|Rob Penn on the climb to the summit|
A kilometre beyond the French village of Bédoin, I click up a gear, stand on the pedals and stretch my back.
Rows of grapevines and fields of cherry trees look sumptuous in the afternoon light. My spine hurts. I click down a gear and sit back on the saddle. I’m at the beginning of my ascent of Le Mont Ventoux in the south of France, one of the most acclaimed mountains in road cycle racing. The summit is 1,600m above me and 20km away. The pain has begun.
I have already pedalled 145km today, from Montélimar in the Rhône Valley. My route is following what will be the penultimate stage of next month’s Tour de France, and also the route of the Étape du Tour, the event for amateur cyclists that takes place a few days earlier. The distance of this stage is not extreme – it’s the gradient that’s the problem. The Tour itinerary changes every year, but does not usually feature a hulking mountain in the closing stages. For 2009, the organisers have broken with tradition: Ventoux will greet riders just 24 hours before they face the finale on the Champs-Elysées.
After 3,300km of racing through six countries over 19 mountain passes, Ventoux – an isolated giant rising from the plains of Vaucluse – will be a brutal final challenge. It’s an ingenious device: when the peloton roars through Bédoin on July 25, the first-place yellow jersey will still be up for grabs. Add the fact that Lance Armstrong, seven times Tour champion, has never won a Stage here – he calls it “the hardest climb in the Tour” – and the race is set for a classic dénouement.
I click down again. I’m not in bottom gear yet. The gradient is still steady. I glance over the limestone hills I’ve just crossed. It’s been a glorious ride through a landscape unblemished by 21st-century life: ochre hilltop villages, bustling farmers’ markets shaded by plane trees, fields of poppies and church spires. Climbing out of Buis-les-Baronnies, I half expected to pass Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald – both Tour fans – pedalling hard the other way.
All day there have been glimpses of Ventoux. Descending from Côte de Citelle through pine trees, 60km to the north, it appeared in the middle of the road. On Col de Fontaube, it seemed close enough to fire a trebuchet at the summit. In Sault, it peaked under the awning of the café. By the time I reached Bédoin, the “Géant de Provence” felt like an old friend.
The feeling is not mutual. I click down again. With 16km to go, I hit bottom gear. Going round a hairpin bend in the hamlet of St Estève, the road climbs steeply into the forest. I grip the brake hoods and stand on the pedals – en danseuse, as the French say – just to keep the cranks turning. My knees hurt. The forest is cool but it’s a poor trade for this hellish road, which snakes and weaves through thick stands of cedar and oak, rising at 10 per cent or more. There is no respite. My legs are spent.
I’ve trained hard for this – in wind, in rain and on as many steep gradients as I could find near home. I bought a carbon-fibre racing bike. I attended CycleFit in London to have my position analysed and fine-tuned. The cycling tour operator, GPM10, supported my ride to Bédoin. I couldn’t have given myself a better chance of success. Yet a beautiful day in Provence has turned into a test of blind animal endurance.
The cult of suffering has been at the heart of European cycling since 1903, when Henri Desgranges, the editor of a French sports daily, developed the idea for the Tour to outsell a rival newspaper. He wanted stories of machismo in forbidding mountains, adversity in extreme weather, heroism and the crucifixion of men. The perfect Tour, he often said, would have a perfect winner only if one man survived. The newspaper’s circulation flourished.
Ventoux has featured in the Tour 13 times, with mythical effect. Roland Barthes, philosopher and keen cyclist, said the mountain “exacts an unjust tribute of suffering”. It has become a magnet for amateur cyclists, who flock here with quasi-religious reverence.
Few are ascending through the forest at this hour, but there are plenty descending. Cyclists barrel past me at 50mph, rictus-faced from fear and glee. I try to count them. Every time I get past 10, the number rolls out of my head. Every thought rolls out of my head. I try to think of the summit but it’s too elusive. I try to focus on the next kilometre: that’s too painful.
I’ve been climbing through the forest for over an hour when the trees begin to thin. The road becomes less steep and I reach Chalet Reynard – a café and the skeleton of a small ski resort.
I can see the summit, topped by the eerie observatory. I’m riding well now, through the famous bleached-yellow, limestone moonscape that covers the highest slopes of Ventoux. With each hairpin bend, the wind strengthens. I can see a thunderstorm far below.
The weather on Ventoux can be more of an issue than the gradient. In July 2000, the Étape du Tour was abandoned mid-race when a blizzard struck: 700 cyclists who had already passed Chalet Reynard were treated in hospital for hypothermia. In 1955, it was so hot that several Tour riders collapsed, yelling “inarticulately like madmen”, a newspaper reported. Tommy Simpson, the first Englishman to wear the yellow jersey, collapsed in raging 45°C heat on July 13 1967, with amphetamines and cognac in his blood. He died beside the road, 1.5km from the top.
I pause at his memorial, which is festooned with cycling paraphernalia – water bottles, tyres, tubes and club badges. These are offerings in fulfilment of vows: pledges not to be broken by Ventoux. I swear my own oath, set my bike back on the road and cycle to the summit: exhausted, delirious, but not broken.
Rob Penn travelled with Rail Europe: www.raileurope.co.uk, 0844 848 4070. Return fares to Montélimar start at £100 in standard class.
Coverage is on Eurosport, with highlights on ITV4 www.letour.fr