As you drive up the A9 by Avignon, the unmistakable bulk of Mont Ventoux towers over the landscape. It draws the eye and for cyclists it is like a flame to a moth.
The history of the mountain is legendary, and it has featured in many editions of the Tour de France.
It also stands as a memorial to the English rider, Tommy Simpson, who died racing in the Tour, near the summit of the climb. A memorial to him sits amid the shattered rock desert, two kilometres from the summit on the Bédoin side of the mountain; he made mistakes in his pursuit of glory and paid the ultimate price in doing so.
Simpson’s story is one of many that give this mountain legendary status, and ascending it from one of the three roads that meet at the meteorological station on the summit is a real challenge, involving over 20 kilometres of climbing.
For some, however, such a challenge is not enough and in 1988 the French Federation of Cycle Tourism organised a challenge to cycle to the summit three times in one day by each of the three main roads. Those who completed the challenge were given the title of Cinglé du Mont Ventoux – nutter of the windy mountain.
Since then, to date, 14,754 cyclists have ridden the 137km and 4,400 metres of ascent. But, it doesn’t end there. The Club Des Cinglés Du Mont-Ventoux also has a Galérians(Galley slave) and Bicinglés (Double-nutter) challenge. The former adds in a fourth climb by mountain bike on the gravel track that leads up from Bédoin and the latter involves six ascents, two from Sault, two from Bédoin and two from Malaucéne, totalling a staggering 8,800 metres of ascent in one day.
Unsurprisingly only 304 people have achieved this challenge since its inception in 2007.
I’ve spent a lot of time on Mont Ventoux guiding riders and supporting them to complete the Cinglés challenge, and although I’ve never yet had an opportunity to complete the challenge, I have ridden on all three sides over the years.
It is a beautiful mountain, despite its stark appearance from afar, and each of the three routes to the top has a very different character. My favourite ascent is that from Malaucéne. It isn’t the classic way up, but I love the way it winds up through the forest, offering occasional glimpses of the summit, before the bald summit looms directly above you in the last two kilometres.
A few weeks ago I was working in Malaucéne and the day before I had been at the memorial service of a colleague and a family friend who had sadly died the previous week. I had last worked with him exactly one year before on Mont Ventoux and that year I had woken at 4am with an aim to cycle to the summit for the sunrise. This year I was determined to do the same.
It was an emotional moment as I pedalled up the last kilometre. Ahead of me, the sky was graduating from dark purples to deep reds, silhouetting the weather station on the summit. The mistral winds were strong and at the summit I paused for a moment to put on a jacket and take a second to reflect on my friend.
Then I turned and descended back into the darkness of the forest.