Cycling from the Tarn to Marseille via the Cevennes and Ventoux

Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 'Travels With A Donkey', Patrick Perring cycles from the Tarn to Marseille via the Cevennes and Ventoux.

Cevennes Stevenson map

This route was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels With A Donkey (UK, US) a rustic thriller in which the hero and his pet make for the bleak harshness of the Cevennes in southern France. During their adventures, R.L. Stevenson accidentally invents the sleeping bag, one of many of his great but unheralded inventions, including curtains, the broom, nails and underpants.

The route up the Tarn, through Lozere and down to the Rhone climaxes at the top of Mont Ventoux before skedaddling down to Marseilles.

The roadage is quite steep and spectacular as the ride takes you up the Tarn gorge; further on, the cols will also test. If you don’t fancy Ventoux itself, you can just head over to western Provence.

Toulouse to Ambialet, 66.9 miles / 107km

Waiting for a bike to reach the baggage retrieval area in one piece is always a barrel of laughs. Will it come out on the carousel entangled with a pram or will it arrive in style? There were several cyclists from the UK, who were popping over for some training. Their bikes were all neatly stowed in hard boxes but for one who'd used a soft shell bag. A buggy delivered a stack of boxes to the arrivals hall - with the soft shell beneath a couple of hard shells. Ours were neatly wrapped and whole in the CTC bags and came to us on a buggy of their own, having been treated with greatest of care by man in suit and tie and white kid gloves – well almost. (See here for more on flying with bikes).

This was our third time at Toulouse and like any other airport, getting away from it can be just a bit hit-and-miss, especially as Toulouse’s had undergone development over the years. Avoid the dual carriageway as a nifty service road to the right leads out onto the streets of Toulouse and navigation eastwards is quite simple – one you’ve figured out the canal.

We crossed the peripherique at 1pm then sped over a couple of ridges before picking up the all but stationary lazy Tarn at Saint Sulpice at two.

The weather was fine and the gradient slight as we hurtled along the D888 towards Albi. The scenery wasn't breathtakingly stunning, just the usual pleasant rural France, and the road was busy but the 60-mile stint was a good way to warm up the legs for the stuff to come.

Once we’d procured the right stove gas from Go Sports, a store we’d found with the help of a kindly old-timer who’d once cycled Bolivia, the meandering Tarn turned east and we headed to Ambialet. The scenery closed in as the gorge developed. Sort out some lightage as there are several tunnels, one of which has no lighting at all.

Ambialet is a village on a horseshoe shaped meander of the Tarn. The river has eroded so much of the bend that it will soon, in geological terms, cut through leaving an island, its hotel spectacularly stranded. So, if you're planning on heading that way in a couple of hundred thousand years, check the map.

The rains had just left the area and the campsite, with its very basic amenities, was very damp, its red clay soil getting everywhere. There were many men perched on the bank fishing for small gudgeon, roach and barbel to fry up for breakfast. We had the usual rice and curry surprise – the surprise being that it was pasta and tuna, as per every meal we have ever had on these jaunts. €5.50 each at campsite.

Ambialet to Millau, 59.7 miles / 96km

Millau is pronounced 'me-o' and not 'Mill-ow'. No-one knew where 'Mill-ow was'. More tunnels through the narrowing gorge and, again, a particularly scary one that had no lighting and went uphill and left and right. Boy, was that one a thriller.

Lots of bridges as the road cut corners and bends but all beneath a grey drizzle filled sky. The D700 is a ‘white’ road according to IGN and this ran on the north bank with the busier D77 on the south. It makes a difference in summer, not being chased-down by trucks and caravan, although truckers tend to be the most considerate of all the drivers on French roads. But, the road number would change around every bend and eventually it became the D902 and crossing the river at La Vayssiere it enters that tunnel.

The gorge narrowed enough just past Verdalie to have to send the road, by now the D200, upwards. After a brief downhill to the reservoir at Pinet, the road rises up again to give a fuller view of the stunning scenery that the Tarn cuts through.

After another hill and a few twists and turns, the valley broadens out, the plateau above, 1000m up, cut in two by the Tarn leaving escarpments glowing in the afternoon sun. Around another bend the enormous and incredible Millau Viaduct, the world’s tallest bridge at 1000 feet and over 8000 feet long, looked as if it had been Photoshopped onto the valley.

Millau Viaduct by Alan Harris

The spectacular Millau Viaduct. Photo: Allan Harris

We stopped at one of the several campsites on the east bank of the Tarn and paid a bundle that, it turned out, included complementary eurodisco beamed directly into everyone’s tents at 2.30am. A few miles north we would have found something a little quieter. We’d knocked off 120 miles in two days with both the weather and roads being easy going. €11 each at campitse.

Millau to Bedoues, 47.5 miles / 76km

The road, the D187, on the eastern side of the valley was very quiet as we trundled northwards up to La Cresse through more beautiful scenery. We crossed the river to Riviere-sur-Tarn for coffee and pastries. We continued up the Tarn valley until Le Rozier where we jumped ship and took the D996 east up the much narrower and steeper gorge of La Jonte.

An alternative would have been to take on the huge vertical escarpment on our left to get on to the plateau but we figured following these rivers would provide more spectacular views than the relatively featureless uplands. Having said that, it was getting a bit boring constantly going uphill – by now 150 miles.

I’d bought my telescopic rod to have a dabble but the river was never near enough or full enough and I’d been unable to find anywhere selling the €30 vacation permit.

But one thing with all this hill stuff was the rhythm. The 'riddim' takes you through the pain and up the gradient and any kind of stopping for more than a minute meant a spate of muscle burn and a good while trying to regain the cadence – lots of screaming, wobbling about and dreaming of comfy seats, chicken and chips, egg and chips, fresh underwear etc.

After a feeding stop at the '8 à Huit' mini-supermarket on the way into Meyruis, we rose steeply to the inevitable pass on which the D996 rose nearly 300 metres in 6km to the Col de Perjuret at 1028m, ranking 6394th in climbybike.com’s difficulty rankings, just above Park Lane.

If you were at this height in the UK, you’d be on top of a ‘peak’ in a howling gale in a cagoule looking down on creation as if on top of the world. Here, we’d done all that just to get to a car park and some rubbish bins. This leg work, however, was required to build up the muscles for Ventoux – and get the head straight about big hills. Big ones go on and on and on so this little col, painful as it was, was merely a trifling irritation.

And down the other side...

All went well for the first five or six kilometres, but then there was an unusual experience. Being four in the afternoon, we were both a bit cream crackered and a wee bit hot and bothered. The road, now the D907, began to level out as the valley developed, but with no points of reference the road ahead, it looked as if it was downhill when in fact it was going uphill and if you looked behind it also looked as if we were coming downhill, but the legs and gears told the truth.

Eventually we made it to Florac and stocked up at shoppers’ paradise, Carrefour, before punishing ourselves with a further 3km uphill on the D998 to Bedoues and the very nice and cheap campsite just over the bridge.

Early evening and the stretch of river adjacent to the site was like some Impressionist painting – people paddling or lying across rocks, basking in the warmth of the late sun; children fished with bamboo poles and string in the clear, calm pools; couples walked hand in hand. I even spotted what could have been an Impressionist artist dabbing his watercolours.

We had a couple of beers at a neighbouring campsite and discussed Ventoux. After the hills and cols of the last two days, the purpose of cycling Ventoux seemed nebulous – was it to endure pain? Or to show off? We could do another big hill tomorrow to take us up to the plateau and we would have had our fill of muscle busting. So we decided to head to the Carmargue instead and take it from there, passing Avignon on the way.

We returned to the tents and the two bottles of Ardeche July 2011 to discuss our excuses some more. What did pain prove? We’d been up big hills on previous trips. Why do it again? The child from the tent next door began crying with the sheer pressure of the questions. Yes. Why bother? €7 each at campiste.

Florac to Corbes, 40 miles / 64km

Col des FaissesCorbes

Florac sounds like some tablet for bowel dysfunction or, perhaps, a carpet cleaner but it is in fact a cute Cevennes town and a magnet for tour buses. We passed through it again on our way back to pick up the hill to the plateau.

We left the 907 at Le Mazel for the 983 which rose 380m in 6km to the Col de Rey. There was plenty of traffic on this road that was ideal for showing off: motorbikes leaning into tight bends, Italian Job Minis, boy racers. The Cevennes is home to several quarries and cementieries – a word I made up – so there are big dusty lorries zooming about and the sides of the roads often have a hazardous trail of lumpy spilled mortar.

The Col des Faisses at 1018 was the high point as the road flattened out across the plateau with spectacular views across valleys.
We hurtled down hair pins to Pompidou, a small picturesque village of patchy stucco, friendly foliage and a postcard cafe. It also possessed a ghostly ex-campsite.

The road descended rapidly towards St Jean du Gard and soon the Cevennes were beginning to dwindle but for one last hurrah with a steep one up to the charming campsite in Corbes. The grassy pitches, split in two by a small vineyard, were one side of the road while the ablutions block was on the other.

Smatterings of wild mint gave the site a herbidacious aroma and, due to a kiddies' trampoline, the last of the wee bairns put a lid on it around 10pm. €7.50 each for campsite.

We had tried a campsite further towards Anduz: one with an entrance befitting Graceland. There were bars, shops, restaurants, boule pitches and it probably had its own football league, radio station and cemetery. It had the feel of an alien planet as featured in an early episode of Star Trek where everyone smiled all the time whilst hiding a gruesome secret. Avoid.

Corbes to Villeneuve les Avignon, 61 miles / 98km

After indulging on one of the many cafes in bustling Anduz, we headed east towards the Rhone. In no time at all the Cevennes had receded to be replaced by a flat, hot landscape with farms either side of the road often with a battery of polytunnels and in between Renault dealerships and other nefarious warehousing.

The Rhone valley, despite the majesty of the river, is boring. Flat rides have no views or variety and the roads are often fast and chocker block with all manner of motorisation. Add to that, a dry insidious heat that gradually wears you out.

We headed over to a ridge via the 982 then passed through Maruejols des Gardon and under the motorway to head south east on the 936 before cutting over to Moussac and another 982 then taking some proper bonefide back roads to get us to Saint Chaptes. The town’s roads were closed for some annual bull running and a bizarre event involving a big soapy pool somewhat similar to a wet T-shirt competition in the main square – a little bit incestuous by the looks of it. The next village was also running the bulls.

Finally a ridge developed along the 112 to Collias that gave good views across the Rhone valley, and, right in the distance, was the enormous Mont Ventoux. Covered with dark green vegetation for most part, the top seemed to be snow covered with its notorious sun bleached moonscape summit. In the dull and lifeless flatness of the valley floor, our new plans seemed the same and mission-less and so before long we began to think back to the original plan.

After dropping down from the ridge through Cabrieres, we headed east through Bezouce to Meynes coinciding with that time of day when everything starts to be hard work – energy, staying interested, staying awake. The road became straight and boring and the respite of Montfrin was only brief as we got to the Rhone and the dull busy road to Aramon.

We’d timed our expectancy of hitting a campsite to evaporate at Aramon but a patrol car gendarme said we’d have to get to Avignon. Water was running out and so that shrewdly saved banana saved the day as we crawled up the Rhone to Villeneuve les Avignon and its very tidy municipal campsite and very welcome snack bar that did a huge plate of frites for €2.

Over a couple of beers and couple of boutielles de vin, we predictably reverted back to plan A.

D and I would wash shorts each evening and, if they hadn’t dried overnight, they'd be tied to a bungee to dry on the rack but, down in the toasting valley, the gear was dry by the morning. €10.50 each for campsite

Villneuve les Avignon to Bedoin, 33 miles / 53km

After some faffing to replace the very handy handle of my cooking pan, we’d only managed 20 miles by 1pm so we deservedly stopped for an anchovy pizza.

We then sped off in the midday heat through more tame scenery until we caught another sight of the big one, Ventoux, lurking in the distance and showing more of its detail. We were going to Sault, to the east of the mountain, as that was the starting point of the easiest of the ascents. Malaucene was the second easiest/hardest of the three but, being northwest of Ventoux was the furthest to get to.

However, one issue with Sault was that it had, as far as we could tell, just one campsite and we’d not get there before 6. After a brief discussion involving all kinds of showy bravado, we changed course for Bedoin and the hardest and most notorious route – ‘unrelenting’, ‘11%’, etc, etc and its difficulty ranking of 141 and 5-star ratings at cimbbybike. Bedoin reputedly had a vibe about it and had at least six campsites.

We stocked up at a Super U supermarket in Mazan.

Bedoin

It was 4 o’clock. You could fry an egg in the air. Two campsites were already full. We looked further afield. Way out on the outskirts of town was a large fenced off site – we couldn’t see in but we could hear the joyful screams and laughter. We suspected it was some kind of Center Parc/Village of the Damned affair. D entered the reception just as I noticed the word ‘naturiste’ on a hoarding. As D innocently asked the reception staff dressed in powder blue blouse/skirt combos if they were a campsite we both caught a glimpse of naked bodies wobbling about. The receptionist said it was a naturist camp. D looked around at me and just said: ‘Yeah, OK. You alright with that, Pat?’ She didn’t fall for that one and merely asked us for our Naturiste membership cards and so we sidled off. Eventually we found a site, way out on the other outskirts of town with pitches like granite

The plan was an early night and up at six for a 7am start after an early evening beer just to be polite and to get the vibe. We sat in the sun outside the main event and watched lycra clad road bikers cruising about – the Bondi beach of bicycling.

After a while a man, incongruous in his non-Lycra shorts, ran down the hill and came to a weary stop over the road from us. He bent over, gulped some air and looked at his watch while his wife came to him with a towel. They came and sat at the adjacent table. Turns out, he had just run 60km over 10 hours including the summit of Ventoux. €7 each at campsite.

Bedoin to Robion 55 miles / 88km

Thanks to the Tour de France, Ventoux has been bigged up and, especially because of Tom Simpson, it is a legend. It has also been bigged up because it deserves it.

There are three acts in the 22km on the D974. The first stretch, and that is all it does, is a red herring of 5.6km to the little hamlet of Saint Esteve: an easy gradient and nice views – very pleasant. Then, just around the bend out of Saint Esteve is a hairpin and you are on it – bend after bend averaging over 10% through a featureless forest – rising 1000m in 9.4 km - until reaching the Chalet Reynard.

Through the forest, I fell in 50m behind a young'un and by focusing on his back wheel kept my mind off stopping for a bun, or doughnuts, or a large plate of chips, or a nice big piece of shiny chocolate cake. Once you stop for a bun then you have a precedent for stopping for a bun again and before you know it you’ll be having a bun picnic. So just keep going. The remaining 500m ascent takes over 6km but in a barren landscape of fist sized rocks bleached by the sun. Words of encouragement and the names of Tour riders often cover the road particularly on short steep rises.

Once out of the forest I caught glimpses of the summit and the TV tower but around the next bend it was shrouded in cloud.

D and his weight advantage were way ahead of me. We’d left the signpost in the town at 7.25am and it was 9am and so I was beginning to wane. I stopped for a minute just before the Chalet Reynard, which was just opening for business, to ram in two pains au chocolat. The easy route from Sault joins the road at the cafe. Until then there had been few cyclists and cars, but now I was getting passed as if I was on a Brompton with stabilisers.

I caught up with a pair of English cyclists. One had ridiculously low gears and his feet were flying around in a blur. The other guy had already been to the top and had come back down to go back up with his buddy. I stopped at Tom Simpson’s memorial but, very much nearer the top, there is a much smaller plaque for another cyclist who died in 1984. Another British cyclist died after a crash while descending in 2003, but Simpson’s televised demise on the hot rocks gives the last kilometre an eeriness. The memorial is in sight of the summit.

The Tom Simpson memorial on Ventoux by will_cyclist

The Tom Simpson memorial on Ventoux is within sight of the summit. Photo: will_cyclist

I made it to the top and souvenir stalls at 10.10 – taking about 2 hours 40. D had already made himself at home at the lower coffee bar having arrived 20 minutes before.

The views are amazing as the mountain stands by itself, estranged from the Alps. The wind that day was not the fearsome force that the Ventoux is notorious for. The summit is understandably a tourist trap so you have to keep an eye open for all manner of motorised stuff.

The way down: by now it was 11am and all and sundry were on the 974 – walkers, loaded tourers, roller skaters (going up), runners, nutters on BMX-style bikes in sandals.

There were people nearer the bottom already walking with a pained expression – the heat was building so anyone leaving after 10am was going to be on the receiving end when they eventually left the cover of the forest. I got down in 45 minutes as I was stopping for photo opps and there were a fair number of idiot drivers taking bends too widely or overtaking as they careered up.

If you are a complete glutton for pain, you can attempt to join Les Cinglés du Mont Ventoux. To be accepted you have to complete all three ascents in one day – a total of 4500m climbing and 136km in distance. You can start early and use lights but you must get a card stamped by the various cafes and the like on the routes that double as control points. 

I got back to the campsite to pack up the tent. D had been there 20 minutes already. Then omelette and chips at a cafe in the town. Bedoin is a great little town for feeling the vibe. Everyone is on a bike – more or less – but there is still that 'pastis for breakfast' feel about it.

We had one-and-a-half days left and decided on a wee bit of Provence and headed towards Robion for some more hill work in the Luberon, a ridge in Provence and a cyclist magnet.

The campsite, well north of the village, was a rusty old, dusty old farm surrounded by roughly mown fields. It was boiling but had a cool pool. We signed up for the Friday evening communal meal of moules et frites special, enjoyed a few beers and a bottle of wine and our own legend and the big day was over. €10.50 each for the campsite.

Robion to Marseilles, 54 miles / 87km

We snuck out round about noon and took quiet roads towards Bonneaux, passing through well the preserved fancy dan villages of Maubec, Oppede and Menerbes.

Bonneaux clings to a ridge, its castle dominating the valley. 7 euros for two coffees while watching Range Rover and BMW leviathans jockeying for parking space in the narrow streets.

From Bonneaux we headed directly south to Cadenet, crossed the Durance, a river we’d followed in the Alps through Briancon a few years back. Then south again, then west across to Lambesc before one final graveyard shift and another long straight featureless ride, this time through a forest above Marseilles. Getting to Vitrolles and Marignane, the airport, required some fancy navigation to avoid tangled up in an elaborate motorway system and the like. At Coudoux we went south to Velaux for the D20 and signposts to Rognac. The D20 managed to squeeze itself between the A7 and the Etang de Berre (not worth a visit) and took us to Vitrolles in Marseilles’ suburbs and lo and behold there were signposts to the airport.

Marseilles is France’s second city, but possesses the airport of somewhere like Norwich. There were just a few people wondering about in the cavernous Hall 1 as they waited for an occasional plane. We packed up the bikes and bags, deciding again to pay for the extra bag, and waited a couple of hours for the midnight flight. We’d saved a bottle of wine from the night before and which had been up and down all the hills with us during the day. We knocked that back in the balmy evening air of the short-stay car park.

Total: 417 miles / 671km

Patrick and a number of cycling buddies have done several tours in France, Spain and the Low Countries – long ones such as the Cevennes trip and some not so long often simply known as ‘Le Dash’. Find the links at his cyclo-camping site

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