France and Italy – Part 1

We’d had two short trips in Hansel, and it was time to kick it up a notch. Road biking was centre stage once again, but on this occasion, we decided to do everything spontaneously.

This is the kind of freedom people associate with road tripping, to just take off without an itinerary, trundle about at leisure, stopping whenever and wherever they please. It’s part of the fabric of the road tripping dream.

Now cut to reality. I’d love to claim that I’m a free spirit, but I’m not. I’m a planner. Even if it’s just a shadow of a plan, that’s enough to keep the stress at bay. In this case, we had made only two decisions, how long we’d be away for (12 days), and that Bédoin in Provence, France, would be our first major stop.

Ciaron, who is never stressed about such things, reassured me for the hundred billionth time that it would be fine, so I decided to embrace the disconcerting feeling of the unknown, and we booked the Eurotunnel for the 12th of May.

Passing through the never ending vineyards of Burgundy, en route to Bédoin
Passing through the never ending vineyards of Burgundy, en route to Bédoin

Mont Ventoux

Anyone who rides road bikes, or who has a keen interest in the Tour de France, will have heard of Mont Ventoux, aka the Giant of Provence. It has a truly mythical status, and its bare upper slopes have often been described as ‘a moonscape’. (I won’t say too much about it, as there is already loads of excellent information about this mighty mountain online.)

Aviation radar tower, found on the Malaucène side
Aviation radar tower, found on the Malaucène side

Anyway, Ventoux was our main reason for choosing Bédoin as our first stop. We had in fact climbed Ventoux by road bike on a previous trip, so we knew what was in store, but we were keen to go through the pain again for some reason. Road biking is just like that sometimes.

Views from the Bédoin countryside
Views from the Bédoin countryside

France’s fantastic aires

Before I go on, I’d just like to mention that the long, multi-day journey down to Bédoin went without incident. We lazily sat nav’d it, took the toll roads (paid for using our fancy SANEF toll thingy – yes that’s the technical term – more in a separate post about that), and overnighted in an aire.

For anyone unfamiliar with France’s aires, they are service areas with varying levels of amenities. Some are simple, just car parks with a couple of toilets and bins. Others are full on, sparkly service stations, with numerous facilities, restaurants and play areas. They are an absolute blessing, as they are free to use, and you can lawfully stay overnight in them.

You just need to choose carefully, and make a judgement call on whether you feel safe there. With us having bikes on the back, and not being all that used to staying in aires yet, we chose a busy one, brightly lit, and with a 24 hour service station. Pretty sure Ciaron slept with one eye open.

The riding

Ciaron’s plan was to do the ‘Cinglés’. There are variants, but the most common option for the Cinglés is basically where you summit Mont Ventoux via the three main routes (Bédoin, Malaucène, and Sault) in 24 hours. You can do it all officially, where you pay, get a card stamped, and are initiated into the ‘club’. Ciaron wasn’t that fussed though, and just recorded it on Strava.

Make no mistake, it’s no easy ride. The ascents from Bédoin and Malaucène are long and relentlessly steep, and whilst Sault is more mellow in gradient, it’s also longer and usually tackled last, after you’ve already done some real time in the saddle. In total, Ciaron rode 87 miles, and ascended 14,557 feet. When he returned, he still seemed pretty fresh, but man, was he hungry.

Home stretch up to the summit of Mont Ventoux
Home stretch up to the summit of Mont Ventoux

I didn’t share the same ambitions, and just wanted to ride. After I completed the ascent from Bédoin, I descended to Malaucène. By the time I summited for the second time, it was getting late. After 54 miles, and 10,200 feet of ascent, I was back at camp, more than happy with my efforts.

High on Ventoux in perfect conditions
High on Ventoux in perfect conditions

For anyone thinking of ascending Ventoux, be prepared for sustained gradients hovering between 9 and 12% on the steeper sides, and the possibility of the dreaded mistral wind. It’s worth the slog, the views are fantastic, and the Bédoin descent is fast and fun. Plus, keep your eyes open for the Tom Simpson memorial on the Bédoin side, the futuristic looking spherical aviation radar tower on the Malaucène side, and the beautiful, never-ending lavender fields on the Sault side.

Mont Ventoux's steeper sides have some fairly sustained gradients to contend with
Mont Ventoux’s steeper sides have some fairly sustained gradients to contend with

The campsite

Camping le Pastory is a simple and peaceful campsite, less than a kilometre outside of the village of Bédoin. It’s perfectly situated for road biking, and there’s plenty to go at aside from Mont Ventoux. The site is part of the ACSI scheme, so you’ll get a discount if you’re a card holder.

The site has a small shop with the essentials, such as toilet roll, which you’ll need, since none is supplied. The facilities are shared by both genders, and like many places in France, there are no toilet seats, (something I’ve never really understood, or enjoyed). The pitches are a decent size, and I found the site itself to be very pretty, with plenty of shade to be found under the trees. 

Le Camping Pastory, Bédoin
Le Camping Pastory, Bédoin

Hills around Nice

After some discussion, we decided to head towards Nice in the Côte d’Azur region of France. We were already quite far south, and we knew there were some decent hills to be had there.

We rolled into a place called Contès, a small village situated 11 miles outside of Nice. The site, la Ferme Riola, has lush, beautifully kept grounds, and is also home to 350 olive trees. The olives are taken off-site for pressing, and you can buy bottles of the olive oil in the small on-site shop.

We were directed to a lawned area dotted with mature fruit trees, and told to pick any spot we liked. 

The riding

If you ever get a chance to ride in the Côte d’Azur region, take it! The combination of rugged mountains, pushing skywards against the glittering blue Mediterranean Sea, is utterly irresistible.

We rode several well-known hills in the area. The Col d’Èze is around 6 miles long, averaging 4.7% in gradient. There are some steeper stretches, but it’s never too unkind, and the views are stunning. You’re cheered silently upwards by the rows of tall Mediterranean cypress trees spectating from the roadside.

Col d'Eze, looking down over Villefranche
Col d’Eze, looking down over Villefranche

Col de la Madone was next, another absolute stunner. As you climb further, the narrow, sunbaked road clings to jutting grey-streaked limestone cliffs, and the place has a real sense of remoteness to it. From Menton, it’s 8.5 miles long, and has a 6.7% average gradient.

Descending from the Col de la Madone
Descending from the Col de la Madone

Next on the roster was Col de Braus. Known for its famous, beautifully uniform switchbacks, and peppered with tiny chapels, is still has breathtaking views despite being a little further inland. The road runs on for 6.4 miles and has a matching average gradient of 6.4%.

Col de Braus' famous switchbacks
Col de Braus’ famous switchbacks

And finally, the Col de Turini. A beefy climb at 15 miles long, and an average gradient of 5.2%. Another feast of switchbacks and forest. This one was taken on tired legs and therefore somehow the least memorable. When you’re focussing on the grovel, it can be hard to appreciate the views!

The camping

La Ferme Riola is a lush little gem, away from the hustle and bustle of Nice, but close enough to all the great riding that you need not worry about using other transport. On the flip side, there isn’t much nearby, so if you need easy access to shops, restaurants and bars, then you’ll need transport. Yes, you can ride, but be warned, it’s hilly!

The olive oil produced by the farm is fantastic. The facilities are decent and well kept, just like the rest of the site, and the guy who runs it is a friendly chap. There’s an outdoor pool, games room, and many other amenities that we didn’t make use of ourselves, but which are there should you need them.

La Ferme Riola, Contès
La Ferme Riola, Contès

Next stop…

The rest of this 12 day trip would take us into Italy to climb the Poggio and Cipressa, and then back to France for some tough climbs on the Swiss border. Check it out in the next blog post!

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