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Memories from Mont Ventoux

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From 1826 to 1833, Katsushika Hokusai published a series of 36 polychromes featuring Mount Fuji, depicted in the different seasons from various observation points. Surrounded by wind, clear skies, rainstorms and tsunamis. The great Kanagawa wave, the most successful, became one of the most famous images in the world, and the artist was commissioned an additional set of 10 scenes. Hokusai’s obsession with Fuji was linked to the cultural and religious value of the volcano in Japanese tradition. According to the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the most ancient Japanese narrative, the smoke that rises from the peak of the mountain comes from the elixir of immorality deposited there by the glorious princess. 

Few other mountains have had such an iconic role in the history of world art and culture. Vesuvius comes to mind, the most immortalized giant of all times, and Snæfellsjökull, the Icelandic glacier where Jules Verne set his Journey to the Centre of Earth. It is no coincidence these are all volcanoes. Excluding mountains containing the primordial fire of our planet from the list, one of the first peaks that comes to mind is Mont Ventoux, the giant of Provence given its appearance, history, geography and weather conditions, rich in symbolism that remains unmatched in our times.

Athletes climb towards Mont Ventoux (Boris Horvat/Afp/Getty Images)

Bédoin Mont Ventoux
Its physical shape, with ascending cedars that gradually disappear, and the mistral that grows with each metre, has always made it a concrete manifestation of the scholastic concept of natura naturans; the cycling events that play out along its rare curves have made it the mysterious location for the triple encounter between man his limits, and death. Mount Ventoux is still feared. And it is feared because it offers no respite; it is unforgiving. It is feared as an executor of fate, and because the wolves have returned. Ten frames of Mount Ventoux are shown below, ten different narrative perspectives of the French mountain, starting with Petrarch and concluding with Gianni Mura, touching on Provencal novels and proverbs. The contributions are divided into three sections (the myth, the tragedies, the feats) and intend to gather the best of what had been said and written about one of the least recommended places in the world. And for this, one of the most fascinating. 

THE MYTH
Mont Ventoux is geologically older than the Alps: its pallor is the result of thousands of years’ work by the elements. The Romans certainly knew about it, but the first writing it appears in officially dates back to the 14th century. Francesco Petrarch, who spent some of his youth in Provence, decided to climb the mountain as a spiritual exercise: a letter to his friend Dionigi is considered the first mountaineering account in history. The second and third contributions of the section are two descriptions of the mountain by poet Frédéric Mistral, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904, and semiologist Roland Barthes, one of the most influential French academics of the twentieth century, respectively. In the final part of the section, the bare mountain is seen through the eyes of three contemporary writers: American playwright, Allen Weiss; French author, Paul Fournel; and Dutch novelist, Bert Wagendorp, Their Ventoux is a journey of the body, spirit and mind.

Cyclists climb Mont Ventoux during the fifteenth stage of the 2013 Tour de France (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

1. Ascent
Today I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum.  I have had the expedition in mind for many years; for, as you know, I have lived in this region from infancy, having been cast here by that fate which determines the affairs of men. Consequently the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes.  […] We finally made the ascent this morning, with no companions except two servants; and a most difficult task it was. The mountain is a very steep and almost inaccessible mass of stony soil. But, as the poet has well said, "Remorseless toil conquers all." (Francesco Petrarch, Ascent to Mount Ventoso, 1336)

A fan stands before the memorial dedicated to Tommy Simpson (Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

2. Fear
From the North, Ventoux is frightening: 
One would say like a wall 
It arises, grandly chiselled from foot to peak; 
A black crown of trees,
A forest of larch, a hard line, 
Serves as the machicoulis
And the portal of the formidable rampart.   
(Frédéric Mistral, Mes memoirs, 1866)

2005 Tour de France – Mont Ventoux - A group of Belgian cyclists face Mont Ventoux during an amateur climb (Boris Horvat/Afp/Getty Images)

3. Bald damnation
Physically, Ventoux is dreadful: bare, it is the very spirit of the Dry; its climate makes it a damned terrain, a testing place for heroes, something like a higher hell. Ventoux is a god of Evil, to which sacrifice must be made. It never forgives the weak and exacts and unjust tribute of sufferings. (Roland Barthes, Myth Today, 1957)

A view of the lunar landscape on Mont Ventoux (Boris Horvat/Afp/Getty Images)

4. Far from Provence 
Mount Ventoux is simultaneously the core of Provence and the antithesis of Provence. If it hyperbolic in all respects: eminently visible from nearly all parts of Provence, it is the highest point in the region, with its summit at 1912 metres; its peak, the appropriately named Col des Tempêtes, is perpetually buffeted by the wind, which in February 1967 gusted to 320 kilometres per hour, a world record; the visibility from its peak is legendary; it has been described in terms of the greatest austerity, and has been compared to a pile of rocks broken for road repair. What it shares with other bald mountains is its diabolical nature: the north slope is so forbidding and terrifying that some believe one of its caves, the Baume de Méne, is among the entrances to hell. This is hardly the beloved Provence that has long spawned best-selling travel guides and idyllic accounts; the Provence of sunshine and olive groves, honey and wild thyme, vineyards and lavender fields. Paradoxically, Mount Ventoux represents, at the very core of Provence, a warning against tourism and development, against modernization and appropriation. The Ventoux is an anti-Provence.  (Allen S. Weiss, The wind and the Source – In the shadow of Mont Ventoux, 2002)

A British fan waves the Union Jack as Christopher Froome rides by during the 100th edition of the Tour de France, in 2013 (Joel Saget/Afp/Getty Images)

5. Identity
The Ventoux has no itself. It's the greatest revelation of your self. It simply feeds back your fatigue and fear. It has total knowledge of the shape you're in, your capacity for cycling happiness, and for happiness in general. It's yourself you're climbing. If you don't want to know, stay at the bottom. (Paul Fournel, Vélo, 2012)

Children play chess as they wait for the race to pass by (Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

6. Black marble
I burst into the room with my cycling shoes still on. André threw me a towel and showed me where the bathroom was. The floor was covered in black marble. When I looked closer at the dark red tiles with hieroglyphic symbols on the walls, I saw small Egyptian figures on the racing bikes […]. “I read poetry books and medieval philosophy. I go to incunabula auctions. Do you know they are? Do you remember the Walburgiskerk library, with those chained up antique books? We used to go there once a year, with the class. I found them fascinating even then”. “Bullshit, André. You spent the whole time pulling on the chains. You drove everyone crazy”. He smiled. “That was me being a rebel. Come with me”. In his studio there was a classic English desk. Shelves filled with ordered books lined three walls. On the fourth wall there was a photo of us on top of Mount Ventoux. He walked over to the photo and pointed at Peter. “He is doomed, but still has no idea”. He stroked Peter’s face with a finger. (Bert Wagendorp, Ventoux, 2015)

DARKNESS
The Tour de France first scaled Ventoux in 1951; the first stage finish was in 1958: the legendary Charlie Gaul raised his arms in the shadow of the meteorological observatory. Since then there have only been 8 stage finishes in fifty years, proving the organization’s wish to preserve the exceptional and mysterious nature of the event. The Ventoux curse did not spare the greatest champion in cycling history, Eddy Merckx, who in 1970 fell ill after the finish line. Before that, there was Ferdi Kübler’s dramatic approach, shared in a piece by Marco Ballestracci and, most notably, the death of Tom Simpson, as recalled by Mario Fossati. The stele commemorating the British cyclist is the main attraction for the thousands of cyclists who take on the challenge of the Ventoux slopes each summer. 

A general view of Ventoux showing Marcus Burghardt from Bmc during the ascent (Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

7. A different mountain
On 18 July 1955, the Tour de France tackled Mount Ventoux for the third time, scaling it from Bédoin like back in ’52.  The stage went from Marseille to Avignon, and from the outset a glaring sun beat down on the road. In the unbearable heat, among the chirping cicadas, Ferdi Kübler started his assault shortly before Bédoin. […] When the slope changed, after the Saint-Estève curve, Küble boldly picked up pace, so much so that Géminiani flanked him and asked “Have you every ridden Ventoux?”. Standing on his peddles; the Swiss dryly replied that no, he had not. Géminiani grimaced and said in a breath: “Careful, Ferdi, Ventoux is not like the other mountains”. Kübler, who won the Tour five years earlier, placed second in the previous edition and had an extraordinary track record, retorted: “And Ferdi is not like the other cyclists” and resumed with an even more sustained pace. When he reached the stony mass, at Chalet Reynard, and everything became white-hot, Kübler suffered a major breakdown and his eyes started rolling like a crazy person, as if he was searching for something important in that white expanse. Then all of a sudden a shadow fell over his gaze and his eyes lost vividness. Géminiani saw him sway and immediately understood what had happened. He shook his head and kept his pace, casting Kübler adrift for the last six kilometres in ascent. Almost all the other competitors caught up to the zigzagging Swiss cyclist, who reached the top twenty minutes after Louison Bobet, the first to descend, who at Chalet Reynard was at least forty seconds behind the leading pair. Kübler was so tired that he fell twice during the descent, and was involved in a third fall just a few kilometres from Avignon. It took all the effort of the masseurs to put him back on the saddle, because the Swiss man wanted to stay there lying on the road and sleep. They shook him until he climbed back on the bike, and the watched him until he reached the finish line, but as soon as he arrived, the 1951 world champion abandoned the race and never wanted to participate in the tour de France again. (Marco Ballestracci, Il dio della bicicletta, 2014)

Spectators cheer on the athletes during the 2013 Tour (Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

8. God of Evil
Ventoux is a bald mountain, affected by dermatitis. You can see it from lower Provence; one thousand nine hundred metres of bright green that gradually fades and then disappears. Ventoux whitens towards the peak. From afar it resembles a salt mountain.  For the Tour de France, Ventoux has remained the God of Evil it was in ancient Provence. Its climate is absolute. Champions pedal up it with a breath that cracks the throat, struggling with gears that strain the spokes, transforming it into an instrument of torture. […]The Ventoux of ‘67 is linked to the memory of Tommy Simpson, whose poor face is engraved on my retinas. Lying in the stone bend of a dune, in a shale hollow, Dr Dumas leaning over him desperately as he attempts mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Simpson, who represented whiskey in the Chianti and Beaujolais world of cycling, was not looking too fine from the outset of the Tour. Perhaps Tommy did not want to steal fire from the god of Ventoux: a spark would suffice. He was seen zigzagging up Ventoux, as if he were chasing his thin shadow that fleeted in front of the handlebars; then he collapsed. Another pedalled inside him. […] Whenever I happen to pass by Ventoux or am asked about it, I always think or answer that it is a personified, or anthropomorphic, mountain. (Mario Fossati, La Repubblica, 1987)

GLORY
Despite the passing of time and the downsizing of the selective power of the many legendary climbs of Tour de France, Ventoux has remained the favourite setting for impressive feats. We selected two recent Italian victories, both prior to the revelation by Chris Froome in 2013. The amazing success of long-distance cycler Eros Poli in ’94, told by Alessandra Giardini and Giorgio Burreddu, and the exciting victory of Marco Pantani in 2001, relived through the words of Gianni Mura. 

Mont Ventoux – 2013 Tour De France - Fans crowding at the peak waiting for the athletes to pass. Ventoux is one of the most unforgettable Tour dates (Jeff Pachoud/Afp/Getty Images)

9. The unexpected
That Monday in 1994, they rode from Montpellier to Carpentras, two hundred and thirty one kilometres towards the lunar roads on Ventoux. […] The race was going smoothly, sixty uneventful kilometres or so. At a certain point a beanpole emerged from the group, and almost nobody noticed. He was racing for Mercatone Uno, and tall and big as he was, there was no way he could think of approaching Ventoux alone. He usually took on the climbs well protected in the group of sprinters, taking care not to lose too many minutes and miss the time cut. But that day, he was gaining metres and seconds. The minutes: one, two, five. Twenty. Almost twenty-five minutes by the time he started climbing Ventoux. Everyone expected that he would start to collapse, and that his advantage would crumble faster. Indeed, Poli started to tire, and behind him – as if they knew – the race caught fire: Pantani accelerated, and Leblanc behind him; at 1400 metres they had already regained a quarter of an hour on the fugitive. When Poli looked up and saw the summit, the observatory and the wind-beaten ground, he had just a five-minute advantage left. People were fascinated by his effort, the courage of a cyclist too big for the uphill slope, who won the Olympics in the hundred-kilometre team event, a world champion in this other specialty.  A pedal pusher, a long-distance rider, but hardly a hero. The enthusiasm of the fans gave him a glimmer of hope, and Poli reached the summit of Ventoux alone. At that point there were thirty-one kilometres left; nothing, an eternity […] At that point Poli started flying down the descent to Carpentras, he no longer felt the pain or the fatigue. He knew that glory was awaiting him: he won the stage, after a one hundred and seventy one kilometre solitary breakaway, becoming a Tour de France legend. Poli used this victory as a bridge for the future: today he guides cycling tourists along the route of the Giro, the Tour and the big classics. His agency is called MontVentoux, like the craziest day of his cycling career. (Alessandra Giardini and Giorgio Burreddu, Vedrai che uno arriverà, 2012)

Marco Pantani accelerates during the Mount Ventoux ascent, ahead of Spaniard Roberto Heras and German Jan Ullrich (Pat-rick Kovarik/Afp/Getty Images)

10. Bald 
We all know Pantani takes his commitments seriously. And his appointment with the bald Ventoux was longstanding. […] Ventoux remained indifferent. No victims this time around, a simple elimination; anyone who falls behind 50 metres has no chance of catching up. This is true for all but one. Pantani. […] On Ventoux, Pantani suffers like a dog, lagging behind twice. The leaders see him break from the pack, beyond the admirers, grinding forward and searching for the right pace.  One or twice he drops behind, with humility, and extreme fatigue. Further back, he catches his breath. And thinks. He thinks that he has seen better times, he thinks that his left quad has been hurting for days, he thinks of Hautacam, when he threw off his cap and sped up, then they planted it there like a fig. Then he thinks that he cannot miss this chance. He has nothing to take off; he is bareheaded; so he accelerates. Heras and Beloki catch up. So he accelerates a second time, more brusque this time. Heras is right behind, strong wind in his face. This should advise prudence, the wind is like a hand pushing him back. But Pantani is not cautious; he is lucidly desperate. His wings start moving, but he is unable to open them. He will have to try again. The days when one try was enough are over. He could have been over if he did not grab on to the last train, and who knows how much it cost him. Instead he is still in the running, so to speak. There are moments when each spin pushes his soul and his lungs back, especially on this rocky mountain that would be boiling if not for the gusty wind. So for the third time Pantani takes off, just as Virenque is gaining on him, to make sure he does not catch up. He pushes forward once again. The finish line is less than 3km away. And Pantani accelerates twice more, to distance Botero, the guard on duty, while Ullrich persists firm and strong, giving his all, Armstrong joins the group and reaches Pantani in a few pedals. They speak. They ride past the Simpson Stele, a place of worship for cyclists who do not leave flowers (that would never last) but bottles filled with stones, tubes, bicycle key rings and caps. The grey granite boulder depicting the shadow of a cyclist is not from Ventoux. On the mountain everything is green or white. (Gianni Mura, La Repubblica, 2000)

Conclusion
The eleventh and last view, the one that perfectly sums up the above and transcends all the sections, is entrusted – and it could not be otherwise – to the people of Provence, who have lived with imposing presence of the mountain for as long as they can remember.
You don't have to be mad to go up the Ventoux but you have to be mad to go back (A local proverb often heard at the Café de l’Observatoire in Bédoin, the last town before the ascent). 

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