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Getting the shot: The peloton on Mont Ventoux

Photojournalist James Startt recounts a unique experience when photographing two ascents of Mont Ventoux.

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I always love photographing on the Mont Ventoux as it is nothing less than a singular mountain. But while the visual possibilities are many, everything happens fast in a bike race, and I am often frustrated because my photographic production does not match everything my eyes witness.

However, this year’s Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge offered me additional possibilities, as the race climbed to the summit not once but twice. I had the rare opportunity to photograph the large peloton on the final slopes of the first ascension before the race splintered apart before the second climb.

I really love the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge and have attended every edition since it began just three years ago. It is one of several great up-and-coming French races, and the idea of having a one-day race finish on this mythic climb is utterly unique. In addition, the races benefit from the spectacular stage that is French Provence, as it loops around the Rhone River Valley and beyond, making its way to climb the Giant of Provence.

As in years past, we raced through the spectacular Gorges de la Nesque — with its dramatic rock tunnels and dizzying cliffs — found on the way to the village of Sault.

And of course, there was great racing this year as Colombian Miguel Ángel López once again demonstrated why he is considered one of the world’s best climbers. He decimated the field with a blistering attack on his way to an impressive solo victory. Ángel López only needed to accelerate once, at 12 kilometers from the summit, to break free on the final climb. And from that point, he turned the race into essentially a one-man show. The second-place rider, Óscar Rodríguez, finished just in front of Ángel López’s teammate Enric Mas. They were nearly two and a half minutes behind on the rock-faced summit.

But when I look back on the many images I took on Tuesday it is this series of the peloton climbing up Ventoux on the first ascent that stands out. I had never seen a full pack still together after the road to the summit comes out of the tree line in the final six kilometers of the climb. And with so many riders still together, the rich colors of the peloton really stand out from the barren rock face found on the upper reaches of this climb.

Mont Ventoux Denivele Challenge
The peloton on the first of two ascents of the Giant of Provence, at the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge Photo: James Startt

I asked my motorcycle driver to get ahead of the race well before the summit so that I had sufficient time to compose the shot. Stopping perhaps 100 meters before the final hairpin turn I focused on the road below. Opting to use my Nikon Z7 for the undeniable richness of detail that a 45-million pixel sensor offered, I worked the shot from several angles as the pack made its way up, sometimes focusing on the riders and the rocks, while I attempted to capture the impressive Rhone River valley below in other frames.

To be honest, I am still undecided which shot I prefer most, but I really love the shot of the pack as the utility road with colorful snow poles laces behind. The rocks are, of course, classic Ventoux.  But so are the distinctive snow poles that run alongside. No, this image does not include the iconic weather station on the summit, but in its own way, this shot sums up everything that is Mont Ventoux.