On the 8th Day God Created Mont Ventoux

Photo: Will

"On the 8th Day God Created Mont Ventoux" - Antoine Rollin

On Sunday (Bastille Day!) the Tour de France Stage 15 will feature a mountain top finish atop one of the toughest and most unique climbs in all cycling: the legendary Mont Ventoux.

"J’ai fait aujourd’hui l’ascension de la plus haute montagne de cette contrée que l’on nomme avec raison le Ventoux, guidé uniquement par le désir de voir la hauteur extraordinaire du lieu." *

"Today I climbed the highest mountain in the region that is correctly named Ventoux, guided only by the desire to see the extraordinary heights of this place." **

1336 - The Italian Poet Francesco Petrarca

Ventoux = Windy?

Venteux is French for "windy." And most people including Petrarca believed this was the origin of the mountain's name, but this is far from certain.

Its ancient Occidental Provençal (a local latin-based language) name Vintur has been found on several engraved Celtic stones dating back as far as the 2nd century. Mixing the pre-latin prefix of Vin- and the suffix -tur would mean "the mountain seen from far away" - which would describe the landscape dominating Ventoux perfectly.

There are a few other explanations I have seen. For example, some believe its Provençal name indicates that it is related to a deity worshipped by pre-Roman Ligurians that was believed to dwell on high mountains.

In any case, it seems that it's original name had "non-windy" origins that changed slightly to become "windy" in nature.

Speaking of Wind

The summit of Ventoux is one of the windiest places on earth. In 1967 speeds of 313 km/h were measured there. Col des Tempêtes (Storm Pass) -- 1 km short of the summit -- can often have scary strong gusts coming over the top into the side of cyclists. I once dismounted and walked down here and almost always gingerly descend the pass as it can sometimes be near impossible to stay upright on a bike.

Handy tip: If cycling Mont Ventoux, check the wind direction. If it is very strong from the north, then climb north side. South wind, south side.

Just below Col des Tempêtes is an underground shelter that until recently had transmitters that helped control French nuclear missiles.

Cycling fans line Col des Tempêtes:

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How High Is Ventoux?

In 1823, the French engineer Joseph Delcros was the first to accurately measure the height of Ventoux, arriving at 1911 metres (it was often assumed to be much higher). Over the years I have seen official signs saying 1909m, 1910m, and 1912m (see photo below). Currently all signs at the top seem to say 1912 metres - as does the official Tour de France profile.

On the other hand, when I zoom the latest IGN (official French government) maps they say 1911 metres. So Joseph Delcros FTW !?!?

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Mont Chauve (The Bald Mountain)

Ventoux was originally covered in trees, but major deforestation began as far back as the 12th century to support ship building in the coastal town of Toulon. Clearing for sheep-herding as well as using wood as a fuel source further exacerbated the damage. As in much of the Alps, this unrestrained deforestation left Ventoux almost completely barren. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that "reforestation" programs began. Now, below 1500 metres, most of the mountain is wooded.

For the many geologists in the crowd: The lunar-like surface of the top of Ventoux is limestone scree. The scree created by endless storms, and the freezing temperatures at the summit for much of the year - the road is closed for 6 months or so every winter.

View south from the summit:

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The Buildings at the Summit?

A meteorological observatory was first built at the summit in 1882. It came into disuse after WW1. In 1968 a new meteorological building was constructed -- the distinctive building with the red and white tower (see top photo). It is also a television broadcast tower. The crazy Dutch fans will have great TV reception for the Tour.

Nearing the top of the north side of Ventoux there is also an aviation radar tower:

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In the summer, there is usually a little candy market at the summit. Fuel for the tired cyclist.

The Road

The first road to the summit was opened in 1885. The first timed ascent by bicycle took 2 hours 29 minutes (1908).

"L'ascension du Mont-Ventoux demande 7 heures en voiture, 6 heures à pied, et 3.5 heures pour un cycliste entraîné." The ascension of Mont Ventoux requires 7 hours by car, 6 hours by foot, and 3.5 hours for a trained cyclist.

1902 Post Card written by Adrien Benoît

The fastest recorded time up Ventoux was set during the Dauphiné Libére in 2004 by Iban Mayo during a Contre-la-Montre: 55 minutes 51 seconds.

The Climb Itself

The 2013 Tour will ride the classic Bédoin side. At 21.5 kilometres and 1610 metres of ascent it averages 7.5%. Broadly speaking the climb can be divided into three sections:

  • Easy: The first 6 kms are open, and not steep. A perfect warm-up.
  • Very Hard: At Les Bruns, the road turns sharply left and heads up and into the forest. The next ten kilometres are consistently brutal. Few hairpins, but a continually wiggly road through the Réserve de Biosphère du Mont Ventoux – a rare ecological environment.
  • Hard: At Chalet Reynard, the route exits the woods for a final 6 glorious (and usually windy) kilometres through a unique lunar environment.

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The last 507 metres to the summit are steep:

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You can become a member of the Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux (Loons of Ventoux) by climbing all three sides in a single day. Details of all three sides can be found here (map, profiles, photos, etc). Note: there is also a well known mountain bike route up from Bédoin.

In 2006 the record for most ascencions in 24 hours (Bédoin side) was set at eleven. Wow, I wonder if the guy drove the descents?

Ventoux in the Tour de France

2013 will be the 15th Tour de France appearance of Mont Ventoux. First climbed in 1951, this was the only ascent that has climbed the (equally difficult) Malaucène side. Every other time (incl. 2013) the Tour has ascended from Bédoin.

Of the previous fourteen visits, eight were mountain top finishes. A few highlights:

In 1951, Lucien Lazarides was first over the summit in a stage won by Louison Bobet in nearby Avignon. Fausto Coppi finished well behind still grieving the recent death of his younger brother Serse in a cycling race accident.

In 1952, Jean Robic was first to the summit.

In 1955, The Suisse Ferdi Kübler attacked at the base of Ventoux during la canicule (heat-wave) and soon suffered badly from la fringale (bonk). Talking in the 3rd person, crashing several times, stopping for a beer and restarting in the wrong direction, etc. After the stage was won by Bobet, covered in badanges, Kübler called a press conference to announce his retirement.

In a terrible foreshadowing of future events, during the same stage the French rider Jean Malléjac would collapse on the ascent and remain unconscious for 15 minutes.

In 1958, the first Ventoux Contre-la-Montre was won by Charly Gaul.

In 1967, perhaps the most well known Ventoux Tour de France moment was the tragic death of Tom Simpson as he neared the summit. The Simpson monument:

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In 1970, the Cannibal Eddie Merckx, wearing a badge of mourning for the death of his manager the night before, would take the stage. At the post race press conference an exhausted Merckx would excuse himself saying he had a feeling of fire in his chest. He was taken by ambulance to the hotel. He later would say that he "had been scared."

In 1972, Bernard Thévenet, would catch the lead group of Merckx, Poulidor, and Ocaña with 3 kilometres to the summit, and immediately drop them all winning by 34 seconds. A famous comeback after a bad crash in the Pyrenées. Photo.

In 1994, Mario Cipollini's lead-out man made a career for himself by winning the Ventoux stage after Cipolinni had abondoned. Eros Poli had built a 20 minute lead as he reached the base of Ventoux, which had almost completely disappeared as he reached the summit but Poli managed a brilliant descent and held on for the only major victory of his career. He now runs a Tour company that allows you to cycle Ventoux with Eros.

In 2000, Lance Armstrong would famously "gift" the Ventoux stage to Marco Pantani. The two cyclists were almost immediately bickering in the newspapers. Lot to learn. Video: wow, fast.

In 2009, the last Ventoux appearance in the Tour, Juan Manuel Gárate took a disappointing stage as the big guns marked each other. Contador in yellow.

Other winners of summit-finish stages: Poulidor ('65), Bernard ('87 CLM), and Virenque ('02).

A Few More Ventoux "Fun Facts":

  • The Maquis du Ventoux was one of the more important French resistance groups in Provence during WW2.
  • While bears are long gone from the region, remains of over 500 brown bears have been discovered in the many caves littering the north side.
  • From the 17th to 19th centuries a significant industry in the region was the selling of ice from Ventoux. For making sorbets and preserving dead bodies of course. :)
  • Major food and drink products produced? Honey (bees), Truffles, Sheep, Mushrooms, Wine, etc. I expect to be served a good red Côtes du Ventoux AOC for the daily Podium Café Tour de France wine series.
  • In the 16th century a Chapel dedicated to St. Croix was built (and rebuilt in 1701). Destroyed in the early 20th century, a modern chapel built in 1956 is now at the site. It is difficult to find, but still there, a short walk from the summit.
  • My favourite cycling movie Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert features Ventoux footage (as well as Le Semnoz).
  • To help protect its unique Flora and Fauna, in 1990 UNESCO classified most of the mountain as the Réserve de Biosphère du Mont Ventoux.

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Final Thought

Mont Ventoux is an amazing place to cycle or to hold a Tour stage. In part because it is a very difficult climb, and in part for its deadly Tour de France history, but I think far more so for its sheer uniqueness. Especially at dawn.

Enjoy the stage. Jérôme Coppel For the Win!

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All Photos by Will

* 1880 French translation by Victor Develay.
** 2013 English translation by Will

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