The Giant of Provence

“The plain widens, the edges turn green,
in the light the sky takes hold,
we can see the Ubacs of the Ventour”

– Frederic Mistral

For as long as people have lived in Provence, they have gazed up from their stony vineyards, olive groves, and meadows of purple lavender to watch clouds swirl round the broad summit of Mont Ventoux. The mountain looms over the southern Rhône valley. To its west lie the ancient Roman cities of Orange and Avignon, where Popes resided in the 14th century. Its northwestern foothills are home to some of France’s great vineyards. Vacqueyras and Gigondas are strong, thick, spicy wines, while those made higher on Ventoux itself are lighter and more refreshing, thanks to the cooler climate at altitude. Most of the mountain’s lower slopes are wooded however. In summer, cicadas buzz amongst pines, oaks, walnuts, and beeches, which give way to silent limestone rocks near the summit, where the forest was cut for timber from the 12th century onwards. A fearsome wind known as the Mistral can blow down the Rhône, battering the massive, barren peak with its gales.

 

For centuries, Ventoux was the seat of the Provençal wind god, Vintur. Though the Provençaux were conquered over and over during their history, Vintur lived on in their folklore and in the name of the mountain that stood over their lives, where they would look to watch wisps of white cloud swirl through the sky and see which of the eight winds they would encounter. In the winter, it would be blasted with snow. In the summer, its white, rocky summit would shimmer in the distance.

Vintur is now known mostly as the trade name of a winemaker, but Mont Ventoux remains as mythic as ever. It is where cyclists go to become heroes.

 

The mountain first entered cycling legend in 1951, when the Tour de France first crossed it. The Tour has since returned 15 times, and Mont Ventoux has been the site of some of the most iconic moments of racing in cycling history. This year, the peloton will climb it twice during the eleventh stage, first from the village of Sault and then from Bèdoin, before descending to the finish in Malaucéne.

Every one of the riders knows the grandeur that Ventoux might bestow on him. There was Charly Gaul’s time trial victory on it in 1958, where he set a record for the climb that lasted for decades. Then, there was Eddy Merckx’s win in 1970, where he pushed himself so hard that he had to be given supplemental oxygen. There was Marco Pantani beating Lance Armstrong. But then there was Eros Poli in 1994, all 85 kilograms of him, dragging his hefty leadout man’s frame over the summit during a long breakaway, before descending to a solo victory. And there was Thomas de Gendt in 2016, joining the likes of Poulidor, Thévenet, and Chris Froome in the ranks of riders who have won on Mont-Ventoux. 

 

Every summer, tens of thousands of cyclotourists head to the south of France with their heads full of Tour de France stories to fill their legs with lactic acid on the Giant of Provence. Every one goes home with his or her own story to tell.

And yet, the racers’ hopes will be tempered by fears. In the Tour, Mont-Ventoux “never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering,” Roland Barthes wrote in his 1957 essay on the race. In the years since, his words have only proven more true. British racer Tom Simpson died of heat exhaustion and dehydration, while racing up it in 1967. A monument one kilometre from the summit marks the spot where he collapsed. Riders will pay their respects when they pass on Wednesday, but mostly they will hurt.

 

The first ascent is 24.3 kilometres long at 5%. The second is much steeper: 15.7 kilometres at 8.8%, without a metre of respite. That doesn’t take into account the wind. Mont Ventoux is one of the windiest places on earth. It blows over 90 km/hr most days of the year, and gusts up to 320 km/hr have been recorded. Once you have emerged from the early switchbacks in the forest, there’s no hiding from it. Bike riders are absolutely exposed.

The road winds up a steep slope of limestone scree towards a telecommunication mast that marks the summit. In the summer, waves of white heat radiate off the rocks, turning the asphalt slow and sticky. The wind swirls.

 

The Provençal poet René Char called Mont Ventoux a ‘mirror to eagles”. On Wednesday, the riders will try to soar up its slopes. As they near its summit, the mountain will reflect only what they can find in themselves.