Roads to Ride: Mont Aigoual

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Mont Aigoual

As the seventh part of a series to explore the famous roads of cycling, here is the Mont Aigoual in the French Cevennes. The idea is to discover the road and its place in the world, whether as part of cycling’s history or to look at the route on a day without racing and it is open to all.

Some climbs find notoriety because of famous races but Mont Aigoual is quite different. This is a climb that has been ridden in the imagination and literature more than competition because it’s the scene for The Rider, Tim Krabbé cycle-race novel.

The Route
There are four routes to the top but your correspondent has only done two. Either way the story is the same.

Take the D996 to climb out of Meyrueis up to the Col du Perjuret. Here turn right to take the D18 to the top of the mountain. In total the climb is 26km long at an average of 3.3% although the climbing is steeper because there are some descents on the climb too. The top is 1567 metres above sea level.

Mont Aigoual

The ascension involves several cols, first the 11km long Col du Perjuret, then up before down a long road in to Cabrillac before up again to pass the Col du Prat Peyrot. This marks the top in race but you can ride to the summit and the fortress-like weather observatory.

The Feel
It’s picture-postcard scenery as you climb out of Meyrueis with its stone bridge and clocktower. Cropped plane trees line the route. Leaving town there are two signs to indicate if the cols are open. It’s true there is snow in winter but you’re not in the Alps and the roads are open almost all year – you could ride up today for example. Still they’re the first clue that you’re heading up and the warning signs only add to the adventure. The road then winds up to the Col de Perjuret where you turn right.

France doesn’t have wilderness like Canada or Russia and besides and road cycling means you stick to civilization with tarmac and road signs. But still there’s a sense of isolation and loneliness as you climb up, if only in social and economic conditions. Who lives here, how do they live here?

Plo du Four

“Four” means oven but it’s often cold up here

It’s big ring territory to Cabrillac, the only village on the way. More a collection of farm buildings by now you’ve done the Col des Fourques and the road climbs properly up to the Aigoual now. It’s sheltered by the trees meaning it’s not so scenic. The road is cut into the hill but this could be anywhere. A regular gradient, this is hard work and would make a good place to test your power only it’s in the middle of nowhere. You reach the false col sign the Plo du Four that the mountainous aspect is more apparent. The slope is never steep but the length gets you. Finally you get to the top, there’s no pointy peak, more a gentle dome and the vegetation shows small pines, bonsai sculpted by the wind.

The Book
Tim Krabbé’s De Renner, or The Rider, has to be the best cycling-related novel out there. A niche category but the book is an excellent semi-autobiographical account of Krabbé’s time as a racer in the region and his experience in the Tour de Mont Aigoual.

The Rider

A bike race is so long that the mind wanders. Maybe first you look at the rear hub of the rider in front but in time other thoughts appear. Krabbé writes “people are made up of two parts: a mind and a body. Of the two the mind is of course the rider” and this describes the book. There’s little to describe the effort, no beating hearts or lactic acid, just the wandering mind that thinks of the race but slips to recall other moments.

Mont Aigoual is tough, but regular. It’s made up of three parts. First, three kilometres to the Col de Sereyrède, then three kilometres to the ski area at the Col de Pra Peirot, then two more the summit of Mont Aigoual itself.

If this is an exploration of Krabbé’s mind it’s also a celebration of these rural roads. The landscape doesn’t get much praise but you can guess from the twisting gorges as Despuech heads out of sight or feel the cold rain on top of the mountain. Without knowing it you too have ridden here.

Salvensac

Krabbé: “Salvensac, filthy wine in a sack. An old man once lived here who mashed his grapes with dirty feet.”

The Tour du Mont Aigoual goes down the route described earlier but Krabbé captures the scenery well. Lonely spectators appear and the peloton winds its way along narrow river gorges. Dutch enthusiasts enjoyed the book and made the trip to France to ride the route for themselves. I imagine they had a great time because the roads are stunning and Krabbé carefully picked places and names along the way, the kind of observations that you can remember. The Rapha people went there and spoke to Krabbé about it too.

The Tour de France
The race has only crossed one when Silvano Contini was first over the top in 1987. It was during a stage from Millau to Avignon, 239km long and over six hours. Despite the climb it ended in a bunch sprint won by Jean-Paul Van Poppel, today a manager at Vacansoleil-DCM. Contini’s not a big name but still he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1982 and the now defunct GP du Midi Libre, a tough week-long stage race in the south of France.

On a normal day
The Tour might have visited but this is not an area to race in because the scenery is so rewarding and the roads are there for the cyclist to enjoy. The climb to Mont Aigoual does allow people to drive to the other side but like, Mont Ventoux, most people drive around rather than over. This means a network of wide roads for the cyclist with little traffic.

One a year sheep are herded up the roads to graze on the higher pastures. The annual transhumance is a big deal as it marks the turning weather. The animals are decorated and there’s a carnival atmosphere, albeit on a village scale.

Mont Aigoual

Polka dot sheep?

The region has three types of road. There are those cut on the side of a canyon that follow the course of a fast-flowing river. Next, some roads wind up the site of these steep valleys and the third are those that cross the high causses plateaux. You get all three on the way up the Aigoual.

The top is not a hospitable place. On a good day it’s said you can see the Mediterranean sea and the Alps as well as Mont Ventoux. Only these good days are rare as the top is fogged by cloud cover for over 250 days of the year and gale-force winds are recorded even more often. Pack a jacket for the descent.

Say It

Aigu in French means “acute”, “sharp” or “pointy” but some say Aigoual comes from the latin acqua meaning water because it rains at the top. Others say it’s from an old Germanic term meaning “governing the land.”

Access
Meyrueis is the town at the foot of Mont Aigoual, a scenic place in the Jonte gorge. It’s just 40km east of the large town of Millau but an hour’s drive on a winding road up a canyon and decades away in the way of living. It sits at the junction of several roads allowing a choice of rides to all the points on the compass. It’s not a big place and night life is going to be limited but there are other tourist activities like a nearby vulture park – do they feed on cyclists who overshoot the narrow roads? – and white water rafting.

Meyrueis

Next week from fiction to reality with the Col de la République, the first ever mountain pass to feature on the Tour de France. However there’s quite a story involving a religious cult and gunfire.

Part I – Alpe d’Huez
Part II – The Ghisallo
Part III – Mont Ventoux
Part IV – Col de la Madone
Part V – Col du Soulor
Part VI – Passo Dello Stelvio
Part VII – Mont Aigoual
Part VIII – Col de la République
Part IX – Croce d’Aune
Part X – Strade Bianche
Part XI – Col d’Eze
Part XII – The Poggio
Part XIII – Arenberg Cobbles
Part XIV – Col du Tourmalet
Part XV – Côte de La Redoute
Part XVI – Col du Pin Bouchain
Part XVII – Puy de Dôme
Part XVIII – La Planche des Belles Filles
Part XIX – Col du Lautaret
Part XX – Col du Palaquit
Part XXI – Champs Elysées
Part XXII: The Col du Galibier
Part XXIII: The Lacets de Montvernier
Part XXIV: Hautacam
Part XXV: The Schelde Bike Path
Part XXVI: Col de Marie-Blanque
Part XXVII: Jebel Al Akhdar
Part XXVIII: Genting Highlands

Photos: Creative Commons licence with thanks to turbulentflow, Mont Aigoual and Dimworld

Pin It

{ 28 comments }

CitrusCityCycle February 9, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Nice piece, great to see climbs/roads not featured in races as often & thus not as known to those unfamiliar with the regions across the pond. Great series too, keep them coming!
Thanks,

c40jim February 10, 2013 at 1:16 am

That looks like a really interesting climb and a neat area to visit. It also reminds me that I haven’t read The Rider for a while. Maybe I’ll take it on the plane tomorrow. It is the best cycling novel out there. In fact, maybe it’s the only one that’s much good, although I enjoyed the Greg Moody series a few years ago.

The Inner Ring February 10, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Yes, a great book and for me it’s one to read in a session rather than a few pages at a time, perfect for a flight.

Anonymous February 10, 2013 at 1:49 am

This is a very beautiful part of the world
I walked up this mountain from about 6km from the summit a few years ago, and would love to go back and ride it.
The whole area has many great roads as well.
I would strongly recommend a visit

Bundle February 10, 2013 at 1:56 am

Gotta do this one day…

Bundle February 10, 2013 at 2:45 am

And by the way, maybe good old Silvano Contini should best be remembered for almost being the first to “slay the badger”. In the 1982 Giro, he was only 5 stages away from the achievement, only to arouse Hinault’s victorious wrath. He never really recovered from this defeat, although, being a climber, he also won the Trofeo Baracchi (a two-man TT race, which I fail to understand why we can’t have in the calendar, because it was an excellent race).

jack February 10, 2013 at 3:39 am

Thank you for this. Love the book and now I have learned about the climb.

Cevenol February 10, 2013 at 5:26 am

I grew up there and visit regularly to see the family and of course ride.
The region is a jewel (no bias haha), a National Parc, good roads with little traffic, great food, nice and cheap BB . But it is in the middle of nowhere, the lowest pop density in France and not easy to access.
This great site (in french) lists every col in the area with maps and elevation if you were to go http://veloencevennes.free.fr/
As for The Rider, what a great book… when I first read it it cracked me up that all the racer’s name where the same as people I grew up with.
Thanks Mr Ring, for showcasing this little known region that needs all the tourism it can get.
And on a sad note RIP Midi Libre

The Inner Ring February 10, 2013 at 8:32 pm

It is very good riding in the region and that site is useful to help with inspiration or routes for visiting riders. Tourism is a feature there but this is one of those unspoken regions where many don’t go.

Duncan February 10, 2013 at 10:06 am

I’ve read the book several times but didn’t know it was real, I thought it was fiction. Now I’ve got to visit the place, sounds great.

The Inner Ring February 10, 2013 at 11:25 am

It’s very real and for me reading the book is a wy to revisit the area.

Trevor Ward February 10, 2013 at 11:31 am

“Non-racers – the emptiness of their lives shocks me”. I’m no racer, but definitely a rider, and Krabbe’s book is stunning(though I suspect few members of the pro peloton have read it or would appreciate it if they had)

Ad February 10, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Another great piece in this series, thanks.

How about adding an extra tab at the top of the page for the ‘Roads to Ride’? It would be good to have them all in one place.

AlanP February 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm

I am delighted to read this piece. I discovered Mt Aiguoal, when staying near Millau a few summers back.

I had approached it from the west, not really knowing anything about it and I was just enjoying a climb through the hills with this as my target. It was so stunning.

I could see the route from the south winding up the side of the mountain slopes and being so reminiscent of the ramps of Alpe Duez that I had to do it a second time, this time coming up a beautiful valley through Valleraugue.

I did the last 5km with a local who took great pleasure in showing me the sights from the top. Mont Blanc shining in the far east with Mont Ventoux standing in splendid isolation a little nearer, the sparking blue of the Med to the south and brooding in the distant southwest, the Pyrenees. I am sure that must be a unique sight.

Truly a spectacular spot and now that I know I have only done half the climbs, I need to return,,,

The Inner Ring February 10, 2013 at 8:33 pm

A nice account and you were lucky with the weather. I’ve done it twice and it was cloudy, cold and grey on the mountain each time.

Alanp February 11, 2013 at 8:18 am

The local told me the best time to cycle up was mid winter. He said the air was so clear that the views, particularly over Alps, were spectacular.

Serge February 10, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Mont Aigoual marks the time I fell in love with cycling. I drove up there with a bike on the roof of my old peugeot and was amazed by the number of cyclists riding up and up (it seemed to go on for ever). The next morning I took my old flat bar hybrid off the roof and rode a hilly 70k, making me almost late for my cousins wedding, but it was magical, tough and, being July, I was deliriously de-hydrated. A few weeks later a friend invited me to ride from London to Brighton for his birthday, him on his carbon fibre bike and in lycra, me with my flat bar and in cords and a tee-shirt. I beat him and a couple of others up Ditchling Beacon, he lent me his Tim Krabbe and I bought a proper bike.
Mount Lozére (Col Finiels), particularly the side from Génolhac (Pre De La Dame) and the valleys down around Bességes are also worth riding if you’re in the area. I always think the Tour should make more of this region.
Thanks Cevenol for the link – very useful.

Pat Fitz February 11, 2013 at 12:21 am

Great read & a stunning area to ride.
I’ve ridden the Gorge de Tarn a few times and around the area but will look up the route when i’m back over in a couple of months.
Thanks for including the Rapha link, I hadn’t read it, it certainly added to the story.
Bravo keep the series coming

Vélo en Cévennes February 11, 2013 at 10:42 am

Bonjour, désolé de parler en Français.
Pour de plus amples informations sur ” The roads of Aigoual” et sur l’ensemble des Cévennes, consultez mon site et la page dédiée à l’Aigoual: http://veloencevennes.free.fr/?page_id=4827.
Le site Vélo en Cévennes est une mine d’informations sur le cysclisme dans cette très belle et ensoleillée région.

Cevenol February 11, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Superbe travail Velo en Cevennes, j ai moi meme grandi dans la Vallee de Trabassac . J ai apprecie votre article sur elle et suis fier que vous la decriviez comme un concentre de Cevennes, le raidillons final avec le vent est une tuerie comme disent les jeunes! Bien que je connaisse la region votre site est une mine!
Je serais de retour en Juillet (j habite a l etranger) et peut etre pourrions nous faire une sortie ensemble, ce serait un honneur…
Merci encore
Mathieu

Double J February 12, 2013 at 10:10 am

Ah je suis plus à l’aise en français !
Merci pour ton avis super sympa Mathieu.
Je te propose de me contacter par le formulaire du site pour pouvoir préparer cette ou ces sorties, et mieux parler du coin. je suis demandeurde sorties en groupe !
Je passerai pas mal de temps à St André de Valborgne ce printemps et cet été alors on doit pouvoir faire un tour ensemble !

Lawfordmike February 11, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Hi Innering,

You’ve not mentioned Hour Record Holder & World Pursuit Champion Roger Riviere’s career ending crash descending the Col de Perjuret in ’60 or ’61?

Mike

The Inner Ring February 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm

It’s on the other side of the Perjuret so away from the Aigoual and I left it out. But yes, a serious moment and Krabbé mentions it in the The Rider.

Double J February 11, 2013 at 3:11 pm

For more informations on Le COL DE PERJURET, http://veloencevennes.free.fr/?page_id=5246.
Hall the story of TOUR DE FRANCE in Cévennes is written here: “Les cols cévenols et la légende du Tour” on this target: http://veloencevennes.free.fr/?page_id=72

Double J February 11, 2013 at 3:15 pm

It was in 1960…
all informations on COL DE PERJURET are here : http://veloencevennes.free.fr/?page_id=72

RichInSF February 11, 2013 at 5:49 pm

I rode the exact route from “The Rider” back in 2011, just the second half of the race from where they come back through Meyruis all the way up to the top, then down via Col du Perjuret.

It is a fantastic and lonely ride, and you really get a feeling on some of the stone-walled the descents that you could quite literally fly off into space if you missed a turn.

I took pictures documenting the whole ride, linked to the specific pages in the (English) Krabbe book. See https://picasaweb.google.com/109337338985511806093/201104TourDuMontAigoualPart2?authuser=0&feat=directlink

Worzel February 14, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Nice photos and story, Rich, many thanks. It gives those of us who haven;t yet had the chacne to ride it a good feel for the isolation and the beauty of the place.

Gerry October 29, 2013 at 11:30 am

What a nice surprise to see this mountain on your list. It’s one of my ‘locals’ (I live in Nîmes) and I have a winter project of creating a guided tour that will include an ascent of Aigoual. Have you climbed Mt. Lozère, by the way? It’s the other big climb in the area.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: