I woke up one morning to a message from my friends in the US. It was letting me know they were planning to be in Sault for a week, did I want to come, it took my almost a second to make my mind up.
Colin and Julie were over in Europe to ride the Haute Route Pyrenees and the Dolomites, big events, but in between they had just over a week free and were planning to take a break in Provence. The plan during this week was to attempt a challenge called Les Cingles.
Basically, where we are staying, Sault, is at the base of Mt Ventoux, and there are three roads to the summit at 1911m. The easiest is from Sault, then there is a more open steep climb from Malaucene, and finally the brute from Bedoin, mainly around 11% through the wooded section, before it joins the climb from Sault at Chalet Reynard for the final ramp to the top.
The idea behind Les Cingles is that you do all three climbs on one day, collecting a stamp in each town at the base and once at the top. The route is around 140Km and 4300m of climbing, and as we are on Sault, we decide this is the place to start.
The translation of Cingle from French is loony, mad, screwball. I have the cap, and it now fits.
I arrived in Marseille on the Friday and was due to meet them on the Saturday, after they have driven from the Pyrenees. The friendly people at Europcar helped me sort out my hire car, some weird Renault Clio van/car cross, with enough space to get the bike in. I jumped in and headed North to a gite I had found, just outside Mazan. It was in the middle of a large vineyard and had a great view of Mt Ventoux.
To be honest, Ventoux is the giant that rises above everything in this area, so whichever direction you approach from, you can see it. The room was huge, so I built the bike at the car and shifted it up to my room. Later I shot in to town to pick up some food to cook for my dinner.
After a really relaxing sleep, I woke up and looked out of my window in to the courtyard below where I saw my breakfast ready and waiting. It was already very warm, so I needed to make sure I was hydrated.
I loaded the bike, frame in its box, wheels on top, and started the lovely drive to Sault, through the Gorges de la Nesque. I arrive just after 09:00, already dressed to ride and ate a snack I had with me.
I hit the road at just gone 10 o’clock and set off up, with the intention of beating my previous best. Sadly, half way up I had to take a natural break, but still bettered my time by two minutes, so happy with that. It really was beautiful up there, but being Saturday morning, it was busy. I sat for a while soaking up the sun, before I head down, swinging through the bends with a quick stop at the rusty deer statue, made from old mechanical parts.
Once I get back to town I drop back out the other side and head out to the village of Monieux, then on through to a view point I remembered from my last trip to the Gorges de Nesque. It is great to just sit and soak up the view and contemplate what adventures the week will bring.
Around 17:30 Colin and Julie turn up, but they have had difficulty getting hold of the people who own the AirBnB we are due to stay in, so we have no keys. We try various avenues, including the local tourist information, but its getting late, so we book in to a hotel for the night. The hotel has a big garage, and we use the space to build their bikes ready for the transfer in the morning.
It turns out that the owner had been cleaning the rental while we had been trying to contact them, but did not have their phone with them. Never mind, we are in now and settled by about 10:30, so we get ready for an afternoon spin on to Le Plateau de Sault, heading North to the village of Aurel.
We climb South East towards Saint Trinit. We then follow the road to Saint-Christol-d’Albion, before swinging round, North West towards Sault. We have a little ramp out of St Christol, but the views are stunning. We start to drop back down to Sault and see Mt Ventoux again, which we now refer to as “Eye of Sauron”, because you feel like, no matter where you are, it is watching you.
We stop at the memorial to all those from Sault that lost their life in battle to protect the town from the Germans in WW2, and sadly lost. This morning all of the flowers had been laid to mark the anniversary.
The next day we decide to take a loop around the Gorges de Nesque, heading down the South side. The first 12 Km are a gentle roll, looking down in to the gorge at the caves before we drop 500m, through vineyards with the town Methamis perched on the hill above them. Just stunning.
From here we start to climb up to Villes-sur-Auzon, where we stop for lunch at a great little street cafe. The cafe is owned by the local boulangerie, which was situated across the road junction from us, and the lady serving us our lunch, was also serving in the boulangerie, so spent a lot of time dodging traffic when she saw customers at each location.
After lunch we have a climb back up to the scenic section of the Gorges de la Nesque, back through Monieux and the lavender fields. By the time we arrive all of the lavender has been cut back, but the parts that are not used are piled in fields and left to decompose. As you pass these fields the scent is so strong it takes your breath away. We stop at a few locations to soak up the view, and what a view. If you lived here you would need ride the gorge at least once a week.
We tuck in to a big meal that night and get the bikes ready for an early start tomorrow, the big day out. To accomplish this comfortably, all relative, we would need to leave at around 6 o’clock in the morning.
Sure enough, we are on the road by 06:15 and heading out of town in the dark. Ahead of us we see another bike disappearing in to the gloom. We pace ourselves steadily up the climb, keeping together and watching the sun slowly rise. It looked like it was going to be a nice day, at least down here. We get to Chalet Reynard long before opening time, but take a break and get a snack inside, then start to climb to the summit for the first time, which is now shrouded in fog.
Once over the summit, which we cross at 08:30, we drop down the flip side towards Malaucene and you can see the sun breaking through. This side plummets very quickly for about 5Km at between 5% and 15%, past Chalet Serein, then on to a wide open road, all the way in to town. The wide part also has sections over 11%, which on the way down makes for a rapid descent, with stunning views to the right looking in to the beautiful Gorges du Toulourenc.
It only takes us 40 minutes before we hit Malaucene, and we aim for the patisserie on the corner, which is one of the locations in town that stamps your brevet card. Once stamped, we head in to town and order some food and the first coffee of the day. By now it is starting to warm through, but not too much as to make the journey back up uncomfortable.
We head back out of town and start the climb, which is going to take more than the 40 minutes it took to descend. In fact it took 2 hours and 25 minutes, to be exact. The temperature is now starting to climb as it is around mid-day. We make a few stops on the way up to take in the views, as it really is beautiful. We reach the junction for the Chalet Serein, where the road starts to ramp up, at which point we start to separate out a bit. Sometimes it is best to climb at your own pace, then regroup at the top.
As we near the top we see see the Eye of Sauron again, appearing through the gloom. It is so deceptive as the tower is huge and in your head you think you are much closer than you really are.
As we roll over the top for the second time we look back and the weather starts to clear and it warms up, but it can change very quickly up here. The shop doesn’t look too busy, so we dive in and get our single “summit stamp” required to complete the card.
This next climb is the one normally used on Le Tour, as it is a brute, with long sections over 11%, and a lot of it is in the trees so quite warm. The descent shares the final 10Km from Chalet Reynard to the Summit with the climb from Sault, but once we pass the turn for Sault everything tips downwards, and the pace picks up rapidly. The 16km descent only takes us 22 minutes as we top 75kph, averaging over 40kmh.
There is one section in the trees, which was my favourite. The roads is covered in riders names painted on from Le Tour, and it is a series of shallow turns, but the road is banked from left to right for each corner. However, on a bike you could see through these bends and just take them straight, which meant that the sides of the road kept rising and falling either side of you as you shot though at top speed. So exhilarating!
We get our next stamp then find a great restaurant in Bedoin, where we top the calories back up and make sure we have plenty of fluids for the final climb, as it is now nearly 30 degrees. Only one stamp left now, Sault.
You are not far out of town before the climb starts to bite, and by this time you also have two big climbs in the legs. I churn the gears round as we start to scramble for the top, taking the occasional stop to stretch the legs, take in the view and regroup. We eventually pop out of the woods near the Sault junction, then stop at Chalet Reynard for a Coke and a sandwich. Just 10Km to go, so we get stuck in. Bottom to top it takes 2 hours 37 minutes, but I have never been so glad to see the top of a climb.
We spend a short time at the top, getting photos, then we notice the sky is getting grey and we can hear thunder. I have a gillet with me, but no windproof jacket, so the sooner we get down the better. Before we hit the Sault junction it has already started to rain, so it is going to be an all out effort to get down now, where hopefully the weather is better.
As the rain really starts to hammer down the temperature drops rapidly and I start to shiver, time to get those pedals turning. I know my bike and these tyres well in the rain, so have the confidence to push it through the turns, but we are now riding through rivers and I am being blinded by the rain running from my helmet and behind my glasses. Its almost feels like you are drowning, trying to get a breath trough the water. I have never ridden in rain like it.
As you get close to Sault the road we are on, the D164, meets the road from Aurel, but it approaches it from the valley. As you start to climb up you notice that the drains for the upper road empty straight on to the road we are on, and it is like riding through a waterfall. I am soaked and freezing and we need the final stamp on our card from the Tourist Information Office. We drop in and get the stamp, while we look at the flooded road outside, and I am advised to get back and get changed before hypothermia sets in.
Once changed and warmed up we go in to town and order a pizza each and a beer to celebrate. When the pizzas turn up they are the diameter of a car wheel, but they do not last long.
The next day we have a lay in and then have a drive through to Bedoin, as it looked like an interesting town. First we head to Monieux and have a coffee and a wander around. We had passed through here on the main street several times and it looked worth a stop. It was beautiful.
We then stopped in Flassan, another lovely old town, where we had a lunch in a very strange restaurant, which felt like you were gate crashing, but the food was good and the town was another little gem.
We finally make it to Bedoin and treat ourselves to a glacé from the Glacier du Mont Ventoux. Very special, well worth popping in and I think we can handle the extra calories.
Further up the street we find a great cycle museum, which was started by a local race fan as a private collection. When they died the collections was moved to a larger building and opened up as a museum. There were all sorts of peculiar pieces of technology from the history of bike racing, and it is well worth a visit.
We finished off with a walk around town and again, a really picturesque town, typical of all the towns we visited in this area.
We have come to our final day in Provence and Julie is suffering with a cold, so Colin and I aim to ride up the Gorges du Toulourenc, which we had spotted from the Malaucene climb the other day.
It was a really steady day, stopping for photos and soaking it up. We headed North East out of Sault on the road towards Saint Trinit, but hanging a left at about 5Km. This road climbed until we reached another gem of a town called Ferrassieres.
We took a minor detour to the Col de l’Homme Mort, well who wouldn’t want to climb “dead mans hill”. After the side trip the road tilted downhill for the next 16Km, taking in some lovely views, with Mt Ventoux always watching on.
The next stop was a medieval hillside town of Montbrun les Bains (cover photo), where we met Julie, then climbed up in to the centre. It was just like going back in time.
From here we made our way in to the Gorge, which was a spectacular ride, with great views every where you looked. We passed through Reilhanette, with its strange collection of farming antiques at the roadside, then on to Savoillans, where we met Julie again. She had prepared a lovely picnic lunch, which we enjoyed sat on a wall looking out in to the gorge. I wouldn’t have swapped that for a table at the most expensive restaurant. So peaceful, So beautiful.
A gentle ride back to Sault and I started to pack ready for the early start to Marseilles to drop the car off and catch my flight. I wasn’t sure when I would meet up with Colin and Julie again, but hoped it wouldn’t be too long. Adieu!