Most cyclists know Mont Ventoux as the full-mountain climb in Provence that has ended many Tour de France bids, and cemented a few notable victories. The 22 km mountain road – whose relentless 9 percent grade drove 2013 Tour winner Chris Froome to the oxygen tent after he won the stage – is one of the toughest, most chaotic climbs of the Tour, filled with shirtless screaming fans, and a microclimate that is cold, cloudy, and always windy.
You can ride the mountain when the pros come to town – there are dozens of tours that, for top dollar, give cyclists a first-hand view of the Tour de France route just as the crowds gather and officials finish preparations. But, as Trek Travel's Provence Explorer Tour taught us, Ventoux is best on an ordinary weekday – with a support vehicle, meal, and bed in a chateau waiting for you after the ride.
As the woods give way to a rocky, snow-dotted mountaintop, the road to Ventoux is serene. There are a handful of spandex-clad cyclists rocking to the top, but there are also regulars making the climb on second-hand mountain bikes, and tourists taking breathers, and pictures. At the peak, a stray terrier may chase you to a smiling, bundled local behind a 30-foot-long wooden candy stand with nougat and framboise, lavender, and orange gummies. After an exhilarating descent, a three-course meal awaits – including prawn soup, smoked and poached cod, and deep fried oyster in cauliflower crust over mashed parsnips – in the sprawling, curious chateau of the Marquis de Sade (the historic namesake for "sadism"), which doubled as a bed for the evening.
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Trek Travel's Provencial trip is a week-long exploration of one of the most beautiful cycling regions in the world. Lodging (which changes each trip, but here included two nights at de Sade's chateau) and transport for your bags are part of the package, as are support vans, multiple guides, and well-maintained, top-of-the-line bikes (we road Di2 electronic-shifting Madones). Routes vary from 20 to 60-plus miles a day, but everyone in our group opted for the longest route every day – there wasn't a mile of poppy- and lavender-lined road you'd want to miss in this countryside.
The tour is equal parts scenery, riding, and roadside encounters. Following Ventoux, we road along the Gorges de la Nesque, a 22 km, rolling, narrow road that looms over 1000-foot sheer walls of Southern Frances second biggest canyon. We passed sheep and fields of lavender and made our way to Sault, home to the best nougat in the world, along with a creperie that stuffed their wares with oozing slabs of chevre and herbs. Gordes, a town on a hill built by the Roman empire, offered rosés (the best regional wine) and cheese as well as a tour of Abbay Senanque, which makes a potent anise liquor. We were invited to explore the inside of a private chateau-turned lavender farm, stopped at numerous cheese shops, and bought lavender oil from a grizzled Provencial man selling it on a shabby stand on the winding mountain road in front of his chateau. Any day, those of us looking to get in a workout had no trouble finding it – by adding loops provided by our guide or doing repeats of Col de Murs, a forested, curving hill teeming with jovial local riders.
In Provence, cyclists are treated with immense respect by both cars who give wide berth and locals, who give warm greetings to anyone in spandex. At a winery, where we stopped to taste rosés, a man in soiled overalls – we're guessing a local farmer – stopped in for a glass of wine. Seeing our helmets and jerseys, he smiled. "Combien de temps a Ventoux?" – or, how long it took to ride to the top of Ventoux? "A deux heures," we replied. "Merd! C'est vraiment bon," he responded, telling us we had bested him by 30 minutes. We held up our glasses and gave cheers to the mountain.
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