“A giant, smouldering 6,000-foot-high slagheap”: Why Mont Ventoux is so feared

Sean Lee Columnist

By , Sean Lee is a Roar Expert

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    When Doctor Pierre Dumas leant over Tom Simpson after the British bike rider had crashed to the ground for the last time during the Tour of 1967, his mind would have gone racing back 12 years to the Tour of 1955.

    On that occasion Dr. Dumas had to prise open the jaws of fallen cyclist Jean Mallejac in order to administer oxygen and then inject a stimulant to restart the stricken rider’s heart. Unlike Simpson though, Mallejac survived.

    Both incidents occurred on the barren, sun beaten slopes of Mont Ventoux and under extreme conditions.

    Temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, coupled with furious racing and the dubious use of ‘supplements’ contributed to the demise of both riders.

    Photographs of the incidents are dramatic, but two in particular stand out.

    The first is of a shirtless Dr. Dumas crouching at the side of an unmoving Mallejac on the rocky Ventoux road side. He is holding an oxygen mask over the Frenchman’s nose and mouth with one hand while checking for a pulse in the rider’s neck with the other.

    Mallejac was no amateur. He was not caught out of his depth playing with the big boys.

    In 1953 he had won a stage of the Tour, worn the yellow jersey for five days and finished second overall. He’d followed that up with fifth overall in 1954, but Ventoux and the harsh conditions caught him out in 1955.

    Russell Mockridge, one of Australia’s greatest cycling pioneers, rode in that very same Tour.

    In his autobiography My World on Wheels, he talked of undergoing a ‘trial by fire’ on the slopes of Mont Ventoux and noted a ‘sense of fear in the hearts of the other 95 riders’ as they charged towards the Tour’s ”via doloroso…a giant, smouldering 6,000-foot-high slagheap.”

    Jean Bobet, brother of three time Tour winner Louison Bobet and an accomplished pro-cyclist himself sensed a similar anxiety among the riders of that 1955 peloton as they approached Ventoux.

    ”It’s very hot. I’m going to hell. Not a word. Nothing is more impressive than a silent peloton. Nobody says a word, nobody laughs. Lifting your head slightly you can make out the shape in the distance, through the mist, of the Ventoux….You can smell the fear of the men going to a lingering death,” he wrote dramatically in his book.

    ”Tomorrow, we ride.”

    To avoid the searing heat, the riders had appealed to race director Jacques Goddet to postpone the start of the race until later in the afternoon, but their pleas fell on deaf ears, and the race started as scheduled, almost claiming the life of Mallejac in the process.

    Mockridge wrote ”The heat was becoming so fierce, that even the cicadas had lost their song. Everything it seemed, had been stunned by the blast of overhead sun; everything that is except the Tour de France.”

    Mockridge, who had been struggling since the lower slopes and in fact had gone searching for water and relief in a farmhouse, also described the scene of Mallejac’s collapse as he approached.

    ”Jean Mallejac….a member of the French team, was making a crazy zig-zag across the road near the summit. With one foot firmly clamped to a pedal, he dragged his other foot on the road, continued for a few yards, then slumped in a heap by the roadside….he lay by the roadside, grey-faced, mouth foaming, eyes bulging…the temperature was now more than 120 degrees (Fahrenheit).”

    In fact it was so hot that 30 of the official cars following the riders up the mountain overheated and were left steaming on the side of the road.

    Ferdi Kubler, the Swiss rider who had a particular habit of referring to himself in the third person, had won the Tour in 1950 but on this dreadful day he was barely able to finish.

    “The Tour is finished for Ferdi,” he cried, “He is too sick, too old. Ferdi will never start again. He killed himself on the Ventoux”

    Darling of the French, Louison Bobet, on his way to claiming his third Tour title in a row told journalists at the finish, “A day like that takes years off our lives.”

    For years afterwards, whenever he was asked about that day on Ventoux he spoke only of his suffering, never the joy of winning the stage.

    Mont Ventoux’s fearsome reputation had been born.

    But while the ultimate sacrifice was not paid on Mont Ventoux in 1955, it was with Simpson in 1967.

    A photograph snapped of the British rider just moments before he collapsed and died is perhaps one of the most haunting images ever recorded at a bike race.

    He is still on his bike but it is obvious that he is pedalling from memory. His face is blank except for a slight creasing of the forehead and his eyes are vacant, staring unseeingly at a spot on the road just a few metres ahead.

    It is the face of a man who is already dead, upright only by habit, legs turning slowly, automatically, fingers wrapped tightly around the top of his bars.

    He is slouching in the saddle and leans slightly to one side, a drooping shoulder skewing his body off square. His cheeks are hollow and his eyes are glazed.

    Moments later he would fall and never rise again.

    He had already fallen once, and although it was suggested that he withdraw from the race he insisted that he go on.

    William Fotheringham’s brilliant book, In search of Tom Simpson recounts Simpson’s final moments in heart wrenching detail.

    It outlines how Simpson managed to ride straight for 500 yards after remounting from his first fall, before he began to zig-zag and wobble, just as Mallejac had done 12 years before.

    Support staff leapt from the team car to steady him, but even with the aid of three spectators they were unable to keep him upright.

    They laid him on his side and were only really aware of the direness of the situation when they couldn’t release his fingers from the handle bars.

    They were locked on as if in rigor mortis.

    Harry Hall, the British team mechanic, was one of the people trying to steady Simpson as he fell.

    He states in Fotheringham’s book that he believes Simpson died somewhere between being put back on his bike 500 yards before and his second fall.

    He was dead before he hit the ground.

    Dr. Dumas worked on Simpson for an hour, the stinking heat reflecting off the white rocks and intensifying the cauldron like conditions. He tried all the same techniques that he had used to revive Mallejac, but it was all for naught.

    Both tragedies contribute to the fearsome reputation of the mountain and in a macabre way also add to its intrigue.

    The riders who have come after Mallejac and Simpson treat the mountain with respect.

    They know that it is not a climb that will surrender itself meekly. But above all else they respect those who have come before them.

    Eddy Merckx, while riding to the second of his five Tour victories in 1970, doffed his cap as he passed the Simpson memorial that now stands in honour of the fallen rider on the slopes of Ventoux.

    Many of today’s riders will pay similar tribute as they grind their way past the monument.

    All who tackle the Ventoux are aware of its tragic history and all will approach it with feelings of trepidation.

    With medical advancement and closer monitoring of riders, chances of similar incidents occurring on its brutal slopes are slim, leaving us free to celebrate the mountain for the racing that takes place upon its stony back, not the lives it tries to ruin.

    Alpe d’Huez, Tourmalet, Galibier and the other high mountains of the Tour de France have their own stories of triumph and despair. But none are feared more than the Giant of Provence – Mont Ventoux.

    Another chapter in the mountain’s history will be written today.

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