25 July 2009

Crunch Day on Ventoux

Today is the day that the general classification will finally be settled in this year's Tour de France and for the 8th time in Tour history it will act as a mountain top finish. The roll of honour to win on the summit reads like a history of worthy post war recipients.
  • 1958 Charley Gaul Luxemborg Individual Time Trail (Champion 1958, King of the Mountains 1955, 56 )
  • 1965 Raymond Poulidor France (8 times on podium 3 times each behind Anquetil and Merckx)
  • 1970 Eddie Merckx Belgium (5 Time Champion 1969-72, 74)
  • 1972 Bernard Thévenet France (Champion 1975, 77)
  • 1987 Jean-François Bernard Individual Time Trail France
  • 2000 Marco Pantani Italy (Champion 1998)
  • 2002 Richard Virenque France (Most successful King of the Mountains (1994-7, 99, 2003-04)
  • 2009 ???
But what makes Ventoux special? It is not the tallest, not the steepest but has a mystique all of its own. It stands out on the horizon however you approach its 1912m summit. Indeed from the feed station at78km into today's 167 km stage the riders will start a circuit around it. Admittedly that circuit will include the 4th category Col de Fontanbe and 3rd category Col des Abeilles. Certainly the Mont holds a little bit of a psychological hold over the riders.

But it is the 21 km ascent to the summit from Bedoin to the peak that is the real test. It starts in the airless forests at the base before exploding into the barren lunar landscape at the peak. From Saint-Esteve at 5 km up the climb to the peak (with only brief respite through Chalet Reynard and the treeline) it is greater than 6% climbing and for long stretches greater than 95 all the way to the top.

Ventoux was first climbed in the Tour on 22 July 1951 when it was including in the 17th stage from Monpellier to Avignon. On that occasion a lead group of 12 were together at the foot. At Chalet Reynard Hugo Koplet attacked*, only Raphaël Géminiani**, Luison Bobet, Gino Bartali and Lucien Lazardes*** could stay with him. 2km from the summit Lazardes attacked and reached the top alone followed by a lone Bartali and thus was Ventoux first conquered in the Tour.

Its not just the breaks but the mountain that has claimed men. In 1955 Jean Malléjac who had finished second two year previously was described 10km from the summit "Streaming with sweat, haggard and comatose, he was zigzagging and the road wasn't wide enough for him... He was already no longer in the real world, still less in the world of cyclists and the Tour de France". He collapsed as was taken to hospital struggling and shouting after regaining consciousness on the side of the road.

The same year Swiss racer Ferdi Kübler was setting such a vicious tempo that Géminiani survivor of that first ascent warned him off. Advise he ignored to his cost. He started to struggle in the last kilometre of the ascent and fell repeatedly on the descent finishing 26 minutes back on the line for his efforts on the climb.

In 1967 the British cyclist, that Bradley Wiggins is most closely competing with for prestige in the major tours, Tommy Simpson came to his own fate. He began weaving across the road in the last kilometre and fell twice. The tour doctor Pierre Dumas reached him after the second collapse spent more than an hour giving him heart massage and mouth to mouth. But realised he was dead and had him removed from the mountain by helicopter to Avignon where the cyclist was pronounced dead at 17:40. Of course Simpson's death is an object lesson on how the drugs don't always work.

So what of today's stage. Alberto Contador may well have a 4'11" lead over Andy Schleck but this is the sort of stage that that might be clawed back, especially as tomorrow there is just the gentle roll into Paris to come.

The Schleck brothers will well be aware that their fellow countryman Gaul was the first winner on the summit here. Older brother Frank will need to do something to climb back unto the podium. He'd gained that spot on stage 17 on the Col de Colombiere but lost it the following day on the TT around Lac d'Annecy. Expect him to attack at some point on Ventoux.

As for younger brother Andy lying in second he may go with his brother, and they may launch tandem attacks to see it Contador has anything to give. If they can get a gap then it is just a matter of how big they can get it. Although he may well already know that Contador is not going to be beaten this year, but then Ventoux does await.

As well as Frank Schleck wanting to get back unto the podium don't forget that Bradley Wiggins is sitting just 16" behind that spot over a man he has climbed better than on a couple of mountain finishes this year. But that man is the man who came second to both Pantani and Virenque on those other two Ventoux top finishes this decade and in that 2002 pursuit of Virenque set the record for the fastest ascent at 50 minutes. He also has the small matter of 7 successive victories in this race to his name, so don't rule out Lance Armstrong from the challenge of Frank Schleck, Wiggins or Vincenzo Nibali just yet.

Today is going to be a very interesting day and coverage live on ITV4 starts at 13:00 BST but it already underway by text on the BBC website.

*The eventual winner.
**That year's eventual King of the Mountains and 2nd overall.
***Who would be first when the Tor reached Paris.

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