Mont Ventoux

Ventoux-StLegerA solitary, barren giant that rises 6,266 feet out of the lavender, sunflowers, and vast vineyards of Provence, Le Mont Ventoux is one of cycling’s most mysterious, merciless rulers. The Ventoux’s name alone still raises voices in cafés where locals argue its origin: from the gaulois word “vintur,” for victory, or from the word for wind, “vent”.

Ask any cyclist and they’ll say it’s the mountain of wind. Blowing up to 60 miles an hour, the northwest wind—the Mistral—has been known to force descending cyclists off their bikes. And yet, since the first paved road to the summit was finished in 1882, cyclists and cycling events have been drawn to the challenge of the Ventoux.

General Facts
History & Myth
Cycling History

General Facts Located in the southeast of France, the Mont Ventoux is 6,266 feet/1912 meters tall and marks the highest point in the region of Provence. It’s part of a mountain range running from the village of Montbrun-les-Bains in the east to Malaucène in the west. Further to the west, the range rises up again as the Dentelles de Montmirail.

The slopes of the Ventoux are covered in a mix of more than 900 types of plants and trees. Replanted by Napoleon III in 1860, the forests are lush groves of cedar, pines, conifers, and beech. The Ventoux’s flora dates back to glacial times and includes the famous Greenland hairy poppy. Near the top, a rocky lunar landscape quelled most plants, leaving little shelter from the cold, dry northwest wind, the Mistral.

The 360-degree view from the summit is inspiring, especially if a Mistral has cleared the air. From the northeastern lookout alone you can see most of the Alps, including the Vercors, Chaine de Belledonne, and Mont Blanc. To the west, there’s the rolling Rhône Valley, and to the south, the glint of the Mediterranean Sea.

History & Myth The written history of Mont Ventoux began with Italian humanist and poet, Francisco Petrarque, who in 1336, decided to hike its summit. On the evening of April 25, with a full moon to guide him, Petrarque, his brother, and two servants started their trek from the village of Malaucène at the base of the Ventoux. The three of them made the summit in time to witness the sunrise, where Petrarque reflected on his adventure:

“Many are the hills that lie between, and we must ascend, by a glorious stairway, from strength to strength. At the top is at once the end of our struggles and the goal for which we are bound. All wish to reach this goal, but, as Ovid says, ‘To wish is little; we must long with the utmost eagerness to gain our end.’ “

Half a millennium after Petrarque’s adventure, the first paved road to the summit was finished from Bedoin. In 1932, the connecting north road was finally built. With the roads in place to finally cross the great mountain, cyclists began writing a new chapter in Ventoux history.

Tom Simpson memorial Cycling History In 1882, Adolphe Benoit from Marseille and director of La Provence Sportive was the first to climb the Ventoux on the new south road from Bedoin. Proud of his feat, Benoit challenged other cyclists to attempt the same feat and organized Le Marathon du Ventoux. A young local named Jacques Gabriel won that first race.

In 1932, when the north road was finished, the summit became accessible by three different starting points: Malaucène, Bedoin and Sault. The new roads to the summit, with average grades of 7.6%, proved irresistible for cycling’s elite. The Ventoux became a main attraction for several races including: le Tour du Vaucluse, le Criterium du Dauphiné Libéré, Paris-Nice, and the Tour de France.

Perhaps the most memorable and memorialized Tour story involving the Ventoux took place July 13, 1967. On that day, English cyclist Tom Simpson fought for his life as a cyclist and lost to the mountain. Less than one mile to the summit, he began weaving across the road and fell. Delirious, Simpson asked the spectators to put him back on his bike. The next few feet he rode were his last. A large rock memorial (above left) can be found near the spot where he finally collapsed just one kilometer from the summit.