On 13th July 1967, on the 13th stage of that year’s Tour de France, the British rider Tommy Simpson was climbing the dreaded Mont Ventoux when he started to veer from side to side of the road. Insisting that he be “put back on my bike” he continued until he was 1.5 km from the summit when he finally collapsed still clipped into his pedals, and died. A mixture of amphetamines and alcohol were later found in his bloodstream causing heat exhaustion and dehydration. Tomorrow will see this year’s tour pass the memorial which marks that spot where the brave Tommy breathed his last gasp and pedalled his final stroke.
What is it about the Mont Chauve or ‘bald mountain’ that fills riders with such dread? It is widely regarded as the hardest climb on the Tour, while keen amateurs who have completed the 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez or the highest Pyrenean peak of the Tourmalet rate this as the toughest. Roland Barthes the French philosopher and keen cyclist, described it as a “higher hell” and a “God of Evil to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering.”
Its length gives some clues as to why this is so feared a climb. The classic route, that features again this year, from Bedoin to the summit covers some 21.5 km. Then consider that this includes 1400m of climbing at an average gradient of 10%.
You also have to take into account the weather. Temperatures here in July can soar to over 35 degrees Celsius. The first section of the climb is through a forest which can be extremely oppressive in the heat. But riders wishing for a break from that claustrophobic hell only escape it to be blasted by a blinding sun that reflects off the arid, white, limestone moonscape of the mountainside. Here, from Chalet Reynard, are 6KM of the most punishing part of the climb with few bends to break up its monotony to the summit where the former meteorological station looms over the Provencal countryside. This is where it becomes as much a mental as physical challenge.
Being exposed, this final section can also be windswept from the infamous mistral which can produce gusts of up to 200 mph at the summit. The word, venteux, after all means windy, and it’s not for nothing that the Giant of Provence earned its name. In 2013 the wind was strong enough to blow down the solid granite slab of Tom Simpson’s memorial. Organisers are already considering shortening the stage for tomorrow with predicted high winds threatening the riders’ safety.
There are three different routes up Ventoux and to really prove yourself you can attempt to join what is known as the Club des Cinglés by climbing all three in the space of 24 hours.
The first stage winner of Ventoux was Charly Gaul in 1958. ‘The Angel of the Mountains' as he was known, completed it in an outstanding 1h 2m 9s, a time that stood for over 30 years. Iban Mayo holds the current record of 55m 51s, set in a time trial on the 2004 Dauphiné. Chris Froome made history in 2013 by being the first Brit to ever win a stage on Ventoux. As happened with Eddy Merckx in 1970, the effort was so huge that he had to be given oxygen at the finish to recover. 2000 saw one of the most memorable ascents as Armstrong and Pantani had an epic battle royal up its slopes that has entered cycling folklore.
You can expect the strong British presence on this year’s Tour to pay tributes to Tommy Simpson as they pass by his memorial tomorrow. In 2009 Bradley Wiggins rode with a photograph of Simpson taped to his bike, Mark Cavendish raised his helmet as he passed while David Millar tossed a cycling cap to the foot of the pale grey marble monument on which he had written, “Tommy Simpson RIP, David Millar.” He said, “It’s a tradition for me to remember Tommy on the Ventoux…We shouldn’t forget him. His legacy is too important.”
Expect a huge turnout for tomorrow’s 16th ascent of this beast on Bastille Day. French fans will flock to the mountainside on their public holiday. Will we see Froome extending his lead even further and a repeat of his stage victory in 2013 when he sealed the race? Whatever the outcome it’s sure to be a brutal stage that will evoke strong feelings as well as punish every member of the peloton. This is what the Tour is all about: I, for one, will be glued to the TV wishing I was there to cheer the boys on and pay my own respects to a British gentleman. RIP Tommy Simpson.