Mont Ventoux is one of those climbs that is synonymous with the Tour de France.
The mythological ascent was first scaled in 1958 with an individual time trial won by Charly Gaul and it has been scaled nine more times since then. By the end of Wednesday, that will rise to 11 with two climbs over the barren landscape.
Many of the dramatic moments on Mont Ventoux are etched in the history of the Tour de France but few scenes have been quite as chaotic as the one that led to Chris Froome running up the climb in a yellow jersey without a bike.
“It was complete chaos on the stage,” Froome recalled of the day in 2016. “It was one of the craziest stages, it was definitely one of the craziest moments of racing I’ve been in. Only in moments like that do you really find your true desire how much you really want to win.
“That day obviously I didn’t want to lose, and it seemed logical in my mind to keep moving forward, even if it meant running.”
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The chaos had been caused by a late change in the route due to high winds at the top of the climb. It isn’t called the windy mountain for nothing.
Organizer ASO had decided it was too dangerous to send the riders to the top and moved the finish line down to Chalet Reynard – much to the chagrin of those who wanted the riders to battle it out in all conditions.
Usually, on the Tour de France, the set-up at the finish begins well in advance of the race arriving. There are so many components that go into the finish area it takes many hours to get ready.
The call to shift the finish came late as the organizers held out hope that a ride to the top would happen. It meant a mad dash to bring as much of the infrastructure down the climb as possible. However, a lot of it was left incomplete due to the rushed nature of it all.
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⏪ #TDF2016, Stage 12
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The barriers that hem in the spectators close to the finish were not there, the big TV screens that broadcast the race were not there, while the interview area by the podium was also practically non-existent.
“I think the organization hadn’t had time to set up barriers for the last three kilometers and all the public had come down the mountain as well, so there were bigger crowds than normal in a smaller area. The lead motorbike that was in front of myself, Richie Porte, and Bauke Mollema who had attacked from the GC group stopped,” Froome said.
“We were just over 1km from the finish and the lead motorbike had to slam on breaks because the crowds were too thick. We just plowed into the back of the motorbike and another motorbike went into the back of me, breaking my bike. There were crazy, crazy scenes.”
At the finish, we were largely unaware of the drama that was unfolding just down the mountain. We had watched Thomas De Gendt solo to a stage win ahead of Serge Pauwels on a small TV in a truck beyond the finish line before darting out to see the GC contenders come through.
When we ran out of the truck, Froome, Mollema, and Porte were riding well together after attacking from the group of favorites. By the time we had navigated the crowds and the slightly circuitous route to get the team busses parking, Mollema was alone.
Had he attacked? Had he been dropped? We didn’t know.
The finish of any bike race, particularly a Tour de France stage, is always a bit manic, but this was a different level.
I darted off after the Dutchman as my colleague Patrick Fletcher went in search of others. While waiting for Mollema to finish speaking with the Dutch press, I heard talk of a crash, but I didn’t know the full extent.
Mollema was relatively happy with how things had panned out in spite of the crash. He was the quickest back on his bike after the incident and had made time on his rivals. It wouldn’t matter in the end as ASO made the unprecedented call to nullify the time gaps.
After talking with Mollema, I sprinted down the road and spotted Patrick at the Team Sky bus. I told him what I’d heard about the crash. He’d heard the same.
There was no sight of Froome yet and nobody really knew where he was. Was he in the bus, at the medical truck, or somewhere else?
I moved on to try and find some other riders, but I wasn’t having much luck, so I headed back to the finish area. I had to sprint again, not my forte. The new parking area for the busses was down a narrow side road, so it was a long trek from one end to the other.
Piecing together the puzzle
When I got back to the podium, I bumped into a photographer, who showed me a picture on his camera. It showed Froome running up the climb, without his bike. Having been fed the details of what had gone on through small snippets, it was an image I couldn’t really comprehend.
How do you wrap your head around the sight of the yellow jersey, in his cycling shoes, sprinting up one of the Tour de France’s most fabled climbs?
“Without a bike and knowing that I wasn’t going to get a bike soon with just over one kilometer from the finish, I thought I’m not going to keep standing here. So, I took off on foot, heading towards the finish and hoping that a bike would arrive soon. It did eventually but it was an absolute moment of chaos,” Froome described the moment he created one of the Tour’s most memorable scenes.
At the finish, we still didn’t really know what was going on and there was next to no internet connection this high up to help us out. We’d heard that Adam Yates was the new race leader, but nothing was confirmed.
After milling around for what felt like an age, there was an announcement to say that the time losses had been wiped from the record, and Froome would still be in yellow.
The post-stage interview area was all but abandoned, with Yates and De Gendt making a brief appearance before setting off. After a dramatic end to the stage, Froome was not too keen to speak with journalists, but we all huddled around the fencing of the anti-doping area in the hope that he might shed some light on what had just gone down.
It was here that I had an argument with a cameraman, who seemed to be incensed by my presence and told me that I shouldn’t be there. I said something back that I won’t write down here, but he did later apologize for his outburst.
Froome said nothing to the waiting press and was whisked away in a team vehicle, while team principal Dave Brailsford made did the media rounds before saying his adieu.
As we walked back up to our car, which was parked slightly further up the climb, we were pelted with small stones picked up by the wind. I thought of those who had been so angry about the stage finish being moved and, despite the madness at the finish, I was glad that it had been.
We drove over the top and saw people almost prone as they attempted to walk into the increasingly strong winds. There was no way the race could have come up here. As if to prove the point, we saw a caravan that had tipped over in the wind as it tried to crest the Mont Ventoux.
Once back in the press room, I was able to find footage of the incident and finally put together all of the pieces of the puzzle I had been given at the top.
It’s a day that will live long in my own memory and any who watched it unfold.
Let’s hope we don’t see the same scenes Wednesday.