“The Ventoux is a god of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering.”
Roland Barthes, French philosopher and bicycle racing fan.
Mont Ventoux is a majestic limestone beast that stands 1912m above the surrounding lavender fields, sunflowers and olive groves of the Vaucluse Department in Provence. By far the highest feature in the area, on a clear day it can be seen from miles around and the view from the summit is like no other. Known as the Giant of Provence, the Beast of Provence or the Bald Mountain, it has gained a formidable reputation in cycling history and is rightly regarded by professional cyclists as one of the toughest climbs in Europe. However, racing and riding are two very different things and with the right support, fuel and mindset the majority of people with a reasonable level of fitness are more than capable of peddling their way to the summit.
It is widely understood that the name Ventoux comes from the French word Venteux, meaning windy. As the highest point for miles around, there is nothing to protect the summit from the strong mistral winds often sustaining speeds in excess of 66kmh. With wind speeds of a whopping 320kmh (200mph) having been recorded at the summit, the ‘Windy Mountain’ is certainly a very apt name! The true origins of the name however are thought to date back to the 1st or 2nd century AD, when it was known as ‘Vinture’ after a Gaulish god of the summits as well as ‘Ven-Top, meaning ‘snowy peak’ in the ancient Gallic language. With its white limestone and complete lack of vegetation at the top of the mountain, it gives the impression of being snow capped all year round. The names ‘Mons Ventosus’ and ‘Mons Ventorius’ began to appear in the 10th century.
First used in the Tour de France in 1951, it has now been included in the race 16 times with 10 summit finishes. Feared by professional cyclists, it gained even more notoriety when along with heat exhaustion and the use of alcohol and amphetamines it claimed the life of British cyclist Tom Simpson less than a kilometre from the summit. There is a road side memorial to Tom Simpson at the spot he finally collapsed having previously been helped back onto his bike by fans. Simpson tragically died in the helicopter on his way to hospital. His last words “Put me back on my bike” are now well and truly immortalised in the realms of cycling mythology. In more recent history Mont Ventoux made the headlines once again with Chris Froome being forced to run up its flanks in desperation having collided with a motorcycle cameraman while trying to defend his yellow jersey. Comical if not for the situation.
The record for the ascent from the Bedoin side is still held by Spanish cyclist Iban Mayo in an incredible if a little dubious 55 minutes and 51 seconds. Maybe even more remarkable was the time of Charly Gaul with a time of 1 hour and 2 minutes in 1958!