21 July 2002

The torturous Mont Ventoux where Briton Tommy Simpson died in the Sixties is no place for the meek

Today’s stage of the Tour de France finishes on Mont Ventoux. It will be the most brutal closing in sport. It has made champions and broken them. Charly Gaul, Eddy Merckx and Lance Armstrong have triumphed here. In 1967 Tommy Simpson died a kilometre from the summit.

The harsh white limestone whaleback of the `Giant of Provence’ stands 1,900 metres up in the summer sky some 50 miles due north of Marseille. This afternoon the Tour riders will end their 200 km journey eastwards across the flatlands above Nimes with a further 21km up the flanks of Mont Ventoux, climbing an unforgiving 1,600 metres (more than 5,000 feet) within the hour, moving from welcoming vineyards and oak woods at the bottom to empty scree, desolation – and exhaustion – at the top.

It is not a pretty place. Frenchman Roland Barthes has called Mont Ventoux “a god of evil to whom sacrifice must be paid. A true Moloch, a despot for cyclists, it never pardons the weak and exacts an unjust tribute of suffering”. Here, better than anywhere, we can confront the addictive challenge of superhuman physical effort of which the Tour de France is both the most inspiring and most cautionary example.

Through television’s all-seeing eye we watch with a mixture of fascination, admiration, fear and disapproval at our fellow humans working in a pit of strain way beyond our imaginings. There is a sense of awe in the achievement, fear of the price to be paid and disapproval of the extent of doping that has been done in the past and is allegedly still not eliminated today.

Since Mont Ventoux first hosted a stage in 1951 it has become the ultimate benchmark of the horror and sometimes the hilarity which the Tour can involve. In 1955 it ended the career of former winner Ferdi Kubler, who attacked too soon, had to be pushed over the mountain, crashed on the descent, consoled himself with beers at Avignon before setting off again – in the wrong direction. “Ferdi is too old,” he said that evening. “Ferdi hurts too much, Ferdi has killed himself on Mont Ventoux.”

Tommy Simpson was only 29. But the Nottingham miner’s son who moved to Belgium and became Britain’s greatest road racer killed himself all right. Killed himself through ignorance, desperation and through an iron will aided by additives that only a lunatic would take today. For Simpson was doped. He had taken amphetamines for energy and brandy (which he had “nicked” from a roadside bar) to deaden the pain and settle his diarrhoea. But he had also not taken anything like enough water, the official allocation being two bottles at the start and just two more at the feeding station on the dangerous theory that too much sweating was bad for you.

On a 13th stage on a July 13 so hot that it burst the thermometer at the Chalet Reynard 6km from the finish, to say that Simpson’s collapse was predictable is an understatement.

All this and a lot more is told in William Fotheringham’s Put me back on my bike, a title taken from Simpson’s supposed last words, as famous to cycle fans as “Kiss me Hardy” to Nelson watchers. Fotheringham, a passionate cyclist himself, quite brilliantly evokes the details of the era and the abiding dilemma that cyclists, or any super stretched athlete, will always have about “taking something.”

Some of us “took things” as jockeys in the Sixties – usually diuretics (I remember losing 4lb on the way to Hereford races with ever more hastening “arret pipis”) and/or amphetamines which we thought of as “appetite suppressants”. We were quite fearfully ignorant of the damage that could be done and were not so much seeking an edge over the competition so much as help in the eternal battle of keeping the mind alert and the weight in check in the day after day strain of the racing season.

For cyclists of Simpson’s time and for today’s Tour riders that strain is little short of super-human. The great Jacques Anquetil kept going with a cocktail of injections to ease the pain in the legs, amphetamines to keep him focused and then sleeping pills to calm him down. Until Simpson’s death it did not seem wicked, they even passed the pain-killing needle around, it was the way you got through it. And, as most clearly in the Anquetil case, it was still the strongest mind that won through.

When Tommy’s widow, Helen, unveiled the memorial on the Ventoux in 1968 optimistic noises were made about a brave, new drug-free world and of her husband not dying in vain. When the Festina EPO scandal broke in 1998 it was but the latest proof that when sportsmen are desperate the four most dangerous words that can be said to them are: “Try some of this.”

Visiting the Tour last week did not dispel the fears, with plenty of rumours in circulation and with the Basque Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano being feted as Tour leader (until Armstrong devoured the mountains on Thursday) despite having a massively high reading of the lung opener Salbutamol accepted on the pretext that it was just part of his asthma treatment.

Yet there is still something quite terrific about what is being attempted by the Tour de France as it confronts its moments of truth. Something tremendously brave and noble and inspiring about these young men putting their minds and bodies on the rolling anvil of the road. Something which once again will justify William Blake’s wonderful line that “great things do happen when men and mountains meet”. Today’s trek up Mont Ventoux is unlikely to be an exception.

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