I knew I had a problem of sorts the moment I put the destination into Google Maps. It was summer, and I was preparing to spend a long weekend somewhere in France, in a rental house with the in-laws. Jess, my wife, had arranged the whole thing and, with weeks to go, I thought I’d look at the plan. Of course I enjoy spending time with my family but, if I’m honest, my excitement only built when I started searching around Mazan, the town nearest our destination.
Bédoin immediately leapt off the screen. Barely six miles from our Airbnb, lay the village known among cyclists as the gateway to one of the most fearsome theatres in any sport. Mont Ventoux, the ‘Géant de Provence’, rises from an otherwise gentle landscape of lavender and vineyards like a shark’s fin, reaching a dizzying summit of almost 6,300ft. Its bald upper flanks, a barren moonscape of white limestone frequently buffeted by high winds, have tested the limits of the world’s greatest cyclists as one of the Tour de France’s most renowned climbs.
Within minutes I had found a road bike rental store in Bédoin and reserved something fancy. Later, I would quietly inform my wife of my disappearance on each of the three mornings we were in France: I had a mountain to climb. As even more luck would have it, I found myself riding out of Bédoin just two days after the Tour had ascended Mont Ventoux, when Chris Froome had been forced to run up the road after a crash. As I made my way up the 13-mile climb, the chalk exhortations left by fans were still fresh on the sizzling tarmac. And I was among hundreds of cyclists of all shapes and speeds making the same journey.
Two-wheeled pilgrimages like mine — by solo riders, groups of holidaymakers or the thousands of participants in events inspired by pro races — have become a summer fixture around cycling shrines such as Mont Ventoux. No longer content merely to watch Le Tour, in the past decade fans have found ways to get out and ride in the tracks of their heroes. And it has become big business for the specialist travel companies, cycle-friendly hotels and enterprising businesses that are capitalising on the boom.
In the past five years, partly in pursuit of travel stories, I have cycled in Majorca with the retired pro rider David Millar. I have sweated over some of the renowned climbs of the Giro d’Italia in the Dolomites, returning each afternoon to a five-star hotel that houses a Michelin-starred restaurant as well as an insanely well-appointed bike room. Cycling is unique among sports in that its playing field is public roads, and typically very beautiful roads. You can’t play a Sunday league game at Wembley, or knock up on Centre Court every weekend but you can, with increasing ease, hop on a no-frills flight and ride along hallowed ground.
In 2013, I joined a trip run by HotChillee, a burgeoning British cycling operator, to the Alps. About 150 of us were based in Annecy and each morning we headed into the hills near its sparkling lake. To get our fix of race-day adrenaline, and a taste of the pro life, rolling road closures and motorbike outriders followed our progress. Each day, one of the climbs was timed. They included the Col de la Croix Fry, which will feature in this year’s Tour de France. During a day of otherwise social riding, a red mist descended toward the front of the peloton and riders went out to win, nervously checking the leaderboard over dinner every evening.
It was kind of ridiculous, but I totally fell for it. HotChillee founder Sven Thiele maintains that it was the rise of British cycling before and during the 2012 Olympic that triggered a boom in demand for these sorts of experiences.
“The cycling scene couldn’t have been more different to today,” says the former City man, recalling his company’s modest origins, in 2004. “It was very insular and if you went to a dinner party you probably didn’t mention that you were a cyclist.” Moreover, while there were a few organised rides in Britain, also known as sportives, a rider seeking to do more had to get a race licence and start at the bottom of the rankings.
“I can remember my first fourth-category race and being spat out of the bunch after about 200m, it was horrible,” Thiele adds. “I thought, there must be a nicer way of doing this.”
Back then Thiele could identify only a niche market. In the summer of 2004, 13 riders (“mostly a clique of City guys like me”) rode from London to Paris in an organised, three-day event, aided by much of the support and route planning that was then a novelty. They arrived shortly before the Tour de France and then sat back with a beer and watched the pros roll in to the grandest finish line in sport: the Champs-Élysées.
“At first, the idea spread through word of mouth and you could feel the momentum building,” says Thiele. “By 2010 there was significant demand.” That year, HotChillee introduced the Alpine Challenge, based out of Annecy, to give riders a taste of climbing like a pro (albeit at a slightly more human pace). “More and more people were watching the Tour de France and had a big passion for the sport and as the Olympics approached, the market exploded and it has only continued.” This year, Thiele will join 400 HotChillee riders on the three-day London to Paris ride, in five groups, a number limited only by the supply of hotels along the way.
Two years after the 2012 Games, when Bradley Wiggins won the time trial at Hampton Court a week after winning the Tour de France, and Team GB dominated the velodrome, Brendan Fox remembers watching in awe as the 2014 Tour de France rolled through Yorkshire. The keen amateur was there as sales director for Sports Tours International, based in Manchester, the official travel partner for the Tour and the Etape du Tour, the mass-participation stage which runs as a one-day event each summer.
“Because we’re the official partner we can get people into the start village, and on some stages we can give them the opportunity to ride the route before the pros, cross the line and stand on the podium,” Fox tells me. “So in Harrogate, we had a group that set off from the start at 4am, when all the roads were already closed, and we had to get to the finish in Harrogate by 1pm. Any later and we could hold up the race.” They pulled it off and the enormous crowds that became the defining image of that year’s Tour were already building — and cheering — by the time Fox’s team crossed the line.
Sports Tours International started in 1973 by taking runners to compete in the New York City Marathon. Cycling came later and built up around the Grand Tours — of France, Italy (the Giro) and Spain (the Vuelta). For years, the company took Americans to watch Lance Armstrong do his thing, but demand from Britain rocketed and increasingly travellers wanted to combine watching with riding, too. Fox says the market is now maturing, a process he traces to 2013 and the first RideLondon, a 100-mile closed-road sportive that takes in the Surrey Hills. Last year, 80,000 people applied for 24,000 entries.
I took part in that first event, having previously ridden in two Etapes du Tour. The Surrey Hills are no match for the Alps, but I was struck by the sheer scale of an operation that would have been unthinkable on British roads even five years earlier.
“It was also organised by the company that runs the London Marathon and it brought in a lot of charity runners,” Fox adds. “So for many people, it was their first taste of cycling. And a lot of them thought: ‘Great, what’s next?’”
Fox noticed a rise in demand for the Etape, to which Sports Tours International sends about 500 riders each year. So, too, some of the other big one-day events in Europe, including the Maratona in the Dolomites, and the Marmotte Granfondo Alpes. “Now those riders have discovered more about the sport and its rich history and culture, and we’re seeing them progress to more historic events, including the Monuments [big one-day races] where they can ride the route on the Saturday and watch the race on the Sunday,” Fox says. “We had a couple of dozen people at the Strade Bianche in Italy this year, and there’s no way we’d have operated a trip there before.”
Cycling trips of these sorts are also diversifying, if slowly, beyond the Mamil (middle-aged men in Lycra) market that has defined the amateur sport for a decade. Thiele says the only women who took part in his first London-Paris ride were his wife and stepdaughter, but now demand is rising steadily, while younger riders of both sexes are balancing the middle-aged skew. Riders are also maturing in their demands. Premium cycling experiences are booming, such as the one I took part in the Dolomites, at the high-end La Perla hotel in Corvara, organised with American company, InGamba.
Rapha, the London-based premium cycle clothing brand, launched its travel arm in 2013 and offers trips all over the world. “I want us to set up trips that you could only do with us, regardless of how much money you can throw at it,” says Darius Alavi-Ellis, who runs Rapha’s membership and travel operations. “So in Provence we stay in a village that was evacuated after World War One and converted into connected apartments and houses, and is privately owned, not run as hotel. We can use it because of a connection we have with the owner.”
Thiele has also noticed more demand for trips that leave the road entirely, and plans to introduce a new event in his home country, South Africa, that would take in gravel tracks and move from beaches to forests and mountain passes. Riders also want to enjoy their surroundings, particularly while travelling with non-cycling family members. “In a place like Franschhoek, where we’ve been this week, they want to go off and taste nice wines or go to nice restaurants,” he says. “It’s not all about the bike anymore.”
Nor was it in Provence, where I was descending Ventoux as quickly as I dared having panted in awe at the view from the summit. While the in-laws still slept, I was gritting my teeth and avoiding the oncoming rush of riders: an average day’s traffic on one of the world’s most famous climbs. As I rolled back into the rental house for a swim, conversation turned to our plans for lunch, after which a nap was definitely in the offing.
Top 5 best hill rides
This 6,273ft peak is a giant of cycling: the site of British rider Tom Simpson’s tragic death in 1967, and countless heroic wins besides. It also has the benefit of being located in Provence. Start your ride in Bédoin, where hiring a bike is easy.
Perhaps the most famous Tour climb of all, its 21 hairpin bends wind up to a summit finish at a ski resort: the scene of Tour de France legend, and thousands of panting wrecks every summer. Start in Bourg d’Oisans and take it slowly.
Twice a year, roads are closed to cars on this famous circuit in the Italian Dolomites. It includes major passes such as Pordoi and Campolongo — and some jaw-dropping mountain scenery — but can be ridden at any pace.
Box Hill, the star of the RideLondon sportive, is a pimple by Alpine standards but an achievable climb for any rider. Rock up any Sunday and join the masses on the ascent to the National Trust cafe.
Majorca is less famous as a site for pro racing, but for pro and amateur riders it’s a cycling paradise, particularly in spring and autumn. Sa Calobra is its most famous climb, and winds up from the north coast.
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)