If the way to judge the difficulty of a mountain is to study the faces of those who have just climbed it by bike, then Mont Ventoux is the winner who goes – at least as far as cycle tourists are concerned. I’m not sure the same can be said of today’s well-trained Tour riders, as the phobia of Tom Simpson’s death on the mountain in 1967 is long gone. For this generation of runners, the Ventoux is quite simply one of the most difficult climbs in the sport.
The Ventoux can however still make life difficult for thoroughbreds of the Tour. If it is terribly hot in Bédoin, but cooler once the tree line is clear, the climb is brutal but tolerable. But if this part of Provence experiences a heatwave, and if there is no wind to purify the air, then cyclists are ready to have a real barbecue. That was Simpson’s fate all those years ago.
Other factors contribute to the formidable challenge of the mountain. The Ventoux stage could be a time trial, like in the 1987 Tour. It could be a summit finish after a long day in the saddle, as is most common in the Ventoux. Or it could be the last ascent of a long day of mountain climbs, the brutal finale of a online stage ending in Carpentras or Avignon. At least one thing is certain: the Tour will always climb the Ventoux on its hardest side, as it did for the first time in 1951 and as it has done fourteen times since.
Because I first saw the Ventoux climb during this 1987 time trial, when I could see every suffering individual as they climbed the mountain, capturing on film every drop of sweat as it left so many frowns behind and feeling the agony that each of the competitors was going through, it is more difficult for me to judge the state of mind of the riders coming up the back of the peloton. The subjects in my camera these days are the fast men leading the race, the winged angels for whom the mountain has no fear – men like Marco Pantani, Lance Armstrong, Richard Virenque and Iban Mayo.
As for the others, I know they’re out there somewhere. These are the less fortunate who have struggled since they saw the bald summit over an hour ago, and still struggle to finish long after the most gifted men have crossed the line, shared the podium with pretty hostesses, and are already well into their descent to Malaucène and a cozy shower. It’s just that I can’t go back there to record their fate like I once could.
Agony or not, photographing the Tour on the Ventoux is a precious profession. This is the one that is all the more exciting as the Tour is only visited occasionally, about once every five years since this first ascent, with six crossings and ten climbs to date.
It is one of the few mountains that excites me, from the moment its name is mentioned at the launch of the Tour in October; even the Galibier does not do that. Mont Ventoux still has a decisive role in the outcome of the Tour, and this knowledge is intoxicating. There will never be an easy winner on its summit, and the Ventoux always acts like the beautiful stage on which the best cyclists of the race will compete. Great images are going to come from any ascent of this monster. What you don’t know is who will win.
Although I have only seen the Tour climb the Ventoux four times in my career, its more consistent inclusion in the week-long stage race on the Dauphiné-Libéré that precedes the Tour in June means there is a familiarity about it which makes my job even more enjoyable. Le Ventoux is one of the few mountains where I can watch the race while taking pictures.
The first few miles are there only to let go of the hopelessness and to focus your mind on the task ahead. It helps that this part of the climb is heavily shaded. The key first place is about 7 kilometers away, in a sharp right turn. The road here is heavily dented, with a gradient of 8.6%. This makes this turn a great place to stop and see the beginning of the end as the peloton begins to pull apart.
The next few miles take us to Chalet Reynard, the steepest and most crucial part of the climb, where the terrain averages just over 7.0% but includes a ramp or two at 10.3%. It is also the most populated area, due to the D164 access road coming from Sault. The ramp that goes up far from the Chalet serves as the final launching pad for many stage winners in Ventoux.
Just after the ramp settles down on a more civilized gradient, the road turns right, and immediately the shocking face of Ventoux unfolds before your eyes, a vast mountain of white gold colored limestone rubble, with the antenna of the still distant observatory. 6 kilometers away.
This is when I realize once again how much I love Ventoux, both as a photographer and as a cycling fan. The road just keeps going uphill, barely turning either way, allowing me to see every pedal stroke the cyclists take as they tackle the cruelest part of the mountain. The backdrop is a view of the Provencal plain and the distant Alpine peaks, which in the late afternoon are all the more overwhelming.
That same lighting illuminates sweaty faces in a way you can’t see on other mountains – and, yes, there is definitely a ghostly pallor, even for the healthiest riders. The limestone acts like a giant reflector, bouncing the sun, light and above all heat off 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 now pick up the pace a bit, test their legs, test the few rivals who stay close to them. It was there that Lance Armstrong delivered the coup de grace to Joseba Beloki in 2002, unleashing a series of attacks that quickly demolished the Basque’s failing morale. It was a lesson Armstrong may have learned on this part of the climb two years earlier, with only 6 kilometers to go, when instead of letting Marco Pantani down, he let the Italian stay with him, who then won the stage.
Unfortunately, the last kilometers disappear too quickly for me. Soon it will be time to calculate the distance I need to get there on time – that’s if I really want to finish. There is a captivating spirit in the final section of Ventoux that makes it hard to pull away from the action, a reluctance heavily influenced by knowing that the finish shot will literally be that: the end.
I was a very disappointed Tour 2000 photographer when Pantani crossed the finish line first, but never celebrated his victory like a true Ventoux winner should – arms in the air, head held high , the expressive face if not totally divided by a broad smile. My favorite plan since then has been to stick with the leaders until the very last mile, speed up to the last 300m, then set up a standing shot with a long telephoto lens just before the last bounce turn. until arrival. It’s a strategy that never fails, especially if it is an Armstrong in a yellow jersey pumping up the regime, a group of motorcycle photographers dragging their every move just like their ancestors did with Eddy Merckx in 1970.
As the last conquerors of the Ventoux pedal past where I am, it is difficult not to feel emotion in front of the mountain. Men have died on bicycles, while others have found a happier destiny simply by doing what they do best. Looking at the terrain so far below me, I wonder how long it will be before the Tour returns to Mont Ventoux. Not too long, I hope.
Adapted from Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide by Graham Watson courtesy VeloPress.
Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide