Mont Ventoux. Man v's Mountain



When I’m riding in the Welsh wind and rain in winter, I like to dream of scaling great cols on the Continent. This is an account of riding up Mont Ventoux a couple of years ago. A longer version first appeared in the FT

By Rob Penn

Thursday 28th June 2018

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One kilometre beyond the village of Bedoin, I click up a gear, stand on the pedals and stretch my back. The rows of vines and fields of cherry trees look sumptuous in the afternoon light. My lower spine hurts. I click down a gear and sit back on the saddle. I’m climbing Le Mont Ventoux, an isolated giant rising from the plains of Vaucluse in Provence and one of the most acclaimed mountains in the history of road cycle racing. The summit is 1,600 vertical meters above me and 20km away. The pain has begun.

I click down again. I’m not in bottom gear yet. The gradient is still steady. I glance right over the limestone hills I’ve just crossed. It’s been a glorious ride through a landscape unblemished by the late 20th century. Climbing out of Buis-les-Baronnies rain fell and the air smelt like a lamb marinade. I half expected to pass Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, both Tour de France fans, pedalling hard the other way.

All day there have been glimpses of Ventoux. Descending from Côte de Citelle through pine trees, 60kms to the north, it was in the middle of the road. On Col de Fontaube, it seemed close enough to fire a trebuchet at the summit. In Sault, it peaked under the awning of the café.

I click down again. With 16km to go, I hit bottom gear. Going round a hairpin bend in the hamlet of St Estève, the road climbs steeply into the forest. I grip the brake hoods and stand on the pedals – ‘en danseuse’, as the French say – just to keep the cranks turning. The forest is cool but it’s a poor trade for this hellish road. It snakes and weaves through thick stands of cedar and oak, rising at 10% or more. A beautiful day in Provence has turned into a test of blind animal endurance.

Ventoux has featured in the Tour 15 times with mythical effect. In 2013, the summit was a dramatic setting for the finish of Stage 15, on 14th July. Roland Barthes, the philosopher and keen cyclist, said the mountain ‘exacts an unjust tribute of suffering.’ It has become a magnet for amateur cyclists. They flock here with quasi-religious reverence, for a fiery baptism into the cult of suffering at the heart of road cycling lore.

I’ve been climbing through the forest for over an hour when the trees begin to thin. The road becomes less steep and I reach Chalet Reynard – a café and the skeleton of a small ski resort. I can see the summit and the eerie observatory, atop the famous bleached-yellow, limestone moonscape that covers the highest slopes of Ventoux. With each hairpin bend, the wind strengthens and I can see a thunderstorm far below.

The weather on Ventoux can be even more of an issue than the gradient. In July 2000, the Etape du Tour was abandoned mid-race when a blizzard struck: 700 cyclists who had already passed Chalet Reynard were treated in hospital for hypothermia. In 1955, it was so hot that several Tour riders collapsed, yelling ‘inarticulately like madmen,’ a newspaper reported. In 1970, Eddie Merckx, ‘The Cannibal’, won the Stage and fell into the oxygen tent. Most famously Tommy Simpson, the first Englishman to wear the Yellow Jersey, collapsed in raging 45°C heat on 13th July 1967, with amphetamines and cognac in his blood. He died beside the road, 1.5km from the top.

I pause at his memorial. It’s festooned with cycling paraphernalia – water bottles, tyres, tubes, club badges and messages wrapped in plastic. It reminds me of a Celtic votive well in Cornwall. They are offerings in fulfilment of vows: vows not to be broken by Le Mont Ventoux. I re-affirm my own vow. Then I set my bike back on the road and head for the summit.

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