One of last year’s publishing highlights for this avid cycling book reader was The Tour is Won on the Alpe, by renowned French journalist Jean-Paul Vespini and brought to us Anglo readers by VeloPress.
Alpe d’Huez has been the scene of many epic Tour de France battles and this book covers them all. Even the most well-read of cycling readers will find new stories, anecdotes and statistics in its pages. Indeed, it was a primary source for le grimpeur’s analysis of last year’s Tour-winning climb by Carlos Sastre.
For this year, though, the Tour will be won on Mont Ventoux. While the mountain has not featured as often as Alpe d’Huez in the Tour, it still has a mythical status – for a number of reasons. And the sheer toughness of the climb has meant that the GC contenders so far in the race seem to be keeping their powder dry for the difficult final week of the Tour that the Ventoux stage completes.
As regular readers of this blog will know, your author has posted numerous times on the topic of Mont Ventoux, such as last year on his admittance to the Club des Cingles du Mont-Ventoux (still the only Kiwi to have officially joined the over 2,700 members).
Completing this ride gives a clear sense of the difficulty of the climb, particularly the race route from Bedoin to the summit. The gradient is unrelenting and the initial kilometres through the forest slopes offer little relief; it’s already demoralizing before reaching the famous ‘moonscape’, where the heat and the wind can be a major factor. For the pro peloton, that the climb will be at least 20 minutes longer than Alpe d’Huez gives a good sense of its difficulty.
There have been some great victories on Mont Ventoux, and this blog has mentioned riders such as Charly Gaul, Jean-Francois Bernard, Christophe Moreau, Richard Virenque, and even the gutsy ride by Jens Voigt in Paris-Nice last year.
But the mountain has been the source of tragedy, too, which all cyclists remember when they ride the climb, and to which many pro riders pay their respects even while racing. The tragedy is of course the death of Tom Simpson, which could be argued brought to an end the Golden Age of cycle racing and ushered in a new, more complex era.
Mont Ventoux continues to inspire us, though, and we look to its slopes to bring drama and excitement to racing, and a genuine physical challenge to conquer its slopes.
But it remains a wild and dramatic setting, and can inspire a wariness that Alpe d’Huez fails to produce. Ventoux no longer demands a Simpson-esque sacrifice as Roland Barthes predicted. There will, however, still be pain, sweat – and perhaps even tears – this year as the Tour de France reaches its summit.