Having completed a ‘Cycling for Softies’ holiday in Provence, our return route took us by chance to a hotel near Carpentras en route back to London. The next day, the Tour de France was scheduled to pass close by.
It was not just any Tour de France stage, but the first double ascent of Mont Ventoux, so the temptation to get up the mountain to see the riders tackle the challenge first-hand was too great to resist; even for two softies.
My research revealed little about how to walk up and what to expect, so I thought I’d save others some time by writing this piece. We had never been to a Tour de France stage before, but had watched many stages on TV, including the infamous climb up Mont Ventoux. We had also walked up some mountains and are good walkers, but now 60 years old, we were slightly worried about the ascent and heat.
Here are some tips and advice:
Cycle up in advance if you can. We had no bikes with us having been on an organised tour, so had to walk – but cycling is best. It’s a long ride, but most people cycle, many on electric bikes. Be aware that it is a long way up, so you need good battery power, or if you cycle, you obviously need good strong legs.
Starting point. We decided to walk up from Les Baux de Bedoin, which is the best place to start the ascent on foot. Google searches have since revealed this, but we did not know it at the time. Parking near here, even though it was within the closed roads area, was not too difficult. There is a small village called Les Constants where there is a road with a grass verge you can park on. In our case, and with some good French language skills from my partner, we organised a parking spot in Les Constants, during our night-before reconnaissance trip (useful).
Decide where to view from. There are alternatives to getting right to the top where it is extremely crowded. Once up to Le Chalet Reynard or just above, you can walk up the road as far as you want, as long as you get there early enough to find a good viewing space. It can be 3-4 people deep near the top, and as the top was not the finish in 2021, we chose a position 4 km from the top and about 1 km above Le Chalet Reynard. This was at 1580m rather than 1909m (6,623 ft) so was much easier on the legs and was conveniently at the end of a marked path.
Start early. We were concerned about getting a parking space, even though we’d arranged it. Many people had to walk up the road from 3 or 4 km below Les Constants. We were also concerned about how hard the walk would be and the heat. It had been 31°C in the previous days, but on the night before it rained a little. It’s cooler near the top – about 21°C at 1580m where we sat, but did get up to 29°C near the bottom despite the overnight showers. We started off at 7.45 am and arrived at the 1580m viewing point at 11.30 am, taking a relatively leisurely pace on the selected gradient. The last 300m ascent is steep at 1 in 3 to 1 in 4, otherwise easy.
Get a map if you want to do anything other than walk up the road. Walking up the road is not advisable, although a relatively easy gradient of ascent, because despite the road being closed there are a lot of cyclists and support vehicles driving up. We had a good map – thanks to a friend who suggested it. Our route from just above Les Constants went up via a gradual but steady incline (1 in 8 to 1 in 4 nearer the top) through wood-shaded areas. The shade and cool morning air is essential as you get very hot even starting early.
Best route. We walked up what is marked as a ‘Horse track’ (bridle path) named Combe d’Ansis, which is in fact a firebreak. It passes just above Jas de la Couanche over a wider firebreak road and then meets the well-marked path called Combe de la Grave. You turn off and follow the steep path to Combe de la Freshiere at 1568m on the road. We then were able to choose a route that arrived just above Le Chalet Reynard (second most noisy place) but relatively direct, yet a traversing route up.
Take lots of water and some food. There is a café at Le Chalet Reynard, but it is busy; and besides, once in position you want to stay put and to take in the passing events. The Caravan procession of sponsors includes many food and drink brands, one of which was Vittel who gave out some small water bottles, but not everyone gets one! The sponsors distribute tons of merchandise; caps, shirts, money off vouchers and free samples of food. It’s fun and noisy – goodness knows what it does for the environment.
The crowd is as much a spectacle as the event, and the event is much more than the cyclists coming past. There are all of the cyclists and walkers going up the road, there is the promotional ‘caravan’ that whips up crowd interest, then there are the police and support vehicles that start to appear, then finally the race leaders and peloton with hundreds of vehicles and helicopters in support, plus of course the media.
The walk down is quite hard after a long day. We first walked down the road a bit to Le Chalet Reynard when there was a lull in proceedings after the cyclists had passed on their first ascent of Mt Ventoux. It was interesting to see the other spectators and the huge number of camper vans parked up near Le Chalet. It’s yet another part of the spectacle, with a party atmosphere, quite a lot of drinking and a lot of sitting in the sun waiting. The walk down via the Vallon des Pointes bike path to Jas des Merettes is direct but long, made harder by off-road riders hurtling down the bike path – but it is a bike path after all. We saw a rescue helicopter arrive near Les Baux where someone had probably come off after trying to emulate the professionals.
All-in-all, a great day, although a hard walk. To see Mark Cavendish and all the other riders close up is special, but so is this truly international, yet very French event.