In 2010 the second volume of Rapha’s ‘Great Road Climbs’ series will be published. Written by Graeme Fife, with photographs by Pete Drinkell, the new volume will cover the climbs of the Southern Alps and Riviera.
To celebrate the return of the Tour to Mont Ventoux and the 2009 Etape du Tour, we are pleased to publish an extract from the new book, covering this legendary mountain.
Tour de France and Etape du Tour, 2009
by Graeme Fife
The siting of Mont Ventoux at the conclusion of the penultimate stage in this year’s Tour de France must be read as an overt act of defiance if not downright masochism, true to the ironclad spirit of Henri Desgrange, father of the Grande Boucle, who once said that the ideal Tour would be a race which only one rider would be strong enough to complete. It’s rare, these days, for victory in the Tour to go right down to the wire. Last year it did, all to play for in the final time trial. This year? The organisers must have planted a serious hope of another cliff-hanger. For, whoever gets to the foot of Ventoux in yellow must, unless he’s leading by a sackful of time, prepare himself for serious challenge, not least from the mountain itself. All mountains have a certain unpredictability about them and none is ever to be taken lightly but Ventoux is different: it really does seem to emanate an active malevolence. Anyone, pro or amateur, who has ridden up it, from whatever direction, will have their own version as to why it is such a killer. Various, contrary factors impinge. On any given day Ventoux’s inherent difficulty will be aggravated by the bitter blast of the mistral, the sudden bite of wintry chill (the Etape over Ventoux in 2000 was shut down because there was ice on the road), the scorching heat reflecting off the limestone shale, the airless exposure of the arid upper rocky slopes – the total absence of trees at the high altitude renders the air even thinner than it might otherwise be – the cruel gradients, the sheer hostile ugliness of those final ramps, like farm-track slabs of concrete, the weight of the mountain’s awful history…And this year add another element: the brooding presence of Ventoux for over half the stage.
There will always come that moment as you close with Ventoux, when you see the dominant, leprous, windswept summit of the Giant of Provence sprouting that sinister radio mast, thrust up out of the surrounding landscape, and shiver. Ride up there? you say to yourself. The route of this year’s Tour and Etape delivers an exquisite cruelty. It circles, one might say prowls, almost the entire circumference of the monstrous outcrop: first along its northern flank, over the Col de Fontaube*, 653m, 80km from home, on round its eastern side into Sault and then its southern slopes over the Col Notre-Dame des Abeilles*, 996m, 45.5km from the finish, before Bédoin where begins the final climb. Thus the riders – Tour and Etape – will look up and see their invitation to strife of a peculiar kind several times, from way way off. The physical stress in store you either know or can guess at. But, on any excursion into the high mountains, never underestimate the effect on your mind and will of the first glimpse of a brute of a col, its jagged peak poking up into the sky like a snaggle tooth, a flint axe-head, a petrified rock bun…especially not this brute. Be ready to be intimidated. Readiness is all.
*Not recorded as crossed by the Tour hitherto.