In a blaze of insomnia, I stayed up late last night and watched the Tour de France for the run up the hill. Sure, I was hoping for cooking tips from everyone’s second favourite late 80’s tv chef, Gabriel Gate, but the stage was to the not quite summit of the ‘iconic’ Mont Ventoux in Provence. After all, how else would you want to spend Bastille Day?
Any climb up a mountain over 1,500m is deemed ‘iconic’ unless it happens to be Mt Koshoosko. Or is it Kosciuszko. Kashiskhi? Kaschnitzel? Either way, Mont Ventoux doesn’t have a weak and watery pale ale named after it. Mont Ventoux does, of course, hold a ‘special’ place in Tour de France folklore.
It was on the Mont in 1967 when the British cyclist, Tom Simpson, died while participating in the original Tour de France 3 drug monte. Apparently, Simpson died from a combination of stomach upset, heat exhaustion and amphetamines. Seriously. Anyone who fancies getting on a bike and climbing to 1900m with a dodgy tummy and a burning need for speed on the inside is either insane or has taken a wrong turn on the way to the Full Moon party.
Last night’s climb was meant to be different. The finish of the climb had been reduced by several hundred metres given there was a problem with the wind. The wind. Of all the things to be worried about when riding a bike, wind should be somewhere between “no helmet” and “can’t find my tyre pump”.
Then I realized that the winds on the summit of Mont Ventoux can get to 320 km/h. In summer. What. No wonder Tom Simpson was on the speed. Of course, Mont Ventoux is not a ‘special’ place due solely to Tom Simpson or its weirdly aggressive wind. The esteemed French philosopher, semiotician and good ol’ boy Roland Barthes had plenty to say about Mont Ventoux. But then he had plenty to say about a lot of things all while eating jambon be Bayonne and chuffing Gaulois. I think what Barthes was trying to say about Mont Ventoux was that it was really high. And steep. And he got a lot of pleasure out of watching blokes puff their cheeks out while climbing to the top. Certainly I did last night.
Which brings me to the stage itself. Chris Froome was apparently going to ‘make a move’. Richie Porte was also going to ‘go with Froome’. Nairo Quintana was going to do whatever it is that Colombians do. On a bike too.
What none of the riders was expecting was to battle crowds that were running free in an organic, free range kind of way that would make Rene Redzepi shed a tear. Given the problem with the wind, the race organisers didn’t put up any kind or barriers to hold the crowd back in case the barriers were blown over. That’s fine in theory. But a couple of days after Chris Froome showed even less respect for a spectator as Paul Gallen allegedly did for Cameron Smith, it didn’t seem wise to have no form of crowd control. After all, it’s the Tour de France, it’s an iconic mountain stage, it’s hot, it’s steep, it's Bastille Day, we’re all on the pastis. What could possibly go wrong?
And then Richie Porte crashed. Because a motorbike had stopped. Because it didn’t want to crash. Into people. Who were drunk and generally disorderly. Unlike early Buzzfeed headlines, you actually will believe what happened next. Chris Froome came off his bike. And rather than wait for the support van to get to him and lose some 5 minutes, he started running. Like a late model T-1000, Froome tucked his helmet under his arm and started Running Up That Hill. I haven’t seen a more ridiculous sight since Aaron Woods tried to high jump his team mates in Origin 3.
It wouldn’t be the Tour without some kind of ridiculous controversy. And unlike Kate Bush, I wouldn’t swap places with Froome.