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? See Issue 49), 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.
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.
At the summit, you can experience searing heat, terrible storms, and everything in between. Ventoux, not the season, decides
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.
‘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.
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.
Whichever route you take going up, it’s usually followed by one of the most exhilarating descents of your life
‘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.
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