By Tom Demerly.
They did this on purpose. It is meant to create
drama, conflict, suspense.
On Saturday, July 25th the 20th stage of the Tour
de France begins in Montelimar and describes the shape of a
scorpion’s tail across France for 167 kilometers. The
stinger is at a place called Mt. Ventoux. It’s a fitting
analogy, Paul Sherwin and Phil Ligget’s iconoclastic “Sting
in the tail”: A brutal ending, a probable coupe de
grace for every Tour contender but one. Main street. High
The Tour de France could be decided here.
Mt. Ventoux is a monster. It is the largest mountain
in the Provence region. It’s an ugly mountain, bald and
deformed. It is a malignancy on the landscape, there is nothing
quaint or beautiful about it. It bulges like the gut of an angry
fat man. To the best of his ability man has cut a road up it.
The road isn’t very good. The gradient changes frequently
subverting any attempt at an elegant climbing style. The wind
tries to blow the road off the mountain. In winter it succeeds.
Average gradient on Mount Ventoux is 7.4%. If
those numbers don’t speak to you picture a very steep
hill that is 13.1 miles long. A half marathon all up hill. The
pavement is rotten; the entire route is baked by a naked alpine
Then there is the wind. I’ve written in
romantic terms about Le Mistral, an air current that
begins over the Sahara in Northern Africa and whistles across
the Mediterranean to make gentle landfall on the Cote D’
Azur. Lying on the stone beach in Nice, France Le Mistral
is the stuff of lover’s dreams; warm and gentle.
By the time this constant maritime wind collides with Mount
Ventoux it is angry and desperate, tearing at the loose stones
that cover the climb and making the moonscape an inhospitable
place. It’s not unusual to see rocks blow across the road.
Mt. Ventoux is cemented to the history of the
Tour de France as a dramatic and tragic arena. You know the
tale of Tour hero Tom Simpson who died on the slopes of The
Ventoux in 1967. You may not know the details though.
Simpson had been suffering from stomach flu in
the days prior to Mt. Ventoux. According to an account on Wikipedia
the rules of the 1967 Tour de France limited riders to four
water bottles for the entire stage. That is slightly more than
two liters for over 100 miles. The sun that day was baking the
road on the Ventoux with temperatures over 110 degrees. Between
the sun and the heat stored in the black pavement it was like
riding through a kiln. Simpson was climbing in the second group,
chasing Julio Jimenez and the perpetual second place of the
time Raymond Poulidor, “Pooh-pooh” as he was known.
Simpson faltered on the Ventoux, sliding back to a third group
of riders whose names neither one of us recognize. One of these
riders offered Simpson a drink from his bidon. Simpson
did not acknowledge the offer, seemingly in a trance. According
to the riders, Simpson made one last attack- one attempted acceleration
on the back of the Ventoux, but the mountain bit back. There
was a scream from the spectators and Simpson was down, oddly
still grasping his handlebars despite lying on the sauna-hot
rocks. Spectators helped him up and urged him on. He managed
another 300 meters, reportedly weaving all over the road in
a stupor. He toppled again, not moving. He died there. His gravestone
remains in the spot- a memorial to him more precisely. It’s
a testimony to riders climbing Ventoux: “Go too hard here,
and you will die.”
Subsequent reports suggested vials or syringes
were discovered in Simpson’s jersey pocket. The detail
is seldom reported. It suggests drug use. It’s an ugly
specter that has haunted cycling since and before, but is absent
from this year’s Tour… so far. Hopefully that drama
will not be replayed on The Ventoux. Everything on the Ventoux
seems laden with severity and injustice.
There was more drama on The Ventoux in 1987 when
French hero Jean Francois Bernard won an individual time trial
up the mountain. The French fans were euphoric and Bernard’s
fame sealed by the day. He suffered horribly on the climb, his
face contorted in misery under the effort, a mask of pain. His
dignity forsaken, long strings of drool poured from his mouth
as he convulsed up the mountain. For his crucifixion on The
Ventoux Bernard’s team manager bought him a new sports
car. It was an epic stage and hinted at the new assault of technology
on the Tour de France. Bernard switched to a special “climbing
bike” on The Ventoux, after making the short approach
on a disk wheel equipped time trial bike. When he reached the
bottom of The Ventoux, Bernard leapt off his aerodynamic time
trial bike and took a special lightweight climbing bike for
the 13.1 mile push to the summit. It was a novel use of technology
regardless of its effectiveness and made for good theater.
Other heroes of The Ventoux include none other
than Eddy Merckx himself, former Tour de France director (then
racer) Bernard Thevenet, another tragic figure named Marco Pantani
who later committed suicide after a drug scandal and a French
darling named Richard Virenque, a boy-like figure who made women
Somewhat ominously for current contender Contador,
Lance Armstrong has worn the Yellow Jersey up Mt. Ventoux on
two previous occasions. He has never taken the yellow jersey
on The Ventoux though… If you are a believer in karma,
this may bode well for the Texan and poorly for Contador. Armstrong
seems to favor the climb.
If you are less superstitious and more calculating
then an empirical analysis still favors Armstrong on The Ventoux.
Contador is a classic high-mountain climber: Lithe and waterbug-like.
He is thin and small, susceptible to the angry winds that buffet
The Ventoux. Armstrong’s sturdier build favors the wind
blown summit. He is a more durable rider and may hold up better
in windy, difficult weather conditions. If the weather turns
bad on The Ventoux that would likely favor Armstrong.
There is a third option for victory in this year’s
Tour. With so much attention being heaped on the stage to Mt.
Ventoux there may be an attempt to steal the race in the preceding
days. There are other opportunities. Stage 15 ends on Verbier,
a mountain top finish. One of the contenders could launch an
attack on the 1st Category climb to Verbier, especially if the
weather is bad. There is always the chance of bad luck for either
Contador or Armstrong before next Saturday. And then again,
there are others riders at the top of the general category ready
to capitalize on any weakness in the Astana camp.
The Tour de France ends on Sunday, July 26th in
Paris but will likely be decided the day before on the climb
up Mt. Ventoux. To bring the drama to this one 13 mile stretch
of road the top contenders have had to avoid days of road hazards,
competitive posturing and swings in weather along with the abrasive
affects of hundreds of miles of racing. If it does come down
to the thirteen miles up The Ventoux this will be a Tour that
has earned “epic” status and be one more legend
etched in the pavement of the angry Mt. Ventoux.