Bed, bikes and breakfast
Pedalling and pampering at a hilltop village in Provence
The giant crocodile slumbering menacingly nearby seems to take on a mocking air as a pair of bronzed male cyclists rises out of the saddle in perfect unison to overtake me with a swanlike grace. I continue to pedal furiously up the steep incline as my Lycra-clad nemeses disappear over the brow of the hill.
Momentarily defeated, I screech to a halt only to hear another bike approaching from the rear. My heart sinks as I turn to see a man of advanced years taking the slope effortlessly. This Gallic gent, who has shunned look-atme Lycra in favour of shorts and T-shirt, surveys my slumped shoulders and, raising a fist to the sky, urges: “Courage!”
I have travelled to the south of France and the hilltop village of Crillon-le-Brave, 40km northeast of Avignon, to the luxury hotel of the same name for a break that has promised a combination of pedalling and pampering. The hotel, a cluster of sun-bleached stone houses, soars high above a bucolic landscape of rolling hills carpeted in vineyards. But it also lurks in the shadow of an unforgiving beast — Mont Ventoux, at 1912m.
The small spa at Crillon-le-Brave is perfect for postcycling massages. This fearsome mountain, with a thighbusting climb that’s the stuff of Tour de France legend, takes the form of a crocodile when viewed from the foothills on its southern slope — its long spine hugging the horizon before rearing into a distinctive head complete with elongated snout. I have not come to make an attempt on its summit, which looms tantalisingly close in views from the hotel, but to challenge myself on its notso-modest foothills. Spurred on by the success of the likes of British Olympic cyclists Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott and by my weekly spin class back home, the foothills of Mont Ventoux will, I hope, instead set the scene for personal sporting glory in a test of endurance against my husband, a proficient road cyclist.
Equipped with bikes and maps from the hotel, we set out after a leisurely breakfast but my reputation on the, ahem, mountain is soon in tatters when it becomes apparent that a map-reading mix-up on my part has added 4km to our 26km route. The winding route to the village of Bedoin, which marks the start of the climb to Ventoux proper, soon lures us in as we weave through a dense forest offering glimpses of rust-coloured cliffs. I inhale pinesweet air and with the clatter of cicadas applauding us on we follow an undulating route to Bedoin.
On arriving we stop briefly at a roadside cafe on its tree-lined main street for refreshments. And then watch with increasing alarm as a succession of amateur cyclists in full Tour de France-style garb tear through the village, with little concern for pedestrians and to regular cries of “Non!” from shopkeepers lining the route. It is shortly after leaving Bedoin that the crocodile finally bares its teeth with a long, sun-drilled climb to the village of Flassan, the midway point of which has been the earlier scene for the motivational roadside encounter that pushes me up and over the hill in pursuit of my husband, who has long since left me puffing in his wake.
The circular route provided by the hotel bypasses Flassan but we point our wheels in its direction and are soon rewarded with a sleepy little village of narrow streets lined with pastel-coloured houses in ochre and lemon. We seek shade under a thick-trunked tree in the main square, fragrant with dazzling pots of pink and purple flowers and, propping our bikes against its fountain, set about devouring a picnic of sandwiches, salad and homemade crisps provided by the hotel. The tricolour bunting overhead flaps lazily in the breeze as a playful kitten slinks from a nearby house to compete for mouthfuls of tuna, chicken and anchovies.
Tranquil Flassan is the high point as we turn our backs on Ventoux to freewheel, feet outstretched ahead of us, past fields studded with golden hay bales, to follow a downhill route to Mormoiron. Brightly coloured butterflies veer seemingly drunkenly into our path as the intoxicating scent of lavender fills the air. We pause in Mormoiron but, being a Sunday, the shutters are resolutely closed so, turning our bikes in the direction of
Provence’s Mont Ventoux is a popular challenge for cyclists, top; taking in the scenery around Crillon-le-Brave, above