Friday, June 25, 2010

Villages Perches

Our friends back home are going to be amazed that we could find ourselves completely satisfied – no, DELIGHTED with a ride of 12 miles, but we were. A bit of today’s ride was over roads we have travelled before, but most of it was not. We did a few kilometers on a beautiful little farm road close to our villa, then up to St. Didier before curving to the south and working our way up toward La Rocque sur-Pernes, Le Beaucet, and up to Venasque from the south. There was lots of steep climbing along the way. At the end of the ride we hung out in our home village of Venasque, exploring more than we had all week. It is a lovely little place and well worth visiting.
Although we have ridden relatively few miles this week, we have climbed like goats, enjoyed incredible scenery, weather, food, and friendship. It is hard to imagine a better week of vacation or of bicycling.
Tomorrow we will part ways with Fred and Pat. They will enjoy another couple of days in Provence, while Kathy and I drive north with the Katzmans, with a planned short stop in Burgundy, then on to Giverny (Monet’s garden) and Paris.
I will close this portion of the trip report with a short, tragic fable:
Jean-Fred and Juliette-Patrice were lovers in ancient times in the village of Venasque, France. One day Jean-Fred spotted some berry-like fruit that he did not recognize hanging from a tree in the garden. Known to be something of an impulsive young fellow with a taste for anything remotely resembling a grape, he plucked several berries, tossed them high in the air, caught them in his mouth, and gobbled them down.
He attempted to interest Juliette-Patrice in the berries, but she proclaimed that nothing would pass her lips that had not been featured at one time or another as the secret ingredient on Iron Chef. An hour later, poor Jean-Fred was not feeling so well. He staggered over to the town’s boulangerie where he bought and ate a piece of pie (pizza pie), but alas, he became even more ill and passed on to his next life as a digger of prehistoric artifacts in India. Juliette-Patrice, overwhelmed with sorrow, found herself back under the very fruit tree from which the deadly berries had been plucked. Only then did she see the warnings scattered nearby:
The moral of the story is that one should always check for dead birds prior to eating strange berries, no matter how sweet. (Important safety tip!) If you happen to ignore this advice, try mass quantities of pasta, fresh garlic, and wine. It seems to be an antidote.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fontaine de Vaucluse, Take 3

The intention today was to do a relatively short and less hilly ride – an out-and-back to the nearby town of Fontaine de Vaucluse, which Kathy and I have visited on both of our prior trips to Provence.

Well, the ride was SHORT, at least mileage-wise (45.8 km or 28.5 miles), but it most definitely was not FLAT.

Ride from Venasque to Fontaine…


Ride back to the villa in Venasque, using an alternate route we cooked up over lunch…


The second profile still may look pretty extreme, but it is a cake-walk by comparison to the first one. The last few kilometers of the second profile represent the climb up to our villa in Venasque. The road gains a bit less than 400 feet of altitude over a distance of 2.8 km. That works out to be about 4 to 5%, which, when it goes on for almost 3 km, might not be fun, exactly, but it is not too bad.

Anyway, back to Fontaine. This little village is noted for its prolific spring, which spews out a literal river (The Sorgue) of crystal clear water.


In spite of the fact that it is a popular tourist destination, I have always found the place to be charming. That beautiful little river makes up for the dozens of merchants selling souvenirs a few feet away. That’s true for me, at least. Kathy is sure that three visits is more than enough.

Tomorrow is our last full day here. Our plan is for just a short ride in the morning, as Fred and Pat’s bikes must be returned to the shop in Sault, and the rest of us must disassemble and pack our tandems. We are supposed to be out of the villa no later than 10 AM on Saturday.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We came to Provence, we saw Ventoux, and we KICKED ITS ASS!

OK, perhaps there was no actual kicking involved, but we (Steve, Fred, and I) did climb to the very top and are exceptionally proud of ourselves.

SteveAtTop SethFredSummit2

Climbing the Ventoux was a great experience. It was most definitely a challenge, even from the “easy” Sault side.


The route has two distinctly different parts. From Sault to the Chalet Reynard restaurant is 20 km (12.5 miles) of what felt like a pretty constant five to seven percent grade through mostly wooded terrain. The approach from both Sault and Bedoin converge at the parking lot for the Chalet Reynard restaurant at 4,650 feet. From that point to the top (6,230 feet) you ride 6 km (3.7 miles) at a much steeper 9 or 10 percent grade, clinging to the edge of a barren, rocky “moonscape”.


All the way up the second part of the ride you have a demoralizing view of what appear to be endless, steep switchbacks. The white tower that marks the summit always seems so far up, and so far away. The photo below was taken about a mile from the top, so 70% of the steep section is already behind us. If you look carefully below the tower you can see the faint lines of the distant roadway angling up toward the peak.


The solution, for me at least, was to keep my eyes on the road immediately ahead and my mind on the slow, labored rotation of the pedals. From time to time we stopped for a brief rest, as when we reached the Tom Simpson memorial about a mile from the summit.


This photo reminds me that our Take-a-Look rear-view cycling mirrors were the subject of constant inquiry by Europeans who encountered us while riding and even while walking in the markets. Someone could clean up by marketing them over here.

Back on topic, the views from the top of the mountain are just breathtaking. The weather was absolutely perfect – sunny and clear, with temperatures about 80 in Sault and maybe 60 or so at the summit. The jacket in the picture below was preparation for the descent, and turned out to be just the right amount of protection.


The climb up from Sault took us 2 hours and 40 minutes of ride time, with another 39 minutes of rest, photo, and nature breaks. The trip back to Sault was, of course, much faster (1 hour and 2 minutes) and, at times, scarier. On the steep, upper portion, we had to carefully work our brakes to keep our speed under control while also keeping the brakes from overheating the rims. That was not a problem on the lower section, where we could brake to scrub off some speed going into the more severe turns, and otherwise just let the bikes go.

Some stats:

  • Entire ride: 32.4 miles, 3.7 hours, average speed 8.8 mph.
  • Ride up: average speed 6 mph.
  • Ride down: average speed 15.7 mph, including the climb back into Sault. The mountain descent portion of the ride back was right about 20 mph average, with a high speed of about 32.
  • Ascent: 3,800 feet, with almost continuous climbing for 16.2 miles.

On our arrival back at the villa in Venasque, our wives burst out of the house, cheering! Luckily, their confidence in us was not misplaced. It was a terrific welcome home.

Oh, if you are lucky enough to do this ride some time, and want to commemorate the event with a Mont Ventoux jersey, we found them for sale in the gift shop at the summit for 55 Euros. A couple of days earlier Steve had purchased a similar jersey in Bedoin for 60 Euros. I would have expected the prices to be higher on the mountain, but there you have it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Provence, France: 2010

Here it is, Tuesday June 22, technically the SIXTH(!) day of this trip, and my first chance to post. Let me see if I can catch up.

We left home on Thursday, June 17th, grabbed a quick visit with my parents, and got a ride to the airport from my sister, Claudia (thanks again!) We flew Swiss Air to Paris, via Zurich. Happily, we had no issue at all checking the bike in its pair of cases. (This trip is on our coupled, Co-Motion tandem.) The clerk barely glanced at the luggage. The most remarkable thing about the flight itself was the fact that the unfortunate young woman in the seat in front of us had an enormous, panting hulk overflowing the seat next to her. We talked to her after landing in Zurich and somehow she managed to take it all philosophically. It was painful to witness. I can’t imagine enduring it personally, but the plane was full, so I guess she had no option. 

We arrived in Paris on Friday afternoon, caught a shuttle bus to the Marriott near the airport, caught our breath, went for a long walk, had some dinner, and went to sleep at around 9 or so. This jet-lag management approach has worked for us in the past, and did so again. We were functional on Saturday and fine on Sunday.

We took the wonderful TGV “bullet train” (a really great way to travel) from the airport station in Paris to Avignon, in the heart of Provence, arriving at 11:45 AM on Saturday. Fred was there, in a not-so-hard-to-spot Hawaiian shirt, waiting for us, and Steve and Debi were in the rental car in front of the station. 

Fred and Pat followed us in their car to find lunch on our way to the villa we rented for the week in Venasque (some info here about Venasque), nestled in the hills at the base of Mt. Ventoux, the famous climb often included in the Tour de France. The villa’s caretaker, Laetitia, was there waiting for us when we arrived at around 2PM. She gave us the tour, collected our damage deposit, and left us to settle in. There is a beautiful view of the Ventoux from the villa. 

Steve, Fred, and I then drove up to Albion Cycles in Sault to pick up rental bikes for Fred and Pat, and to reserve bikes for Steve and me to use for our planned Ventoux climb in the middle of the week. While we were doing that, the women drove to the nearby village of St. Didier to pick up some groceries.

Prior to leaving home, we had made plans to meet up with Gary and Lise of Adventure Travel Group on Sunday. Two thirds of our group have had the great pleasure of touring with Gary and Lise in the past. They are wonderful people and do a fantastic job with their bike tours. By coincidence they were going to be in the vicinity of our villa on Sunday and invited us to ride with them that day. In return, we offered to treat them to dinner. Unfortunately, Provence’s famous mistral was blowing on Sunday, with expected gusts up to 100 km per hour during the day. The end result was that we spent the day at the market in L’ Isle sur la Sorge and sightseeing in St. Remy de Provence instead of riding. Gary, Lise, and their tour riders were at the market as well (though we didn’t see them -- it was PACKED!). As it turned out, they went for a ride later in the day, but they got back too late and too tired to join us for dinner. We would have loved to have seen them again, but it was not to be.

By the time we got back to the villa, Steve was jonesing pretty badly for a ride, so he and Debi got on their bike for a quick ride down and back up the hill on the D4 that runs past our house. They declared the climb to be no big deal. It is, in fact, only a five percent climb, but it is two miles long!

Monday, we were determined to ride, mistral or no mistral. Before we left home I had adapted a ride from the first Provence bike trip that Kathy and I did back in 1999. I called it “Robbin’s Le Barroux Ride”, to give credit to the source, Robbin McKinney of Great Explorations. Robbin and his company provided our first and second experiences with bike touring in Provence. Gary and Lise were contract tour guides for Robbin when we did our second tour with his company in 2004, before they started their own Adventure Travel Group.

Our “Le Barroux” ride started at our door in Venasque, then went north toward Ventoux (absolutely MAGICAL views – see photo), through Malemorte, Mormoiron, Bedoin, over (the other?) Col de la Madeleine, Le Barroux, Caromb, and back to Venasque. The loop was about 34 miles, with 2,600 feet of climbing, and is now on my list of all-time favorite rides. It was challenging without being punishing (especially at our casual pace), and went through some of the most beautiful countryside you can imagine, as well as some of the prettiest little villages. We stopped for the market in Bedoin, which is a traditional Tour starting point for the ascent of Ventoux. Steve, in anticipation of a successful climb later in the week, bought himself a Mt. Ventoux jersey, not to mention some special undergarments.






That night we decided to dine in a Venasque restaurant and selected Les Rampartes. The food was good, they had a vegetarian menu, and the service was typically French and relaxed (our four course dinner lasted about two and a half hours), but the experience was marred by the very noisy environment, ramped up by a large table of birthday-celebrating Americans, including one or two screeching children, that were on the same dinner timetable as we. Their sound effects lasted for our entire time there. Too bad, really.

We had a hard time figuring out a ride for today. Last night and this morning, I worked up a route that included L'Abbaye de Sénanque, and the popular villages of Gordes and Fontaine de Vaucluse. I was unsure about the route, however, especially given our plans to do Ventoux tomorrow. We decided to do a recon by car to get a better feel for it. Initially I got turned around and directed poor Steve, our driver, in the completely wrong direction, but soon we were on the route, drove the whole thing, and got the needed info. Turns out that you can only go through on the road past the Abbey if you drive/ride south to north –- the opposite of our route. South of the Abbey the road is one way. There is an alternate road that runs parallel to it, though, so it was not a big problem, especially because the Abbey’s lavender field is not in good form at the moment.

Back at the house, Fred suggested that we do something relatively less demanding so that we have reserve for the Ventoux ride tomorrow. Even Steve thought the idea had merit, so we settled on doing an out-and-back to Gordes, the first part of the ride I had worked up. 

Leaving our villa, heading south on D4 for just a couple of kilometers, we turned onto the D177 toward Gordes. Almost immediately we were climbing through a rustically beautiful gorge for a couple more K. The climb continued with grades of 2 to 10% for about 7 kilometers, gaining about 900 feet of altitude, cresting at the intersection with the road to the Abby. From that point it was mostly a descent into Gordes. We hung out there for maybe an hour, snacking on pastry, and in Fred’s case, “Pie. Pizza pie!” and enjoying the incredible view of the valley below.



The climb back out of Gordes seemed to go on forever, but we just put it in low and spun away. The ride back was a mirror image of the way out, so the last part through the gorge became a descent instead of a climb. The cost of a misjudgment could have been a free-fall into the gorge, especially given the narrow roads and switch-backs, so Kathy and I tempered our normal style, keeping our speed pretty low. In addition, something is going on with our front brakes (bump, bump, bump), so caution seemed extra-advisable. Although a short ride, it was physically and aesthetically satisfying. Everyone enjoyed it. We are now two for two with our rides.

The wind, by the way, has not been that much of a problem. It was blowing pretty strongly yesterday, but today was not too bad, and tomorrow the winds are forecast to be mild, which should be appreciated for our ride up the Giant of Provence.