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Tour de France

Ventoux — a mountain like no other

The mythical Mont Ventoux is the hardest climb in France. Tour favorites will ride for glory — and yellow — in stage 12.

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CARCASSONNE, France (AFP) — Giant of Provence or Bald Mountain? Named after a Gaulish god, or due to the howling winds at its summit?

“Mont Ventoux is mythical in cycling. The greats have won there, and I dream of doing so too,” said Colombian climber Nairo Quintana. The Movistar leader has tackled the great climb at the Tour once before, during the 2013 edition where he finished second.

That was the day, on July 14, the French national holiday, that Quintana announced himself as a future great of the Tour. He didn’t win the stage at the top of Ventoux, but his brave solo attack shook up the favorites, and while Chris Froome eventually caught him and beat him to the top, the Colombian debutant had proved he was a force to be reckoned with.

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On Thursday, the Tour will again finish atop Ventoux, and on Bastille Day, when someone will add his name to the list of stars to have won on the toughest climb in France. While Alpe d’Huez has it’s own special place in Tour history, Ventoux is the most arduous challenge.

There are three routes up to the barren summit that looks like it would be more at place on the moon than in the lush green summer Alps. The most common, and hardest, which will be tackled on Thursday, is from the south and the village of Bedoin. From there, the climb is 21.8km long with an average gradient of 7.4 percent — but that doesn’t tell the full story.

The first 6km are relatively easy at less than 4 percent, but from there on it’s relentless with 15.7km at an average 8.8 percent.

And it’s not just the steep incline that makes this such an epic feat of human endurance — there’s the weather.

Mont Ventoux could be named after the Gaulish god of storms and mountain summits, Vintur; or maybe the word comes from the old Gallic “ven-top,” meaning snowy peak; or perhaps it’s simply derived from the French word venteux: windy.

But the theme is clear: Weather is a dominant factor.

And that’s the case when emerging from the forest path and out into the barren landscape, over the ‘col des tempetes’ — the storm path — and on to the summit where winds of up to 320kph (200mph) have been recorded.

The road over the mountain is often closed as the wind speed is at least 90kph for two-thirds of the year.

Yellow immortality

Tackling the ‘Giant of Province’ is a once-in-a-lifetime challenge all on its own and has become a favourite of amateur cyclists the world over. Those particularly boisterous even try to climb it from all three routes on the same day.

Given one single ascent can take between 90 minutes to 2.5 hours, depending on an amateur’s level, that’s quite an ambitious project for anyone.

The Tour professionals tackle it at the end of a 184km stage this year, and just over halfway through a Grand Boucle edition described by reigning champion Froome as “a climber’s Tour.”

Winning on Ventoux means making your mark on Tour history and cycling as a whole.

Belgian great and record five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx won there in 1970 and Raymond Poulidor, the darling of France — who never won the Tour — triumphed in 1965. In 1987, France thought they’d found the successor to Bernard Hinault — another five-time Tour winner — in Jean Francois Bernard who won a time trial finishing on Ventoux to snare the coveted yellow jersey.

It would prove a false dawn. Just 25, Bernard lost four minutes to his main rivals the next day and finished the Tour third, never again to challenge for the yellow immortality.

Froome won there in 2013 and went on to claim his first Tour success.

Just as Ventoux can make a rider’s career, though, it can also destroy it. Briton Tom Simpson, on a cocktail of drink and drugs and badly dehydrated, collapsed and died of heat exhaustion just meters from the summit in 1967.

A memorial to Simpson remains on the climb to this day, a reminder that Ventoux is a mountain like no other.