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Mont Ventoux: Tour de France Classic Climb

In-depth
14 Jun 2021
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Stage 11 of the 2021 Tour de France climbs the legendary Mont Ventoux not once but twice! Discover the stories of tradegy and triumph behind the Giant of Provence

Words: Ellis Bacon Photography: George Marshall

Few sights in cycling – or bike racing, at least – are quite as hallowed as that of a red-and-white-striped mast crowning a mountain that rises high towards the heavens. Mont Ventoux inspires, delights, frightens and punishes in equal measure. It is a climb that few would disagree is one of the two top potential challenges Tour de France organisers have at their disposal when planning each year’s route. The other is Alpe d’Huez, and you can argue among yourselves as to which one is ‘better’.

But while Alpe d’Huez, with its famous 21 hairpin bends (or is it 22?), provides a stern challenge in itself, it is surrounded by its Alpine siblings – some taller, some shorter. The Ventoux, by contrast, towers above the surrounding countryside. This part of Provence – 60 kilometres north-east of Avignon – is far from flat, but the other, lower climbs blend into each other, with tree-lines rising and falling gently with the lie of the land.

Mont Ventoux

The Ventoux rises from its environs like a bald mountain; indeed that is exactly what locals call it – le mont chauve – thanks to an almost total lack of vegetation on its upper slopes. White with snow in winter, and almost as white in summer due to its sun-bleached rocks – a ‘moonscape’, as it’s so often referred to – the Ventoux can be seen from a long way off.

Such is Mont Ventoux’s magnificence that it inspires not only cyclists to conquer it, but poets and writers too. The oft-quoted passage from French philosopher Roland Barthes’ 1957 book Mythologies about the Ventoux in his essay ‘The epic Tour de France’, holds up the race’s visits there as the highlight of any Tour route. Other climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenees, Barthes writes – tough though they are – feel as though they are just there to be crossed. The Ventoux, however, ‘is a true mountain – an evil god to whom sacrifices must be made’; it is a climb that ‘never forgives the weak’.

A new book, whose title alone encapsulates the climb – Ventoux: Splendour And Suffering On The Giant Of Provence – is to be published next year, which will also be the 50th anniversary of British rider Tom Simpson’s death on Ventoux’s slopes, and brings the story of the climb bang up to date.

Its author Jeremy Whittle, the cycling correspondent for The Times, has spent more time than most in the shadow of the Ventoux, and takes up where Barthes left off.

‘There is no climb like the Ventoux,’ he says. ‘It is extreme, dangerous, and out of place. It’s the “killer mountain” that rises out of bucolic rolling vineyards and olive groves and is visible from miles away. It is a brutally steep road to nowhere that climbs into the sky simply to get to the wind-blasted summit.

Mont Ventoux

‘It doesn’t take you anywhere other than up towards the heavens – hence all the pseudo-religious writing about it. There is nothing when you get there; it’s a harsh, intimidating mountain in every sense, and even on the best of days it’s no place to hang around.’

Mont Ventoux is often described as having its own climate, quite a world apart from whatever weather the surrounding area is enjoying. At the summit, you can experience searing, blinding heat, as though your proximity to the sun has halved, or terrible, raging storms whose impossibly strong winds try to knock you from your bike and back down to earth where you belong. And every type of weather in between. Ventoux, not the season, it seems, decides.

‘I once left the valley below in 28-degree heat, but then had to turn back from the summit because of sleet,’ Whittle recalls.

No respite

When it comes to duelling with Alpe d’Huez for the title of ‘best-loved Tour climb’, Whittle is in no doubt as to which climb is superior: ‘I love the Alpine climbs, but the Ventoux appeals to me more because of the stunning Provencal setting and the extreme weather patterns.

‘And unlike the Alpe with its many hairpins, the Ventoux offers no respite,’ he continues. ‘There is only one real hairpin – the Virage du Bois [halfway up the climb from the village of Bédoin] – so the climb becomes a mental challenge as well as a physical one.’

That red-and-white-striped mast tower, by the way, is part of the weather observatory at the summit, and doubles as a perverse cherry on the top of one of cycling’s most unforgiving climbs.

The observatory is both a goal and a mocking mistress, in sight for far too long, especially for riders ascending from Bédoin in the south. After emerging from the forest covering the lower portion of the climb, riders soon arrive at the restaurant at Chalet Reynard. It’s a tempting rest-stop for many cyclotouristes, but from there the Ventoux’s final six or so kilometres are truly brutal. The observatory never seems to get any closer as riders are buffeted by Mistral winds or baked in the summer sun.

The Bédoin route has always been favoured by the Tour, but the ascent from the north, from Malaucène, is just as challenging. Both sides offer just over 21km of climbing with an average gradient of around 7.5%. There is a third route, too, from Sault in the east, which joins the Bédoin route at Chalet Reynard for those six final gruelling kilometres, though it’s longer in total at 26km, and so less severe in average gradient.

If you fancy trying to conquer all three within 24 hours, make it official by first visiting clubcinglesventoux.org for the rules of how to become a cinglé du Mont Ventoux (basically, a Mont Ventoux nutter).

Up and down

Argument abounds as to whether the summit of ‘The Giant of Provence’ lies at 1,909m or 1,912m. It used to be claimed as the former, but consensus now leans towards the latter and the sign attached to the railings of a viewing platform above the souvenir shop has been altered to reflect that. The fact that said sign is three metres higher than the road below might have something to do with it.

Mont Ventoux

Confusingly, a separate sign by the roadside as you reach the summit has it at 1,911m, but whatever the true altitude, reaching it is usually followed by one of the most exhilarating descents of your cycling life. Indeed, at the 1967 Tour, defending champion Lucien Aimar was clocked by a police motorbike rider as having reached 140kmh on the way down to Malaucène.

The Tour first climbed the Ventoux in 1951, when it ascended from Malaucène, and has since visited 14 more times, each time from Bédoin, with nine of those occasions having used the climb as a summit stage finish. 

It is the visit of the 1967 Tour – the same one at which Aimar recorded his speedy descent – that is best remembered, however, and for all the wrong reasons.

Heading into that 1967 Tour as leader of the British national team, Tom Simpson was beginning to enjoy celebrity status in his home country and was well loved by fans on the continent too, having won the 1965 Road Race World Championships and been named the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year that December.

On the 13th July 1967, on the 13th stage from Marseille to Carpentras, Simpson collapsed two kilometres from the summit. His teammate, Colin Lewis, still vividly remembers the moment he realised that a fallen rider up ahead was his team leader. ‘As I got closer, I could see it was Tom,’ he says in the book Great British Cycling. But the British team manager, Alec Taylor, who was already with Simpson, urged Lewis to push on and be ready at the top to help Simpson make up for lost time on the descent, à la Aimar.

‘All the way down the other side of the Ventoux, towards Malaucène, I kept looking behind to see where Tom was,’ remembers Lewis. ‘He never arrived.’

Having collapsed at the roadside, Simpson couldn’t be revived and was pronounced dead later that afternoon, having been airlifted to the hospital in Avignon. It was later revealed that amphetamines were found in his pockets, and that a combination of doping, exhaustion and the extreme heat of that July day all contributed to his death.

Today, a stone monument where he fell has become a place of pilgrimage for riders and visitors alike. Watch this year as many of the Tour riders – the British ones in particular – give a silent nod in Simpson’s direction as they pass that spot. There is solidarity when it comes to fighting Ventoux.

Mont Ventoux