The ‘Giant of Provence’ is not like other climbs.
By Jean-Paul Vespini
Where does it come from, this legendary fear of Mont Ventoux? It’s a mountainthat has been climbed only 12 times in the Tour — two time trials, fourfinishes at the summit and six times mid-stage — yet it is more dreadedthan, say, the Tourmalet, which has featured in the Tour 67 times.While L’Alpe d’Huez, a cycling crucible, provides a spectacle, the Ventouxdelivers tragedy. It brought the great Eddy Merckx to his knees for thefirst time in his exceptional career in 1970 when he was forced to takeoxygen after winning a stage at the summit. In 1955, it forced Rick VanGenechten and others to abandon the race, stretched out on their sideslike invalids in their beds.But worst of all, it has killed. Tom Simpson’s death in 1967 lurks likea vulture hovering over its prey. To race over the bare summit of the mountainin a heat wave is to defy death itself. Its presence alone feeds our doubtsand fears: We ask ourselves what this mountain of 6263 feet (1909 meters)in elevation, within sight of the Mediterranean Sea, is doing in the middleof Provence. There is something abnormal about it. Mont Ventoux inspiresfear, even on its descent, when a rider can struggle against the ragingwinds for which it is named.In 1994, Miguel Induráin’s back wheel slipped out on a turn,while he was speeding down at 80 kph. The Spaniard found the reflexes toslip his right foot out of his pedal and was able to regain his balance.
The Tour first ventured onto these assassin slopes on July 22, 1951. At the stage start in Montpellier, the handsome Swiss Hugo Koblet worethe yellow jersey with a 1:32 lead over Raphaël Geminiani. Soon afterstarting the climb up the Giant of Provence, only the Italian Gino Bartaliand Frenchmen Louison Bobet, Pierre Barbotin, Lucien Lazaridès andGeminiani were left with the race leader. The Ventoux has no pity. Itsfirst victim was Koblet, who broke his derailleur cable, forcing him toclimb in a big gear. He had to let Lazaridès get away, followedsoon after by Bartali. After the descent, Bobet pulled away from his breakawaycompanions and won the stage in Avignon by 50 seconds. Koblet won the Tour.Human dramas
Bobet again won the Ventoux stage in 1955, the year he scored his thirdTour victory and the year that the first human dramas erupted on the southface of the Ventoux.
On a day of scorching heat, the Swiss veteran Ferdi Kubler, who hadattacked after the feed zone, presumptuously led an offensive at the footof the 21km climb, accompanied by French regional rider Gilbert Scodellerand Geminiani — who was there to defend his team leader Bobet. Scodellersoon dropped back. Geminiani turned toward the Swiss: “Beware, Ferdi, theVentoux is not a climb like the others.” And Kubler, wearing a cotton racingcap, the visor turned up like a challenge, replied: “And Ferdi’s not arider like the others.”
The sun beat down on their heads … the atmosphere was heavy and stifling… the tar was melting … water bottles were soon emptied … the Ventoux wassuffocating. Geminiani saw Kubler tossing around on his bike, heard himswear in German. The Swiss zigzagged, glued to his machine, his nose dippingtoward his handlebars. He was a pitiful sight, curled over his frame, withhis cap now turned sideways.Alex Burdin, Kubler’s directeur sportif, got out of his jeep and walkedby his rider’s side as he progressed shakily toward the summit. Burdinlater reported on an incident at Villeneuve-les-Avignon, about an hourafter crossing the Ventoux. He said, “[Kubler] gulped down a beer and gotback on his bike going in the opposite direction. We set him back on theright path.” That evening, Kubler summoned the press to his hotel room:“Messieurs, the Tour is finished for me. Ferdi is too old … he’s sick.Ferdi killed himself on the Ventoux.”Meanwhile, Bobet, wearing the rainbow jersey, won the stage — and theTour. But the Ventoux had been almost fatal to Bobet’s teammate Jean Malléjac.About 6km before the summit, Malléjac passed out. As he lay stretchedout on a blanket on a bed of rocks, the race doctor tended him. Shirtless,his black hair in disorder, with the look of a buccaneer, Dr. Pierre Dumaswas trying to revive Malléjac. He injected him with camphor, madehim inhale salts, put him on oxygen, and cooled off his forehead with awet cloth. Malléjac was delirious, but two bottles of Vittel waterhelped bring him around before he was taken to the hospital. “Heatstroke,”wrote French journalist Roger Bastide. “Perhaps. But more likely chargé… or doping, if you prefer, [the problem] that has caused such ravage withinsix-day racing.”Malléjac escaped, but not Simpson. On July 13, 1967, the Briton— barely 29 years old and already the winner of Milan-San Remo (1964),the Tour of Lombardy (1965), the world championship (1965), Paris-Nice(1967), Bordeaux-Paris (1963) and the Tour of Flanders (1961) — met hisend. About 2km from the summit he began to stagger, suffering from a suddenloss of energy. His British national team directeur sportif, Alec Taylor,encouraged him, but Simpson was at the end of his tether. He fell once,was lifted up and returned to his saddle, aided by two supporters. Threehundred meters later, Simpson — exhausted, his head fallen to one side,his eyes rolled back — collapsed on the right side of the road. It wasalready too late. A spectator rushed over and administered mouth-to-mouthin an attempt to revive him. When the race doctors arrived, they triedcardiac massage, an oxygen mask — but nothing worked. Simpson was transportedby helicopter to the Avignon hospital where he died. In the pockets ofhis jersey, the doctors found tablets of amphetamines.Besides the stimulant and the effects of sunstroke on an afternoon of100-degree temperatures, Simpson also had alcohol in his stomach. Frenchsportswriter Jacques Lohmuller recalled: “I was at the foot of the Ventouxbefore the climb. I saw [French national team rider] Raymond Riotte, followedby Tom Simpson and a good many others, step into a bar to quench theirthirst. Riotte drank two cups of red wine, but Simpson inhaled a half-bottleof Cognac. I don’t think he knew what he was doing at that point, but Isaw clearly that he had emptied half the bottle.”And Lucien Aimar, who was riding alongside Simpson before he fell back,testified: “Tom couldn’t do stage races that were longer than a week. Hewas first and foremost a rider of classics. He could not bear the secondweek of racing. He … had had the assurance of a spot [for 1968] on Salvarani,the prestigious Italian team, with Felice Gimondi. He wanted to finishthe Tour at any cost. For several days, he had been sustained by glucosedrips. He was having problems eating.” Exhausted, Simpson had no reserves,and could not feel his fatigue in the cursed, sweltering heat of the Ventoux.Summit finishes
Though the first stage to finish on the summit took place in 1965 (RaymondPoulidor won from Julio Jimenez), it was in 1958 that the riders firstraced individually to the top of the Ventoux, in a 21.5km time-trial. Thatday an angel soared across the cursed mountain, alone, enveloped in hischampion of Luxembourg jersey — Charly Gaul, a man inspired by rain, floodsand cold, tamed the Giant of Provence in the middle of a scorching heatwave.On this barren terrain, he caught and dropped Bobet, who finished almostfive minutes behind him; he was more than four minutes faster than JacquesAnquetil; and he defeated his most dangerous rival — the slight SpaniardFederico Bahamontes, by 31 seconds. Gaul climbed the Ventoux from Bédoinin 1:02:09.Twenty-nine years later, the Tour saw a Ventoux time trial for the secondtime, starting in Carpentras, which made the distance 36.5km. The youngFrenchman Jean-François Bernard made a fabulous ride, undoubtedlythe exploit of his career, in 1:19:44, defeating top climbers like LuchoHerrera (at 1:11), Pedro Delgado (at 1:51) and Fabio Parra (at 2:04).“The day before the time trial, I knew that I was going to ride well,I had good legs for climbing the Ventoux,” Bernard said afterward. “I startedon a low-profile TT bike. Everyone called me crazy; they said that I wouldburn out on the flats. Then I changed bikes at the foot of the Ventoux.I had 51-39 in the front and a 23 in the back, but I practically finishedthe last kilometers on 51×19. I heard the crowd yelling, they were outof control, I understood that I was doing something special.” L’Équipe,the French sports daily, ran the headline across eight columns: “Bernard,Hinault-style!”Mount Ventoux can be seduced by unknowns. In 1994, Italian domestiqueEros Poli propelled his 6-foot-6, 187-pound body to the top of the beastof Provence in a solo marathon of 171 kilometers before winning at Carpentras.On the last Ventoux finish, in 2000, race leader Lance Armstrong offeredthe victory to breakaway companion Marco Pantani — who had miraculouslyreturned to top form after several months of being depressed from his drugsdisqualification at the 1999 Giro d’Italia. The Ventoux finish was thestart of an open conflict between the two champions, as the Italian didnot accept Armstrong’s gratuitous gesture. Pantani swore to avenge himself,and a few days later won alone at the Courchevel finish, then rode himselfinto the ground in a long solo attack on the Morzine stage before abandoning.
Geminiani was right: The Ventoux is not like the other passes. Here,even gifts are poisoned.