Exclaims Thierry Gouvenou: “One thing is for sure and that’s that this stage will do some damage!”
Continues the technical director of Le Tour, “This is exactly what is expected of ‘the Bald Mountain’. And even if a favourite doesn’t wrap up the Tour there, a lot of riders could end up losing all hope of victory because this climb is so unique, so different from every other. Some are bound to stumble due to its extreme difficulty.”
What hasn't been said about Mont Ventoux that hasn't already been said? Giles Belbin, author of Mountain Kings, perhaps summed it up best: "While the Alpe (d'Huez) is the picture-postcard, friendly star of the Tour's mountains, the Ventoux is its bad-tempered, smouldering, older brother." Said Thibaut Pinot, “I won at Alpe d’Huez last year and I know that wins up there are very symbolic for riders - but it’s not as frightening a climb. I’ll repeat: the Ventoux is much more difficult. It makes a huge impression on all of the riders, even the favourites.”
Standing isolated in Vaucluse above the Rhône valley, the gargantuan limestone peak made its debut in 1951, one year after the inclusion of Alpe d'Huez, then took another seven years before earning the right to feature as a stage finish (first as a time trial, won by eventual race winner Charly Gaul). 1965 was the year 'le Géant de Provence' featured as a finish of an en ligne stage of the Tour, where Raymond Poulidor conquered its scree slopes. And 13 July 1967 was, of course, the day mountain took its first victim, as Britain's Tom Simpson, under a blistering sun and high on alcohol, amphetamines and altitude, rode himself to death. “That tragedy plays a part in the uniqueness of the place,” says Marc Madiot, boss of the FDJ team.
Most recently, Ventoux featured on Stage 15 of the 2013 Tour. Like today’s stage, it was also on Bastille Day. (Interestingly, the last three winners on this day have gone on to win overall.) And on a course profile not dissimilar to that of today (though some 60 kilometres longer), Froome was, to quote his good friend Richie Porte, in “full thrasher mode”, unhitching Nairo Quintana, the last to hang on, a kilometre from the top. "I didn't imagine I'd win on this climb; it's so historic and means so much to this race, especially in the 100th edition of the race," he said afterwards, joining past winners Gaul, Poulidor, Merckx, Thévenet and Pantani.
"My objective was to get as much of a buffer in GC as I could. I didn't see myself winning. I can't believe it." Either could a number of journalists, who would later describe the performance as reminiscent of Armstrong's EPO-ravaged doping heyday ('UK Postal', the cynics in the press room and on social media called it), the relentless questioning and innuendo continuing all the way to Paris. Froome, who held the maillot jaune since the eighth stage, rode on seemingly unperturbed, two stages later winning the individual time trial and ending his victorious campaign 4'20 ahead of Quintana.
The Kenyan-born Brit said he understood that, given the sport's lurid past, why the questions were been asked of him - but at the same time, was riled by what he felt was a lack of respect given the lack of evidence; only claims about “appearances” were made. It appeared unnatural, said the naysayers. But was it?
Appearances can be misleading. Dirt has been thrown but nothing has stuck, other than a crass spectator's urine. And now, here we are, the 31-year-old staring down the barrel of a third victory in four years, albeit 10 days and many Alpine passes away.
‘Froome you, naysayers!’
Most likely, that’s what he and wife Michelle Cound say each time they read a derisory remark questioning his bona fides. That or some other word beginning with ‘F’... and after what they’ve been through, who are we to deny them that pleasure?
Froome: "Everyone has a tactic"
Performances today may be tempered somewhat given the importance of the Tour’s first individual time trial the day following, a 37.5 kilometre race of truth from Bourg-Saint-Andéol to La Caverne du Pont-d'Arc. Among the GC contenders, we may find ourselves with a similar situation to that of last Sunday to Andorra Arcalis; testing one another but by no means emptying the tank. “In theory, the linking of Ventoux and the time trial is a game-changer in the 2016 Tour,” wrote veteran cycling journalist Gilles Le R’och in the official Tour guide. Adds Gouvenou: “It sets them a dilemma.”
Madiot disagrees. “For riders it is impossible to economise on their effort on (the Ventoux’s) slopes, even though there’s an important stage the next day. It’s way too hard.
“The Ventoux is guaranteed to bring the favourites out. They certainly won’t have the next day’s time trial in their thoughts. They won’t hold anything back. It will, as always, be the setting for a real sort-out between the contenders because the overall classification is up for grabs. The Ardèche (time trial) stage should simply confirm the hierarchy.”
The maillot jaune has perhaps the most balanced view: “From now on, every GC day will be raced in consideration with the day after. Maybe my rivals will try to take seconds on me on the Ventoux, everyone has a tactic, but I'll keep the time trial in mind.”
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says...
“The Mont Chauve (bald mountain) doesn't carry its name that well when the Tour comes to visit with its hundreds of thousands of spectators coming along. The French National Day will really be a moment of truth for the candidates to yellow jersey glory, whether they’re French or not.”
What they say...
Chris Froome (Team Sky)
"To be honest I don't think (the shortened stage) changes (things) too much. The climb until Chalet Reynard is extremely hard already. It's another 200 kilometre stage tomorrow with a lot of wind predicted. It could even be split to pieces before the climb. We'll have to wait and see, but if anything, I think it's going to mean an even more intense race before we hit the climb because it's slightly shorter."
Daniel Martin (Etixx-Quick-Step)
"On Ventoux, there's no place to hide, and truth being told, it doesn't make any difference if you're on somebody's wheel or not. On the other hand, with the headwind we have in the last four kilometres and the ITT on the following day, it could become tactical and I wouldn't be surprised to see some riders not going all in.
"The hardest part of Mont Ventoux comes before Chalet-Reynard, where the stage will now conclude, so I still expect a tough stage. It's a pity that we will not get to climb to the top of this iconic ascent, as we all dream about it, but this is how things are."
Richie Porte (BMC Racing)
"The legs aren't too bad. I'm just really looking forward to the mountains again. I guess Team Sky are taking time wherever they can get it but (Ventoux is) a different day and they may have to pay for their effort that they did (on the stage to Montpellier)."
Weather: Strong wind gusts up to 60km/h at the start. Crosswind expected from Montpellier to Cavaillon, then headwind to the foot of the Ventoux. On the climb, riders will be sheltered from the wind in the forest. Combined with the wind, the temperature will be very cold (4°C) on the Ventoux. No rain expected.