Words by Peter Cossins | Photo: SWpix.com
I live in the mountain because I love the mountains. Any mountains. The sight of any massif rising up from the plains triggers a desire to climb, by bike or on foot. Some mountains, though, have a particular attraction and Mont Ventoux is one of them.
In Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane, a climber of the Hillary/Messner/Bonnington variety rather than the Bahamontes/Van Impe/Quintana, describes the Provençal peak as “benign”, highlighting it only for the fact that it is the location of the first recorded mountain climb, by the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch, who climbed it in the company of his brother and two servants on 26 April 1336. For a climber of the highest peaks, like Macfarlane, that description is undoubtedly fitting, but in my own experience the Ventoux is often far from benign.
I vividly remember the cloudless day that I drove my family to the summit feeling the wind pick up in intensity as we ascended its barren slopes above Chalet Reynard. Approaching the summit, we saw cyclists walking down because the gusts were so frighteningly strong. Turning the final hairpin towards the summit, a rider was blown backwards almost onto the bonnet of our car. At the top, the conditions were so wild that my wife and young daughter stayed in the car because they worried about being picked up by the wind and swept away into the void.
Cycling, of course, has a well-recorded history of battles on the Ventoux and with the elements, of deathly heat in 1955 and 1967, of the terrifying wind in 2016 that forced the organisers to move the finish 7km down the mountain to Chalet Reynard. There’s no other climb in the cycling world that where the weather reports are checked with such regular frequency in the days and hours leading up to a race. Yet, today the Tour was blessed with conditions that were about as benign as they get on “the Bald Mountain” and what a race we were able to savour as a result of that.
Like almost every one of the previous 10 stages in this extraordinary Tour de France, there was so much to take in and talking points aplenty. It would be totally amiss not to start with the winning performance of Wout van Aert, who in his post-stage press conference described his victory as “probably the best of my career, because of the way I did it, by finishing alone on a mountain stage at the Tour de France, which is definitely not something I expected a few years ago, and because it’s an iconic mountain in the Tour, a place with a lot of history.”
Part of the 17-rider breakaway that clipped away early on in the stage, the Belgian champion was happy to let others set the tempo initially and then held back when Trek-Segafredo’s Kenny Elissonde made the initial jump from the breakaway on one of the Ventoux’s steepest ramps in the forest beneath Chalet Reynard. When van Aert made his move a few hundred metres later, he looked so strong and smooth that Elissonde’s plucky bid for glory instantly looked doomed. The Frenchman hung on for three kilometres, then gradually ceded.
Once clear on his own, van Aert’s was a performance of graceful power, his rhythm constant, his gaze set, looking every inch the champion in his Belgian national jersey. Will it prove to be a turning point in his career, the moment when he realised that a future bid for the yellow jersey might be within his reach?
Behind him, the battle for this year’s yellow jersey took a very unexpected turn when van Aert’s teammate Jonas Vingegaard attacked and dropped the hitherto impregnable Tadej Pogačar. As the young Dane accelerated away, it struck me to what extent the weather gods were collaborating with the action. Usually on the rise through the Ventoux’s lunar landscape above Chalet Reynard, there’s a block headwind blowing down from the summit that convinces the riders that there’s no point in attacking. Today, however, the wind favoured the brave, coming across or from slightly behind, and Vingegaard made full use of it.
Although the 40-second lead that he built up as he passed beneath the distinctive communications and weather towers at the Ventoux’s summit evaporated on the descent, where Pogačar benefited substantially from the support he got from Rigoberto Uran and Richard Carapaz, it offered a glimmer of hope for the GC battle. Will Pogačar’s astonishing rides in the opening half of the race undermine his progress in the second half, which features three extremely tough climbs in the Pyrenees? With van Aert and Sepp Kuss as his lieutenants, Vingegaard may yet cause the defending champion a few jitters.
A tip of the hat too for the Trek trio Elissonde, Bauke Mollema and Julian Bernard, who almost carved out a brilliant victory. The latter’s presence in the break offered the possibility that the Frenchman might produce a fairytale performance, 34 years after his father Jean-François clinched a famous time trial victory atop the Ventoux. It wasn’t to be, but the trio perhaps deserved rather more than Elissonde’s prize as the day’s most aggressive rider.
As for Ineos, if their goal in setting the pace in the peloton almost all day was to shake out some of Carapaz’s rivals for a podium place, the tactic was a success, as David Gaudu and, more notably, Ben O’Connor both lost significant ground. But it cost them their road captain, Luke Rowe, who finished outside the time limit.
Finally, it’s clear that ASO’s decision to feature two ascents of the Ventoux for the first time was a huge success. The mountain always adds to the sense of expectation when it appears on the Tour route and this unprecedented stage didn’t disappoint. It was, as van Aert said in his press conference, “a very special day”.