The Tour de France 2013 is entering its final stages as the 170 riders leave the Alps behind and head towards Paris for the grande finale of this year’s race.
The 100th Tour has been full of spills, thrills and fewer pills than previous years – with great racing on the mountains and competitive sprinting down in the plains.
But my favourite stage was Mont Ventoux, a truly iconic Tour de France location, which set the scene for Britain’s Chris Froome to make his big challenge… and was arguably a turning point in the 2013 race.
It was on these punishing slopes that Froome produced a sensational ride up the “Bald Mountain” to win the 15th stage of the Tour de France, extending his lead in the yellow jersey by four minutes.
Mont Ventoux has been the setting for many dramas and showdowns in the Tour’s 100 year history so it was apt that it turned out to be a key stage in the race’s centenary year.
Mont Ventoux is renowned for its punishing climbs, extremes of climate and uncompromising road conditions.
It has been called ‘the beast of Provence’ with its barren landscape and reputation for windy weather.
Unsurprisingly Ventoux means ‘windy’ in French – and any trip to the mountain is almost certain to be a blowy one.
I remember my hair-raising trip in 2002 only too well!
The mistral can breeze through at speeds of 320 km. Even on most ‘normal’ days the wind blows at 90+ km.
The French poet René Char likened Mont Ventoux to ‘God’s Tomb’, an unforgiving place whose white rocks reach a height of 1,912 metres.
When I visited Mont Ventoux in 2002, I was shocked by the bleakness of the mountain and its gruelling ascent.
The road zig-zags for miles before turning into a series of improbable hairpin bends up to the summit. No wonder it’s been the scene of many nail-biting moments in the Tour.
Who could forget the 2000 race when Lance Armstrong ‘allowed’ Marco Pantini to win the stage and then declared “no more gifts”?
Scaling the summit
What starts as a wooded landscape of cedar, oak, beech, and pine with deer and wild boar gives way to a rugged, ‘blasted’ landscape with few living creatures.
The woodland subsides as a treacherous craggy landscape takes over. The scenery looks almost lunar and otherworldly with large boulder rocks and small, wizened Arctic plants fighting for survival.
At the top there’s a strange-looking former meteorological station sitting like a moon landing craft on the white-capped rocks.
It’s now home to the telecommunications services – but still adds a weird, otherworldly look to the summit.
This is a harsh and bleak landscape as the British cyclist Tommy Simpson found to his cost in the 1967 Tour de France.
As Simpson struggled up the mountain, he started to zig-zag across the road and eventually collapsed 1km from the summit.
Famously he got back on his bike and attempted to ride on, exhausted and confused.
He rode another 460 metres before breaking down with fatigue, held on his bike by spectators.
Tragically it was soon clear that the mountain had claimed the rider’s life. Attempts to resuscitate Simpson by the medical team failed – and he died around 40 minutes later.
The official cause of death was given as heart failure due to dehydration and heat exhaustion, with drugs being a contributory factor.
Later it was revealed that Simpson had taken a cocktail of amphetamines and brandy on the lower slopes of the race, which he thought – misguidedly – would give him a boost on the way to the top.
In a bitter twist of fate, Simpson became a victim of the mountain, having pushed his body too hard and too fast in his attempt to conquer its slopes.
Today, any trip up Mont Ventoux is incomplete without a trip to the Tommy Simpson Memorial on the site where the cyclist collapsed and died.
It’s a chilling reminder of the power of this mountain as well as the fallibility of cyclists taking drugs and stimulants.
A simple plaque reads: “There is no mountain too high” – and one might add… “too challenging”. Nobody should underestimate the harshness of Mont Ventoux and its weird micro-climate.
The ‘giant of Provence’
The most famous ascent to Mont Ventoux is the southern route from Bedoin where the road to the summit has an average gradient of 7.4%.
That’s quite a hike – and even feels strenuous in a car – never mind a bike.
The average time for a professional cyclist to get up to the summit is around 1 hour 15 mins but amateur riders take much longer.
Two friends of mine cycled up one day – taking one of the tougher routes – and then did it all over again on the north-west route from Malaucene the next day – just for the fun of it!
I cheated and drove up but was still left wheezing in the car!
This year’s Tour de France trip to Mont Ventoux was the longest stage of the race which started in Givors on Bastille Day.
The stage featured three category hills and the ‘hors category’ climb at the finish with double points for the first 10 at the top.
It was a definite case of the survival of the fittest riders.
The climbs were designed to challenge even the toughest of riders and the spectacle did not disappoint as the four fourth-category climbs unfolded like a physical assault course…
The Cote d’Eyzin-Pinet (category 4 at 20.5km), the Cote de Primarette (category 4 at 26.5km), the Cote de Bourdeaux (category 3 at 143km) and the ‘hors category’ ascent proved to be as tough as ever.
The punishing heat must also have made the Ventoux stage a huge ordeal even for these professional sportsmen acclimatised to this type of climb.
Chris Froome attacked Alberto Contador around 7 km from the summit finish, throwing down the gauntlet to his Spanish rival.
Froome won by 29 seconds in a dramatic demonstration of his power and resilience.
It was a fabulous day for Chris Froome who hopes to become the second Briton, after Bradley Wiggins, to win the world’s most famous bike race.
The ultimate challenge
For me, Mont Ventoux remains the ultimate challenge.
The Alpe d’Huez might have its terrifying climbs, death-defying bends and sheer drops but for my money there’s something about Mont Ventoux that remains the most iconic stage of the Tour with its history, odd landscape and punishing environment.
The Tour has visited its summit nine times… and one thing’s for sure, Mont Ventoux has the power to divide the top cyclists from the ‘also rans’.
It’s great to have it back on the Tour’s 100th anniversary year. Sadly I could only watch on TV this year but if I had been there, I would have hitched a lift up to the top by car!
And did I mention that the panoramic views from the summit of Mont Ventoux are really great!
Tammy’s Top Travel Tips – Mont Ventoux
Mont Ventoux is located in Provence in southern France.
The nearest large town is Carpentras (famous for its melons) whilst Malaucene provides a charming village stay for holiday makers.
Other places of interest in the surrounding area are the Roman town of Vaison de la Romaine which is a great base for a longer holiday. Orange is also within easy reach as are the wine growing districts of Cote du Rhone Villages and Chateauneuf du Pape.
If you’ve never watched the Tour de France in its home country, think ahead if you’re planning to watch a mountain stage.
Mont Ventoux had more than 300,000 visitors descend on its slopes during the Tour de France – so grab your spot early!
Don’t forget to take a range of clothing and provisions on a mountain stage of the Tour as the weather can change quickly. Take plenty of water to drink too.
Cyclists will need to plan their route and preparations carefully. This is one of the world’s most challenging bike rides.