Un cycliste est mort: Mont Ventoux and the death of cycling

“…le Ventoux, lui, a la plénitude du mont, c’est un dieu du Mal, auquel il faut sacrifier.” — Roland Barthes

It is an iconic image in cycling’s lore. Jacques Goddet is ascending the rocky slope of Mont Ventoux, clutching a wreath for the memorial to Tom Simpson. In the background, surely not by coincidence in the timing, is Eddy Merckx, on his way to the stage finish at the summit and overall victory in the 1970 Tour de France, and he has turned to watch Goddet.

But what happened next was extraordinary. Battling the climb, and struggling with exertion, Merckx removed his cycling cap as he rode past, as a sign of respect to his fallen former teammate. Merckx was with Simpson on the Peugeot team in 1967 for a rocky introduction to pro riding as Simpson schooled Merckx in pro etiquette and tactics at that year’s Paris-Nice. But Merckx admired Simpson and was apparently the only European professional at Simpson’s funeral.

Merckx went on to win the stage on Mont Ventoux, but collapsed at the finish and required oxygen. It seemed that the mountain wanted to extract its terrible toll, taxing Merckx on the very day he had sought to pay tribute to Simpson’s death.

Simp 3
Merckx triumphant but breathless at the summit (L’Equipe).

The years 1970 and 1967 were not the first time that Mont Ventoux had sought to claim victims, and perhaps only chance and quickly-applied medical attention saved at least one rider in 1955. In another brutally hot year, on the stage from Marseille to Avignon that went over the mountain, Jean Malléjac collapsed 10 kilometres from the summit. Quick action from the Tour’s doctor, Pierre Dumas, saved his live, but his teeth had to be prised apart to administer oxygen. As he was being loaded into the ambulance he was agitated and demanded his bike, and had to be restrained. He denied using drugs, but few apparently believed him. He never raced again and for Dumas, again at the side of a dying Tom Simpson twelve years later, it was a warning of the deadly combination of doping and heatstroke.

Another rider claimed that day was Ferdi Kubler, the erratic Swiss-German who referred to himself in the third person in his broken French. According to the stories, Raphael Géminiani warned him of the difficulty of the climb. “Ferdi is not like other riders,” Kubler said. He was soon weaving all over the climb, suffering a huge défaillance, delirious over the summit, and after a café stop close to the finish ended up riding the wrong way and had to be directed to the line by supporters. The next day he packed up and went home. “Ferdi has killed himself on the Ventoux.”

Simp 2
Bobet, the golden boy, but also breathless under Ventoux’s sun in ’55 (L’Equipe).

Reports said that at least six other riders on that day suffered collapses on the climb, and many riders were supposedly throwing away their drugs after the stage. For Jacques Goddet, though, there was no mention of doping – the heroic nature of the Tour had to be upheld.

“On this accursed ground,” he wrote in L’Equipe, “the battle raged, while all along the fiery mountain men fell by the wayside, beaten down by sunstroke, empty, drunk with the effort and the struggle, heaps of brave men who were once so solid and resolute.”

It was just like Barthes would write, quoted above, as if indeed Mont Ventoux was a god of Evil, but it was not just the mountain demanding a sacrifice – it was the Tour as well. In 1967, it would get its sacrifice.

Simpson’s death was the full-stop that ended The Golden Age of Cycling. France’s and Europe’s recovery from World War II was indeed a remarkable time for cycling, with its burgeoning popularity reclaiming previous glories and the national teams system in place until 1962 adding a nationalistic character to countries re-forging their identities. The stars of the 1950s became iconic characters, legends of the sport for their riding exploits as well as their antics and appearances off the bike.

By 1967, cycling was changing. That year saw the reintroduction of national teams, as Tour organizers looked to reclaim some of the public’s interest in the national competition, still undecided whether to entirely embrace the commercial imperative that had seen trade teams brought back in 1962. It was also a transition between the dominance of Jacques Anquetil and the emergence of a new hero, Merckx, as well as the advent of television coverage of the Tour that shattered much of the myth-making in print that had fuelled the previous era.

Simp 4
The papers report Simpson’s tragic collapse (L’Equipe).

But Simpson’s death only served to highlight the dark side of The Golden Age. Simply, drug use throughout the entire period was pervasive. At the time, it was ingrained in the sport – almost accepted. Fausto Coppi and Anquetil talked about it openly, perhaps too honestly for some who wanted to see the riders in more mythic terms. Anquetil’s preferred amphetamine was Tonedron, nicknamed ‘Tonton’, the ‘Rolls Royce’ of stimulants, according to William Fotheringham. Its sister drug, Pervitin, was called ‘Tintin’. (It was Tonedron that was found in Simpson’s jersey pockets and his use of it was well known in the peloton.) The so-called ‘Anquetil cocktail’ was Tonton, a painkiller, and a sleeping pill at night, the improved version of the cocaine cream, opiates and ‘dynamite’ of Henri Pélissier in the 1920s.

There had already been other close calls with riders’ lives in this era, such as Roger Rivière in 1960 when he crashed and broke his back while dosed up on the painkiller Palfium – used to deaden muscle pain in the legs – and, as we have seen, on Mont Ventoux in 1955. Perhaps a death like Simpson’s was sadly, tragically inevitable. At least, though, attitudes were changing, with L’Equipe proclaiming that, “…all the legal, moral, spiritual and scientific communities need to join forces to restore the moral order.” And Goddet opened his editorial in starkly somber terms: “Un cycliste est mort.”

The Tour in 1968 was supposed to be a fresh start, with drug testing and a new cleaner image, ‘le Tour de la santé’. But cycling since then has never been able to reconcile its conflicts – extraordinary performances on the bike are demanded, and richly rewarded, creating a temptation to ingest the forbidden. And cycling itself has at various times turned a blind eye to these practices to varying degrees. This tension continues to percolate in the sport today, just as it has from its inception.

As Barthes presciently said, “The Tour is at once a myth of expression and a myth of projection, realistic and utopian at the same time.” We embrace the utopian, the myth of the higher purpose of pain and suffering on the mountain, Mont Ventoux demanding its sacrifice. Yet Simpson reminds us of the realistic, the burning desire of riders to succeed, and their temptations, with Mont Ventoux simply the backdrop. But if it is not the mountain demanding the sacrifice, who then is it: the Tour, the sponsors, the fans?

Next month, your author will be riding the triple ascent of Mont Ventoux (see preview here) and plans to doff his cap at the Simpson memorial.

Simp 1
Merckx suffering on Mont Ventoux in 1970, Faemina cap still in place (L’Equipe).

One thought on “Un cycliste est mort: Mont Ventoux and the death of cycling

  1. Undoubtly, many have unofficially completed the
    three ascents of Mont Ventoux, but to be an official member of the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux and to have documentation…that is to have cachet.
    On your last ascent (listen for cheers from above) and should some Dutch tourist’s offer you a beer or two…savor the moment on the summit and partake of the reasons why we ride.
    I am #1903, the only one to have completed the ride on 06/21/2007.
    Bon Chance,
    Ty Shelton USA

Comments are closed.