`”They’re pointing to his bike, he needs a bike…” claimed legendary Tour de France commentator Phil Liggett. Yellow jersey holder and defending champion Chris Froome is running in cycling cleats through a throng of crazed fans. Each draped in flags of their respective country. Each having camped out for days to grab a glimpse of the best in the business scale ‘The Best of Provence’, Mont Ventoux.
It is Bastille Day in France. The French National Day. While 180 professional cyclists perform the annual lap of France on expensive bikes a whole other tour is occurring. This is the Tour de Fans that follow in campervans, tour buses, motorcycles and even bicycles themselves. Bastille Day is bang in the middle of the tour. Mont Ventoux is the beginning of the Alps where the serious contenders come out to play.
We have based ourselves near Bedoin at the base of the ‘Bald Mountain’. Yet another name for this iconic peak towering over the south of France. This was our second stop on the 2016 tour after a brief interlude in Andorra. We had got into the cadence of what it took to be a Tour de France spectator in Andorra, however in Bedoin at the base of Mont Ventoux we were looking to find the balance between the intense crowds, Bastille Day vibe and a picnic in the fields with views of the passing cyclists.
Travelling from the delightful and historic Avignon we arrived at the foot of the mountain a day before the professional cyclists. Our Airbnb host Antoine delegated the check-in duties to his Grandma while he finished up a shift in the family bakery. After many gestures and my failed French linguistics, we settle in to our apartment with a mezzanine-level bed set on the rising escarpment. Best of all it was only 500m down a dirt road to the Tour de France cycling route planned for tomorrow.
A reconnaissance mission
Using the same routine as in Andorra, we took a drive along the route toward the summit to scope out a suitable position for the next day. After passing a few small towns we were soon in a pine forest. A littering of campervans had already lined the route. Amateur cyclists of all shapes and sizes were pushing their pedals up the summit. Within the forest campervan numbers intensified. Deck chairs were out, wine was flowing, many looked settled in for Bastille Day celebrations.
A few kilometres from the summit everything came to a grinding halt. The campervans were now 3 deep from the edge of the road. Tarps strewn between trees, flags hung from awnings and there were as many people as there were trees. It resembled an apocalyptic scene with survivors taking refuge in vans up a mountain hiding out in the forest.
We reach Chalet Reynard, the final town before the summit. Here the forest ends and the scenery changes to a moonscape. With Mont Ventoux once at the bottom of a pre-historic ocean it has since been pushed up by geological forces to 1912 metres above the sea. The exposed limestone caused from howling winds. Any trace of foliage has been blown from the summit leaving only grey rubble behind. Closer to the summit, gusts of wind shook the car at each turn. We parked on the only remaining space. A precarious precipice. Opening the door into the wind was nearly impossible. I half expected the car to have been blown off the cliff upon out return.
The summit contained little infrastructure except small souvenir stall and a summit sign clad in stickers from all over the world. We felt a little sheepish posing for a photo by the sign dressed in civilian clothes. Qualification seemingly required one to summit on two wheels not four! Given the traffic, I felt our trip up Mont Ventoux was slower and more arduous. Our descent down Mont Ventoux however was made much more enjoyable by taking an alternate route down the other side of the mountain. Some cyclists still did it much quicker passing us in the car at a nail biting 80kph!
Our Airbnb host Antoine kindly invited us to join him and his family and friends for a drink in their back garden. Language barriers were overcome with a few bottles of wine. Antonie and friends were looking to trek up the mountain as far as they could go the next day and get amongst the crowds. We had settled on staying in our local village of Sainte Colombe to catch the action. A little more subdued than further up the mountain. Sitting out having a picnic in the sunshine close to home appealed after an intense week on the road and a 5am departure planned the next morning.
A leisurely stroll up to Sainte Colombe and a patch of grass was found to set up camp. The town was already abuzz with people lining the road and setting up a few hours before the cyclists arrived. The official team cars, buses, vans and sponsor caravans passed us in a steady stream to the summit. A jovial atmosphere with the one hotel in town setup with an outside bar doing a roaring trade.
News from the tour was that the winds we had experienced at the summit had intensified and forced the organisers to cut short the finish at Chalet Reynard. The crowds gathered above this point had made their way down to what was going to be a very congested finish area. The Tour de France crowds had already gained some flack for interfering with the cyclists on the mountain stages. These notorious crowds part only seconds before the cyclists arrive. It must be quite a daunting prospect for riders constantly plowing into a sea of people. Well, this sea just got a lot more choppy with the shortened finish!
The now familiar police motorcycle escorts led the riders up the mountain. A few riders had made a short break although the peloton, containing the main contenders, were gaining quickly. Team Sky, the team in support of the race leader and defending champion Chris Froome, led the peloton when they arrived and passed us toward the brewing maelstrom awaiting them further up the mountain.
Crowds in Sainte Columbe quickly moved to the hotel and gathered in a courtyard around a TV hastily propped up in a window. Seats filled quickly and all eyes were glued to the screen.
As we arrived Aussie Richie Porte crashed into the back of the camera motorbike after the bike was caught in the intensifying crowds. Froome and Dutchman, Bauke Mollema immediately joined the pile up. Porte and Mollema were able to get back on their bikes but Froome’s was a right off. A support vehicle is usually close behind but had been held up with the crowds. Froome’s only option was to run.
As soon as the race result was known, like Andorra, the sea of humanity descended the mountain in one raging torrent. It was like a city fun run. The roads thick with people except cars were honking to get through. A streaming chaos that would continue for many hours into the evening. We had been settled in our BnB for many hours before we heard Antoine and his sister come past the window. He looked absolutely spent having trekked 20km to the finish and return. Mont Ventoux is that kind of stage!
Following the Tour to Mont Ventoux?
Depending on the tour route year to year your options may change. However the following may be useful:
- Accommodation: Stay in Bedoin or any of the towns on the D974 route up Mont Ventoux. Our accommodation and Airbnb host Antoine was awesome.
- Bedoin: The main town in the area. Good to get supplies for a day out on the mountain.
- Avignon: Definitely worth getting to well known and Historic Avignon if you are in the area for le Tour.