Rider on Mont Ventoux
The peloton shimmers off in the distance. A solo shadow appears on the barren, windswept horizon. The road winds up to a white tower. Reach it, and you’ll kiss immortality. You’ll strike another classic from your list. All the best riders have struggled here. Mont Ventoux is to cycling what Wembley Stadium is to football.
The mountain’s menace can’t be captured by statistics, although they are impressive, with more than 20 kilometres of climbing, from 300 metres of elevation up to 1,900 metres, and long gradients at more than 12%. Even the pros suffer. You can suffer anywhere though. In the Alps and the Dolomites, there are mountains of equal magnitude, but Mont Ventoux is the mythical climb. To come to terms with the Ventoux, you have to see it as more than mountain. You can’t reduce it to an elevation profile, a promise of lactic acid. 7.7% doesn’t tell you very much. Mont Ventoux has a story, a history. It’s almost a character in itself. Its stories are woven into cycling’s DNA. Every kilometre is another chapter.
Mont Ventoux sits alone, rising out of the countryside, ruling over the land as if it were its sacred kingdom. It flirts with the status of Mount Fuji and Kilimanjaro. Ever since man first put his thoughts to paper, he’s attested to his fealty. For centuries, people spoke of a god who lived at the summit of the Ventoux, commanding awe. He withstood storms and torturous heat. Wolves roamed his slopes, hunting for food. Few were reckless enough to take on the ‘Scala Paradisi’. The poet Petrarch, who defied borders with his love, was one of them. He wrote about his experience in 1336.
Nowadays, there is a road, a ribbon of asphalt draped over the bald flank of the mountain. And so long as there is a road, people will climb it on bikes. The Tour first arrived on Mont Ventoux in 1951. The peloton departed for the moonlike landscape from Malaucene and climbed the northern slope of the mountain, which is even more treacherous than the ascent to the south. Lucien Lazaridès was the first to the top. The Tour director Jacques Goddet wrote, “Under a burning sky, the vast plains of loose white pebble stones that form the deserted slopes of Mont Ventoux have served as the theatre for an act of the 58th Tour de France.”
A year later, the Tour returned, this time taking on the mountain from the south, via the town of Bédoin. A Provençal winegrowers’ village, where Grenache and apricots are traditionally cultivated, Bédoin would have been passed over by time had the Tour not taken on Mont Ventoux. Cycling breathed new life into the myth. People no longer spoke of gods or wolves. Heat, without shadow, and empty air drove riders to their limits. Mallejac rode himself senseless. In 1955, Kubler finished the climb speaking in tongues. Charly Gaul brought the record down to one hour and two minutes in 1958. From Bédoin, an inviting stretch of false flat leads up through the vineyards. It’s nothing to worry about. Whoever wants to set a good time can gain a minute here. But anyone who’s not sure how he’ll fare against the Ventoux had best keep his powder dry. After five kilometres, just past the first switchback to the left, the stairway to heaven rises up. The trees become denser, the road smaller. It hugs the cliffs, without ever offering you a breath of relief. Ten kilometres at ten percent are followed by seven kilometres at seven, then the road pitches up at more than eleven.
In high summer, the route is filled with a procession of cyclists — pilgrims on bikes, searching for grace. Everyone follows the same path in his own way. It’s an act of personal confirmation. The Ventoux is a continuously unfolding story, onto which anyone can inscribe his own myth. Anyone who takes it on rides through history. Film after imaginary film is added to the montage. Between your eyelashes, you see Anquetil ride past with hollowed-out eyes. Merckx struggles for breath. Armstrong dances on the pedals. Then, there is the great Italian, Eros, named for desire. A non-climber, he’s minutes ahead, just enough to claim the prize.
Whoever strives to live a full life is bound to come close to death. Between the trees, where, for ten kilometres, the road rises at ten percent, it creeps up behind you. It bites into your legs, gnaws at your spleen. Go too deep here and you’ll die on the moon. Just past the Chalet Reynard, lies emptiness. The mountain deceives you. Rarefied air, heat, and wind conspire against you. Above, the chalky stones whirl. You stand on the pedals, collapse. The white tower is further away than your eyes lead you to believe. To your right, a monument looms. Here, in July 1967, the rider with the Union Jack on his shoulders left his life behind in the Tour. He was felled by fame, the heat, dehydration, and madness.
The last kilometre is merciless. As Petrarch wrote, “To succeed, will is not enough; you need desire.”
One last vicious right-hand corner, a few more metres, and there’s the white line. As soon as you pass it, your wheel ticks off another item from your bucket list.