Just to the north of ‘the Giant of Provence’, the rugged and little-known roads of the Drôme offer some unforgettable riding
Dominating the landscape around it in awe-inspiring fashion, Mont Ventoux has long been an iconic location for cyclists.
Yet, all too many tackle one, two or perhaps even all three of the roads that weave first through forest and then the bleached lunar terrain of its upper slopes to the weather station at its summit and then head home, unaware of other riding delights that lie in the shadow of ‘the bald mountain’.
Chief among these are the road that meanders up the majestic and occasionally quite terrifying Gorges de la Nesque between Villes-sur-Auzon and Sault, and the undulating route between Malaucène and Bédoin via the Col de la Madeleine.
Much less well-known, though, are the beautifully tranquil roads in the Drôme, the rugged region that is home to the Drôme Classic one-day race. It lies to the north of the Ventoux, and is bordered to the west by the Rhône valley, to the north by the Vercors massif and to the north by the Alps.
With a population of just half a million, most of whom dwell in the valley towns such as Valence, Montélimar and Romans-sur-Isère, the Drôme is ideal riding country.
Like the very similar and much better known Ardèche, on the western side of the Rhône, it offers a myriad of almost deserted minor roads, often bordered by dazzlingly vivid fields of lavender and olive groves that provide the AOC-rated Nyons olive oil.
The small town of Nyons with its spectacular 15th-century bridge spanning the Eygues offers a good base for exploration in all directions. To the south and east are the Baronnies, a sparsely populated area where the roads twist and undulate between remote and almost forgotten villages.
If heading this way, the 120-kilometre circuit of the Ventoux shouldn’t be missed, but nor too should the road over the 1300-metre Col de Perty, a Tour de France and Critérium du Dauphiné regular that offers expansive and spectacular views over the Baronnies Provençales regional park, established in 2015.
Cutting north from Nyons, the D538 and adjacent routes connect the small towns of Dieulefit, Bourdeaux and Crest. To the west of this road towards the Rhône, the terrain offers easier riding through the fertile agricultural land close to the river.
To the east, where the soil is poorer and the cultivation of vines and aromatic plants predominate and delicious scents often fill the air, the roads are lumpier and almost devoid of traffic, even in peak holiday periods.
To the north is the Drôme valley, home of the Classic road race, which starts and finishes in Livron-sur-Drôme, just a few kilometres from the river’s confluence with the Rhône. Heading east, the race’s route is studded with short, sharp ascents, notably the 24 per cent grade of the Mur d’Allex, which is tackled several times.
Continuing upstream to Crest and beyond to Die, the provençal feel continues, with hilltop villages rated among the most beautiful in France looking down across lavender fields and up into the peaks of the Vercors and Hautes-Alpes.
For those who like the going a little steadier, there is a riverside gravel trail, Le Long de la Drôme, running 130km from the source of the river down to Livron.
North of Die, the Vercors Natural Park offers numerous majestic routes past soaring limestone cliffs and through dense forest.
Sadly rather neglected by professional racing these days, it was once a regular Tour de France haunt, and that word is well chosen in the case of Jean-François Bernard, who lost the yellow jersey and all hope of victory in the 1987 race in this range just after he had put his rivals to flight on the Ventoux and seemed to have the Tour won.