Provence, May 2012

When we were all collected at the airport, it was a bit of a reunion.

Gordon had arrived the day before, there was also a couple that had been in Costa Rica and Corsica, Rob, who I met through some mutual friends and had cycled round the Isle of White with, as well as a young lady I had met mountain biking in the Lake District in 2008.
P1000433By the time everyone had arrived at the airport it was lunchtime, so we all grabbed a bite and got ready for the coach ride from Nice to Saignon, where we checked in to a cool hotel in the middle of nowhere. It had a huge area in the front where we all got stuck in to building our bikes. A ritual the precedes all of these journeys.

After a good continental breakfast, lots of meat and cheese, the diet that seems to give me the energy to take on the day, we started on the journey to Sault at the base of the iconic Mont Ventoux, for my first encounter with this amazing mountain.

The journey roller-coasters along through quiet lanes through vineyards and lavender fields until we reach the tiny village of Saint-Saturnin-Les-Apt. From there we will begin to climb the first col of the trip, which tops out at just under 1000m, but once over we get our first sight of Ventoux, this massive landmark standing way above its surroundings, the “Giant of Provence”.

We drop over the top of the col and on to the beautiful Gorges de la Nesque, were we spend the rest of the afternoon taking in the views, passing through the medieval village of and head for Monieux, before the final ramp up in to the town of Sault.

Sault is a great place to have a base for two days, it’s the easiest of the Ventoux climbs and is a busy little town with great restaurants. The hotel we stayed in, Logis Hotel le Louvre, was right on the main square really quiet and welcoming to cyclists, used regularly by our tour company.

The next day’s ride was optional for those wanting to climb the Giant and as it turned out we all did. We were set off in two groups, the slower ones got a one-hour head start, and they were a good way up before we passed them. That final six km from Chalet Reynard to the tower is so deceiving, as you don’t realise how big the tower is, you just think it’s closer.

P1000467As we head back down to Sault, stopping at Chalet Reynard for a coffee, then we find a nice spot under the trees for a picnic lunch, a speciality of the tour company I have been using.

The day after our Ventoux climb, we leave Sault and head for the town of Forcalquier, making our way through some completely untouched countryside.

P1000474For anyone who has never been to Provence, it is full of medieval towns build on hilltops and unchanged for a thousand years, it really is like going back in time. It is only a short day at 50Km and gives a few of us time to ride in to the town and enjoy a beer/coffee/milkshake (delete as applicable).

The next day brings a change in the terrain as we drop into the Plateau de Valensole, which is not as flat as the “plateau” name would suggest, but it is the main lavender growing region of Provence.

There are some steady climbs as we wind our way through the almond woods that grow in the area, then we drop through the village of Moustiers Saint Maries a few km from the shores of Lac de Sainte Croix, giving us a taster for what tomorrow brings, the Gorge du Verdon.

We wake to another day of beautiful weather as we set a course for Castellane.

AP1000516s we leave Moustiers, we head along the shoreline for a few km before we enter the Gorge du Verdon, where we immediately start the climbing. We are riding the southern rim of the gorge, which is the more challenging option but it is a great way to experience the beauty of this area, especially on a bike, and it’s almost traffic free.

The climbing lasts for well over an hour before we start our descent out of the gorge and head on to Comps-sur-Artuby, where we head north and drop in to our destination, Castellane.

Our final day in the saddle is a long one compared to the rest of the trip and it rolled its way through to Vence, just North of Nice. Starting in the valley, the only way was up over a couple of climbs.

Doing my usual thing, I stop for photos and lose contact with the group, so it becomes a full-on chase to pull them back, because if I lose them altogether, I have no idea where I am going. Head down I drag up and down until I spot a few stragglers and rip past heading for the main group.

I eventually spot them ahead, held up by some traffic lights on the entrance to a tunnel. My timing is perfect, the lights change as I dash past and head up the road encouraging a couple of chasers to help out. It’s the last day, time to burn all my matches.

We hit the final drag up to Vance and it is a long “power” climb, biggish gear, keep it rolling and I can feel two riders breathing down my neck. Gordon and Kirsty had caught me and my last match was just about to go out. I watched them pass and kept them in my sights until we hit the hotel.

P1000520This was a great day out on the bike and rounded off this trip perfectly. Tomorrow we would transfer from Vence to Nice airport and head home. You know that you would run in to many of these riders again, in some stunning location and you know you will have a great time.

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