Thursday, 14 July 2016

Mont Ventoux - A higher hell

Standing alone above Provençal fields, Mont Ventoux has a history of triumph and tragedy in the Tour and on Bastille Day will again ask questions of riders like no other

“Physically, the Ventoux is dreadful,” wrote Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and cycling fan who sought in Mythologies to capture the cruel spirit of the mountain. “it is much more an essence of climate than a geographic place – a damned terrain, a testing place for heroes, something like a higher hell.”             
The limestone giant that is Mont Ventoux stands 1,912 metres above the lavender-filled fields of Provence. With an average gradient of 7.2%, stands alone, bleak and awesome, “God’s tomb” adrift in the massif des Cèdres – your eyeline forced to adjust radically from its foothills to the observatory at its peak. It thrusts its way out of the plain like a great tumescent white whale. It is the Moby Dick of cycling.

The Tour uses it sparingly and always as the dominant climb, the main protagonist of a day’s racing – this year, on Bastille Day, the Ventoux will again host the queen stage of the Grand Boucle. The winds that rake its slopes are ferocious, especially when the Mistral blows - and today, with winds at the top in excess of 100kph the stage has been cut short, ending at the Chalet Reynard some 6km shy of the summit.

On the ascent, as the road climbs out of the tree line it is completely exposed – a thin black ribbon winding precariously across the blinding white scree. If you’re strong enough, or crazy enough, you can tackle all three routes to the top. If you can ride them in 24 hours you earn membership of the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux and join the other lunatics who have fallen in love with the Bald Mountain.

The houses of Bédoin nestle into the slopes of the surrounding hills, dwarfed by the spire of the church that echoes the tower of the observatory high above. The mountain lowers over the village and it is from its medieval streets that the classic route to the summit begins. Up through the cool depths of the forest, the road rises through gradients of more than 12% to the ski station at Chalet Reynard. Here is the bar where generations of riders (Me and Gary included!) have taken a little nip of brandy or a glass of beer (expressos with 6 sugars!) before the final assault on the summit.

Up here the road bursts from shadow into bright, white light. If you’re lucky, (we weren't) the wind will ride your back and you’ll fly over the final seven kilometres to the observatory. But if the evil god of the Ventoux demands a sacrifice, you’ll battle your way over the final kilometres against the kind of headwind that threatens to blow you off your bike.

Mont Ventoux is the proving ground of giants, the mountain every champion aspires to conquer, yet it is a relative newcomer to the Tour. It was first used by the race in 1951 and the elfin climber Charly Gaul became the first rider to win at the summit seven years later, crushing the hopes of Federico Bahamontes, Jacques Anquetil and Louison Bobet as the “Angel of the Mountains” flew to a time trial victory. That year the Luxembourg rider would win his only Tour. Gaul returned to his mountain for the final time in 1993, climbing its brutal slopes with his daughter at his side.

His polar opposite, the Italian domestique Eros Poli, was the first man over the summit in 1994. The tallest man in the race, he hauled his mighty carcass over the Géant de Provence. Slowly, painfully, the huge Italian ground almost to a standstill, his 25-minute advantage tumbling with every pedal stroke. But he held on, descending into Carpentras to claim a famous victory.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the French can claim supremacy on the Ventoux. Raymond Poulidor, “the eternal second”, and Bernard Thévenet, both stood atop the podium in the shadow of the observatory. Bobet added the Ventoux to his palmarès in 1955 on the way to the last of his three consecutive Tour de France wins. Richard Virenque, France’s tainted chouchou, scored a sentimental victory there in 2002 to deny Lance Armstrong on a mountain he could never conquer
The now disgraced American came closest in 2000, racing head-to-head with Marco Pantani, the most gifted climber of his generation and the spiritual inheritor of Gaul, his friend and mentor. The lanky Texan marked every attack by the slight Italian magician before launching his own brutal offensive. Inch by inexorable inch, the Italian clawed his way back to the American as he bulleted towards the finish. Finally Pantani threw his bike towards the line to snatch victory, leaving Armstrong to sulk that he had gifted Pantani the win. “No gifts” would become the American’s raison d’être. Pantani would win one last time, a stage to the ski station at Courchevel that was to be his final professional victory. But for the wizard of the pedale, the rest was tragedy.

Jean-François Bernard is one of only three riders to conquer the Ventoux in the maillot jaune. In 1970 it was Merckx’s turn. Clad in the fabled Golden Fleece, he ascended into the dazzling whiteness, the observatory winking in and out of his eyeline. He passed the Tom Simpson memorial with a tip of his casquette to his fallen former teammate. But even Merckx was not immune to the mountain. His pedal stroke became jerkier, his thighs seemed about to explode. When he crossed the finish line and made his way to the podium, his legs gave way. He spoke of his fear during the ascent – the fear of ending like Simpson, a victim in 1967 of pride and desperation and a lethal cocktail of drugs, alcohol and dehydration, like an ecstasy death at 6,000 feet. Merckx himself was taken away in an ambulance after being administered oxygen, but he recovered and went on to win the Tour.

Mont Ventoux is inextricably linked in the imagination with Simpson’s Calvary. He is the mountain’s only victim but others have come close to joining him. In an eerie foreshadowing of Simpson’s fate, 12 years earlier Jean Malléjac had begun to pedal erratically – one leg spinning like an automaton before the rider fell at the side of the road, his eyes rolled back in his skull, his face a waxen effigy. The race doctor, Pierre Dumas, managed to revive the stricken Frenchman, who began to cry out for his bike, desperate to finish the stage. In 1965 Dumas was instrumental in drafting the first real anti‑doping law. He would spend the rest of his career trying to protect the young riders in his care. In Simpson’s case he was not so lucky

Simpson’s memorial stands between the Chalet and summit on Mont Ventoux, paid for by the subscriptions of thousands of British riders for whom the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey remains a hero. It marks the spot where Simpson fell, tantalisingly close to the finish line that he would never cross, the Tour’s great tragedy etched in stone.

Today the crowds scrambling for a foothold along the route will be immense – an estimated 300,000 gather whenever the Tour attacks Ventoux – the tricolore flying boldly for Bastille Day, the sun-beaten crowds hoping for another French victory on this most evocative of summit finishes. But it is always Mont Ventoux, that most pitiless of mountains, that will decide.

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