Mont Ventoux. The name alone conjures up mystery and veneration. Its lunarscape summit is a magnet that draws cyclists from all over the world. Arguably the “géant de provence” is cycling’s most iconic stand-alone mountain.
Other climbs have come before it, and newer ones have staked their claim as the steepest. Few mountains evoke such respect as Ventoux. Every summer, an estimated 200,000 cyclists attempt to climb it, said to draw even more riders than the equally famous 21 “lacet” of Alpe d’Huez.
And despite being such an essential part of racing’s lore, with legendary stages in the Tour de France, Mont Ventoux has never had its own race.
That changes with the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, a new one-day race set to make its debut Monday.
“Imagine this iconic place in cycling history has never had its own race,” said race director Nicolas Garcera. “It’s been part of the Tour de France and other races, but not its own race. I wanted to create a one-day race just for climbers.”
Garcera’s dream comes true with the inaugural race Monday, just a day after the conclusion of the Critérium du Dauphiné and three weeks before the start of the Tour de France.
The 175-kilometer course starts in Vaison-la-Romaine and loops over four lesser climbs before climbing the classic approach from Bédoin to the 1,912m summit. That face is considered one of the most grueling and demanding in all of racing.
Roughly translating as the Mont Ventoux Vertical Challenge, the race includes a total 4,100 vertical meters. That’s enough to keep the most ardent climbing fanatics content.
“It’s the classic route up Ventoux,” Garcera said in a telephone interview. “I hope the riders make it a race from the beginning and don’t wait until the final climb.”
Ranked as 1.1 on the UCI calendar, a dozen teams are showing up for the first edition, including such riders as Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Lachlan Morton and Joe Dombrowski (EF Education First), Jesus Herrera and Darwin Atapuma (Cofidis) and Groupama-FDJ.
“Every great rider wants to win on Mont Ventoux,” he said. “I am hoping the chance for them to win on top of this famous mountain will mean that it will be a good race.”
Garcera lives at the base of Ventoux in Vaison-la-Romaine, a bustling town that comes alive every summer with cyclists who make the trek to climb cycling’s most famous mountain.
Garcera isn’t a major race promoter. He’s one-half of a two-person operation, just himself and his wife. For the past five years, they’ve been organizing a popular gran fondo that ends atop Ventoux. Each summer, about 2,500 cyclists participate from all over the world. One thing kept coming up.
“Everyone kept saying, this route is so beautiful, wouldn’t it be great to make it a race?” he said. “I live right at the bottom of Ventoux. It’s like a dream come true to make this race happen.”
A one-day climbing race to the top of France’s most famous mountain is certainly an intriguing idea. Europe is riddled with famous climbs, from the Anglirú in Spain to the Tourmalet in the Pyrénées and Monte Zoncolan in the Dolomites, but they’ve mostly been featured as part of stage races. No one’s ever pulled off having a one-day pro race ending on these iconic climbs.
Mont Ventoux and the Tour de France have become synonymous. It was first featured in the 1958 Tour de France won by Charly Gaul. Tour stages have finished atop Ventoux some 10 occasions, and been climbed in another six stages. Garcera is hoping the allure of Ventoux will work one more time.
A lot is riding on the line. Garcera began working on the race three years ago. It was tricky to find the right spot on the calendar and Garcera worked closely with teams and cycling federations to assure things go well. He has his fingers crossed that Ventoux’s infamous winds don’t kick up and that the race can finish on the true summit.
Garcera knows he cannot do it all by himself, so he’s hired the same police that runs security and road safety at the Critérium du Dauphiné as well as tapped ASO to handle the TV production. Like many smaller races, Garcera must foot the television costs himself to ensure it is picked up by broadcasters. For a first-year race, he will have live TV coverage in France, Spain and Italy, among other countries.
It’s a passion project for Garcera, who said the race is being funded by “99 percent” private money. More than anything, he hopes it will be a good race up the flanks of Ventoux.
“I think the riders are excited,” he said. “Who would not want to win on Mont Ventoux?”