CLERMONT-FERRAND, France (VN) — It rises alone, its greatness unencumbered by company, like an enormous ship at sea.
Everyone said this Tour de France was over, but Mont Ventoux has yet to speak.
The “Giant of Provence” appears on Sunday in this 100th Tour de France, at the end of a very long stage of 242 kilometers, from Givors to the mountain’s summit. Over 20.8 kilometers at an average of 7.5 percent in gradient, the peloton will whittle itself down to a mere trickle of dots upon the bleached moonscape of a peak that was once named “white top” in Gallic.
Now, its name relates to wind, which blows harder than 50 miles an hour across its barren shoulders and peak 240 days a year.
“The thing with Ventoux is that the wind could play a factor in a way that it doesn’t play in many other climbs. Which means that a guy ahead on his own could suffer, and a guy who’s behind may get a free ride to the line that you wouldn’t normally get on a climb, so that can change things,” said Garmin-Sharp director Charly Wegelius, whose boss, Jonathan Vaughters, once held the record for the fastest ascent of the climb. “It’s extremely fast at the top there if the wind is in the right direction.”
It’s a climb whose name — Ventoux — is as legendary as the riders who’ve gained fame by riding up it. In cycling, it’s a climb as big as any other. The Tour has ascended the Giant 15 times since 1951. It claimed the life of British champion Tom Simpson, who died upon its slopes from a cocktail of heat exhaustion and amphetamines, in 1967.
Simpson weaved across the road and crashed, but asked spectators to put him back on his bike, which they did. He nearly crested the Ventoux, but died half a mile from the summit, right on his bike. The last winner here was Juan Manuel Gárate, in 2009. Before that, it was Richard Virenque, in 2002.
Lance let Pantani win here. Merckx needed oxygen at the top after winning a stage in 1970. Charly Gaul won in 1958, and Poulidor in ’65. It’s holy ground in cycling. And the 100th Tour de France will brush up against its shoulder on Sunday in the first of four immense climbing stages, begging up Ventoux and heading deep into the Alps.
The climb pitches up gradually over the opening 5km, building in pressure, before it explodes skyward over 3km that average 9.5-percent gradient. From there, the road tilts up no less than 7.5 percent for 9km, with 2km that go at greater than 10 percent. When riders hit the wide-open, lunar-like upper reaches of the climb, near the Chalet Reynard, the steep tarmac gives way to potentially violent winds for 6km. Two final, steep kilometers lead to the summit and the first of three mountaintop finishes in the race’s final week.
“I think there will be two races,” Wegelius said. “One for the stage, and one for the overall.”
Chris Froome (Sky) said on Friday, after losing 1:09 to Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and a host of others in the crosswinds, that he thought more time would be lost or gained up Ventoux than in the winds, underscoring Ventoux’s significance, which cannot be overstated. Minutes will be lost and gained.
“Sunday is the longest stage of the Tour and I think it’s the longest finishing climb also, so I think it’s going to be a tough stage. Also … after all the flat kilometers, to hit a climb like that in the final, it will be a day that some guys will experience that their legs don’t work the way they used to or the way they expect them to, and just the pure fatigue from a long stage will be important too,” said Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) who sits in sixth overall, at 4:39. A bad day on Ventoux will ruin the Tour for an unlucky rider.
“In the end there’s not so much you can do about it; you can try to be 100 percent and try to recover and try to do as you always do, but if you have bad legs you have bad legs,” Fuglsang said. “There’s not so much to do about it. Normally the long stages suit me well, so I’m pretty optimistic and hoping for the best, including the possibility to do something good there.”
Fuglsang, and everyone else.
“Alberto knows it well. He’s climbed it several times in racing and in training. However, it’s the only climb of the day pretty much and no one knows how the bunch will be at the base of Ventoux, it could be like in the Pyrénées,” said Saxo director Philippe Mauduit. “Some leaders will probably lose a lot of time because it will be the first hard time after a full week on the flat. I just hope we’ll see the opposite of what we saw in the first Pyrénées stage.
Mauduit said the confluence of the wind and the heat make Ventoux an “odd” climb: “It’s really hard up to Chalet Reynard; after Chalet Reynard it’s not that steep. But then you have the wind and the heat. It’s a pretty odd climb, but we just have to make sure he’s in top shape and let his legs talk.”
A rider who could come to the front is Katusha’s Joaquím Rogriguez, who’s been quiet thus far. He’s 10th on GC, more than five minutes back of Froome after bleeding time in Wednesday’s time trial at Mont Saint Michel.
“The harder the climbs, the more they suit Joaquím. He likes climbs with gradients above 10 percent. This is clearly a climb that could go well for him. He doesn’t like the long climbs based on rhythm. This is a climb that has steep gradients; I don’t think a team will be able hold the rhythm from the base to the top. There will be attacks, and those attacks suit him. He loves changes in rhythm,” said Katusha director Valerio Piva. “It’s a stage that he’s waiting for. He wants to win it and make a difference on the others. Anyone that has a chance to win the race will have to show themselves on Ventoux.”