Legendary mountains of the Tour de France: Mont Ventoux

Tom Simpson died scaling this mountain, but other names associated with its moonscape have met happier fates.

Photo: Lars Ronbog / FrontzoneSport / Getty Images

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If the way to judge a mountain’s difficulty is by studying the faces of those who have just cycled up it, then Mont Ventoux is the winner going away—at least as far as cyclo-tourists are concerned. I’m not sure the same can be said about today’s well-trained Tour cyclists, for the phobia of Tom Simpson’s death on the mountain in 1967 has long since faded. For this generation of racers, the Ventoux is simply one of the sport’s toughest climbs.

The Ventoux can still make life difficult for the Tour’s thoroughbreds, however. If it’s stiflingly hot in Bédoin, but cooler once the tree line has been cleared, the climb is brutal but tolerable. But if this part of Provence is having a heatwave, and if there’s no wind to clear the air, then the cyclists are in for a real grilling. Such was Simpson’s fate all those years ago.

Other factors contribute to the mountain’s fearsome challenge. The Ventoux stage might be a time trial, as in the 1987 Tour. It could be a summit finish after a long day in the saddle, as is most common on the Ventoux. Or it might be the last climb in a long day of mountain ascents, the brutal finale to an en-ligne stage ending in Carpentras or Avignon. At least one thing is sure: The Tour will always climb the Ventoux from its harder side, the way it first did in 1951 and the way it has done fourteen times since.

Because I first saw the Ventoux climbed in that 1987 time trial, when I could see each suffering individual as he climbed the mountain, capture on film each drop of sweat as it left so many furrowed brows behind, and feel the agony that each of the competitors was experiencing, it is harder for me now to judge the state of mind of the riders bringing up the rear of the peloton. The subjects in my camera these days are the fast men at the front of the race, the winged angels for whom the mountain holds no fear at all—men like Marco Pantani, Lance Armstrong, Richard Virenque, and Iban Mayo.

As for the others, I know they’re back there somewhere. They’re the less fortunate ones who’ve struggled from the moment they first glimpsed the bald summit over one hour ago, and are still struggling to finish long after the more gifted men have crossed the line, shared the podium with some pretty hostesses, and are already well into their descent to Malaucène and a cozy shower. It’s just that I can’t get back there to record their plight the way I once could.

Agony or not, photographing the Tour on the Ventoux is a treasured occupation. It’s one that’s made all the more exciting because the Tour only visits occasionally, about once every five years since that first ascent, with six crossings and ten summit finishes to date.

It’s one of the few mountains that gets me all fired up, right from the moment its name is mentioned at the Tour launch in October; even the Galibier doesn’t do that. Mont Ventoux always has a decisive role in the Tour’s outcome, and that knowledge is intoxicating. There’s never going to be an easy winner on its summit, and Ventoux always acts as the great stage on which the race’s best cyclists are going to do battle. Great pictures are going to come from any ascent of this monster. What you don’t know is who’s going to win.

Although I’ve only seen the Tour climb the Ventoux four times in my career, its more regular inclusion in the weeklong Dauphiné-Libéré (now the Critérium du Dauphiné) stage race that precedes the Tour in June means there’s a familiarity about it that makes my work even more pleasurable. Ventoux is one of the few mountains where I can watch the racing as I take pictures.

The opening kilometers are there purely to shed the no-hopers and to focus your mind on the task that lies ahead. It helps that this part of the climb is heavily shaded. The first key place comes about 7 kilometers up, at a sharp righthand bend. The road is pitched up sharply here, with a gradient of 8.6 percent. It makes this bend a favorite place to stop and see the beginning of the end as the peloton begins to break apart.

The next few kilometers take us to the Chalet Reynard, the steepest and most crucial part of the climb, where the pitch averages just over 7.0 percent but includes a ramp or two at 10.3 percent. This also happens to be the most populated area, because of the D164 access road coming from Sault. The ramp that climbs away from the Chalet acts as the final launchpad for many of the Ventoux’s stage winners.

Just after the ramp settles down to a more civilized gradient, the road swings right, and at once the shocking face of the Ventoux unfolds before your eyes, a vast mountain of limestone rubble the color of white gold, with the observatory antenna still a distant 6 kilometers away.

It’s at this point that I realize all over again how much I love the Ventoux, both as a photographer and a cycling fan. The road just keeps going up, barely turning one way or the other, allowing me to see every pedal stroke the cyclists are taking as they tackle the cruelest section of the mountain. The backdrop is a vista of Provençal plaine and distant alpine peaks, which in the late afternoon sunshine is all the more overwhelming.

That same lighting illuminates the sweating faces in a way not seen on other mountains—and, yes, there’s definitely a ghostly pallor to even the healthiest cyclists. The limestone acts as a giant reflector, bouncing the sun, the light, and especially the heat back at the Tour’s gladiators, as if they didn’t already know that there is nowhere to hide on this part of the mountain.

The best ones now ratchet up the pace a little, testing their legs, testing the few rivals left near them. This is where Lance Armstrong delivered the coup de grâce to Joseba Beloki in 2002, firing off a series of attacks that quickly demolished the Basque’s failing morale. It was a lesson Armstrong perhaps learned on this part of the climb two years earlier, with just 6 kilometers to go, when instead of dropping Marco Pantani he let the Italian stay with him, who then went on to win the stage.

Sadly, the last kilometers disappear all too quickly for me. It’ll soon be time to calculate the distance I need to make the finish in time—that’s if I want to make the finish at all. There’s a captivating spirit about the last section of the Ventoux that makes it hard to tear yourself away from the action, a reluctance heavily influenced by the knowledge that the finish shot will literally be just that: the end.

I was a highly disappointed photographer in the 2000 Tour when Pantani surged to the line first but never celebrated his win the way a true Ventoux winner should—arms aloft, head held high, face expressive if not totally split by a wide smile. My preferred plan since then has been to stay with the leaders to the very last kilometer, speed ahead to the final 300 meters, then set up a standing shot with a long telephoto lens just before the final kickback bend to the finish. It’s a strategy that never fails, especially if it happens to be a yellow-jerseyed Armstrong pumping out the revs, a rat pack of motorcycle photographers trailing his every move, just as their forebears did with Eddy Merckx in 1970.

As the latest conquerors of the Ventoux pedal past where I stand, it’s hard not to feel emotional about the mountain. Men have died cycling up it, while others have found a happier fate doing merely what they do best. As I look down on the land so far below me, I wonder how long it will be before the Tour is back on Mont Ventoux. Not too long, I hope.

Adapted from Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide by Graham Watson with permission of VeloPress.

Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide

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