Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Giant.

This amazing print was created by Le Rouleur Lent - you can buy it here and here.


Mont Ventoux is and isn't one of Le Alps. Geographically it is considered part of the Alps, but  many consider it separate because there are no other mountains of similar height any where near it. It stands seemingly alone to the north of the Luberon range with a perfect peak reminiscent of a typical child's drawing of a mountain. There is nothing childish about this mountain however and it in fact has served to separate the boys from the men every time it has been ridden as part of Le Tour de France. 

Tomorrow's stage 15 of this centenary tour will be no exception. Taking the harder route via Bedoin to the summit, the race is a long one - 242.5 km, with the final ascent to the summit being the only really tough climb of the day - but what a climb it is. From that side it is 21 km of climbing that rises 1912 meters from the valley floor. Though the average gradient of 7.43 percent may not seem so challenging when compared to some of the steeper climbs in the Alps... it is the totality of the experience that grinds you down. 

It is a war of attrition for 21 km where there are no hairpins to break up the relentless climbing, for the 11 km up to Chalet Reynard the average gradient increases to nearly 10 percent. There is a slight let up at the chalet but then it kicks up again the rest of the way to the finish. Adding to the demoralizing experience is the fact that the summit has no vegetation or trees - only a barren limestone landscape with one road leading to the peak which is highlighted by the strange coexistence between a 500 year old Holy Cross chapel and a 50 year old 60 meter high telecommunications mast. An additional hurdle are the devilishly strong winds that hit you once you come out of the trees and hit the bald slopes. The direction of the wind is crucial, with a tailwind helping to lighten both the physical and mental loads - or a headwind hitting you in the face like a ton of bricks. 

Tom Simpson - photo credit: Krieger Roger/L'Equipe
But perhaps nothing is more unsettling than the history of what this climb has done to others in the past. Most notably Tom Simpson, the British cycling legend who's life tragically ended on the slopes of the Giant during stage 16 of the 1967 tour. To be fair to the mountain it has been widely reported - and generally accepted - that Simpson was using amphetamines on the day of the climb. He was reportedly seen ingesting pills at the start of the climb to counter act a lingering sickness he had been battling that week and one km from the finish fell of his bike for the first time. His team mechanic tried to tell him that his race was over, but Simpson would have none of it. He simply said "on, on, on" and they sat him up and strapped him back in. He rode a further 460 meters before collapsing again for the last time. A nurse and others took turns giving him mouth to mouth until a helicopter arrived to take him to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. Sadly, they found in his jersey pockets two empty tubes of amphetamines and a third that was half empty. 

The official cause of death was listed as heart failure due to dehydration and heat exhaustion with the addition of drugs being a contributing factor. There are a number of factors that would drive one to act so recklessly, for some it was an obsessive desire to be the best, for others it is simply a need to perform at a certain level to keep ones job and food on the table. In the 60's cycling was not a profession that would yield a pot of gold for most riders. Only the best were rewarded so handsomely and many others  may have felt the need to do whatever possible to get the most out of their short careers on the bike  - Simpson was not immune to this stress. An interesting side note: The words "put me back on my bike" are widely accepted as Tom Simpsons last words, but they were not. Those words were actually invented by a British reporter following the race and reporting for The Sun who was not actually on the scene. The aforementioned "on, on, on" was actually the last sentence he uttered and was confirmed by the two men who were actually there with him.

Whatever he said the outcome was the same, and there is now a solemn memorial at the very spot where he fell - 1 km from the summit of the Giant in his honor. It is somewhat of a shrine to road racing fans who leave tributes to the fallen rider after making their own cycling pilgrimages up the slopes of the Mountain. Though Mont Ventoux is not responsible for the death of Simpson, it is one more part of the myth that surrounds the Giant of Provence and should be a warning to today's young riders who push themselves beyond their limits for success - sometimes naturally and sometimes artificially - that it is just not worth it. 
Tom Simpson memorial - Photo credit: MARKA/Alamy
I can't imagine the level of anticipation the riders must be feeling right now. They are prepared for sure - prepared for the intimidation that the sight of the Giant brings. Prepared for the physical toll it will take on their bodies. Some are prepared only to survive, while others are prepared to grab glory in their hands and stand on the top step of one of the most sought after podiums in the history of cycling. Tomorrow's racing coverage starts at 5:00 a.m. in my neck of the woods and when it is done we will know a ton more about where this tour is heading...and who will be leading it to that destination. 

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