Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Bataan Death March, or how much I enjoyed Provence and the Ventoux

At 1,911 meters, Mont Ventoux is threadbare at the top-thanks to unrelenting winds 
A week into our late-spring vacation here in Provence I can honestly say that I have never been as humiliated on a bike as last weekend. What has happened? I used to be able to ride up even larger hillocks without too much of a problem, and then there was Ventoux, and it took me more than 3 hours to ascend the "easy" side from Bedoin. My friend Tom K. from New Mexico did a triple ascent not that many years ago, and here I was sucking as badly as one can suck. But then, it is a 1,600-meter climb from Bedoin to the summit (1,911 meters), in 21 kilometers, without a single meter of flat terrain in between. That's hard, and I knew it going into this adventure. But there were so many riders who easily slipped by that I thought that I should just turn around and go home. Two ablations and a fat gut probably didn't help, either.
Tom Simpson died here in the '60s--I wasn't about to imitate him, so I slowly churned the 34/32
But I did make it up the Ventoux. I can't really say that this was a "bucket list" item, even though that would be a bit romantic, I suppose. Actually, when Sabine and I had started to talk about going to Provence instead of Tuscany for our somewhat ritualistic spring vacation, I didn't even think about this big ol' mountain that's planted smack-dab in the middle of Provence. I had seen the big old pimple about a decade-and-a half ago when Judy and I had ridden with our German friends  from Lac Leman down to Nice and we had to drive back up to Switzerland. Nope, the idea to ride up came after we had decided on our Airbnb domicile in the vicinity of the Ventoux, and then the thought started to get a life of its own. Nope, this was and is not a trip to only the Ventoux, but climbing it was a very exciting and satisfying highlight to a beautiful vacation, which is still evolving--even if my ride resembled the Bataan Death March.
This was one of the easier parts--seriously
Cold and windy up at 1,911 meters, and this was a really good day!
Our house that we are renting, here in Lagnes, just a bit south of Carpentras and east of Avignon, is perfect. That's the plain and simple truth. We have a generous living room, a nice, fully appointed kitchen, and a bedroom with a grand lit. The bathroom is brightened by early-morning sunlight and is modern and has anything one could ask for in a holiday home. We have a balcony that is bathed in sunlight that filters through leaves of wild wine in the afternoon sun, and we're having breakfast under pine trees, next to our swimming pool. Seriously, this is damn fine. It's about $90 a night, and we have already made arrangements to extend our one-week stay by an extra three days. I mean, how do you beat a place like this?
The Lagnes castle, as seen from our living room
Our hosts--Christophe, the local osteopath, and his wife, Natalie (plus two teenage sons)--are simply wonderful. On day two of our stay, Christophe guided us on a 30+ mile ride through the area; he rides a Look, is strong (and tall) as a horse, and loves wine just as much as we do. So, we've shared a few bottles, and as a result we know much, much more about the local area than we would have in a sterile hotel. And we get to practice our French, which is lots of fun.
La Petite Maison, on the left
Christophe, our host, towering over Sabine during our randonnee
A civilized breakfast starts a perfect day
Tuscany was very nice. Provence is nicer. Both places are scenic, but there seems to be more variety here, not just from a cycling standpoint but in regard to landscape and towns. Provence boasts many more tiny roads that connect towns and villages, and if you have a decent Michelin map you can design rides that are simply astonishing. You want to climb? Check. You want to ride in the flats? Check. You want to ride in vineyards? Check. You want to ride along crystal-clear rivers, cross pine forests, get lost in tiny villages, get floored by poppy fields like you've never seen? Check again.
It looks almost as if the poppies have been planted, but they appear to be just "weeds"
Ocher in the Luberon, near Rousillion
More poppies--they are everywhere
Unfortunately, the lavender is not ready to blossom yet
If this is not cycling heaven, well, good luck finding it. Of course, there's always a little drawback, and here it is the almost perpetual wind that we've been experiencing. It's a little bit like West Texas: There's that wind. We experienced the ferocious Mistral while driving down here (and overnighting in the tiny hamlet of Charavines on Lac Paladru, about two hours southwest of Geneva), and there's always wind coming from the north, or the south, or from somewhere. On today's ride through Les Alpilles, a version of miniature Alps, we fought some real headwinds while at other times we were blown along as if we had eBikes. On Saturday, when I rode up the Ventoux, I had made sure to check the weather forecast to have a bit of a tailwind on those exposed slopes. Not that it helped much, of course.
The strangest way to "fix" a sign to an old plantain tree
Quiet, cool city center in the tiny hamlet of Cucuron, in the Luberon
Wherever one looks, there's something spectacularly rustic to see
Our rides have mostly been in the 30- to 35-mile range. That may not sound like much, but by the time that we have had our leisurely breakfast it's getting close to noon. Sometimes we start from the house in Lagnes, at other times we load up the bikes and drive a little farther afield. For us, riding is a means to see things, so there are lots of stops for photo opportunities. There are the stops to figure out which way we need to go, there are the pee stops, and there are the occasional stops for a beer. In other words, we have not been setting any world speed records for human-powered vehicles. It was a good thing that I changed our gearing a bit before this trip: We're using our standard compact cranksets with 50/34 rings, but in the rear I was able to fit 32s even with our regular short-cage Ultegra Di2 derailleurs thanks to WolfToothDesign adapters that allow for such ratios. On the Ventoux, where the early sections to the treeline are steeper than the final run-up to the top, I hardly ever shifted out of my 34/32. Oh, what a big pussy I am!
Posing in front of the memorial for Paul de Vivie, apostle of cyclotourism

Anyway, the bikes are doing great and we're having a ball riding all over the place. So far we've covered about 220 miles of some of the finest cycling country I have ever ridden in, and there's still more to come. The remaining hours of our days are filled with meal planning or preparing, lounging by the pool, route planning for the next day, relaxing, and most definitely drinking fine wine! Thanks to our hosts' Weber grill, I have been making decent meals at night (fresh meat and fish bought at the almost local Intermarche--Lagnes doesn't even have a bakery!), and we have been working on filling up the local glass recycling bins.
 Riding Les Alpilles
Plantains lead in and out of villages
Sabine just made a reservation for our two last nights in France up in the Burgundy area. As I mentioned, we have extended our stay here with Christophe and Natalie by three nights and will scoot out of here on Thursday morning. It's a leisurely two-day trip back to Freising, and we'll break it up with two nights in another Airbnb so that we get a chance to ride in a different region. We'll go from Cotes du Ventoux and Cotes du Luberon (we're situated on the west side of this rock outcropping) to Cotes du Rhone. Man, I tell you: France sure is fun!
Gordes, on the northern edge of the Grand Luberon
Roads all to ourselves, and other cyclists
Time for breakfast and another day in Provence. I'll try to write another update after we get back to Freising next weekend.


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