Three Grand Tours in the summer, a plethora of Classics, stage races and other disciplines, plus daily news, gossip and scandal: professional racing produces a constant flow of cycling news, with the Tour de France like a constant all-you-can eat ‘buffet a volonté.’
Fortunately, some things remain scarce in the Tour and will thus always feel extra special, their rarity elevating events to legendary moments of the sport. Stages on Mont Ventoux are one of them, refining the racing like the best vintages produced in the vineyards below the Géant de Provence.
“Mont Ventoux is legendary for everyone who loves cycling, but it shouldn't be tasted too often, it has to make itself desired and stay special. Its rarity only accentuates the legend, ” race director Christian Prudhomme told L’Equipe.
The Tour has climbed the Giant of Provence 16 times in the last 69 years, a history that encompasses classic duels, solo victories and the tragic death of Tom Simpson. On Wednesday the race climbs Mont Ventoux twice during one stage, via two different routes, creating history and no doubt inspiring more great racing.
For the first time since 1994, the stage finish is not on the mountain itself but at Malaucène after a white-knuckle 22km descent to the line. As history teaches us, the stage will be defined by what happens on the upper reaches of Mont Ventoux.
Like the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, the stage takes in two different ascents of the Giant, first ascending from Sault (22km at 5.1 per cent) and then circling around for a second ascent by way of the classic approach from Bédoin (15.7km at 8.8 per cent).
All of this means that stage 11 is undoubtedly the Queen stage of this Tour de France and a day of mountain indulgence because of the double assault and the descent to the stage finish.
“Climbing Mont Ventoux twice is one of the biggest moments of this year’s Tour,” technical race director Thierry Gouvenou told L’Equipe. “We started doing it with l’Alpe d’Huez in 2013, then the Grand Colombier in 2016. It seems perfect to celebrate the return of Mont Ventoux in the Tour.
“I believe the descent to the finish will be as thrilling as the climbs. Time gaps open on descents these days, so for a rider to get a gap and hold it to the finish, they will have to open a gap well before the summit.”
The 198.9km stage starts down in Rhône valley at Sorgues, where the 'Giant of Provence' looms large to the northeast on clear days, reminding everyone of the challenge ahead.
The intermediate sprint comes after 40.2 kilometres on flat roads to the east and so could mean the sprinter’s teams close down any attacks until they have fought for the points.
Tadej Pogačar and his UAE Team Emirates squad will be happy to let a break go away on the first-category, 9km Col de la Liguière, which tops out at kilometre 83.6, in the hope that other teams, perhaps riding to defend a top-10 place, will pick up the work.
The steady descent from the Liguière leads to Sault and the start of the first ascent of Mont Ventoux via the easiest of the three routes to this infamous summit. However, it is also the longest at 22.5 kilometres. It winds up the foothills at 5 per cent through the woodland until Chalet Reynard, where it joins the more famous road up from Bédoin.
As riders leave the tree line to the bare final kilometres, the gradient becomes significantly steeper and the distinctive white tower at the is summit visible when the riders lift their heads.
The race reaches the summit of Mont Ventoux for the first time after 122.5 km, with 76.4 km still to go. The riders will then plunge down the rarely seen western side of the Ventoux to Malaucène. It is the same fast descent where a police motorbike touched 120 kph and struggled to stay with Lucien Aimar, who reputedly clocked 140 kph in the 1967 Tour de France.
The riders pass through the finish in Malaucène before cruelly turning left for the second ride to the 1910-metre high summit. This is the classic ascent of the Ventoux; 15.7km long and averaging a painful 8.8 per cent.
The first section through the woods up to Chalet Reynard is relentlessly steep, seemingly cutting vertically up through the trees, with the shade the only respite. The road reaches Chalet Reynard with 6.1km to ride to the summit and a total of 22km to the finish back down in Malaucène.
The race will surely be ‘on’ at this point, with the best climbers going head-to-head as they fight for the stage victory, the polka-dot king of the mountains jersey, places in the top 10 in GC – and maybe even the yellow jersey, if Pogačar cracks on the exposed sun-scorched roads. It happened to the likes of Ferdi Kubler in 1955, virtually ending his career, while even Eddy Merkcx needed oxygen and went deeper than ever after winning the stage in 1970.
The scarcity of Tour de France history on Mont Ventoux means each stage is famous for something. More recently, Chris Froome soloed to victory in 2013, while three years later he was at the centre of the one of the most dramatic stage in Tour history, when high winds meant the finish line was placed at Chalet Reynard rather than at the summit.
Froome, Richie Porte and Bauke Mollema crashed into the back of a television motorbike that had been forced to stop due to the road being packed with spectators. Froome, in the race leader’s yellow jersey, briefly attempted to run up the climb before receiving a new bike. He initially lost two minutes and the race lead, only for the commissaires to neutralise the results, correct his time and keep him in the overall lead.
“Ventoux is definitely one of the mythical iconic climbs of the Tour,” Froome said as the Mont Ventoux stage loomed large on the Tour de France horizon.
“We're going to be going up there twice which is pretty novel as well. I've definitely got a bit of a love-hate relationship with the climb. I have some amazing memories from back in 2013 when I won on Bastille Day in the yellow jersey on my way to winning my first Tour.
“In 2016 it was just an absolute moment of chaos and hopefully something we're not going to see again anytime soon.”
Five years on, the Tour returns to Mont Ventoux with Pogačar in yellow, holding a lead of over five minutes on almost all of his GC rivals. Only Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroën) is within reach of the Slovenian after his Tignes stage win, but the young Australian is targeting a podium spot rather than trying to topple the 2020 winner.
“I have gone to the Mont Ventoux only once, just before this Tour de France. There were so many fans there on a normal day that I can’t imagine how crowded it will be tomorrow,” Pogačar said in Valence on Tuesday evening. “I’m looking forward to racing there. It will be a long, hard, hot day. We will see how the hot weather affects me tomorrow. I’ve trained for it, so I feel prepared.”
Pogačar played down talk that he may attack his rivals yet again and further confirm his dominance on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. We will see on Wednesday afternoon if he intends to ride like Miguel Indurain and generously hand out stage victories to carefully selected rivals or tighten his grip on the race like Lance Armstrong or Merckx.
“Pogačar is arguably his own biggest rival,” Astana-Premier Tech directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli pointed out to La Gazzetta dello Sport. “If he wins after the double assault of the Ventoux, then it is difficult to see who can dethrone him.”
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