Two epitaphs on the observatory wall: one, 1875–1883, commemorates an early student of Ventoux, Professeur F Leenhardt. The second, placed by the Club Alpin Français invokes the walk up to the col made by the Italian poet Francisco Petrarch:
ma cime inviolée
et mes flancs dénudés et abrupts
ont été pour la première fois
décrits et poétiquement chantés
après son ascension du 9 mai 1336
par François Pétrarque
l’amant de Laure et ermite de Vaucluse
qui unit la restauration des lettres antiques
la première affirmation de l’alpinisme littéraire
‘My virgin peak, my flanks sheer and naked, were for the first time caught and sung in poetry, after his ascent on 9 May 1336, by Francisco Petrarch, lover of Laura, hermit of Vaucluse, who united a revival of classical literature with the first essay in literary alpinism.’
In a letter to his confessor, Dionigo Borgo San Sepolcro, Petrarch wrote:
‘To-day I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, aptly called Ventosum. My driving aim was to see what view such a high vantage point could offer. I have been thinking of doing this for a number of years having lived in this region since I was a child . . . the mountain, which is visible for miles around, was constantly in view . . . and my resolve hardened yesterday when I reread Livy’s History and came upon the passage where Philip of Macedon, he who waged war against the Romans, climbed Mount Haemus in Thessaly, from whose summit he could, it is said, see both the Adriatic and the Euxine seas . . . The mountain is a very steep and almost inaccessible mass of stony soil. But, as the poet has well said ‘Remorseless toil conquers all and necessity sharpens the will in difficult times’.
(The poet is Virgil in the Georgics I.145:
. . . labor omnia vincit
improbus et duris urgens in rebus egestas.)
Petrarch, in exile from Florence, lived in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, south-east of Ventoux, from 1334 to 41 and the fountain has come back to life after long being dried up, fed, it is now supposed, by an underground stream from the Montagne de Lure, and not, as it might seem to be, the source of the river Sorgue. Perhaps the fact that so famous a poet lived near the spring has endued it with something of the celebrity of that Pierian spring whose pure and bracing waters brought inspiration. ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’ says Pope ‘Drink deep, or taste not, the Pierian spring.’(Essay on Criticism) Vaucluse’s pool is very deep. In the 1950s, Jacques Yves Cousteau explored it in a submersible but did not find the bottom. More recently, a probe reached a sandy bed at a depth of 308 metres. ‘There is’ wrote Petrarch of this village where he wrote the Sonnets to Laura ‘no place on earth more dear to me than Vaucluse.’ Not at Laura’s side? He saw her first in church. She remains otherwise anonymous though, on the internal evidence of the passionate love poems and sonnets work he dedicated to her, it is probable that she was married and, refusing intimate relations with the poet, nonetheless accepted his homage. We all know about one-way mail. ‘Was it here’, he wrote, ’here in this small garden that my love began to fatten in its solitude, and ripen into words?’ hinting, perhaps, at the line from Virgil’s Georgics III 291:
sed me Parnassi deserta per ardua dulcis
‘Love swept me up into the high solitudes of balmy Parnassus.’
(Parnassus is the mountain just north of Delphi in Greece, home to Apollo and the Muses.)
In one poem to Laura he writes:
ché co la morte a lato
cerco del viver mio novo consiglio,
et veggio ‘l meglio, et al peggior m’appiglio
‘with death at my side
I strive to live with fresh insight,
seeing the better, taking hold of the worst’.
This hints at a line in Seneca: ‘Inferna tetigit possit ut supera assequi.’ (He plumbed the depths so as to attain the highest reach.)
For all its iconic status, the Tour de France has crossed, or finished on, the Ventoux a mere 14 times since 1951. This year is the 15th visit. Lucien Lazaridès was first over but the day went to Louison Bobet. Ventoux hosted its first time-trial in 1958 when Charly Gaul, the Luxembourg rider who thrived in the cold and wet and usually did not prosper in heat, flew to the top in scorching temperatures, caught, dropped and put 5 minutes into Bobet, left Jacques Anquetil 4 minutes adrift and crushed that other superior climber, his arch rival Federico Bahamontes, by 31 seconds. His time for the 21.5 kilometres from Bédoin: 1hr 2min 9sec. He went on to win the Tour. Raymond Poulidor won on top of Ventoux, stage 14 of the 1965 Tour (when he came second overall to Felice Gimondi). It is not widely known that Eddy Merckx’s nickname ‘The Cannibal’ was first used of Poulidor in that Tour: a journalist said of his ride up the Ventoux that he devoured it ‘with the voracity of a cannibal wolfing down the leg of an archbishop’. The second time-trial to use the bald giant as its piste, in 1987, set out from Carpentras (36.5 kilometres). Jean-François Bernard beat a clutch of ace anti-gravity coves – Lucho Herrera, Pedro Delgado, Fabio Parra – to win in 1hr 9min 44sec.
In 1970, Eddy Merckx took the stage on the Col des Tempêtes but the strain was so great that he needed oxygen at the finish. As Phil Liggett recalls, Merckx, straddling the bike, clinging to the bars of the podium structure to support himself, microphones thrust into his face, was scarcely able to speak, so jarred and in such distress that the whole thing shook with his trembling. On the way past the spot where Tom Simpson had died three years before, Merckx removed his cap and held it to his heart in salute of his former leader in the Peugeot team as Jacques Goddet laid flowers on the memorial stone. The melancholy story of Simpson’s death is too well known to be recounted here but Merckx, who was one of the few continental riders to attend his funeral, spoke with passion about his erstwhile boss: “It’s unjust that his name should forever be so indelibly linked with drugs. The controls in those days weren’t systematic and I don’t pretend that Simpson didn’t use a prohibited substance. He was far from being alone. He was a great rider who boosted me from his own experience . . . Not all older pros would do that with younger riders, especially with a rider they could see posed a threat to them . . . On the slopes of Ventoux, his ambition killed him.”
Simpson himself had been generously helped by another older pro, the great pioneer, Brian Robinson. Indeed, he paid handsome tribute to Robinson: that had it not been for his encouragement – ‘they’re just riders, like you’ – he would not have lasted in the continental peloton.
Robinson crossed the Ventoux in his first Tour, 1955, and was party to another drama on the mountain. The 1950 winner, Ferdi Kubler, had never ridden the Ventoux and, 10 kilometres from the col, he launched a savage attack, as was his custom in the mountains.
The veteran Raphaël Géminiani, riding with Kubler in the break, warned him: “Careful, Ferdi, Ventoux is no ordinary col. You can’t tell it what to do.”
“Nor is Ferdi an ordinary rider,” the Swiss replied.
Higher up the climb, he cracked and Bobet, who had been making steady inroads into the leaders’ advantage, went past. When Robinson came alongside Kubler – and Robinson was a fine climber but, with no pretensions to the mountains’ prize, always conserved energy on the ascents so to recover time on the descent – Kubler was in a terrible state. “Pushez Ferdi,” he moaned, “Pushez Ferdi.” Robinson’s reply was terse and, that evening, when Kubler did crawl into Avignon, he collapsed. “The Tour is finished for me. Ferdi’s too old, too sick. Ferdi committed suicide on Ventoux.”
One of Bobet’s team mates, Jean Malléjac didn’t even get to the top of the mountain. Six kilometres from the col, he fell to the ground in a delirium, the bike on top of him, his free leg pedalling on like an automaton. Unconscious for 15 minutes, he was revived with oxygen and an injection of the decongestant solucamphre.