on ventoux

tour de france stage 11

I’m in the backseat of a too-swerving car all slowed up now because the Provençal roads are crowded with people. Some of them are drunk, shirtless. Some of them are on bikes, increasingly more of them as the road inches upward. Taut cypresses sprout exclamation points from the ground, punctuating each winding curve that soon cinches into a tight switchback. In the distance, the mountain approaches, its bald head and attendant service station looming beacon-like in the distance. I know this place is important, it declares this itself.

I am approaching a site of revered suffering.

In the car, a debate over whether Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux is better, with everyone agreeing that Mont Ventoux is, in fact, better in the end. Maybe we’re all just caught up in the same moment.

The climb is long, the road is narrow and littered with men and women in lycra on bikes, some expensive, some perplexingly ordinary given their task. Sometimes daredevils descend in the opposite direction and Caley, the driver of the car, swears at them behind the safety of the windshield. They’re going too fast to listen anyway. Everyone’s lolling around, bumbling on their grand day out. They’re here for the spectacle, and so are we, albeit in a different, more practical way. I’m here to have an experience on behalf of other people. That’s what writers do, after all.

It takes us an hour to get to the top, the distance marked by the increasing disappearance of the tree line.

“If you need to take a piss, take it now,” someone says. “Before there are no more trees.” I’m not paying attention to what’s being said. Instead, I’m watching people wearing flags like capes and cycling kit with some degree of self-satisfied pride line themselves up along the hairpins. The air thins and we close the windows. At some point, there’s a moment of transition, where the trees give way to the taupe rocks, oversized gravel, unnatural, otherworldly because we made it that way back in the 17th century or something, I don’t remember. We made it otherworldly through sport as well. We humans never seem done with the bald mountain - we’ve paved the roads just back in May. It’s never done with us either, I guess, whatever that means. Something has to explain the deranged impulse to haul ourselves up there on spindly leg-powered machines.

At the top, we miraculously find somewhere to park. It’s cold, too cold, and I’m in a sleeveless dress like an idiot because I was thinking of the mixed zone and the brutal sun and the stifling heat of the press room and not the chilly bite of altitude. Caley lends me some mountain biking pants and a flannel shirt, which I pull on over the dress. I look stupid in both, but warm. Me, Caley, and his brother Ramsey walk up to the summit where there’s a gift shop. I perform my duty of buying markers of having been here for friends who haven’t. Caley takes my picture beneath the king of the mountains banner.

I was here, on Ventoux, let it be known.

It’s a breathtaking thing really, literally because the air offers nothing great to the lungs, like a gas station sandwich to the stomach. We buy the worst wine any of us have ever had at a roadside stand. I pour mine out into some weeds at the foot of the service station’s concrete stairs. Fog rolls in and out, and the inky road snakes through the barren, rocky surface, moon-like, but perhaps the moon is not so fractured, not so disturbed. Still, there is life, among the people congregated to witness another installment of history and in the alpine flowers that press their way through the rubble, the scramble, in purples and yellows, subtle and few, each precious, each a reminder that this was once nature.

For a long time, we wait, staring out at the landscape which seems endless and varied, a satellite image of the world made real. The caravan rolls through and throws junk at us. Pencils and coin purses and gummy bears in plastic bags. Sanctioned littering. I take a picture of Caley and his brother Ramsey sitting on top of the car. In my leather jacket I shiver and wait a bit for the road to clear before climbing into the backseat, trying to pull the race up on my phone. At the time, I think nothing of the fact that Wout van Aert is in a breakaway which seems ill-fated. The signal cuts in and out. The race is piecemeal, something approaching me that I have no control over. I try to track it by the kilometer. How close is this animal thing to me? This throng, this rupture? I long to receive it. This longing manifests in the fidgety refreshing of a webpage to no avail.

Caley checks the times in the road book and decides it’s wise to venture out now. We all make our way down a ravine. Chalky rocks break loose beneath Doc Martens as I’m trying not to roll an ankle, trying not to fall because there’s no stable place to step. Pebbles crumble and scatter down the incline in our wake. Finally, we reach the side of the road, find a slot among a group of very drunk Frenchmen who offer us wine from a box. There’s no cups, but one offers to hold the nozzle over our open mouths, which we decline. He gives me one of those Leclerc polka dot hats which I wear to protect my scalp from the too-close sun, though it’s cloudy now. The car that announces the race approaching blares cinq kilometres in a loop accompanied by an update on what’s happening in French. It’s more than what I can get on my phone.

Commotion. It’s here, winding its way up. We see it snake along the hairpin beneath us — the breakaway.

It’s remarkable, indescribable, that ecstatic waiting for the moment of passage. When it comes, the police motorcycle almost runs over my feet, I feel, but like those around me, I move for them, and they part through us like the Red Sea, a different kind of shepherd, I suppose. Maybe I’m getting my biblical metaphors mixed up.

It’s uproar, it’s chaos, everyone is screaming, I’m screaming Allez Allez Allez like it’s a tribal chant, like my lungs are filled with the words and my brain, lacking oxygen commits to them utterly. When the peloton arrives a few minutes behind, I watch them charge up the hill like a band of horses, unleashed, uncontained, but organized, their faces ones of absolute stone-cold concentration as they navigate through us. I pick out Jonas Vingegaard first in the white jersey, blue eyes tilted up towards the summit, and I shout Allez Jonas, as it’s only polite to cheer for the first one you see.

As part of the spectator wave, I step back for them, am awash with the sounds of backwheels and screaming and horns blaring, and then, there he is, Tadej Pogačar, the yellow jersey, inches from me, centimeters, gone in a flash but there for a moment, unprotected by comms guys and team managers and the ASO’s bodyguards. He’s in his element, doing what it is he’s devoted himself to, so close I could touch him, so close I can feel the heat from his body and the bodies of those around him. They move slow enough to comprehend and yet inconceivably quickly, given the incline. And then they are gone.

It’s the best five seconds of my life, hands down. It evacuates the breath from my lungs and makes me feel like I’ve just been unexpectedly kissed by a beautiful stranger – giddy and light-headed and girlish. I’m here on Mont Ventoux, this iconic place, this sacred thing they sell posters of in Etsy stores, this thing they write books about, this thing appropriated by our two-wheeled diversion, this sport, as a shrine of sublime struggle. They were so close, they went so fast, I say to my companions over and over again like a child. The wind blows fragmented clouds in our faces, obscuring the valley below. We wait for the grupetto, who we also cheer for, and then it’s a mad dash to the car in a race of our own, a race to get down the mountain in time, before inconveniencing anyone else, before the roads are closed off for the second passage. Slamming the car door shut, my cheeks are pink. I can feel them pucker with the smile I can’t wipe off my face. I change out of Caley’s clothes in the back seat, still bewildered, still drunk on the experience of being rushed by like that. The original magic I spoke about earlier in this journal, having been somewhat dulled by too many croissant breakfasts and long transfers and deadlines, in this moment returns.

I’ve just had an experience, I repeat in my head on the zip down, curve of the tires, swing of my body held close by seatbelt. Look at the state of me, what this has done. I’m never breathless like this. Maybe it’s the altitude.

I know it’s not.