Even folks from across the Atlantic have heard of this term and stories of the associate wind that it holds… perhaps from reading “A Year In Provence” by Peter Mayle or from another source. It’s legendary. And when I decided to move to Provence, I practiced a firm white-knuckle grip on the bars just so I’d be prepared.
Like many places, the South of France has windy days. The wind can come from the sea, the west, the east, the north… it really doesn’t matter to mother nature. Not wanting to sound like a total tourist saying “Ahhh, le Mistral!!” every time the wind speed cracked above 25kph, I decided to so some research.
No, a Mistral is not just a “hard wind” in Provence. In fact, there is an ancient compass rose in Provence that names the different winds depending on their DIRECTION, regardless of the velocity. There’s a different name almost every 10 degrees. A Mistral is generally from the NW (shown as “NO” on the image above) and due to the combination of high and low pressures over the Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. However, to add to confusion, a true Mistral, or anticyclone, will have a slightly different angle depending on where along the coast you are, as well as how much the front has progressed.
If you venture to educate yourself on Wikipedia regarding the Mistral, you’ll see photos from the sea around Marseille (which we attempted to ride) and the bell tower in La Cadiere-d’Azur which we also rode by. We’ll chalk our naïvety up to the fact that Mattias and I both come from far away lands and we had no idea that today was a recipe for a Mistral. In our countries, nasty weather usually comes bundled with nasty clouds, nasty temperatures, and nasty precipitation. No so in Provence. When the Mistral is in full swing, the temperatures are mild, the sky is blue, and everything looks great!
On the ride out we encountered some stiff headwinds. Mattias had just gotten back from his UCI 2.2 stage race in Mallorca (covered by cyclingnews here) and I had just spent 2 solid days staring into an LCD monitor but since I was somehow in-charge of the route today, I decided to pull through the wind. We charged through La Cadiere-d’Azur and the wine region that you can find at your local wine shop from AOC Bandol. The roads got progressively narrower as we continued along the winding roads that pitched up to 15% grade steepness in sections. My goal was to show Mattias a really beautiful climb between the villages of La Ciotat and Cassis. He’s been having lower back pains for many weeks now so we kept the plan flexible.
After battling along the waterfront in La Ciotat with sunbathers so close that you could almost inhale a few SPF laden calories just through basic respiratory breathing, we started up the penultimate climb. At first. the climb was just like any other nasty 15% climb. Slow and steady. But soon we got out of the wind protection pocket and had to contend with a 12% grade and a 40mph headwind. If you are doing the math at home, your graphing calculator should produce some sort if very low average speed number, if not EEEEEEEEEEEE.
Still, I knew Mattias was a really strong climber, and I can survive most anything as long as I’m not cold or wet. As we climbed higher and higher, the wind kicked it up a notch or two. Normally, we could both march up this climb with abandon especially after surviving the steep 16% section at the start. But the Mistral had transformed our Pro 2.2 rider into what probably appeared to be an old salty dog on his way home from the bar after polishing off a bottle of Richard — and me, well I’m sure if Sarkozy was biking nearby me (like he was [at the same exact spot on the same day I was] a few days before [also here]), he’d probably initiate the first French Prohibition.
There are few times when I’ve actually felt the wind hamper my ability to stay upright. Once was in the Czech Republic at high altitude surrounded by tree-less farmlands and a gust grabbed my Spinergy Rev-X wheels so tightly that my handlebars were nearly ripped from my fingertips. The second was today. It was a testament to bike handling abilities just to say upright and still climb the mountain. However, I was eager to show Mattias this great climb and the wondrous views that enchant me on every ride through the area. While leading up a mountain stretch, the wind lashed from both sides so hard that I was pushed against the wooden guardrail (one of the few guardrails around on roads like this) and I had to stop and put a foot down. I looked back to find Mattias in the exact same stance… stopped dead in his tracks. He was wondering if this climb was just an “up and back” and I tried to say that we’d go back a different way, although I’m not sure if my words that emanated from my mouth with a 60kmp wind and 165bmp heart rate were clear enough for a non-native english speaker.
After being blown to a stop and I looked back to find Mattias one meter behind also stopped, I simply laughed at the epic nature of the situation and forged onward. The wind was so strong and whirling that it took all my years of road biking and mountain biking experience just to say upright and moving forward. After a minute or two I peered back briefly for a split second (otherwise I’d lose balance) and I didn’t see my Swedish riding partner. A moment later I tried again between large handlebar-wrenching gusts. Still no Swedes. I stopped and waited.
“Maybe he got something blown in his eye?”
So I waited.
“Hmmm…,” I eventually gave up and headed back to see what the problem was. No Mattias. I continued downward. No Mattias. At this point it was clear that I wouldn’t be going BACK up the hill. Still no Mattias. I entered into the village of La Ciotat and made my way through traffic and traffic lights, lonely due to the wind that ripped away my riding partner.
“Maybe he was blown off the road and fell down the cliff!” I wondered.
“Geez, I’d be a really big idiot if I passed by and he was holding his life in his hands gripped to his last resource, a small lavender bush with his cycling shoes dangling over the 300m cliff.
Just when I was thinking the worst, I heard a small whistle behind me and a cyclist closing ground.
But not only did we have fierce headwinds on the way out, but after 20 minutes on the return trip, we again faced a strong head wind.
“How can this be???” I yelled to Mattias over the roaring wind.
“I remember leading out this section and having a huge headwind. Now on the way back we again have a headwind!!”
Turns out that the anticyclone almost attempts to shoot toward some target out in the Mediterranean and over time, it changes it sights and can seem to have change direction, especially from the start to end. We appeared to have found the perfect storm.