Riding the Haute Route Ventoux

Haute Route has become one of the most popular multi-day sportive events with three and seven-day events across the world, from the French Alps to the Rockies. This year Haute Route Ventoux was added to the calendar, a new three-day event that challenges riders to race up one of the hardest and most iconic climbs in France. Bespoke Cycling traveled to the south of France to take part and find out what it was all about.

The Haute Route is billed as the world's toughest sportive, as close to being a professional rider as an amateur can hope to get. The 400 riders came from across the world (a large contingent from the UK) and they are fully supported with virtually closed roads, Mavic's famous yellow cars and motorbikes providing technical assistance, fully stocked feed-stations, free massages at the finish, and a touch of glamour added by the appearance of ex-pro Frank Schleck. All you have to do is pedal your bike.

So here's our daily diary from the race, and we'll update this article with more musings and observations later in the week, as well as share our video once we've edited it.

Stage 1

This is it, lined up for the inaugural Haute Route Ventoux. After a 1km neutral zone it was full gas as the 400 riders thinned out along the roads, and the first 15km was a flat out chase to get in touch with the lead group, since we had started near the back, a rookie error if you have any desire to rub shoulders with the fast boys and girls. After pedalling furiously and making up lost ground, the pace settled as we hit the first climb of the day and the event, the Col des Trois Termes. A lovely climb, it curled up the mountain flanked by big rocks and trees, and the day's first feed-station at the summit.

From the summit of Col des Trois Termes the strong winds would play a significant factor in how the rest of the stage panned out for all the riders. We had learned at the start of the stage that there were gusts in excess of 150kph at the top of Mont Ventoux, and it was also fiercely windy in the valleys and on the plains. People clustered together in small groups to seek shelter and work together - find yourself caught in no man's land and it was a solitary struggle where huge chunks of time could be lost.

The less said about the second climb the better. A gruelling ascent to Col de la Liguière, 6% for 10km, after tackling the winds for a couple of hours made this a real battle for most people. It was a tricky climb too, with little visual indication of where the summit was, steep gradients, draggy road surface and strong winds blowing in your face combing to create extremely challenging conditions. People duly piled into the feed-station at the summit to top up depleted energy stores, gorging on bananas, energy bars and copious amounts of cola. And vast reserves of energy would be needed for the final ascent of the day, the fearsome Mont Ventoux.

Fortunately, the ascent to the famous Chalet Reynard from Sault was deemed to be the easiest approach, but the wind, still blowing hard as we approached midday, meant it was still a tough challenge. The wind was incredibly strong in places, but a few hairpin bends and thick forest provided much-needed shelter. In a few places, we even had the wind behind us and were able to shift out of the lowest sprocket.

Unfortunately, due to wind speeds in excess of 150kph at the summit of Mont Ventoux, the organisers had decided to bring the finish line down to the famous Chalet Reynard, some 5km short of the top of the mountain. If you need to know one thing about Mont Ventoux, it's that the Mistral can frequently and unpredictably make its presence felt. The highest speeds recorded by the weather station at the 1910m summit are 200mph!

And the Mistral was blowing hard today. There was really no option for the organisers, on safety grounds shortening the stage was unavoidable. But it was still a great shame. Still, we had another two days to ride it.

Stage 2

Strong winds and lots of climbing made for very tired bodies at the start of stage two, and it was a much more gentle roll out from the event HQ in Bedoin. A rolling road meandered through the idyllic countryside with a handful of riders springing off the front of the lead group. Chatting to Frank Schleck it was clear the effort of the first stage had taken its toll on even the best.

The route for stage two was stunning. Heading south from Bedoin we rode through the Gorges de la Nesque, a magical and awe-inspiring road hugging the cliffs and passing through tunnels carved out of the rock. The light at this time of year is worth mentioning, a warm sunrise and autumnal shades providing a particularly spectacular backdrop to the race. It's easy to see why the French impressionists moved to this part of France.

After the gorge and a rapid descent with tricky hairpins, a good test of bike handling skills and how good your brakes are, the Col d'Aulan, Col de Peyruergue, Col d'Ey came and went, packed into just 30km. These were enjoyable climbs with gentle gradients and lovely views across the Provence countryside to distract you from the pedalling if it was needed.

But looming on the horizon and the back of everyone's mind was the sting in the tail of this stage: the ascent of Mont Ventoux. From the Malaucène side, it's a wall of a climb, a 21km grind with an average gradient of 7.5km and several sections of 12%. Make no mistake, it was a really tough couple of hours on the bike and everyone suffered to varying degrees. Inadequate gearing choices were exposed, lack of training miles regretted. It was all about finding a maintainable rhythm and breaking the climb into smaller goals,

The momentous feeling when the weather station atop the white-capped mountain finally came into view as the trees thinned in the last 300m though, a huge sense of relief and an immense feeling of satisfaction at having conquered a brute of a climb. Add the incredible views, the Alps and coast visible on the horizon, and the pain soon faded away as it was high-fives all round and selfies by the Mont Ventoux sign.

After the disappointment of stage one, we finally got to ride to the top of Mont Ventoux.

Stage 3

A key feature of the longer Haute Route events is an individual time trial, and the organisers saved this for the final day of the Ventoux edition. A 21km race from Bedoin to Mont Ventoux with 1500m of elevation gain with an average gradient of 7.4%, the same climb used by the Tour de France on countless occasions, most recently when Chris Froome had that incident with a moto…

It's not often you get to roll down a start ramp, it all felt very professional having a countdown. 3, 2, 1… Riders were set off in 20 seconds intervals ensuring they were nicely spread out on the road. Out of Bedoin and onto the main road and it was full gas to the summit.

Except it wasn't… Unfortunately, due to strong winds once again at the summit, the finish line has sadly been brought down to Chalet Reynard, chopping 5km and 500m of climbing from the day's total. It clearly wasn't what everyone wanted especially after the disappointment of the first stage also being cut short, but there's no way of planning the Mistral.

I saw some agreeable nods at the news of the shortened stage, there were clearly some very tired legs, but also disappointment from those people who had travelled a long way and especially those people who had never ridden Ventoux before, and doing this event was all about riding Ventoux. And only getting to officially do it once out of three attempts is difficult to accept.

Unfortunately, that's the Mistral for you, the strong wind that passes through the valleys of the Rhône and the Durance Rivers. It's unpredictable and occurs throughout the year, but it usually blows in winter or spring and can last a day, or a week. According to Wikipedia, wind speeds of 320kph have been recorded at the summit of Mont Ventoux and the wind blows at 90+ kph for 240 days a year! Getting a guaranteed three-day window of calm weather is clearly tricky for an event like the Haute Route could be deemed an impossibility.

So that was Haute Route Ventoux. A challenging but rewarding three stage ride around Provence with multiple ascents of the iconic mountain, and even if the total climbing was capped due to unfavourable wind conditions, it was still hugely enjoyable. We'd certainly recommend the Haute Route Ventoux.

Next: We'll have more musings and observations on the event later this week plus a video as well. If you want to see the results here.

Photos © Haute Route / Olivier Borgognon