Provence Cycle Tour and Mont Ventoux 2010

28 August 2010

On the bikeBus Express from Wakefield and its 9.30 at night. We are just south of Paris. We set off on our journey yesterday evening, going to Wakefield by train and cycling on the busy and windy A roads to the Premier Inn at Wakefield South. We had a meal in the Olde World Pub, which I thought was real, but even though it wasn’t, it was cosy inside. After we had reccied the way to the pick up point so we would know how long it took, the hotel staff stashed our bikes inside their cleaning cupboard. This morning at 4.30 we rolled along to the inauspicious point where we would be picked up. Friendly greetings ring out in the darkness from other cyclists huddled over their bike adjustments. This sets the tone for the entire journey. To get on the bus, the handlebars must be turned at right angle to the normal position, making it appear that we are all part of a strange club.
There are lots of seats, at first, and Jason is quick to supply us with bacon butties . At each stop, more and more friendly retro cyclist with funny handlebars on largely trad style bikes get on. A journey back in time. So far we have been on the bus for 16 hours and we have until 5am tomorrow, but it feels fine.

The bikes at the station fully loaded with camping and touring gear

The European Bike Express

Cyclists ready to get on the Bike Bus

Sunday 29 August 2010  Grenoble to Lac de Savel.

The bus arrives in Valence early, at 4 am. From inauspicious to inauspicious, this drop off point is on the outskirts of Valence, in the middle of a light industrial estate, dark and cold, with the mistral worrying at the piles of building materials stacked around. We have no map, so don’t where the town centre is. All around are cyclists hastily pulling cycling tops and shorts on, trying to find somewhere for the toilet, and turning handlebars round. Finally we pedal off, into the unknown dark streets, and Jim follows his nose to lead us to Valence Station. The cold whips around the ticket machine as we pay the fare to Grenoble, and soon after the big spacious train draws in to wait for about half an hour. There are lots of spaces for bikes.

 We arrive at 7.15 and start trying to find the path from Grenoble to Gap. We keep losing it among the many unsigned choices, in industrial estates and houses. Arriving where we think the camp site is we spend a long time combing the streets to be rewarded finally with a dingy itinerant type campsite packed in amongst the light industrial units down by the river. Although tired, we are not that tired, and decide we would rather press on and start our journey than stay there. Maybe we can camp at Champagnier, just up the hill from Grenoble, so we pedal up, soon leaving the suburbs behind, and exchanging them for green and glistening stubble and crops in their fields. Trees are waving, bent by the strong Northerly Mistral that is to blow us down to the South. Champagnier is a pleasant town but after a snack in the sun we decide to go further, up over more green wooded ridges to a small town with a little railway St George de Commieres, where after lunching, we continue further south where we find a string of startling blue-green lakes, on the bank of one of which is a remote but all singing campsite, Lac de Savel. We find an isolated terrace for the tent, the sparkling lake visible through old pines and prepare our meagre comforts for the first night. – cut down Karrimats, thin sleeping bags, (with silk liners). We have gone for a very light approach, with a single Carradice rear saddle bag and a small bar bag each. Already our set-up has been admired extensively. We eat at the bar of the campsite, overlooking the dazzling lake.

Cycling away from Grenoble, with the Vercors visible in the distance

Cycling towards the Lac de Monteynard-Avignonet

Cycling towards the Lac de Monteynard-Avignonet

View down the long Lac de Monteynard-Avignonet

Jim prepares his luxurious pillow for the night, Lac de Savel

While I have a lovely drink …of bikewater

Monday 30 August 2010 Lac de Savel to Corps 930 metres

Got up about 7, having gone to bed at 9.30 and fallen asleep immediately, in our peaceful terrace looking to the lake. Jim looks out and sees that it is cloudy and we decide to get on before it gets wet. Pack up, enjoying our small compact loads. At the campsite café, we get coffee and croissants, and then set off , back up the steep hill we had to descend to get here. Then the road undulates through beautiful deserted country, gorges, defiles, rocky escarpments and turrets, distant views of snowy mountains – the Ecrins. A very steep road led us to an electricity station, down in the shady bottom of the defile, and the road up out of it opened soon to wider fields full of brown cut stalks and a merry group picking orange pumpkins and throwing them to each other down a human chain and onto a large trailer.

We stop for a sandwich on a bench in the centre of St.Jean d’Herens where a lady fetches us water from her house.

Approaching Corps, we are sailing along on a high plateau at about 800metres high, with fast, smooth descents, further climbs, and then open wide clear vistas; the brown cut fields, the trees bending in the mistral, and the far jutting mountains. The mistral – we changed our whole trip around because we saw on the weather forecast that the strong winds from the North would be blowing for days at the start of our trip. We were planning to go from south to North, from Orange to Grenoble, but now we are going North to South. It is good to feel that as we travel it will get warmer, less cloudy and more Provencal.

The plateau brings us to Saute Dam, bluer than blue itself. The fine white arching bridge over it funnelling a ferocious wind that knocks us sideways. Corps, our destination is the high point of the whole day at 930 metres demanding a long toil up from the dam where the pretty hilltop town seemed all the better for having been anticipated for so long. We look at a couple of campsites as we pass, and go for beer and gold ice creams to consider the options, before rolling back down hill to Les Rouilles, a small, friendly campsite, where the lady owner offered us the use of her caravan awning, to shelter from the wind. But in a far corner we found a sunny sheltered position, where Jim identified a hollow that he wished to sleep in. We sat around in the sun, on the tiny sleep-mats, washed and dried clothes, and walked up to town for aperitifs in two bars before going to the Hotel de la Post, where we had booked to stay last year. The Fin de Siecle, over the top exterior did not disappoint, – inside was even more extravagant, and fancy, every table ready with a massive array of gleaming glass and silverware. A great silver champagne holder full of heavily scented lilies dropped the perfume down to us all evening, and every table was set with towers of amuses bouches on ornate stands which were whisked away and renewed at each new course. When, finally the brandy course came, we could not resist and were served with enormous 100cl brandies that finished us off. A short flip-flop walk took us back to the camp and a comfy bed even on hard ground.

Pumpkin Picking near St Jean d’Herens, Vercors

The wide views on the plateau approaching Corps

The wide views on the plateau approaching Corps

The wide views on the plateau approaching Corps

The sheltered corner away from the Mistral at Les Rouilles Campsite, Corps

View from the tent

Tuesday 31 August 2010 Corps to  Serre; climb Col du Festre 1442 metres

It is cloudy again when Jim forces me out of bed at 6.30 (or civil twilight) and very cold. We are packed up by 7 and go back to Corps for breakfast. Setting off at 8, we are very cold for hours, especially on the long descent from Corps. We travel high up on the plateau, about 800metres all the time with some undulation. All this is leading to the Col of the day, the Festre, very easily approached, with a coffee and sandwich stop in one-horse one-café Agnieres Devouluy. An unusually unfriendly bar owner stares nastily as we munch through gigantic sandwiches, as though we are eating his lunch. Very soon after this we are at the col, with wide, golden views, fields of corn, sunflowers with drooped heads showing the pale green undersides, clouds clinging against the white mountain tops of marble. A well is there on the pass, with the col notice above it. Then there is the most fabulous, fastest descent ever, I reckon we are doing aboutt 50 mph, so smooth and wide the road, so long the views, down and down and down we fly, undulating pleasantly, feeling the warmth growing although the strong mistral is ever present billowing us cheerily southwards.

We pass the climbing area at Siggotier, admire the cliffs, the dark blue sky, so cloudless. Serre is a busy N road town which we don’t explore, but instead sit in the first café we see for lunch, boiling in the now hot sun and then cycle to the camp sites – two in the town, the first dunky dry and enclosed in the valley bottom, discouragingly the second is a kilometre uphill, but worth it, spread over 28 hectares of pine forest, up the hill. We can choose our own terrace, with the sun spilling between the pines, and lighting the many varieties of prickly bush with cicadas creeping musically up them. No meals are available, (we are very aware that the season has now ended) but takeaway lasagne is offered, with a bottle of wine, which we consume on a sunny slope close to the tent. When the sun goes behind the hill, we go in the tent and soon fall asleep.

Undulating Terrain on the way to the col de Festre

Undulating Terrain on the way to the col de Festre

Arriving At Col de Festre



On the Road to Col de Festre

Monument at the Col du Festre

The Col du Festre

The Climbing Area at Siggotier

Grasshopper on the Cyclebag

Wise choice of Campsite

lasagne al fresco

Wednesday 1 September 2010 Col de St Jean, Col De Macuegne, Col de l’Homme Mort

It is cold, very cold when we awake just as it comes light, and we pack, and set off by seven, down to Serre, again, freezing our bits off in the process. A corner café is open, and we have breakfast before wheeling away on a long flat road beside the river, and discovering that my brakes are about to drop off, finding a treeful of delicious plums while mending it. At Orpierre, a climbers village, we traverse narrow streets of picturesque houses, with the attractive climbing towering above, against the dark blue sky. But there are no cafes open, so onward we carry to La Begue where a small warm café saves us and the chef/owner talks to us about the cols to come. Men are loading bales of lavender stalks into a lavender factory, making the air scented; in fact around this area the whole air really smelt of lavender. Tractors would pass with a load of old brown bales of lavender and we would be swooning in its wake of perfume. St Jean, the first col of the day is fairly steep, and hot. At the top was a shrine, up some steps where chocolate was eaten. On down to Sederon, to sit by a washing well for lunch, – more medieval churches and narrow streets where nothing is happening. The road to the Col de Macuegne is a bigger road , a gradual ascent, in the middle of what feels like a bowl of Provence – there are not many views. At the top three cyclists are lying in a hay field, and a smaller road continues on up the Col de L’Homme Mort. This is lovely, narrow, not very well maintained, beautiful Provencal shrubbery all around. The top is reached easily by a long almost flat section, and has no views at all, just trees. The descent was so beautiful; wide open expanses of pale brown land and the pale brown fast road all the way to Sault. Passing the large dingy municipal camping; a quick recce shows hard brown ground, unkempt caravans and a dishabille atmosphere, we continue for ice cream and beer in the now hot town- the lowest we’ve been for days and decide to hotel it – the Albion is our choice, the one we booked last year. We lie in the sun behind the shutters. Later we have a great Provencal meal

On the way up to the Col de St Jean

The col de St Jean

At the Col de St Jean

The Shrine At the Col de St Jean

Approaching Sederon

The Narrow Streets of Sederon

Church at Sederon

Lunch at the Washing well in Sederon

Col de L’Homme Mort

Beware of the Sheep

Thursday 2 September 2010 Bedoin via the Gorges de la Nesque
Get up when we feel like it, and wander out into the sunny town for breakfast, sitting dazzled by the brightness and surrounded by chirruping swallows. At the hotel we pack – a by now familiar routine, and set off gently up the gorge, a long slow ascent before an even longer, gradual, swooping descent through the massive gorge, with tunnels and arches and sheer drop off the sides of the road.
We stop in the midday heat for coffee at the bottom. Flatter roads with fruit growing alongside, lead to Flassan and Bedoin, where we see millions upon millions of small white snails festooning the vegetation for miles along the road. At Bedoin, there is an excellent lunch which we eat whilst watching passing cyclists, before investigating the campsite possibilities – looking at three. One, a naturist site, where we stand live perverts at the tall gates peeping in when they drew soundlessly aside for a real naturist to enter. The fourth campsite is the one we really like, the Garenne, with sandy terraces up the hill of a forest, and a pool and bars and people enjoying themselves. Eat out a Bedoin Bar, with good food but a strangely hostile young waiter and then back to the camp bar for a night cap and a short walk to the nearby tent and trusty cycles.

Gorges de la Nesque

Gorges de la Nesque

Gorges de la Nesque

Snails Festooning the Roadside Vegetation

Snails Festooning the Roadside Vegetation

Friday 3 September 2010 Mont Ventoux (1090metres) Col des Abeilles (980metres)

Got up with bells ringing in our ears, from the large church dominating the town.  Bought croissants and buns to eat in a corner café before clicking our carnets and starting off up The Mountain.  The one we’ve already had two gos at.  The route up from Bedoin is the one with the most climbing and is a bit steeper than the other routes.  I go in front at first because its not very steep up to where we stopped last time on hired bikes with all our shopping (about 6 kilometres) After this the road steepens, and we went together for while and then Jim went ahead.  Trying to extract and unwrap pieces of toblerone from a tight side pocket of my bar bag took most of my attention for quite a while.  The middle section is the steepest; it is unremitting mile after mile of the same gradient, all in the forest with no views.  At Chalet Renard, the trees stop, and the eerie moon-like whiteness begins.  The road hairpins up and through the white dazzling wasteland.  We had our photos taken three times and were handed little cards to look up on the internet.. Jim was ahead now and I stopped a few times mostly to rest the posterior.  At the top, Jim came to meet me and we rode up again together to the great white tower with red and white chimney on top.  Wonder what it is? It was very busy up there with loads of merchandise and stalls, but a bit lower down was a café with wonderful views right down to the valley, umbrellas, sun and heat.  We were roasting and to think I had been worried about being too cold.  We were so pleased to have done it.  Beer and omelettes at the café.  after which we decide to descent to Sault and return via the Col des Abeilles.  The Sault descent is much gentler than the others, but extremely bumpy all the way down.  After this there was a gruelling ascent up to Sault, from where the road to the Col des Abeilles starts, – a busy fast road with not many views and false summits time after time. Very cruel.  It was boiling by the time we were doing this, but finally we were whizzing down hill from Flassan to the campsite and soon after this were lying on the yellow beds beside the pool.  It was a hot evening, and celebrations ensued, involving aperitifs in the sun at the camp bar, and a meal at the top end of the town under a canopy that was not quite large enough, so that a bird dirtied Jim’s head during the starter.  We had views of the road going off up the mountain, and were very close to the Ventoux card stamping machine. Walked round to look at the large church and through the interesting maze of small streets and alleys that you don’t notice when you cycle down the main street. Our cosy tent held down with stones in the pliant ground awaited and we lay down in the accommodating sand for a second night

On the way up the final stages of Mont Ventoux

Photo taken by passing motorist, Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux Summit

Mont Ventoux Summit

Mont Ventoux Summit

The Tommy Simpson Memorial

Refreshments with a View, Mont Ventoux Summit

Col des Abeilles – Don’t go there

No tent pegs needed

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