steps to visit the 8th century Notre Dame-de-Beuvoir chapel. Dylan took amazing photos from there.

chapel

chapel

view of town from chapel

view of town from chapel

     Time was precious so we cut our sight-seeing short to catch an early dinner and early sleep. Tomorrow is our final and longest day by far with 10,000 feet of climbing. We are starting at 7am and hoping to arrive in St. Paul-de-Vence by 3pm. Yes, I am looking a tres fatigue!!! 

Day 6 - Sept 6 - Moustiers-SM to St. Paul-de-Vence        77miles       

Climbing 11,220 feet

     Up and ready for the challenge. We ride one more day and think not about tomorrow. Well, maybe just a bit considering we are opting for a day on the beach in Nice to relax our sore muscles on Saturday. I did consider rushing home to ride in the Tour de Talbot on Sunday with everyone, but it was not too long a deliberation.

early breakfast

early breakfast

finding our way

finding our way

   We left at 7:15 from the beautiful valley (Val d’Angouire) at the base of Moustier-Saint-Marie with the sun rising on a cool and comfortable 60 degrees morning. After the usual “complementary” descent, we climbed a few thousand feet and traversed through the Verdon Gorge high above the beautiful turquoise Veron River. The mountains were like those I have seen in Utah and the views were spectacular all the way to Castellane, the eastern entranceway to the Gorges.

Lac de Sainte Croix

Lac de Sainte Croix

Verdon River

Verdon River

      We stopped for a quick coffee and croissant and headed out with 50 more miles to cover. The next 30 miles to Greolieres were even more amazing and beautiful. The roads were well paved and the descents breath taking with hairpin turns galore. The temperatures remained quite cool with clouds threatening rain, but with windbreakers on thankfully supplied to us by Beth and Jeff Horstman, we stayed warm enough. It had rained in front of us so the road was a bit slick the last few miles just before we reached Greolieres. Unfortunately, as we came to the bottom of the last descent, Dylan spilled, but luckily was not seriously hurt. After a bit of first aid on the scrapes and bruises, he was back in the saddle to finish the ride. Nothing was going to slow him down today!

Verdon Gorges

Verdon Gorges

Verdon Gorges

Verdon Gorges

Through the tunnels

Through the tunnels

     For some reason the Garmin was not giving us the right info on climbing so we were not sure of how many feet were left to climb over the last 20 miles, but after another thrilling descent through the Gorges du Loup, we began our last climb up to Tourette before heading down through Vence and finally to Saint Paul-de-Vence and the end of our six day adventure. We covered 77.4 miles today and the Strava app said we climbed 13, 133 feet, though I think it was about 2,000 feet off. We all agreed today’s ride was the best. The climb up Ventoux was the most challenging, but today’s ride had it all: challenging ascents and thrilling descents on perfect roads in perfect weather with the best views, both in towns and out.

end of the tour

end of the tour

     We checked in at the hotel (Hotel Vergers) and relaxed. Amy arrived to join us after her drive from Avignon and took us all to a celebration dinner in town. We rest tonight and dream of our past week and the next ride.

     One last note: Just before leaving Maryland, we received the gift of a book from Al and Marty Sikes. Reading The Boys in the Boat was the perfect inspirational story for the trip. It was about perseverance and teamwork, all set in a backdrop of water and history. Thank you!

     One last photo...

     And one last note of thanks - to Bruno at Cyclomundo.