On places (yet another interlude)

It has come to your author’s attention that there has been some lamenting of the absence of pictures on this blog. Naturally, with its literary pretensions, this absence has been largely deliberate as its preference is for long passages of text where one single image would do. But that’s not entirely true, and below you will find, dear reader, a couple of images that perhaps you haven’t seen before.

There’s always some small pleasure in finding a new source of cycling pictures, not reproduced in all the usual sources. The L’Equipe publication, Tour de France/Le Ventoux/Sommet de la Folie, is one such book recently added to your author’s collection, which features some great historical photos from the ‘madness’ racing up Mont Ventoux.

This climb is a particular favourite for le grimpeur, your author being the first of (currently) eight Kiwis to join the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux by completing the three ascents in one day (certainly not the hardest of cycling challenges, but also not that easy either). Mont Ventoux is spectacular unto itself, but the cycling history that has been written on its slopes adds another dimension to climbing it.

This says something about the role of ‘place’ in cycling. Professional racing is made all the more exciting by the routes it takes – Belgian bergs, French cobbles, the hills of the Italian Riviera, the Pyrenees and the Dolomites, and even the coastal vistas of California. Many of the climbs or descents or stretches of road take on mythical status; if enough heroic feats are performed on them, they become something larger in the mindset of the sport, more than just a piece of tarmac (or a set of cobbles).

There is thus a symbiotic relationship between cycling and place. If you’re fortunate to live somewhere with easy access to the countryside, you can probably find almost equally picturesque or challenging routes that might even equal the classic routes of pro cycling. Any ski resort access road, for example, might indeed be Tour-worthy. But without a storied history, these routes are just another place to spin one’s tyres. The varied terrain that cycling traverses gives the races their variety and excitement. As our good friend Roland Barthes has said: “…to conquer the slopes and the weight of things is to allow that man can possess the entire physical universe.” Well, perhaps that’s a bit excessive, but is it what makes races so captivating. The extra dimension is when cycling gives back to a place – it builds a history and a mythology in a particular location. When us lowly amateurs get to experience that place ourselves, we can take some small sips from the wellspring of that history and mythology.

Four faces of pain following the time trial up Mont Ventoux (L'Equipe)

The above picture is from the 1958 Tour de France, memorably won by Charly Gaul some 30 years after fellow luxembourgeois Nicolas Frantz (who led the race from start to finish) and the last rider from that country to do so. The protagonists have just completed the time trial up Mont Ventoux, 21.5 kilometres from Bedoin to the summit and Gaul (top left), despite his visage of suffering, smoked the course in 1h02’09”, taking him from 9th to 3rd overall. Vito Favero (bottom left), the Italian rider, wore the yellow jersey into the stage but was only 24th on the climb, 7’59” behind Gaul. He would go on to place second overall, though, showing incredible tenacity (and you can read more about his Tour and career in a previous post and on Pez Cycling News where he shows off his yellow jersey from this Tour).

Raphaël Géminiani (top right) also did not fare so well against Gaul, some 5’01” down in 10th place. But he had done enough to pull on the yellow jersey at Favero’s expense and held it for three stages until Gaul put paid to Géminiani’s Tour hopes with a massive attack through the Alps to Aix-les-Bains (which actually put Favero back into the lead until the final time trial, where Gaul struck again). For Jacques Anquetil (bottom right), though, it was a Tour of suffering on a grander scale. Looking enough of a fright in this picture, he abandoned before the final time trial with congestion and was also coughing up blood. Having won in 1957, Anquetil would be back, winning (of course) four more Tours.

The second picture, below, shows Bernard Thévenet on his way to victory on stage 11 from Carnon-Plage to the summit of Mont Ventoux. The years before and after this Tour were dominated by the battles between Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocaña, but Thévenet’s victory was perhaps a sign of things to come for this brilliant Frenchman as he would be the rider to prevent Merckx from his 6th Tour victory in 1975. Thévenet will be the subject of (hopefully) the first post here in 2012, the fortieth anniversary of his stage win (and another anniversary of sorts, but more on that later), as part of the ongoing series on the meaning of cycling. There will be more interludes in the interregnum before the year is out, but enjoy the pictures for now and look for ‘Mont Ventoux and memory’ in 2012.

Thévenet's secret? Gallic tenacity and very stylish kit (L'Equipe)