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Showdown.
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 Noon. Showdown.

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 sun.

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 swoon.

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.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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