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European Ride: Haute Provence, France’s forgotten corner in the shadow of Mont Ventoux

Joseph Delves
30 Oct 2017

Overshadowed by Mont Ventoux the roads of Haute Provence and Drôme are some of the most beautiful and little ridden in France

You won’t see the names of many famous cyclists scribbled on the climbs the Haute Provence and Drôme departments. That's because the Tour de France tends to spurn the area in favour of its famous neighbours of Mont Ventoux, Col de la Bonette, Col de Vars, or Col d'Izoard.

Located in the south-eastern corner of France, where the Haute Alpes peter out as they head towards Marseilles and the sea, the area’s climbs themselves aren’t hugely well known either.

Lacking the absolute height of those to the north and west you can ride several in a day and not encounter another cyclist on its deserted roads. It’s a small paradise.

Twisting roads

Having flown into the port city of Marseilles, our base camp for exploring it was located at the top off the Gorges de la Méouge.

Around 10 kilometres long and linking the towns of Le Plan and Barret-sur-Méouge the balcony road that traverses its edge is one of the most spectacular in France.

Hacked in alongside the Méouge river, the seismic upheaval that created the region’s landscape is evident in the tortured strata of rock visible at its edge.

Twisting crazily, the stacks form a vertical wall on one side of the road, while the other drops down to the river below.

Running downhill the tarmac cuts in behind pillars of rock before eventually punching its way out through a short tunnel towards the bottom of the valley.

Having driven in along it, we rode it on the first day before tackling the nearby Col de Faye. Our plan for the second was to search out more of the area’s cols.

The proposed loop drawn on the map only totalled 100 km, but would cram in four of them and over 2,000 metres of climbing.

Cold start

Days start cold in the valley. The morning before we’d left Serre des Ormes and ridden straight into a bank of freezing mist that hung about the gorge.

Today was clear, yet still chilly. It pays to pack arm and leg warmers, because as the sun rises so does the temperature.

During our stay in mid-October it topped out at around 30°c during the height of the day. Suitably outfitted and spinning to get some warmth into our collective limbs we roll out into the morning.

Across the region’s flatter sections its predominant cash crop of apples are laid out in neat rows while on the higher slopes sheep graze in the late-season sun.

Within minutes of leaving home we find ourselves swamped in a sea of them, being driven along the road by two shepherds and four collies.

In the region’s wilder reaches such flocks are protected by more ferocious Patou dogs. Raised among the sheep, of which they come to believe themselves to be particularly large and muscular examples, they roam freely in order to stave off attacks from the wolves that have recently been reintroduced to the mountains.

I’m hoping not to encounter either on our expedition.

Sheep ambling away behind us we soon turn onto the first climb of the day. With autumn turning the leaves of the trees acid-vivid shades of yellow, orange, and red compared to the previous day’s riding the dusty slopes of the Col de Saint-Jean could easily be mistaken for Spain.

The cold Mistral wind that frequently scours Mont Ventoux with 160km gusts is absent, as without another human in sight we traipsed upwards around gently winding bends in the steadily rising heat.

French resistance

During the Second World War, these hills provided shelter to the French Resistance. Known as the Maquis they, and the locals who took great risk to shelter them, offered some of the most ferocious resistance to the occupying Nazis and collaborationist Vichy regime.

On 22nd February 1944 the local Maquis group were holed up in the abandoned village of Izon-la-Bruisse when they were attacked by around 260 German and collaborationist troops. 35 Maquis were killed or taken captive and shot.

A memorial now marks the spot where they died in the snow.

Today as we pass through, none of Izon-la-Bruisse’s nine current inhabitants are in evidence, not in the fields nor outside the tiny mayor's office which is hung about with the French Tricolour.

Soon the summit rolls by and after a descent that loses us only a few hundred metres we’re straight onto the climb of Col de Perty.

The Tour came through in 2006 when the climb was awarded second category status. A steady 5-6% for around 9km it features a couple of steep sections but we spin up easily enough.

At 1,302 metres it’s the highest point of the ride. The views are spectacular, while rolling over the top affords us our first sight of Mont Ventoux.

The descent off it and towards the village of La Combe is a gem. Open and sweeping with widely spaced hairpins the vista down to the valley is so picturesque as to be dangerously distracting.

Like the climb up we don’t see a single car, although the open mountainside means it’s easy to scope the road below and check it’s safe to run loose around the corners.

Similar in gradient to the ascent, its 18km roll by like a computer game until we’re spat out onto a straight road across a plain of ploughed fields sandwiched between rocky hillsides. We roll through and towards lunch.

Lunch, a very French affair

The service culture of France exists in dialectical opposition to that of America. The latter feigns friendliness, yet feels grubby and awkward.

The first strives to alert you that your very existence is an imposition, yet imparts a sense that everything is exactly as it should be with the world.

Regardless of how many of you turn up, or how much cash you wave around, you won’t get lunch in the French Alps outside of lunchtime. So arrive on time and call ahead. You’ll be glad you did.

We have local pate, quiche, salad, bread, prune and almond tart, beer and coffee.

Well refreshed we pedal on towards the Col d'Aulan, which is of an appropriately temperate size to be tackled post-lunch.

From its saddle, you can again just see the famous red and white striped weather station that sits atop Ventoux in the distance.

The descent starts open and sweeping, before funnelling down a steep-sided gorge overlooked by an imposing chateau.

Out of the mountains and sitting beside the valley floor the fortified commune of Montbrun-les-Bains makes a popular stop for cyclists heading for Ventoux.

Immediately behind it begins the climb of Col de Macuègne. We decide to stop for a little sightseeing. Sights seen we turn away from the Giant of Provence and towards our final climb.

Heading for the final summit

Despite being lower than Perty, the prominence of the Col de Macuègne makes it the largest of the day. First included in the Tour de France back in 1953 it’s featured twice since, in 1970 and 2013.

Starting gradually it requires two early hairpins to lever it up and onto the side of the mountain. From there on the going is fairly straight and steady until a few steeper ramps see it twist through the mountain town of Barret-de-Lioure.

A final drag to the summit affords incredible views back down the valley, before a cross at the top marks the summit, along with the way to the Gothically named Col de l'Homme Mort (Col of the Dead Man).

Sticking to the roads made for the living we roll down the moderately technical descent on the far side then stomp the final kilometres back to base.

On the entire 100km loop I don’t remember seeing any other cyclists and probably passed fewer than 10 cars.

While tackling the famous cols of the central Alps often means navigating a morass of out-of-season ski towns, campervan traffic, changeable weather, and awkward out and back routes, the roads of the Haute Provence and Drôme departments offer days of uninterrupted riding in stunning scenery and almost guaranteed solitude.

With Ventoux in easy striking distance, and a big day allowing you to reach the Col de la Bonette, Col de Vars, or Col d'Izoard, if you feel the need to bag a big-name HC climb it’s still possible to do so.

Located in the far south-east it’s also got some of the most consistently good weather in France.

Ideal for a low key holiday, or a secluded training camp, it's an as yet gloriously unexploited attraction.

How we did it

Strava route day one

strava.com/routes/5174956

Strava route day two

strava.com/routes/6588238

Travel

Marseilles is the most convenient airport, with regular flights from most UK cities and several a day from London.

It’s also possible to take the train to Aix-en-Provence on the TGV. Airport pickup was provided by our accommodation at Serre des Ormes.

Otherwise you’ll need to rent a car.

Where we stayed

We stayed with Serre des Ormes (serredesormes.co.uk). Run by avid cyclists Kate and Paul their beautiful and historic house includes a terrace, BBQ, and swimming pool.

Extremely knowledgeable about the area they’re a great source of route info, and might even be tempted out to ride.

They also provide an excellent homemade breakfast, tea, and dinner.

Thanks

Bicycles were provided by nearby Albion Cycles (albioncycles.com) who hold a range of quality carbon bikes that come kitted with all essential spares.

The trip was part funded by Sisteron-Buech Office de Tourisme (sisteron-buech.fr) and Hautes-Alpes (hautes-alpes.net). A good lunch in La Combe can be found at Le Clocheton (leclocheton.fr).

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