Next in the Mountains series is the mighty Mont Ventoux in the Vaucluse region of France.
It’s hard to compile a list of great cycling climbs without including Mont Ventoux, such is its status. It’s one of those mountains that ticks all the boxes – it’s a brute to cycle and has the reputation as one of the toughest climbs in the world. Known for its extremes in weather conditions at the summit, anyone who has ridden the Ventoux invariably experiences one of two conditions – being blasted by the mistral wind and freezing temperatures or being baked alive against the white limestone scree that covers the upper slopes. Every ascent is memorable and extreme in equal measures and has inspired the nicknames “The Beast of Provence”, “the Giant of Provence” and “The Bald Mountain”.
I’ve been drawn to the mountain on many occasions and have photographed it for the Mountains project https://michaelblann.wpengine.com/product/book/ . My trips have also coincided with Chris Froome’s winning ride in 2013 which effectively sealed his Tour win and also the chaos in 2016 when the stage was shortened by 6km and resulted in his crash into the back of a motorbike and subsequent enforced sprint to the line on foot. I’ve also hiked to the summit on a clear, bright day in winter and chanced upon the French Foreign Legion who frequently use the mountain for training. As mentioned, it’s always memorable.
The “Giant of Provence” at 1911m is by far the highest climb in the Vaucluse region and dominates the surrounding landscape. Its isolated position can be seen for miles on a clear day and towers over the next highest peak which struggles to reach half the altitude. Apart from its physical presence, the 60m red and grey telecommunications mast, built in the 1960’s, is reminiscent of a spaceship waiting to take off on a launch pad. It makes it an easy spot for miles around and pin-points the summit for any cyclist trying to test their legs on its slopes.
The Ventoux can be climbed from three different directions but the classic and most popular route starts in the small town of Bedoin to the west and tracks the climb to the north along the gentle nursery slopes and past the various vineyards that benefit from the south facing terrace and limestone soil. The climb only really starts as the road takes a sharp turn left at St Esteve, 5.5km outside the town. It’s at this point the gradients ramp up to over 11% as it heads into a deciduous forest of beech and holm oaks which line the route for the next 10km. This is, in fact, the hardest and steepest part of the climb, but that only tells half the story. Other factors come into play as the forest peters out and the road breaks cover at the ski resort of Chalet Reynard. Here, the summit comes into view and the landscape gives way to exposed barren slopes, littered with limestone scree. This final 6km section is devoid of vegetation, a result of systematic tree felling in the 12th century for ship building in the Toulon region. Once exposed to the elements, the trees failed to grow back leaving the mountain with a white limestone cap and a new nickname “The Bald Mountain”.
With no shelter or protection, cyclist attempting the summit, are at the mercy of the Mistral winds which have been recorded as high as 200mph. It’s no wonder the name Mont Ventoux is derived from the word Venteux which means windy in French.
But it’s not just its physical statistics that make this mountain so impressive, the history bestowed upon it through the races that have visited have given it a fearsome and mythical status within the cycling folk law. This is where Tommy Simpson, overcome by heat exhaustion and a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, died tragically within sight of finish in 1967. Delirious and weaving across the road, he collapsed at the roadside a kilometre from the summit, his final and now infamous words “put me back on my bike” marked a dark day in the Tour de France history and was the first time the sport considered the impact drugs were having on the health of the riders.
Simpson was not the only rider to suffer greatly on the Ventoux, even the great Eddy Merckx rode himself into the ground and needed oxygen after winning the stage in the 1970 Tour de France. By his own admission he had under-estimated the severity of the climb but recovered well enough to go on and win the Tour that year.
The most surprising winner came in the form Eros Poli, the tallest rider in the race at 6’2” in 1994. Not known for his climbing pedigree, he stole away at the start of the stage building up a substantial lead of over 20 minutes on the peloton by the base of the climb. Despite losing a minute of his lead for every kilometre climbed, he eventually crested the summit first with a narrow margin on the chasing group and descended to an improbable stage win in Carpentras.
Lance Armstrong, never far from controversy “gifted” Marco Pantani the stage win in 2000 which was taken as a slight by the diminutive climber from Italy and started a war of words between the two of them.
As a photographer, the Mont Ventoux has given me some of my most iconic Mountain shots. The stark landscape at the summit set against the ant like figures of cyclists pedaling their way to the top really puts into perspective man’s desire to climb mountains. It was one of the first climbs I photographed and was also the location for a film on the making of the Mountains project we made in 2016 with John Ingle.
On that occasion we had camped out on the limestone scree but during the night we were forced to take shelter in the car as the tents were pulled from their fixings. The extreme winds forced the organisers to abandon the finish at the summit and relocate to Chalet Reynard lower down. I vividly remember the mass exodus of fans from the upper slopes and the helplessness of the camper vans, some who had parked for several days and had no hope of finding another suitable parking spot. The crash of Froome and Porte the following day was yet another memorable event in the history of this Mountain.