Destination Drive: Put simply, this is something you can do in any car. Whether you’re excited about your new car and are looking for inspiration, or whether you regularly hit the road and cruise around, this series is for the love of driving and to provide ideas for those occasions when you want to enjoy your car and the places it can take you.
A show of hands please from those of you who have, at some point, found themselves in a pre-dawn living room watching those mad cyclists attempt a stunning Tour de France stage, and wished they were there… driving one of the support cars. There’s no shame in it. Stretch those arms up.
Wagons from Skoda, Volvo, even Jaguar, all porcupined with bikes, getting to drive some of the most picturesque tarmac in Europe. A way to ‘compete’ in the great race, without the need to smuggle any ‘horse-ointment’ to help those gammy knees.
Le Tour takes a postcard perfect route through regional France, showing off mountains, valleys, quaint villages and the odd castle along the way. Following the Tour itself is a popular tourist option, but finding yourself on some of the roads ‘out of season’ is another way to experience a great drive and some stunning scenery without needing years of cardio training.
A regular landmark of the great race, and one which combines the driving trinity of a bit of a challenge, a stunning view and some solid entertainment, is Mont Ventoux in Provence.
Carrying the nickname, the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux is the largest and highest lump of rock in the region, and stands a solid 1912m at its summit.
Ventoux has been featured in the Tour de France route some 15 times – the race even ending on the summit nine times – and it is considered to be one of the most challenging climbs the race has to offer.
A British cyclist died on the mountain in the 1967 Tour, but that doesn’t deter thousands of amateur peddlers who attempt to conquer the ascent each and every year.
For drivers too, the run up the mountain is, well, perhaps not quite as challenging as for those on bikes, but still an enjoyable detour, if not for the history and provenance, but for the sensational view once at the top.
They ran a hillclimb here until 1976, and once you’ve completed the run, its easy to see why. I counted over 100 corners that explore the full gamut of any armchair rally navigator’s pace notes.
With a 22-kilometre climb from the town of Bedoin, the route ascends some 1600 vertical meters, which means an average incline grade of about 7.3 per cent. For context, we recently noted the rail-trail cycling paths in Victoria would only ever have a maximum grade of just over three per cent. That means Puffing Billy isn’t getting up Ventoux.
It also means that your chosen wheels will spend most of the time in low gears.
For me, I blasted up the mountain in something Italian and manual… a new Fiat 500X. With a 70kW/200Nm 1.3-litre diesel engine teamed to a five-speed manual transmission, the plus-sided Fiat 500 is not quite the galloping steed we all wish to drive, but an entertaining little bus none the less.
Heading out of Bedoin on the D974, you traverse some typical regional French roads. Flanked by centuries-old farm houses and fields of lavender, the Provence countryside is always a pretty place to spend time. About six kilometres in though, things start to get serious.
Farms make way for a lush, dense, green forest, and the road, which felt narrow before, constricts even further. Markings on the left and right indicate a width that seems like a single lane, just wider than our car – and let me tell you, the 500X isn’t very wide at all.
A hairpin left marks the start of the real mountain climb and the grade increases substantially.
From Bedoin to this point was a relatively flat four per cent grade. This section, for the next 10km, has an average of nine per cent. It’s not constant either, the hardest is over 12 per cent. That means for every eight metres you move forward, or two Fiat-lengths, you climb one metre upward. My legs hurt just thinking about it.
Trees sit just off the tarmac and do their best to obscure every corner exit. Driving vigilance is high. Earlier wishes for a firecracking 200kW Abarth turbo transplant melt away. Here, now, those 95 horses are just about right.
A ribbon of linked corners and a snap of third gear lull you into a false sense of rally-stage bliss. A tight right-hander approaches and the natural instinct is to drift left for better turn-in attack.
Until a Volkswagen Passat approaches around the blind bend and reality quickly rushes back – it’s a two-way road.
And then there are the cyclists. Groups of all size and ability head up the mountain to conquer their own personal goals, and demons. Team livery jerseys abound, and you never know if it’s riders wishing to make it into next year’s peloton, or this year’s squad getting in some extra thigh-burning training.
Even with the Fiat’s pokey engine, you make ground on them quickly. However, the riders appear unaware of your presence – the concentration and adrenaline seemingly filtering out diesel clatter in order to keep the legs moving.
If you want to pass, the responsibility lies solely with you. Passing requires space, judgement, care, and timing, as for every single-digit crawl gear climber, there is a streamlined blur whizzing back down the other way.
These guys are pushing triple-figure speeds on the descent and taking lines that meld efficiency with outright performance, again not really taking oncoming cars into account. Driving vigilance is higher still.
The riders all stay wide on the left-hand bends, giving them a chance to swallow as many positions as possible in one go, while providing a clear path for riders coming in the other direction.
Slowing to first, my toes twitch on the throttle while my right hand sits poised on the shifter, ready to snap second gear – all while I’m still winding on over a quarter-turn of lock. I’ve also engaged the Fiat’s ‘Sport’ mode, for whatever good that will do.
Then I see it: a gap. The 500X – with a quarter of the power of an SS Holden Commodore – makes up a couple of lengths on a small group of riders. Peak torque is available from 1500rpm, and there’s a good 200 metres to the next turn.
I push on and get past a couple more lycra-clad athletes… please don’t let a campervan choose now to lumber around that bend.
Riders passed, I tap the brakes just in time to negotiate the next turn, allowing space for downhill cyclists to pass. We’re literally doing 50km/h but my heart rate feels like it is three times that.
The forest breaks away at the small ski ‘resort’ of Chalet Reynard. Many of the cyclists use the carpark here as a rest stop before the final six kilometres that show why Ventoux has earned another nickname, the Bald Mountain.
Forested brutally from the 12th-Century onwards, the top of Ventoux is essentially devoid of any vegetation, save some grassy patches. The result is a moon-like landscape of limestone shale.
In the sun, the white-coloured rock reflects the light and is brilliantly contrasted against the crisp blue sky. But as you close in on the 1900-metre summit, the weather can change in an instant, and a flash of cloud cover blends mountain and sky together, in one blurry grey mass.
A series of orange and black striped poles mark the edge of the road here, and during one of these blow-by white outs, you are thankful for their presence.
The road itself is wider now with much better visibility of the climb ahead. The cyclists seem to have relaxed, knowing the worst of the ascent is over and victory, by way of the telecommunications tower on the summit, is now within reach.
I stop for a few quick photos and am passed by a small contingent of Porsches making the final run to the peak – a good deal faster than the little Fiat, I might add. The glorious sound of high revving flat-sixes echo off the barren landscape.
At the summit I step out to take a few more shots and can barely open the door. The temperature back in Bedoin was mild and in the mid-20s. Here, there are patches of snow on the ground and the near-on 80km/h winds reduce what’s left of the day’s heat to single figures.
Nicknames aside, the French word for windy is ‘venteux’ and the Mont lives up to its name. Apparently wind speeds as high as 320km/h have been recorded here, and it basically offers up a 90km/h breeze more than 240 days a year.
The upside of this is the speed at which the clouds are dispersed, and in clear air, the view it nothing short of sensational.
All of Provence is laid out to the south, with the snow-capped French Alps visible to the North.
Being Australian, I’ve shown up here wearing just a t-shirt and jeans, so I limit my ‘outside the car’ time and hop back into the Fiat for the run back down.
It’s not as much fun in this direction. The constant stream of two-wheeled machines enforces a measured speed and even more care when passing, as the bikes can easily match the car’s rate of descent.
The little Fiat’s brakes start to smell from their first decent use – a reminder that Ventoux can test both man and machine.
Watching the riders enjoying the reward of the 20-plus kilometre downhill run, makes it easy to see why Mont Ventoux is such a popular destination for amateur and professional cyclists alike.
That hellish climb to the stunning summit is a reward on its own. The glide back down simply icing on the cake.
The drive is basically a one-hour detour, worth it alone for the view and the landscape, not to mention the infamous nature of the road.
If driving from Avignon to somewhere on the Côte d’Azur, it makes for something different and arguably more spectacular than sustained high-speed cruising on the autoroute.
The short drive was so rewarding and inspiring, my next visit to the Mont may just have to be on two wheels…
Click on the Photos tab for more Fiat 500X images by James Ward.