Cycling Mont Ventoux
Appointment with a Legend
It was Thursday 13th July 1967. The 13th stage of the Tour de France included an assault on the dreaded 6,500ft Mont Ventoux. David Saunders, cycling correspondent of the Daily Telegraph wrote, 'There will be many casualties today. Even in the shade temperatures will be soaring. Over 100 degrees in the shade - and for the last few kilometres there's no shade. Just the merciless heat reflected off the white volcanic rock'.
What happened that day is a part of sporting legend. Lying in fifth position, British cycling hero Tom Simpson died of exhaustion and suffocation, driving himself beyond his physical limits. Stimulants played a part in impairing his judgement, but his determination to be first over the top is generally acknowledged to have been the main cause of his tragic death.
Tom in relaxed mood at the start of the fateful day
Since then Mt Ventoux has beckoned many cyclists to pay homage to Tom. His memorial stone near the summit bears witness to the affection in which he is still held. Here Gill Schlangen of Llandudno tells her story.
It began around 16 years ago in a bookshop in Manchester. Martyn and I came across a book called Cycling France - and that's what we've been doing ever since!
We started by using some of the routes in the book. Flying to Paris, Bordeaux, Bilbao, Munich, Salzburg, Geneva and Lyon; part of the adventure initially was packing up our bikes as required by the airlines. And then running the gauntlet of the Special Baggage handlers, waiting a while till someone with a kind, welcoming expression arrived on duty; at least then there was a chance that the bikes were thrown around with a little more compassion that usual!
Gradually we became more ambitious - mid-life crisis took control with a vengeance! I think it was July 2003 Tour de France when Alpe d'Huez featured yet again. It was decided that my September birthday treat would be an assault on the 'Alpe'. With a lucky break in the weather, we made it on bikes hired from a bike shop in Grenoble. It was a bright sunny day, around 18 degrees Centigrade, but there was still snow on the higher peaks. As we got into our rhythm, it was an emotional experience, eating up the names on the tarmac - Indurain, Pantani, Lemond. It was humbling, but motivating, to remember that they would be touching 25 - 30mph compared with our 8 - 10 mph. Still, they did it for a living - that helped a little!
The following year we opted for Bavaria. No familiar climbs to name drop, but very hard work just the same - particularly as one of our bikes didn't make it to Munich until 48 hours later.
The next challenge was already in the hatching pool: Martyn wanted to conquer Mont Ventoux. I was in charge of logistics, so I planned the flights, accommodation etc, in fact everything but the weather. I opted for a BA flight to Lyon (good price and no extra for the bikes, provided you don't exceed luggage allowance). We drove down to Provence and stayed in a fantastic hotel called Hostellerie Crillon le Brave for the first two nights. It was surreal to swim in the pool with Mont Ventoux glaring down, beckoning us. But the Mistral moved in and the weather changed for the worse. We then moved on to a more modest chambre d'hôte for the next three nights, still in the sights of 'the Mont'.
It was now Saturday 17 September, still windy and cloudy. In fact Ventoux was now playing tricks with us: now you see it, now you don't. We went into Carpentras and decided that, if there was any chance at all, we would try the following day. We found an amiable cycle shop proprietor who allowed us to use his stirrup pump, bought the customary Tour de France water bottles and went to sleep that night hoping for a window in the weather.
I woke up several times during the night; the wind was still howling and I had partly resigned myself to fate. The following morning, it was as if someone had flicked a switch: the wind had abated completely and the sun came out. Our hosts knew what we had in mind and ensured we had a healthy breakfast, loading us with bananas, fruit, nuts, raisins etc.
We had approx 10 km to cycle to Bedoin, the start of the 26 km route, which was just enough of a warm up. Martyn on his mountain bike and me on my hybrid certainly tarnished the vanity of some of the purists who crept up behind us. I don't exactly know what we expected, but unlike Alpe d'Huez, the turns never levelled and there was no respite, not for a second. After approx 16 km, our legs were still strong, but the back muscles were working overtime; by then we were both so determined to get to the top without stopping that pain had to be ignored. Gradually, the vegetation thinned, and the snarling, barren landscape revealed itself.
I suppose we were now approximately 6 km from the summit and we could see minute figures winding
The Tom Simpson memorial
their way to the top. We could also see the cloud moving in quite rapidly in a ghostly, taunting motion. We had to make it before the weather spoiled our day. The cloud enveloped us quite quickly and we could no longer see where we had come from, nor where we were going. I was starting to feel chilled, but kept munching my nuts and raisins, stuffed a square of mint chocolate in my mouth - anything for comfort. Then, literally like a phoenix, the memorial we had seen so many times on television, willed us on. We paid our respects without stopping and hoped Tom Simpson would understand that we two rookies had to keep going. The last 3 km were tough; it was raining, cold and unwelcoming.
The last little nip to the summit was a fantastic experience; twenty or thirty people were clapping, irrespective of whether they knew you or not. It was slightly above zero; we got off our bikes, had a hug, threw on our waterproofs, asked someone to take a photo and headed straight back down. The descent was far worse than the climb; we were shivering uncontrollably. We opted to stop at the restaurant to see if the cloud would lift and the rain pass. We thawed ourselves out under the hand driers in the toilet and hugged a mug of hot chocolate; we were in good company and the atmosphere was pretty upbeat.
Gill and Martyn
The rain didn't stop, so we gritted out teeth and went for it. We returned to our accommodation and met with the congratulations of our hosts. It was Sunday 18th September 2005, a week before my 52nd birthday !
Tom Simpson, like Martyn and I, should have had the best years ahead of him. But instead he met his destiny on the cruel Ventoux - at the young age of 29 years.
The above story appeared under the CTC Cymru logo in the December 05 edition of the monthly magazine NORTH WALES LIVING . Available at most newsagents, this publication presents the 'feel good' side of life past and present in this fascinating part of the UK (click here to visit website).