Tales from the Peloton, June 9, 2004
Stage four of the 2004 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré sees a time trial up Mont Ventoux, one of the most famous climbs in all of cycling. John Stevenson takes a look at the unique place the Giant of Provence occupies in cycling's folklore.
Iban Mayo believes the crucial stage of this year's Dauphiné Libéré will come on Thursday. He has told Spanish sports paper As, "The race will be decided on Mont Ventoux," when riders confront the mountain known as the Giant of Provence in a 21.6km time trial from Bédoin at 226m to the summit at 1909m. With nothing currently separating the leaders after stage two, and that unlikely to change after the undulating but not severe terrain of stage three, Mayo's prediction looks to be right on the money.
Of all the climbs regularly tackled by the great French stage races, Ventoux is perhaps the most feared. Ventoux doesn't inspire awe for its altitude - at 2646m, the Col du Galibier in the Alps takes the prize for sheer elevation among regularly-used climbs. Ventoux isn't the steepest French mountain either - its maximum gradient is 11 percent, while, for example, the little-lauded Col de Soudet, scene of the attack that gave Tyler Hamilton victory on stage 16 of the 2003 Tour, has pitches of 15 percent.
What gives Ventoux its reputation is the combination of the dense, often still and stinking-hot forest at its base; the bare, sun-baked rock of the summit; and the sheer unrelenting character of the ascent. There is no let-up in the road that makes its way up the slopes of this mountain, and few hairpins to break the monotony.
Ventoux is a mountain alone, towering out of the Provence countryside. British rider Tom Simpson described it as, "a great mountain stuck in the middle of nowhere and bleached white by the sun. It is like another world up there among the bare rocks and the glaring sun. The white rocks reflect the heat and the dust rises clinging to your arms, legs and face."
And if the heat and relentless gradient weren't enough, there's the wind. Ventoux probably gets its name from the Mistral winds that regularly sweep across its summit and that have been claimed to reach speeds of 230 km/h. The weather isn't usually that fierce in the summer, but Ventoux summit finishes still lack the usual flags and inflatable finish-line arches of typical race finales because of the risk of them being blown off the mountain.
From its first inclusion in a Tour de France in 1951, and previous stages in the Dauphiné and Tour du Vaucluse, Ventoux has been the venue for historic racing moments, but it became indelibly etched into the sport's collective consciousness when British rider Tom Simpson died there in 1967.
While drugs played a part in Simpson's death, the character of racing at the time and the severity of the Ventoux ascent were also factors. Cycling in the 60s was marked by a macho ethic that meant, among other things, that riders drank very little water during races, and Ventoux that year was incredibly hot.
It was hot too in 1955 when Ventoux ended the racing careers of Jean Mallejac and Ferdi Kubler. Mallejac collapsed on the climb, still strapped to his bike, and was carried away gesticulating and shouting, after having to be practically forced to drink. Kubler succumbed to the heat after attacking the base of the climb, managed to make it to the top 20 minutes behind the leaders and fell at least three times on the descent. Towards the end of the stage he downed several beers in a bar near the finish, then set off in the wrong direction. He gave a press conference that evening to announce his retirement. The bandaged Kubler told the press, "Ferdi has killed himself on the Ventoux."
It was incidents like this that inspired philosopher Roland Barthes to write, "The Ventoux, thrusting abundantly skywards, is a god of Evil to whom sacrifice must be paid. A true Moloch, a despot of cyclists, it never pardons the weak and exacts an unjust tribute of suffering."
More recently, Ventoux has been the scene of epic battles between riders. Today, the mountain itself is less likely to damage health and psyche, as modern riders pay far better attention to hydration and pacing than the heroes of the past. Instead, Ventoux provides a perfect venue for reputations to be made - and crushed.
The best example of recent years was the confrontation between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani on Ventoux in the 2000 Tour de France. Armstrong claimed he allowed Pantani to win the stage in tribute to a troubled former Tour champion. Pantani felt disrespected by the claim and the subsequent war of words between the two went on for the rest of the Tour and months afterwards.
Two years later, Armstrong powered up the Ventoux in 58 minutes while chasing Richard Virenque in stage 14 of the Tour. Virenque won the stage, but Armstrong's domination of that year's Tour was complete.
The record for the ascent of Ventoux, though, stands at 56m50.9s. It was set in 1999, the last time the Dauphiné riders time-trialled up Mont Ventoux, and the victor was American Jonathan Vaughters, riding for the US Postal Service team. Vaughters eventually finished second to Alexandre Vinokourov and was able to translate that stage victory into a well-paid contract with Credit Agricole for 2000.
The format of sending riders off alone at minute intervals to throw themselves at the mountain has long appealed to race organisers. In 1958 Charly Gaul beat Federico Bahamontes by half a minute in a Tour de France time trial up Mont Ventoux, the two engaging in a private battle that left the rest of the field minutes back. Gaul was a powerful time trialer and climber (who does that remind you of?) and went on to win that year's Tour.
Who will conquer Ventoux this year? At the pre-race press conference, Lance Armstrong said, "with the uphill time trial on le Mont Ventoux, it will be a great test for me before the Tour de France." Armstrong desperately wanted to win on Ventoux in 2002, and needs to measure his progress toward his attempt on a sixth Tour de France victory in July. For Armstrong, that victory will almost certainly have to include another mountain time trial, up Alpe d'Huez in the Tour's stage 16. Who could resist a crack at a double that will probably never to be repeated, time trials up Ventoux and l'Alpe in the same year?
Iban Mayo and Tyler Hamilton are the most likely threats to an Armstrong victory. Mayo's time-trialling has improved dramatically this year, while Hamilton excels on tough slopes and has won here before, in the 2000 Dauphiné.
Whoever wins, Thursday's race will be yet another chapter in the history of the mountain that nowadays attracts thousands of cyclists every year to test themselves against its roads and pay tribute at the memorial to Tom Simpson.