Nowhere else do supporters get as close to their idols as at the Tour of France. A trip to the top of the legendary Mont Ventoux.
An enthusiastic spectator on the roadside of the Tour Photo: reuters
The scent of lavender, which the wind usually breathes so gently through Provence, has faded. And even the strong thyme is running out of breath. Acrid rubber smell has shattered all the subtle floral and herbal nuances. It comes from motor homes, cars and motorcycles that rattle toward the valley on the other side of the road with hot brakes. So this is what 20 kilometers of descent smell like.
What do 20 kilometers of ascent by bike taste like? We are about to find out. Our trip takes us by road bike from Bedoin to the summit of the legendary Mont Ventoux. The average gradient over the 21.2 kilometers is 7.6 percent. The thermometer shows more than 30 degrees, and soon the pine trees, which now at least still provide shade in streaks, leave us.
There is a reason why we tackle this mountain in July: The Tour de France, which started in Dusseldorf on July 1, is rolling through France. It is the third largest sporting event in the world and offers the maximum fan experience. While spectators at the World Cup or Olympic Games have to capture their stars with binoculars, everything is different at the Tour: a quick selfie with Alberto Contador shortly before the start, a powerful push for Chris Froome on the climb, and a quick autograph from Simon Geschke at the finish line. Touching instead of admiring. This let-the-fans-get-close principle should remain, even if the Tour has been protected by an elite unit of French police since last year because of the possible danger of terrorism.
Spectators don’t even need a ticket for the races, everyone is there for free, even camping along the route only costs a little effort to secure a good spot early. The spectacle finally becomes the Tour de Fans, because you can compete with the professionals. You enter the same sports field, feel and suffer like your role model.
Goal: the Mont Ventoux
A true cyclist will never be satisfied until he has conquered at least one of the Tour de France giants. Mont Ventoux is undoubtedly one of them. It draws its fame from different sources. It also shows us its two-faced face: in the valley it is blazing hot, at the summit bitterly cold. At least we are spared the merciless wind to which the mountain owes its name.
The 1,911-meter-high peak, which towers over everything in Provence by far, was part of the gigantic cycling spectacle for the 16th time. Doping offenders like Iban Mayo or the late Marco Pantani have set almost inhuman fabulous times on Mont Ventoux. And the mountain has also claimed a cycling victim, although the truth is rather glorified. On the last steep climb of the barren summit plateau, where there is nothing but white-yellow scree to the left and right, creating an almost absurd moonscape, fans have created a pilgrimage site for Tom Simpson.
There are no security guards posted anywhere, only a barrier tape separates fans from idols – and everyone abides by it.
In 1967, the Briton collapsed on this spot and died from a mixture of exhaustion, amphetamines and alcohol. Many stop here at the memorial and "sacrifice" their water bottle. We stop only briefly and have our plastic bottle refilled, because our aid on the mountain is a support vehicle in which the caring Clemens sits. He has bananas, energy bars, a canister of water and a large toolbox on board.
At least as important, however, is the moral support, even if it is only a brief smile and a raised thumb, with which he encourages us. A little later, at the summit, he welcomes us with a warm blanket, gets us a hot cup of tea and sets up a small buffet while we line up to take pictures of each other in front of the sign "Sommet Mont Ventoux 1911 m". You feel invincible, the air tastes of freedom and especially more peaks and passes.
With professional transfer
Clemens will help us to succeed. The young man is a luxury we allow ourselves. If you want to experience the tour with all its facets, you would do well to join an organized trip. Here in the southern French Alps, where we are cycling parallel to the pros for a week, the famous climbs are far apart. Without professional transfers you have no chance as an amateur. Clemens works for Vinje Cycling, which is one of the few German-speaking organizers to put together a Tour de France package.
The base is a small, simple hotel in Ancelle near the town of Gap, about halfway between Grenoble and Marseille. Depending on the weather, training condition and wishes of the participants, a daily tour is set. Then you either pack the bikes into the bus or start at the front door. The mountain landscape offers variety for one or two bike weeks. On one side there are gentler hills to warm up on, the other direction reveals alpine high mountain scenery with energy-sapping climbs.
103rd Tour de France: It started in Dusseldorf on July 1. Until the final day on July 23, it also visits the neighboring French countries of Belgium and Luxembourg in 21 stages and 3,516 kilometers.
Mont Ventoux: The record holder is Spain’s Iban Mayo, who in 20:47 minutes for the final 15.9 kilometers from Saint Esteves. For "amateurs" there is a "Masterseries": Jean-Pascal Roux and Stephane Rubio managed eleven ascents from Bedoin within 24 hours. Anyone who manages to climb the mountain (from three sides) three times in one day can be immortalized in the "Club of the Crazy". Meanwhile, a category has also been introduced for those who have made it six times. www.clubcinglesventoux.org. On July 14, Mont Ventoux will be the focus of the 12th Tour stage over 185 kilometers.
Package: Experience stage live and ride yourself with Vinje Road Bike Tours. Trip from July 12-22, incl. www.vinje-cycling.com/
The Hautes-Alpes region is a cycling hotspot in France. We see the pros live for the first time at the Col de Manse, where there is a mountain classification before going down to Gap. In the morning we did a little round with our bikes. Meanwhile, Clemens has occupied a place with the minibus between all the caravans that trace the course like a white line. When we arrive, we can save ourselves from the sun under a small tent roof and enjoy a vitamin buffet.
Others don’t have it so good, they are already waiting in the heat since the morning. But the big French open-air party is already in high gear. Music blares from car radios, beer bottles clink, a group of Welsh sing a folk song. When the engines of the support vehicles and helicopters announce the pros, the spectators crowd into the middle of the street. The leading riders rush up, after a few moments they have disappeared behind the bend. If you wait on a steep climb, you experience more of a Tour feeling and have the chance to sprint along with the riders for a bit and even push your idol.
My star and me
So it’s even nicer that we get another taste of the Tour in Gap, where the riders start their stage the following day. It is remarkable how close the fans are allowed to get. The teams stay in hotels in the city center, set up their warm-up stations in front of the entrance. The pros sign autographs and give interviews while pedaling on their anchored bikes. There are no security guards posted anywhere, only a barrier tape separates fans from idols – and everyone dutifully complies. Even in the starting area, you can diligently expand your selfie collection.
My star and I, just before the race gets serious – the Facebook world will be green with envy. A quick jersey purchase, the starting signal, the pros roll. A short time later, traffic flows through Gap as normal, as if a Tour de France stop were the most normal thing in the world. The relaxed attitude of everyone here – from fans to officials to riders – is amazing and creates a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere.