Jonathan Franklin

Tour de France preview: Mont Ventoux

As the Tour prepares to climb Mont Ventoux for the 16th time, CW explains its powerful mystique

Let s not beat about the bush (you ll struggle to find one on its wind-scarred summit): when stage 12 heads up Mont Ventoux1 on Bastille Day during this year s Tour de France2, it will be tackling the most fearsome climb in cycling. Ventoux has it challengers for severity (Angliru, Mortirolo), prominence (Mount Etna, Puy de D me), otherworldliness (Col d Izoard), altitude (anything over 1,911m) and legend (Alpe d Huez, Col du Tourmalet3) but the Giant of Provence rolls all these characteristics into one, making it a Tour icon and a bucket-list tick box for cyclists the world over. For British followers of the sport especially, it will also forever be associated with the story of one of the country s best riders.

For it was close to the summit of the standalone beast in the south-east of France where Tom Simpson4 fatally collapsed from his bike in the 1967 Tour. As William Fotheringham writes in Put me Back on my Bike an insightful biography of Simpson titled from an embellishment of the former world champion s very last utterances on the Ventoux verge-side the mountain was a defining factor in his story.

Had Britain s greatest ever cyclist happened to collapse in a coma by some anonymous roadside in, say, Berry or Calvados, Fotheringham writes, his death would not have had the same lasting impact.

Defining is in fact too passive a word. Although alcohol, amphetamines and stomach illness all played a part, the horror and perhaps the morbid fascination of it is that the nature of Mont Ventoux itself was surely a contributing factor in Simpson s death. It was stiflingly hot on the mountain that day and its bleak desolate crown offers no forgiveness. In all likeliness, had the Tour been in the relative flatlands of Berry or Calvados, or possibly even on any other climb in France, Simpson might not have collapsed and died.

Riding past the memorial near where he fell, a painful sadness might wash over you. Not simply that a man collapsed and died too young in this most inhospitable of locations, but that he was so close to the respite the summit offers.

Philosopher s stone

Tour De France Preview: Mont Ventoux

The Tom Simpson memorial on Mont Ventoux. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

It s customary when writing about Mont Ventoux (it s probably inspired more literature than any other mountain in cycling) to quote 14th century poets and post-structuralist philosophers. Petrarch produced the first account of climbing the mountain in 1336, drawing parallels between the struggle of the climb and the challenges of life.

French philosopher Roland Barthes touched on its nature when he described it as a god of evil to whom sacrifice must be paid . It is a true Molach, a despot of cyclists, he added. It never pardons the weak and exacts an unjust tribute of suffering.

While Barthes s soundbites make for handy if hyperbolic quotes, if you get the right weather and pace yourself well, climbing Mont Ventoux is not intrinsically any more difficult than riding any other 20km, high mountain ascent. Of course, riding the climb and racing it are two very different things but at the end of the day, says Team Sky5 s Nicolas Roche, I reckon that a climb like the Giro s Colle della Lombarda is as hard as the Ventoux, it s just not as famous.

It s funny how we always talk about how hard some of the prestigious climbs are, but the truth is, when you are going full gas, every climb is pretty hard.

Tour De France Preview: Mont Ventoux

Chris Froome on Mont Ventoux, stage 15 of the 2013 Tour de France. Photo: Graham Watson

But what does make Ventoux particularly stand out in the imagination and history books not to mention on the landscape is its geography. Comprising rolling vineyards and the odd rocky outcrop, the neighbouring countryside is not flat.

But you re not in a mountain range either and this mighty mountain towers over everything.

It s one of the spectacular and original climbs because most of the other climbs that we do, have other climbs around them, notes Roche. But this one just sticks out in the middle. On a clear day you might see Ventoux from over 100km away. Approaching it in a race, it literally looms on the horizon. There s no avoiding the fact you have to climb over it.

But the additional challenge its isolated location in the south of France might present is not just psychological, but meteorological too especially during the midsummer heat of the Tour.

Above all, it s a hot climb if it s ridden in the Tour de France6, says Eros Poli, the 6ft 4in Italian who took an unlikely solo win on a stage that passed over the Ventoux in the 1994 Tour.

Not being among other mountains can make Ventoux harder. The Col de la Bonette, for example, is long and hard, but it s cooler because it s in the middle of a valley and among other Alps. Ventoux is in the middle of Provence. If it s hot, it becomes worse.


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Tour De France Preview: Mont Ventoux

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Tour De France Preview: Mont Ventoux

Tour de France 2016, stage 12 description, map and profile: Thursday, July 14


Although the steepest part of the climb spends kilometre after kilometre trundling through dense forest, Poli acknowledges even that part is exposed: From start to end, there s not shade. I remember that I looked for shade, but I couldn t find it! The road is not that narrow, there are trees, but the sun is high at the hour the Tour passes.

And then you climb out of the trees onto the bare blanched moonscape that makes the top part of the Ventoux so instantly recognisable. In anything but the most benign weather, the challenge intensifies. Hugging the bare scree mountainside, the road slants up towards the beacon at the summit. To your left, Provence stretches out below until it meets the Mediterranean Sea. Nothing stands between here and North Africa.

The name Ventoux is thought to be the corruption of a Gaulish misnomer meaning snowy peak (that s how its limestone top looks from afar) but it could readily be a reference to the wind (in French venteux means windy). Gusts have been known to reach 250kph on the mountain and have blown cars off the road. Often the mountain is shrouded in fog or buffeted by clouds that are slammed into its side and shoved up over the ridge to create a terrifying turbulent, low-vis summit menace. In high summer, the sun bounces off the mountain s white stone and heat can become trapped in the folds of the upper slope that the road runs in and out of.

It can be overbearing, says Orica-GreenEdge DS Matt White. You can feel it coming off the road.

On the day Simpson died, the mercury was estimated to be touching 55 C in these thermal pockets.

In the shadows

Tour De France Preview: Mont Ventoux

Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong on Mont Ventoux at the 2000 Tour de France. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

The Tour first climbed Mont Ventoux in 1951 and although this year will only see the Tour s 16th visit has been making legend there ever since. As well as Simpson s death in 1967, it s where Eddy Merckx7 required oxygen in 1970 and is the mountain that effectively ended the career of Swiss climber Ferdi K bler in 1955. Although in the last 20 years it has always marked a summit finish in the Tour, earlier visits and the stage that Poli won also descended the mountain to conclude in nearby towns.

Perhaps the cruellest stages up Ventoux, though, are the time trials. Charly Gaul won the first one in 1958 while Jean-Fran ois Bernard won another in 1987 with a masterful ride that involved switching from a low-profile time trial machine to a lightweight climbing bike on the lower slopes. The Crit rium du Dauphin 8 has also had a couple of time trials there, won by Jonathan Vaughters in 1999 and Iban Mayo in 2004 although it s worth noting that both riders were subsequently implicated in doping9 scandals. It s perhaps testament to Ventoux s challenging character that what happens there is often overshadowed by the spectre of doping10.

Simpson s death was a catalyst for the introduction of more stringent anti-doping controls while Jean Mall jac blamed his collapse there in 1955 on someone drugging him. Richard Virenque s win in 2002 and Marco Pantani s legendary gift win from Lance Armstrong11 in 2000 also leave their taint while a video purporting to show Chris Froome12 s power data during his 2013 Tour de France13 clash with Nairo Quintana14 was published on YouTube and used by some to question his credibility.

Pilgrimage site

Tour De France Preview: Mont Ventoux

The famous communications mast hides from view. Photo: Daniel Gould

But to lose oneself in the stats is to miss out on the mystique that Mont Ventoux musters. Although the road is typically shut between November and May, on any day it is open, a steady stream of cycling pilgrims can be found riding its slopes.

A typical southern French town of shady trees, gravelly plazas, wrought iron gates, beige walls and terracotta roofs, B doin at the foot of the mountain would perhaps be sleepier were it not for its growing status as a kind of Ventoux resort town catering to the flow of cyclists who pass through.

>>> Should you hire a bike or take your own when you go abroad?15

In dusty car parks, riders assemble bikes from the boots of cars and local club riders roll through the streets. A small service industry has grown here to serve the riders: a smattering of bike shops manned at the door by mannequins in official Ventoux attire along with a range of restaurants and pizzerias for refuelling. Apparently there s a waiter in one of the bars who entertains himself by warning cyclists about the wind at the summit. If the leaves are rustling in the square, he says, it will be blowing a gale at the top.

It s probably true.

>>> Majorca s Sa Calobra, cycling s perfect climb? (video)16

From the town the climb respectively ascends through three distinct sections of farmland, woodland and then that blinding white limestone of the crown.

The first six to seven kilometres are pretty climbable; you re surrounded by vineyards, notes Poli. The second part is harder. After the forest starts, it s 10 kilometres, more or less straight, with bits of up to 12 or 13 per cent. The mountain is protected as a biological reserve and there s a sense of moving into a different realm as you progress up it. The oak and coniferous woodland is dense and steamy, the road is lined with fantastically shaped hedges and the verges glow a radiant green; you could be on an ornamental driveway or in a botanical garden.

Cuckoos call from the trees and planes hum in the far-off distance. You re in the world of the winged up here. Getting higher, large mossy patches and swirling mist create a fairytale landscape.

>>> Tour de France 2016 route and essential guide17

A cafe, ski-lift, huge car park, smattering of buildings and an option to take another route down off the mountain give the junction at Chalet Reynard a touch of civilisation. But from this point up it is Ventoux s deserted moonscape to the summit. The view here opens out and the lavender fields, vineyards and orchards far below offer a tapestry of colour that contrasts starkly with the overwhelming monotony of the immediate rocky surrounds.

The gradient eases but as Poli acknowledges: The third part from Chalet Reynard to the top can be painful. You ve already done 16 kilometres, so in those last six you are dead tired. In that sun, with the stones reflecting the heat, or if there s wind, you ll suffer. Poli s old Gan team-mate Chris Boardman18 remembers the climb having him in tears not when he was racing over it, but years after retiring when he found himself riding the Etape du Tour.

I d agreed to do it with Dave Brailsford19 when I got quite drunk, but he didn t turn up, Boardman recalls. I was only riding two hours a day at that time.

By the time we got to the top of Mont Ventoux, people were saying, Look, there s Boardman over there, crying! But that s Mont Ventoux for you. It s a mountain that inspires awe and instils fear. That s why on almost any given day at the summit (when open) you might find triumphant cyclists with grins as wide as their faces or shivering wrecks who ll vow never to come back again. And while the odd Tour rider may give it a nonchalant shrug and wheel off back down towards the team bus, they still know like the rest of us that the whole package of Mont Ventoux is a mountain like no other.


Conquering the Giant of Provence

Tour De France Preview: Mont Ventoux


Eros Poli: Ventoux s most unlikely hero

At 6ft 4in, Eros Poli would typically be found in the laughing group on any Tour de France20 climb. But in 1994, having gone out on a lone break on the flats before Mont Ventoux, the Italian Mercatone Uno rider hit the foot of the climb with a 25-minute solo lead. It proved enough for him to survive at the head of the race and he came down the other side for a famous solo victory in the nearby town of Carpentras. Here, he recalls the day to Cycling Weekly.

In 1994, there were numerous fans, and many Italians because Marco Pantani was going so well. The bad memory I take away is that I arrived at the base after riding around 100km in time trial mode to gain time.

I thought if I was going to win the stage I d need at least 25 minutes advantage on the group.

I d lose about a minute every kilometre. If I had three minutes at the top, that d be enough to last the descent and 20 remaining kilometres on the flat.

The worst bit was when for the first time in my life I saw only a single digit on my computer. Normally in the gruppetto riding at the back, we d be going 12, 13 or 15kph. At one point, I saw 8 or 9kph: that was a shock. To go up a climb at such a slow pace had never happened to me before.

I d been doing 100 or more kilometres at over 45kph alone. That change of rhythm, starting the climb was terrible. At that curve, to start the second part, at Saint-Est ve, I was afraid and in trouble.

Now, I like Ventoux. I ride Ventoux three to four times a year with my InGamba tour group. Every time, I think, How the hell did I manage to arrive first that day?

It s beautiful nowadays to take along friends and share my memories.

Normally Ventoux is for climbers and champions. I was a passista so it was a dream coming first. Normally I d be last.

References

  1. ^ stage 12 heads up Mont Ventoux (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  2. ^ Tour de France (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  3. ^ Col du Tourmalet (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  4. ^ Tom Simpson (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  5. ^ Team Sky (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  6. ^ Tour de France (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  7. ^ Eddy Merckx (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  8. ^ Crit rium du Dauphin (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  9. ^ doping (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  10. ^ doping (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  11. ^ Lance Armstrong (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  12. ^ Chris Froome (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  13. ^ Tour de France (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  14. ^ Nairo Quintana (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  15. ^ >>> Should you hire a bike or take your own when you go abroad? (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  16. ^ >>> Majorca s Sa Calobra, cycling s perfect climb? (video) (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  17. ^ >>> Tour de France 2016 route and essential guide (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  18. ^ Chris Boardman (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  19. ^ Dave Brailsford (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)
  20. ^ Tour de France (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk)

Malta, Europe: A European island holiday with a bit of everything

Malta, Europe: A European Island <b><i>Discount Holidays ©</i></b> Holiday With A Bit Of Everything

Spend a summer in the Med exploring the attractions of Malta. Imagine walking into the bowels of a millennia-old tomb, knowing that thousands of people were buried here. Imagine each stone carved painstakingly by hand, in a structure so vast that one chamber leads to another and another, everything and out of sight.

Now imagine this: you are not in Egypt, and these are not the pyramids of Giza. They are older, too. By about 1000 years. In fact, these tombs, carved from the limestone under the ground built in reverse, as it were are in Malta, a tiny island with an extraordinary and mysterious history.

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The site I speak of here is the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a subterranean wonder of engineering, chambers carved from the rock long before any engineer existed, perfected with an extraordinary skill to create a rounded beauty that would rival any stonemason’s work to this day. And the only tools these unknown people had were made of stone and of wood.

To get a true sense of the Hypogeum’s size is impossible as a visitor. There is only a small section that can be accessed, and under the strictest guidelines. The rest is off limits. But that section is a phenomenon.

Malta, Europe: A European Island <b><i>Discount Holidays ©</i></b> Holiday With A Bit Of Everything

Gabrielle Costa

The way, the truth and the light … An unretouched photo of St Publius, just outside Valletta, throws Malta’s Catholicism into stark relief. Only 10 people are allowed in at any one time the tours had to be reined back when the breath from the visitors started to eat into the limestone walls truly.

Even though your presence in the tombs is fleeting, it is intimate. The tours are an amazing experience into the realm of unanswerable mysteries. Who carved each stone, fragment by fragment? Why did they do it? And for me, the most pressing question of all, why did they abandon the tombs and leave the island?

There were, they say, 7000 bodies in here at one time. The short visit is enough because after a while, I cannot wipe the morbid picture of the piles of bones from my mind. It is troubling and shocking and fascinating all at once, an experience like no other.

Malta, Europe: A European Island <b><i>Discount Holidays ©</i></b> Holiday With A Bit Of Everything

Alamy

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a hewn rock structure which was used as a cemetery. The experts say farmers who came to Malta from nearby Sicily carved the Hypogeum from the stone. Their existence was wiped in a mystery for the ages, the tombs left untouched until 1902 when excavations for a cistern on a house revealed their existence to modern man. No one knows what became of the builders of the Hypogeum, whether they abandoned their beliefs and left, or were killed off by disease.

The tombs are not the only site filled with mystery on an island that is a mystery in itself. Temples dot the landscape too, extraordinary temples that tell of either a remarkable coincidence or a very early understanding of the seasons and the solstices.

Malta, Europe: A European Island <b><i>Discount Holidays ©</i></b> Holiday With A Bit Of Everything

Gabrielle Costa

A bit fishy … Lampuki, straight from the grill. At Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, the temples are aligned such that at the solstice, the light at sunrise falls on an altar, different altars in summer and winter. Not much remains now and what is there is tented over to protect it from the elements but if imagination allows, picture the grand structures they would have been, looking out onto a calm sea.

It is not all ancient history in Malta. The capital Valletta is a beautiful example of a well thought-out city on the edge of an exquisite harbour. It is, if I dare say, like the best bits of Rome, only everywhere. The winding streets are paved with stone, the Opera House that was bombed to oblivion during World War II remains as a reminder of conflict, and the site, when I was visiting, of a beautiful ballet by the Russian Bolshoi Theatre.

You can take a tour through the home of nobles at Casa Rocca Piccola, where guide Eve will show you how the other half live and indeed continue to live, a well-to-do family still resides there and resident parrot Kiku will greet you. At the Grand Master’s Palace, the extraordinary beauty is evident, if dimly lit. But beware the crowds and try to time your visit to avoid the mass tour groups. Still in Valletta, the St John’s Co-Cathedral is breathtaking in its ornate brilliance, while the darker, less crowded Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck he was shipwrecked here on his way to a trial in Rome that spelled his demise is pokier, somehow, but disarmingly charming.

This is a highly religious country, where almost everyone identifies as Roman Catholic. At Mosta, in fact, there is a church dome that is visible, they say, from most parts of the island. In 1942, a bombshell came ripping through that dome, into a congregation of 300 people. The German weapon skidded across the floor. It failed to explode. And not a single person was hurt.

Everywhere you go in Malta there is a church and they are beautifully maintained by a people proud of their faith. Arriving on the Maltese island of Gozo by ferry and your first sight is, indeed, a church dome. A tour of the island reveals many more. But there is also a pub culture in Malta to rival that anywhere.

In trendy Sliema, which sits on a jutting rib of land that houses the ferry services on one side and private hotel lidos and swimming “beaches” (most are rock) on the other. Bar after bar is crammed at night with locals and tourists and restaurants are packed well into the late evening with patrons sampling unbelievably fresh seafood just plucked from the ocean, much of it prepared with Italian influences. At Il Galeone I had a dish of fresh sole with a silky lemon butter sauce and a glorious tiramisu that was a coffee-bitter sweet ending to a lovely meal at this family-run restaurant that’s been turning out great food since 1983.

Walk along the magnificent promenade crammed with people out for an evening stroll in the warm summer air until you happen upon Ta’ Kolina. The rabbit dishes are popular with the patrons, as is the lampuki, a Maltese fish that’s a little on the bony side but delicious if you don’t mind picking your way through them. On the Valletta side of the harbour at Cockney’s, the spaghetti alle vongole was nothing short of perfect. The clams were cooked in garlic-wine sauce and every strand of pasta was perfectly tender, made all the better by a half-bottle of Maltese white wine, deliciously fruity and the perfect chilled complement on a hot evening. There might be a little wait, as everything there is cooked to order but it is worth it, even if the ferry back to Sliema is beckoning.

Nearby Paceville and St Julian’s are home to bars and clubs that are, perhaps, more the domain of the young, but every night is rocking somewhere, even if it’s just a rocky ledge along the sea, where locals build fires and simply sit, enjoying the summer evening with the lap of the water as their soundtrack. In my travels, I met Arthur. The Briton has been visiting Malta for 40 years. And I heard tell of another frequent traveller who’d called Malta his home away from home since 1946. Arthur told me as I left that he might well see me again.

I can imagine that is a distinct possibility. Who would not want to go back to a place with such a breadth of beauty?

TRIP NOTES

More information: www.visitmalta.com
For more about the Hypogeum and pre-booking tickets, www.heritagemalta.org56

Staying there
Avoid Valletta as it shuts up shop en masse in the early evening. Head to Sliema for a relaxed break (Hotel Plevna was great for the price about $96 a night, with breakfast but the full board option is best avoided) and St Julian’s and Paceville for a rowdier time. There’s no shortage of hotels. Hit Google and booking sites for great deals, especially in shoulder season.

Getting there
Emirates flies to Malta via Dubai and Lanarca, Cyprus. Getting there from continental Europe is a cinch (and cheap).

Eating there
Il Galeone (21 316 420) is at 35 Ix-Xatt Ta’ Tigne, Sliema just across from the ferries and a little away from the tourist bustle.
Ta’ Kolina (21 33 5106) is at 151 Tower Road, Sliema.
You’ll find Cockney’s (21 236 065) at Triq Marsamxett, Il-Belt, Valletta. You can see it from the ferry dock on the Valletta side.

The writer travelled at her own expense.

Traveller.com.au7

References

  1. ^ Through the heart of Hungary (www.stuff.co.nz)
  2. ^ Vienna a win-win city (www.stuff.co.nz)
  3. ^ Why Transylvania is tops (www.stuff.co.nz)
  4. ^ 20 reasons to visit Monaco (www.stuff.co.nz)
  5. ^ www.visitmalta.com (www.visitmalta.com)
  6. ^ www.heritagemalta.org (www.heritagemalta.org)
  7. ^ Traveller.com.au (www.traveller.com.au)

UK sets Tunisia beach attack inquest for next year or early 2017

LONDON A British inquest into the deaths of 30 holidaymakers killed in June’s beach attack in Tunisia will take place late next year or early in 2017, the coroner leading the investigation said at an initial review on Tuesday.

The massacre at a hotel in Sousse on the Mediterranean coast was the biggest loss of British lives in such an incident since the July 2005 bombings in London.

Nicholas Loraine-Smith, a senior judge acting as coroner promised a “full, fair and fearless” investigation into the deaths.

The initial scope of his investigation would include looking at the adequacy of travel advice provided by Britain’s foreign office and travel companies, as well as the incident itself and post-mortem investigations.

Many of the victims were on Discount Holidays © holiday with Thomson, part of travel giant TUI Group (TUIT.L), which was named by the judge as an interested party in the case.

Separately, a group of 15 families who lost loved ones in the attack and a number of victims who survived have started legal action against TUI for allegedly failing to provide adequate security at the hotel.

Two weeks after the attack, Britain warned that another attack in Tunisia was “highly likely” and travel operators cancelled holidays there.

They are yet to resume, amid a bleak picture for travel security elsewhere with flights to the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh from the UK halted in November after the downing of a Russian jet and after Friday’s Paris attack which killed at least 129 people.

Earlier on Tuesday, a Tunisian official said a cell of 17 Islamist militants had been arrested, preventing another major assault on hotels and security forces in Sousse planned for this month.

Tunisia is conducting its own inquest into the Sousse attacks and Loraine-Smith said he was in contact with the Tunisian judge and expected to receive material from him in December.

The judge set a second pre-inquest review for Jan.

21 and said that the inquest proper would begin on either Oct.

31 next year or on Jan.

9 2017.

(Reporting by Sarah Young1; editing by Stephen Addison2)

Our top photos from the last 24 hours.

UK Sets Tunisia Beach Attack Inquest For Next Year Or Early 2017

UK Sets Tunisia Beach Attack Inquest For Next Year Or Early 2017

UK Sets Tunisia Beach Attack Inquest For Next Year Or Early 2017

References

  1. ^ Sarah Young (blogs.reuters.com)
  2. ^ Stephen Addison (blogs.reuters.com)