Monday, February 16, 2015

Cycling in the Shadow of Mont Ventoux

John Helmkampf and Gerry Patterson, co-owners of 44|5 Cycling Tours in Nîmes, have 25 years of experience biking southern France’s roads between them. John, an American, moved to Nîmes in the Languedoc in 2006; he and his wife, Marie-Laure, have 2 children. Gerry, born and raised in Canada, came in 2008; he and his wife Shoko also live in Nîmes. John and Gerry joined forces in 2010. Today they offer a variety of cycling experiences, from guided half-day to week-long tours throughout Provence and the Languedoc. They actively participate in regional races and are often called on to support clients from around the world who want to climb the famous 1,912 meter (6,273 ft) Mont Ventoux.  For those of you who love to bike on your own, I asked them to share one of their very-favorite rides...and they sent this 55 km (30 mile) loop that starts and finishes in Bédoin. Feel free to contact John and Gerry for more details on this ride or to receive a route map. And to find out why the company is called 44|5 Cycling Tours, click here!

We often start our rides with clients in Bédoin, a small town of about 3,000 people, as it’s here that so much Provence cycling history has been made. Bédoin sits at the foot of Mont Ventoux, the much-feared Tour de France climb, which literally starts in the center of town.  Also known as the Giant of Provence, Ventoux has played host to the Tour de France 15 times since 1951, when it was first included in the race. For cyclists of all types, it’s a mythical mountain whose captivating powers compel them to climb the summit road at least once in their lifetime.

We’re not here to climb Mont Ventoux (not today at least), but we'll have the tempting pleasure of viewing its impressive forested flanks and rocky summit throughout our ride.

If we’re lucky enough to be riding on Monday, we might first visit Bédoin’s vibrant Provençal market, one of the largest in the region, showcasing a broad array of artisanal products. Otherwise, we park our car in one of the designated lots and ride to the top of the main road, where a round-about indicates our first turn to the left towards Malaucène, in a northwesterly direction.

The next 13 km of road leading to Malaucène prove to be one of the smoothest, most scenic and exhilarating stretches in the area.  Our legs and bodies will warm slowly as we pedal the gentle slopes outside Bédoin, and continue upward through pine stands and “garrigues,” the mix of rocks, shrubs and small plants that's emblematic of Provençal landscapes.
A bit further on, we’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the expanding valley floor, and off in the distance the looming footprints of the Vaucluse, Luberon and Alpilles massifs.  The real fun begins when we see the sign for the “Col de la Madeleine,” not to be confused with its 1,993 meter namesake in the Alps. It’s here that we begin to sweep down for several kms, braking only to enjoy the cherry orchards and vineyards lining the road on our way into Malaucène.

If it’s Wednesday, then it’s market day in Malaucène.  We could buy a few snacks here if needed, but with a good rhythm underway, we’re likely just to continue toward our next destination, the village of Beaumes-de-Venise.  Following the main road out the north side of Malaucène (D938) we take a right at the round-about just in front of the gas station, and then an immediate left (D90) following the signs to Beaumes.

For the next 23 km or so, we'll experience some of the most varied and magnificent countryside in the south of France.  But you’ll have to work for it, because this is the most demanding section of the ride, with larger hills and steep sections followed by winding descents where braking is obligatory.  At the top of our first climb, we’re rewarded with a birds-eye view of the jagged limestone outcroppings known as the Dentelles de Montmirail, so close it feels like we can almost reach out and touch them.  It’s here, on the hillsides and in folds of the Dentelles, that a handful of confidential wineries produce some of the finest AOC Ventoux and AOC Beaumes-de-Venise wines.

Twisting down into a beautiful small gorge, and then heading slightly back up, we arrive at the hilltop village of Suzette, where you might return to enjoy a fantastic meal on the patio of Les Coquelicots, overlooking the vineyards.  At the village’s only intersection, we head left toward Le Barroux (sign-posted) and immediately plunge down a hidden valley road that will leave you breathless.  Just outside of Le Barroux, we’ll take a sharp right (D90a) toward La Roque-Alric.  This very “petit” village has no more than 100 inhabitants, but offers postcard-perfect we usually stop for some pictures and to admire its small church built into the side of the rock itself.

There’s only one road leaving La Roque-Alric, and it’s 7 km of pure cycling delight, almost all downhill to our next destination, Beaumes-de-Venise.  Arriving in Beaumes’ village center, you’ll feel like you just returned to civilization after having cycled through the Dentelles’ backcountry roads.  An espresso stop may be in order, knowing that the hardest part of our journey is over and that we’ve already ridden two-thirds of today’s route.

Looking back up at the homes perched on Beaume’s rocky hillside, it’s not surprising to learn that these same ridges and grottoes sheltered the local Gaul population (think France’s famous comic book character “Asterix”) for hundreds of years before the Romans conquered the region at the end of 2nd century BC.  In more modern times, Beaumes has made its vinous name as one of 16 Côtes-du-Rhônes “Cru” wines, and is perhaps best known as one of only two appellations in the Rhône valley allowed to produce “vin doux naturel” or sweet wine.  This, along with a handful of higher-end restaurants, provide ample reason to come back and experience Beaumes’ gustatory pleasures at a later time.

For the remaining portion of the ride back to Bédoin, we’ll be cycling on flat to gently rolling roads, allowing us to sit up a bit and take in some more spectacular scenery.  Departing Beaumes on the main road heading east (D21) we’re riding through the agricultural heartland of the area.  Vineyards, yes, and lots of them, but also groves of olive, fig, cherry, apricot and apple trees. It’s no wonder that the summer weekend markets that dot the area are chock full of succulent produce.

Rolling through Saint-Hippolyte and onward to the villages of Caromb and Saint-Pierre-de-Vassols, we’re constantly reminded of why cyclists around the world make the pilgrimage to this site: Mont Ventoux.  Its imposing shoulders stretch out for kilometres to either side, and if we didn’t know better, we might be fooled into thinking that its limestone scree summit was capped in snow.  So what is man’s fascination with climbing mountains, and in particular Ventoux?  To answer that age-old question, you’ll have to go all the way back to the Italian poet Petrarch, who is said to have been the first to climb Ventoux in 1336, and based a famous work on his experience.

Finally, back on the main road leading into Bédoin from the south, we catch a glimpse of the monument to all who have cycled up Ventoux in the past, and feel rather relieved that we've opted to take up that challenge another day! Pulling into the village center once again, we’re greeted by the noon-time animation of children heading home from school, artisans and shop-workers breaking for coffee, and tourists browsing up and down the main thoroughfare.  While our cycling adventure has ended for the day, we agree that a restorative lunch is in order, and head off to one of the many excellent restaurants Bédoin has to offer.

Photos: (1) A Private Peleton: Gerry and friends tackle the roads near Bédoin. (2) The main Bédoin round-about; photo by Véronique Panier.  (3) No Ventoux for us today, thank you...but we'll be back. (4, 5) Sausages and ceramics in the Bedoin market on Monday; Photos by Michael Green. (6) Smooth roads and garrigues.  (7) The pretty village of Caromb. (8) The Dentelles de Montmirail. (9) When you hit Beaumes-de-Venise, you'll have ridden two-thirds of the route. Espresso is in order!  (10) After the Etape du Tour in 2012: John's in the center, Gerry's on the right. The guys made it into the prestigious "Top 10% of Finishers" in this grueling "sportive" which allows amateurs to ride a full mountain stage of the Tour de France before the pros do it. Some 10,000 people ride the Etape du Tour annually.


  1. Duly noted! Sounds like something I might be able to manage. Thanks so much for this!

  2. Hey Patricia! I'd like to get back on the bike again too! Maybe we should plan to do (a very small part of) this route together! :)

  3. Count me in if you go! My bike needs some exercise! :)

    1. Hi Ken! I'm going to be in Methamis April 18 to the 26th with a buddy of mine. We plan on getting as much biking in as we can. I've ridden all of these routes plenty of times over the past years and they as beautiful as described. If you're around, I'd like to meet up.

  4. Super ride! I did it today, and although I took a right at Suzette (following signs to Beaumes-de-Venise) by mistake, the scenery was stunning at every twist and turn! What a great way to get some climbing in without punishing the legs up Ventoux!



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