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Tour de France: Up the Mountain That Once Killed a Man

Getty/Bryn Lennon

Nowhere else in France, or on the parcours of the Tour de France, quite matches Mont Ventoux. What Edith Wharton called "the sublimest object in Provence” rises as if out of nowhere to tower 6,272 feet above the surrounding plains, magnificent and awe-inspiring. She might have added “the scariest object” if she had tried going up it on two wheels, but there is no evidence that the author of The Age of Innocence rode a racing bike up the great mountain. 

Nor did I. After fortifying myself bodily and spiritually at the Moulin a l’Huile in Vaison-la-Romaine, surely the most charming restaurant in Provence, I drove on Sunday from Vaison up to the summit ahead of the riders. Driving is scarcely quicker than pedalling, since tens of thousands of amateur cyclists dressed in their heroes’ team jerseys climb the great peak ahead of them. All the way up the road is lined with parked cars and campervans, and vast numbers of fans—more than half a million by some estimates—who have been sleeping here for nights and now come out with picnic tables, flags, banners and placards. 

There are plenty of Union Jacks this year, a few Stars and Stripes, the Australian Southern Cross, accompanied in one case by the slogan “Crikey Cadel!” although that can’t be by way of congratulations since Cadel Evans, Aussie winner of the Tour two years ago, is now lying sixteenth, more than 15 minutes off the pace (and that on top of the defeats of the Australian rugby and cricket teams!). Then there’s the criss-cross Basque flag, well-known to bike racing fans, and the quainter three-legged emblem of the Isle of Man, home of both Mark Cavendish and the Sky rider Peter Kennaugh. 

And of course the tricoleur. Sunday was le quatorze juillet, Bastille Day, the French Fourth of July, the great public holiday of the year, but that that brought no change of fortune for French cyclists. No Frenchman has even won a stage of this year’s Tour. Although Julien Simon escaped at the head of the field on Saturday, and looked as if he might hold on to win in Lyon, he was reeled in and the stage victory went to Mark Cavendish’s Italian teammate Matteo Trentin. The finish apart, that Saturday stage was uneventful, a contrast indeed to the days before and after. 

On Friday, Cavendish had won another victory, which no one will begrudge him after what he’s been through. But the real story of the stage was behind him. Among the things that make Mont Ventoux so awesome is the wind: It was at its peak in February 1967 that the strongest gust ever known on Earth was recorded, at 198 mph. On Friday there was no more than a brisk crosswind on the road from Tours to Saint-Amand-Montrond, but the effect was dramatic enough. The wind disrupted and scattered the peloton, with some groups left behind. One included Chris Froome in the yellow jersey, who lost more than a minute to Bauke Mollema and Alberto Contador. Their respective teams, Belkin and Saxo, looked more in control then Froome’s Sky, which was, in a more than usually apt phrase, blown apart. Suddenly they and he didn’t seem to have the Tour at their mercy. 

Or not until Sunday. On a sultry Provencal day, the pace as well as the sun was hot, but if the intention was to tire Froome out before they reached the foot of Mont Ventoux it was not a success. When the climb began, Sylvain Chavanel attacked for France, but not for long. As the hill grew steeper, one rider after another cracked: Pierre Rolland, then the American Tejay van Garderen whom some have tapped as future Tour winner, then Andy Schleck, who won the race three years ago, then Chavanel.

With 10 kilometres to go the field was well strung out when Nairo Quintana attacked, the young, tiny and rather splendid Colombian who has been what French scribblers call the révélation of this Tour. But the banners saying “Go Froomey Go!” (or “Va Va Froome”: he evidently has local support as well) weren’t in vain. Helped by his teammate Richie Porte, Froome stuck with Quintana, and at first Contador stuck with Froome. As they reached the top of the tree-line and entered the eerie lunar landscape of the higher reaches of the mountain, Froome attacked, and dropped everyone behind him, except Quintana. Twice Froome tried to distance him and twice he failed, although he managed at the end to beat him by 29 seconds, while much more importantly adding minutes to his lead in the general classification. Monday’s rest day found him more than four minutes ahead of Mollema and Contador.

A happy day, then, but with unhappy memories. Just below the finish on Mont Ventoux is the Stèle Simpson, as poignant as the Stèle Casartelli in the Pyrenees but in a different way. Tom Simpson was the most successful, and much the most popular, English rider of his generation, the first Englishman to wear the yellow jersey. On July 13, 1967, the Tour riders were only 3,000 metres from the summit of Mont Ventoux when Simpson keeled over. His last words were “Put me back on my bike,” or so the legend had it: The stirring line might possibly have emerged from the fertile mind of one of our tabloid reporters. He was helicoptered to hospital in Avignon but was dead on arrival. “No mountain is too high” reads the touching inscription placed on the memorial by his daughters, but the fact was that poor, likeable Tom’s jersey pockets were stuffed with amphetamines, and so was he. Repulsive as Lance Armstrong is, when he says that doping of some sort or another has been going on since bike racing began, it’s true enough. 

And when he says that it goes on still? In the Pyrenees eight days before Bastille Day, Froome took the yellow jersey when he left his rivals for dead on the great limb to Ax 3 Domaines. You might have expected his head coach to be elated, but Dave Brailsford’s immediate response, he said, had been, “I’m going to get some shit now.” So he did. The instant reflexive accusations rolled in, nowadays fuelled by “social media” that can be thoroughly anti-social: No one could be that good without illicit stimulants. It happened again after Froome’s brilliant victory on Mont Ventoux, and this time Brailsford’s patience snapped. He ought to be jumping with joy, he said, but instead “I know I’ll be answering these allegations and questions about doping for days afterwards.” One consolation for him is Froome’s composure: “He’s stayed polite, calm, rational.”

He’ll need to be that and more, for the toughest last week anyone can remember in a Tour. Three ferocious stages in the Alps begin with Thursday’s frankly sadistic stage, taking them not once but twice up the terrifying Alpe d’Huez. This Tour is not over, and nor is the darker story of bike racing yet ended.