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Throwback Thursday: Mont Ventoux and its unique place in cycling lore

Few mountains evoke such respect and produce such spectacle as the 'géant de Provence.'

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Mont Ventoux — its name alone evokes a myriad of images and emotions.

For anyone who’s climbed it, they know how deceivingly challenging the climb is. For the racers who’ve flayed up its flanks, they respect it and fear it.

Also read: Throwback Thursday — Richard Virenque, always at the eye of the hurricane

For fans, the stand-alone mountain in France’s Provence region is one of the mythical summits in cycling.

In this week’s edition of Throwback Thursday, James Startt and Andrew Hood reflect on one of cycling’s most fearsome and beautiful mountains.

Mont Ventoux Denivele Challenge
Mont Ventoux Denivele Challenge puts the mountain center stage. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

When did you first realize that Mont Ventoux was a different climb ?

James Startt: Hmm, that is hard to say, perhaps the first time I actually climbed it. I mean the climb is so unrelenting. When you come out of Bedoin and tackle those first steep pitches in the trees, it is just so brutal. There are no switchbacks that flatten out, just one long steep pitch after another. Each kilometer comes and goes so slowly it is really demoralizing.

And then, when you come out of the tree line and hit those last six kilometers, you are really exposed to the wind. You can see that tower at the top for miles. But it just keeps dangling out there. You think you will never make it to the top. I had read about the history of the Ventoux abundantly, the anecdotes by legends like Raphael Geminiani telling Charly Gaul to let up because the Ventoux was a climb like no other. And as I climbed it myself that day, I understood why.

Andrew Hood: Like James, it was the first time I climbed it on a bike. I finally had a chance to ride it one summer in some downtime between races. I was riding some rental bike I picked up in Carpentras that did not fit me properly and did not have a compact crank.

As everyone tells you and every book explains, there’s no place to hide on Ventoux. There’s no way to truly convey that until you’re on the bike. Once you hit that first ramp outside Bedouin, it’s simply unrelenting. And once you clear the woods, there’s no place to hide from the wind or sun.

I remember once a colleague asked why Ventoux, which packs an average gradient of 7.4 percent, was so hard. On paper, there are plenty of other climbs that have a more challenging average gradient. But almost no climb is as unforgiving as the géant de Provence.

Romain Bardet tackles the Ventoux in 2019. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

What’s is your favorite Ventoux race moment?

Hood: I had a front-row seat to the Armstrong-Pantani battle in 2000, and “Big Tex” and “Il Pirata” simply hated each other. The post-stage fallout, when Armstrong said he gifted the stage to Pantani, played out for days. And who could forget the “Running Man” incident in 2016, when Chris Froome ran up the road decked out in the yellow jersey?

Also read: Throwback Thursday — Peter Sagan

The most intense moment I witnessed on the summit came in 2013 when Nairo Quintana and Froome battled toe-to-toe to the line. Watching Quintana collapse on the ground in near oxygen depletion at the summit confirmed that Ventoux was a climb like no other.

Startt: There was the 1987 version where Jean-Francois Bernard stormed to that maddening time trial victory, literally screaming in pain in a sea of screaming fans. I was just getting into cycling then and it all seemed so unimaginable.

Then in my early years covering the sport there was that magical victory by Eros Poli in 1994. He was simply a giant on the bike. He was statuesque Italian, and he was built for power. But he was the last rider in the peloton you would have picked to win the Ventoux that day. But he went out on an early break, had like a 20-minute lead at the bottom, and held the favorites off until Carpentras.

So much of the magic of bike racing was in that ride, the fact that, if the circumstances are just right, anybody can actually win a race. It was a truly inspirational ride.

Tadej Pogačar suffered on Mont Ventoux in the 2021 Tour de France. (Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

What’s your favorite personal anecdote covering or riding up it?

Startt: I have had so many really. I have often said that the Ventoux is my favorite climb because there is no ski resort at the top. It is a climb that really pits the cyclist against nature. The is a minimal beauty to it that I just love.

But one of the stories I like to tell the most was back in the late 1990s when I jumped in the car of Le Parisien newspaper during le Critérium du Dauphiné race. My friend Lionel Chami, a journalist for the French daily, was driving.

We were behind the pack at the foot of the climb as we knew that we would be able to pass as the race splintered apart. I had been telling Lionel what a special climb it was all week, and how much I was looking forward to that stage. But when we actually got on the road he seemed unfazed.

When we hit those first steep pitches riders were just popping like flies. Chris Boardman popped. Tony Rominger popped. But Lionel just drove past one struggling rider after another, smoking a cigarette with the window rolled down.

And at one point he actually said, with a totally straight face, “I don’t know. This doesn’t seem that hard to me.” I just lost it. The disconnect was amazing. But if you are not a cyclist yourself it is sometimes hard to fathom just how hard cycling can be. Regardless, it was a memorable moment and one I knew I would never forget.

Hood: For a journalist covering the Tour de France, any day Ventoux is on the route usually means a very long and arduous day of work. The mountain is a guarantee for drama and spectacle, so the media corps braces for a long day of waiting on the mountain before chasing reactions and punching up stories.

Ventoux never disappoints. Some of the most indelible moments in cycling unfolded on the unforgiving flanks of the mountain, from Simpson to Pantani, to Froome and Wout van Aert.

My personal favorite moments come when the mountain sits alone far away from the buzz and mayhem of the Tour de France.

Simply being up and around a mountain as powerful as Ventoux is special. The entire massif is one of my favorite places in Europe. I’ve been lucky to be able to ride in the area on a few occasions, and the mountain is a bit of a shape-shifter, with its contours constantly changing based on the time of day, the light, and the season.

There are few things as delicious as riding in the vineyards below Ventoux, with the sun setting over your shoulder, knowing that a cold beer is waiting at the local bar in Maulaucène after a long day in the saddle.

Line of cyclists passing by a lined green hill
The Ventoux region is one of France’s top riding spots. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)