Title: Ventoux - Sacrifice and Suffering on the Giant of Provence
Author: Jeremy Whittle
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Order: Simon & Schuster - UK | US
What it is: Stories about the Giant of Provence, what it means to the sport of cycling and what it means to some of the people who have climbed its slopes by bike
Strengths: There are many sides to this story but all are skilfully joined together in the end and, as you look down from the finish, the path from then to now becomes much clearer
Weaknesses: If you wear rose tinted glasses and want to stick your fingers in your ears when people talk about doping, this may not be your cup of tea
In the particular is contained the universal.~ Joyce
The ghost of Tom Simpson haunts Mont Ventoux. It's odd, really. The area around the mountain has known much tragedy down through the years, yet that area, the Vaucluse département, it's not tied to those tragedies. People when they talk of the Vaucluse they don't focus on the bad, they talk of the good things: culture, food and drink, scenery. Heritage. But on the mountain that dominates much of the Vaucluse skyline it's all about tragedy, it's all about death and near death. Jean Malléjac and Tom Simpson, 1955 prefiguring the events of 1967. Doping, maybe that's our heritage. The food and the drink of talking about cycling is the culture of the pill and the potion. A culture that was there at the beginning and no matter how much the sport changes will be there to the end. Simpson, he's become our Banquo, his mountain our witch's cauldron, lest we ever try to forget this.
Jeremy Whittle's Ventoux - Sacrifice and Suffering on the Giant of Provence skilfully uses the ghost of Tom Simpson to earth a story that is ostensibly about a mountain but is really about a journalist and a cycling fan and his journey through the sport of cycling. It's a personal, and - ultimately - poignant story about things said and things unsaid, with the Ventoux one of Whittle's final 'good' memories of his parents, before dementia stole his mother away and caring for her claimed his father:
Dad never understood my fascination with cycling. He was an architect, who emerged from London's post-war East End with a roll of drawings and a burning need to right social wrongs. The exotica of the Tour de France was as familiar to him as the carnival in Rio.
Once on holiday, after a long lunch in Malaucène, we'd driven round to Bédoin and headed up the mountain.
'Did you really cycle all the way up here?' he'd asked quietly as we passed a weaving rider close to the summit.
'Yes, Dad - a few times,' I said.
'Goodness me,' he said. We never talked about the Ventoux again.
It was cycling that had first introduced Whittle to the Ventoux:
I first read about it in long-gone French magazine Miroir du Cyclisme, sometimes available in a specialist newsagent's in Old Compton Street, in the heart of Soho, and only then after painstakingly translating a flowery and over-written description of the mountain's past.
Even then the Ventoux was about Tom Simpson. It would be nice today to say that the Raphafication of the sport is at fault here, to say that the quarter of a million or so cyclists who climbed the Ventoux last year did so seduced by modern marketing but that would be wrong. It's older than that: even back then Simpson was doing to the Vaucluse what Peter Mayle later did for the neighbouring Luberon. A memorial stone was raised on the mountain just two years - October 10, 1969 - after Simpson died and when the Tour returned in 1970 race director Jacques Goddet laid a wreath on it as Eddy Merckx passed on the road below, en route to stage victory. It was only natural, then, that when Whittle visited the mountain for the first time, in 1986, he did so chasing the memory of the only Briton to have worn the Tour's maillot jaune and the only man to have died climbing one of the Tour's sacred sites:
As a gauche ingenu with a woollen jersey, a Chas Roberts steel frame and a copy of Bernard Hinault's Memories of the Peloton under my arm, cycling up the Ventoux - because only fearless demigods such as Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx or Bernard Hinault dared venture there - was totally out of the question. Today, like Everest, some of the fear has gone and it is within almost everybody's reach - even, absurdly, on a Boris bike. You can attribute that to e-bikes and triple chainsets, performance clothing and cheap flights, and the plethora of books documenting cycling's arcane and wacky history, not to mention its many iconic climbs.
But in the September of 1986, shocked by the tragedy of Tom Simpson and fascinated by the notion of the Ventoux as the ultimate mountain climb, my friend Andy and I had driven a three-door, 998cc Mini Metro, with beige velour interior, all the way from Cheshire to the south of France, to visit The Mountain That Killed A Cyclist.
In 1987 the Tour visited the Ventoux for the first time in thirteen years and Whittle was back on its slopes. That was the year of Jean-François Bernard's assault on the mountain in an individual time trial a week out from Paris. He was the new Bernard Hinault, the new Laurent Fignon - even as the old Laurent Fignon was being born again - and he blitzed the time trial and claimed the yellow jumper, pulling a stunt that went all the way back to the first grimpeur, René Pottier, and the Ballon d'Alsace in 1905: once the road reared up, Bernard hopped off one bike and onto another, gaining marginally before marginal gains became a popular and profitable tactic.
It'd be great if the Ventoux could be remembered for an exploit like Bernard's. It'd still be linked to tragedy but it'd be a romantic kind of tragedy: annoyed at something said after his victory, Bernard's rivals ganged up on him the next day and beat him to a pulp. All the promise shown by the new French vedette was snuffed out: if a career could be ended in one day, it was ended in that.
Nearly three decades before Bernard, the Ventoux had been at the heart of another of the Tour's romantic legends: Charly Gaul stormed the mountain in another time trial and sliced seven minutes off the eleven minute deficit on yellow he'd started the stage with, effectively making himself the nailed-on favourite for the overall victory. The next day, though, Gaul blew all his gains and then some, falling to fifteen minutes off yellow after an attack against him that wasn't as orchestrated as the one that saw off Bernard in 1987 but was its equal in terms of viciousness. Unlike Bernard, though, Gaul bounced back and two days later turned the Tour on its head, sealing one of the best come-from-behind wins the race has ever seen.
The date of Gaul's victory on the Ventoux? July 13, 1958. Nine years to the day before Tom Simpson died. It isn't just temporal coincidence that links Charly Gaul and Tom Simpson. Gaul had a reputation for - as the euphemism has it - liking it best when it was cold, and not liking it all when it was hot. Here's Whittle:
There were, as with his peers, tales of amphetamine abuse, with one account of Gaul's growing disenchantment with the demands of racing making its way into L'Équipe. One evening in St Gaudens during the 1962 Tour de France, Gaul spoke to his team-mate Marcel Enzer.
'You know, Marcel, I'm scared now,' Gaul said.
'Scared of what?' Enzer replied.
'There are too many guys blundering around because they're on stimulants,' Gaul said. 'They can't react properly.'
Gaul was thinking of Roger Rivière, who had plunged into a ravine on the Col de Perjuret in 1960, his reaction blurred by an over-reliance on doping. Rivière's injuries confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
The warning signs were everywhere. Gaul knew it and so did Pierre Dumas, scarred by his frantic quarter of an hour crouching over the stricken Malléjac on the Ventoux in 1955.
The rocket fuel of Charly Gaul's day, that's all supposed to be long gone now. Except it's not. We've got Tramadol, a drug which, even those minded to put the world mild in front of the amphetamines popped by riders from Coppi to Simpson insist, is a powerful performance enhancer. And that means it's just a short hop, skip and a jump from Malléjac to Gaul on to Simpson and up to the stars of today, Sky. And the desk of Dave Brailsford.
I first met Brailsford before the Athens Olympics, when the fruits of lottery investment and the streak of detached ruthlessness - which he'd employed to drag British Cycling from a creaking old boys' network to a far slicker and more professional outfit - were becoming evident. He knows France well and a love of the Alps runs in the family, 'Dad is a connoisseur in terms of France, so I think the first time I'd have heard of the Ventoux would have been him telling me about it.'
Talking of the mountain, Brailsford has this to say:
'Ventoux's an intimidating climb. There are several things - the ferocity and difficulty of the climb itself, the length of it and then the climate that goes with it, the heat and then usually the wind, once you come out of the forest ...
'But then,' he enthuses, 'you've got the history - and it's so rich in history. Obviously, from a British point of view, the Tom Simpson story is always part of the history. If you can get your name down as a winner on the Ventoux then you're among the legends. Any stage over the Ventoux is always a big stage.'
Brailsford, though, is not a part of this story just to shoot the breeze and chat politely about cycling history. Why is he here? To understand that, we need to step back in time a bit, nearly a decade, to an earlier book. Bad Blood - The Secret Life of the Tour de France, Jeremy Whittle's account of being torn between the dark side of Planet Armstrong and the force of Paul Kimmage's trenchantly held views. Once welcomed in Lance Armstrong's home, once a man who defended Armstrong, Whittle found himself cast out by the Texan Tour champion for the crime of asking the wrong questions, for not believing fervently enough. Bad Blood was his attempt to understand how the sport he had come to love and learn about through magazines like Miroir du Sport, a sport once famous for stars, had morphed into something that had become infamous for Festina and Puerto and the very public doubt that shrouded Armstrong's Tour victories.
Ventoux, for a time, becomes Bad Blood II - The Secret Life of Team Sky, almost a riposte to David Walsh's rather blinkered Inside Team Sky. But the story is never allowed get too far away from Mont Ventoux. Whittle lays out the case against Sky - the gap between word and deed in which doubt has been allowed to grow - but not in an overly prosecutorial way. This isn't LA Confidentiel. Whittle all the while remembers why Sky's story is in the book: he roots Brailsford on the mountain, through the Sky boss's father, through his rides up its flanks with Tim Kerrison; he roots Team Sky on the mountain, through Wiggins in 2009, and Froome in 2013 and 2016. And he roots Sky's problem in the story of Tom Simpson, the ghost of the Ventoux.
Running throughout Ventoux, the story of Simpson is largely told through an imagined monologue from the former World Champion and winner of Milan-Sanremo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Bordeaux-Paris and the Giro di Lombardia. Think the beauty of Carlos Arribas and Ocaña or Paul Fournel and Anquetil, Alone:
White light. The bleached sky pulled taut by the heat. The bleached sky, taut like a drum.
There's no blue any more, not up here. Not like the blue down by the sea, on the beach, all kids screaming, ice creams and cold beers. Up here, it's just white. Like I'm on the moon or something.
There's salt crusted around my lips, baked onto my face, salt in my eyes. No sweat any more, just salt. Maybe it's too hot to sweat. That's funny, eh? Too hot to sweat, you reckon, eh Tommy?
It's too bloody hot to do anything, let alone ride up the sodding Ventoux.
The Ventoux, then, is used here as signed and signifier, Whittle exploring the role it plays within the sport of cycling and the role it plays for those "whose lives, like my own, have been enriched, defined, or shaped by their experience of it." Through stories of his own riding on and around the mountain and stories from people like Nicole Cooke, Éric Caritoux, Christian Prudhomme, Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, Jonathan Vaughters, Dave Brailsford, Alastair Campbell, Joanne Simpson and others Whittle paints a portrait of a mountain that avoids many of the clichés of climbing - Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever! - while offering comfort, of a kind, on the topic of cycling's long association with the pill and the potion. A portrait of grandeur and darkness. A deeply personal and universally rewarding portrait of love and loss.
The moon waxes and wanes, the summers get more fleeting. We get older and wiser. We learn that our days in the sun, empowered, brilliant days, high on a mountainside, the world at our feet, are finite.
What was it they have all said of this mountain? What was that talk of exorcism, redemption and catharsis? I try to remember as I get nearer to the forest.