A recent geographical survey says Mont Ventoux is not as high as previously thought. The road at the top is lower than 1900m despite signs proclaiming it sits at 1911m. It’s tempting to imagine Mont Ventoux collapsing under the weight of clichés piled on every time the Tour de France visits. It’s telling that if nobody can agree the height then there’s space on the mountain for dreams, mysteries and more. No other venue seems to capture the imagination.
There’s confusion about the summit’s height and it’s all on display. One sign says 1911m above sea level, another 1910m, another 1909m and in case you think this could be a matter of how high these signs and their poles sit, the milestone on the ground says 1912m. This discord meant that cyclists and others looking to try record attempts and measure vertical gain have needed an accurate number and recently a survey was conducted to establish the exact height. It turns out the highest point of the road is more likely 1899m.
We’ll see if the signs, commemorative T-shirts and mini-milestone souvenirs corrected. For accuracy’s sake it should happen. Precedent says they’ll stay: look at the Col de la Madeleine where the sign proudly proclaims 2000m when actually the pass sits at 1993m. We’re suckers for imagining, or wanting to imagine, that something is greater than its reality. It’s here that Mont Ventoux sits above everything else in the sport, no other place occupies such an elevated position in cycling’s mythology. Put aside trigonometry and elevation calculations, Ventoux is the height of hype and mythology.
Each visit of the Tour is accompanied by the same stories being wheeled out, a veritable Ventoux bingo. These don’t get too tiresome as one factor behind the mountain’s special status is its scarity, it’s only been 15 times since 1951, less than once every four years. It’s not as mundane as the Tourmalet nor as familiar Alpe d’Huez.
Many claim it’s unique, that there’s no landscape like it but reach the summit on a clear day and you see other limestone peaks and ridges around. The nearby Montagne de Lure even has a road to the top. Granted it’s not as stunning but it is there for comparison. Ventoux generates its own fiction, its own imagination. Bert Wagendorp’s novel “Ventoux” is barely about the mountain but it seems to play a role of being the opposite to everything found in the Netherlands with its elevation, heat and desolation. The mountain seems to encourage many to lose their senses with talk of spirits, ghosts, mystery and dwindling oxygen as if gripped by summit fever or vertigo.
No passage about or over the Ventoux seems complete without a quote – or rather the quote – by Roland Barthes. A French philosopher, in his 1957 book Mythologies Barthes says Ventoux is “ le dieu du Mal, auquel il faut sacrifier“, “a god of evil to which sacrifices must be made”. Mythologies is a collection of essays where Barthes jumps from subjects like soap power marking, to plastics, to the consumption of steak and chips with the agility of a sprinter hopping from wheel to wheel with 500m to go. Only Barthes doesn’t really bring much, often it feels he is wheeled out in time for Mont Ventoux because he’s a philosopher, some intellectual polish rather than the application of his thoughts on consumerism, the media or sport. His critique on the Tour de France is really a musing on psychogeography and how the race homogenises France.
Another part of the myth is the death of Tom Simpson in 1967. There’s something grisly about death adding to the notoriety of the mountain. Is it not similar, in some diluted way, to the way climbing past frozen bodies is part of the experience of conquering Everest, that to reach the top is to achieve something not everyone has managed? But did Mont Ventoux kill Simpson? This isn’t the place for a post mortem but let’s acknowledge that a combination of alcohol, amphetamines, heat, exhaustion, gastric woes and personal constitution did it for Simpson. Ventoux is a component of the exhaustion factor but it could have been another road, another mountain too. There’s nothing inherently lethal about Mont Ventoux.
The Simpson memorial is odd too, we want to show respect to the fallen cyclist but at times it looks like a collection point for cycling waste. In 2000 Jean-Louis Le Touzet of Libération, a French newspaper, made an inventory of the objects:
- Six caps
- Seven tubular tires
- An Italian saddle
- A licence from the French mountaineering federation belonging to Sylvie Reverend
- A pair of glasses
- A Michelin tire lever
- A shoe cleat
- A bottle cage
- 11 water bottles weighed down with stones
- Two pairs of gloves
- A McDonalds dinosaur
- A matchbox from the hotel Steffani in Saint Moritz
- A tiny bicycle in a box
- A measuring tape
- A decal of the Belgian cycle touring federation
- Two unused Chupa Chups
- the business card of a member of a Dutch team with his phone number
Le Touzet wrote all that’s missing is a mail box; perhaps a waste bin would be equally useful? It boggles the mind that someone was passing with a spare saddle, let alone the thought process that brought them to deposit it out of commemoration. The sentiment might be touching but the collection of cycling sundries just makes it an unusual place.
It’s said Simpson collapsed lower down the road, approximately two kilometres from the top but the location of his memorial is closer to the summit, about a kilometre, as if to suggest he was almost within touching distance of the summit.
No, forget the ghosts, philosophers and mortal history. What is unique and special about Mont Ventoux is the factual, the obvious. In trying to shroud the summit in myth we overlook the geological wonder of a limestone peak with a road across the top. All the other legendary mountains in cycling are not mountains but mere passes. We exploit the conceit of the “summit finish” when we really mean a finish line drawn in a ski resort rather than atop a peak. The likes of the Galibier, Tourmalet, Stelvio are the low points used to cross over a mountain range. Antoine Blondin put it well:
“The traditional mountain passes are, by definition, crossing places. They’re placed on the rider’s route with a military function stripped of all true sadism: you go over them because it would be difficult to do otherwise and even the most miserable person would say you might as well go over this way. The ascent of Mont Ventoux offers a ferocious gratuity.”
– L’Equipe, 11 July 1974
This is what makes Ventoux special, the way it stands proud of the landscape, its independence. Given the Puy de Dôme is now inaccessible to the Tour it’s the only high peak left with topological prominence.
It’s just a mountain with a road to the top. Given nobody can agree on the height no wonder there’s space on the mountain for tales of mysticism and more. It’s as if the white summit is a blank canvas, that Mont Ventoux is whatever you want to make it with tales of death, essays on philosophy and more appearing every time the Tour visits, a kind of summit fever that no other mountain generates. It’s all enjoyable and profitable too: today’s L’Equipe says Bédoin, the small town at the foot of the mountain, has 310 inhabitants and welcomes 200,000 cyclists a year, many keen to experience the legend for themselves.