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Wednesday, 28 June, 2000, 12:06 GMT
Climbing the Giant
Mont Ventoux, shot from the summit
The barren windswept summit of Le Mont Ventoux
Cycling's beauty is that, unlike other sports where venues are closed off, anyone foolish enough to try can go and climb the great roads.

With the legendary, brutal Mont Ventoux back on the Tour this year, BBC Sport Online's Chris Russell remembers the day he attempted its summit.

Every year the Tour de France has an obvious highlight, and when the 2000 route was announced last autumn one climb literally stood out like a sore thumb.

Le Geant de Provence was back. Mont Ventoux - The Windy Mountain - possesses one of Europe's strangest landscapes.


  Mont Ventoux
1,909m above sea level
The road on both sides rises 1,600m in 21km (14 miles)
Average gradient is a constant one in 10 - or 10% to the French
Upper 300m is devoid of all but the most basic polar vegetation - and snow-covered in winter
The Alps are about 80 miles north
Marseille and the Mediterranean just 30 miles south

And its slopes contain enough cycling achievement and tragedy to fill the thoughts in the hours it takes the average cyclist to climb them.

Last summer I tried the ascent, although not in the record 56 minutes set by American rider Jonathan Vaughters a couple of months before.

I would like to say my trip of three hours was a leisurely ride in the August sunshine. But I honestly cannot.

Nor can I say that my more reluctant companion really held me up more than a few minutes while she argued whether it was all worth it.
Tommy Simpson collapsing in the 1967 Tour de France
Tom Simpson collapses on the Ventoux

These "discussion" stops were essential to rest my own weary body on the constant one in 10 climb.

The toughest 14 miles of my cycling life seemed to last forever, because there is simply no respite on this relentless climb.

Unlike roads in the Alps or Pyrenees, where the gradient might occasionally fluctuate and offer a chance to recover, the road over the summit of the Ventoux is a constant punishing grind.

It rises to 1,909 metres at the summit - not in the Alpine altitude league but still a massive difference from the 300 metres above sea level at the bottom.
Close shot of plaque on memorial
Simpson's memorial is a shrine for cyclists

And unlike the Tour's other mountain stages which use passes between the summits, this stage uses a road over the top of the summit built to serve an observatory in the late 19th century and then improved to gather tourist trade.

The surrounding area of Provence is no mountain range, being more famous for its vineyards and cuisine, as well as the literature celebrating its sleepy charm.

Yet its focal point is this enormous summit, which due to its barren rocky summit appears snow-capped even in August.

The bizarre, almost lunar, landscape can be blamed on the French navy, who once pillaged its forest to build ships 30 miles to the south on the Mediterranean coast.

Despite replanting, the highest 300 metres remain a field of shingle with no trees to provide shelter from the Mistral wind - or the sun in summer.

Just over a mile from the summit a small memorial is covered not in flowers but water bottles, inner tubes and other cycling paraphernalia.



Put me back on the bloody bike
  Tom Simpson's last words

It commemorates Tom Simpson, one of Britain's finest cyclists, who basically overheated here in the 1967 Tour.

Amphetamines partly explain his death, but this was the peloton's drug of choice during this era and he would not have been the only one to seek such assistance in scaling the Ventoux.

His demise was more due to a fearless determination to get back on his bike, and the lack of shelter on the barren slopes.

David Millar, a British Tour debutant this year, paid his respects by tossing a cap towards the memorial during last year's Dauphine Libere race.
Shot below the summit
Vegetation is sparse at the top

But on the Tour such matters of ceremony may have to wait, because the climb will be a crucial point in the entire race and the stage itself will be one of the most coveted.

Thursday 13 July follows a rest day, but the riders will hardly feel refreshed when they reach the village of Bedoin at the bottom.

The day will already have seen 126km (78 miles) of hilly racing.

There will be no time to stop in the pleasant village square, enjoy a game of boules and a fantastic meal because from then on it is onwards and upwards.

The next 5km gradually steepens until St Esteve, where an annual motor hill climb used to begin.

But the gradient really bites 4km later beneath the trees at Virage au Bois.

At Le Chalet-Reynard, where a road junction offers cyclo-tourists a last chance to turn away, there is a slight drop in the rate of climbing.
Simpson memorial and summit
Final stretch: The memorial is 2km below the foggy summit

But it is not one you would notice, since the remaining 6km section culminates in a leg-burning increase in gradient and an unforgettable experience for riders and spectators.

And did we make it last August? Certainly, and in the souvenir shop below the radar and TV mast at the summit, we bought a 30-franc certificate celebrating us as Vainquers du Geant de Provence.

Despite its rather tacky, tourist-appearence it was proudly framed on our return home, along with some torturous-looking photographs.

The summit view, incidentally, is as good as promised, taking in the coast to the south, the Alps to the north and their foothills in the east, with the wide-open Rhone valley to the west.

But after a dreadful bout of dehydration that same evening, a plan to try from the other side a few days later was put on hold - until next time.

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See also:

28 Jun 00 |  Tour de France
Five Tour greats
28 Jun 00 |  Tour de France
Britain at the Tour
28 Jun 00 |  Tour de France
Tour 2000: Young stars
28 Jun 00 |  Tour de France
Tour 2000: Stage win hopefuls
28 Jun 00 |  Tour de France
Past, present and future
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