What does Mont Ventoux mean to you?
I’ve been thinking a lot about it, after trying to explain to loved ones what it means to win on what very well might be the world’s most famous cycling climb.
It’s ugly, and there’s absolutely no point in pretending otherwise — a solitary giant standing stark against an otherwise empty Provençal skyline. Top barren due to systematic deforestation often glibly blamed on Napoleon despite starting centuries earlier, it isn’t short on distinctive features. Still, it lacks the curb appeal of Alpe D’Huez’s iconic, orderly switchbacks.
Then, there’s the history, which is complicated.
It’s Tom Simpson’s death, which has been insidiously retconned into a beautiful martyrdom by certain elements over the last few decades, cynically leaning into the sport’s inherent sentimentality and romance.
This is bullshit.
Tom Simpson died hideously, still strapped into his pedals and white-knuckling his bars when he collapsed, with three tubes (two empty, one half-full) of amphetamines on his person, and alcohol in his system. He was a symptom of a sport that often asks too much of its athletes and damns them for meeting the ask. I suppose it feels better to think about it the other way.
It’s Marco Pantani, who climbed with grace, ferocity and recklessness not seen before or since. Cycling notably, problematically loves an Icarian figure, and almost certainly none more so than Il Pirata. Both spatially and metaphorically, he seldom flew closer to the sun than he did on the Ventoux. He’s gone now too, and pardoned, and canonized, and remembered wistfully every time the race comes back here (among many other times).
Relatedly, it’s also a certain Texan, about whom we mostly don’t talk anymore.
Of course, it’s not only those things and people.
It’s also Chris Froome’s bizarre run, and Thomas De Gendt’s improbable victory, and Eros Poli’s even more improbable victory. It’s Gaul, and Poulidor, and Merckx, and Thévenet.
It’s the better part of seven decades of inhospitality, attrition, misery, weirdness, fighting spirit, joy, and ultimately, undeniably, beauty. It’s a place in constant contradiction of itself.
To win here simply means more. In my own writing, I’ve observed a tendency to overuse the concept of immortality or immortalization as a way to instill the significance of one accomplishment or another. Here there is no hyperbole. No victory on Ventoux will be forgotten.
In cycling, Ventoux means forever.
I think often about Wout van Aert, who is sometimes quite frustrating. No rider is more talented, and no rider’s talents are more evenly distributed across the sport’s many disparate parameters. He is a world-class time trialist and rouleur, elite sprinter and puncheur, and one of the very best bike handlers the sport has ever seen. Perhaps the thing he does worst is climb, and he has absolutely no trouble climbing.
He is endlessly compared to his lifelong cyclocross-turned-multidisciplinary rival Mathieu van der Poel. It’s maddening but not wholly unwarranted, as the two are poised to be, perhaps at minimum, the two best and most well-rounded classics stars of the next decade or so.
However, they are as different as they are similar. Van der Poel sparkles with each uphill explosion and every long-range excursion off the front. By comparison, Van Aert is more reserved, riding within himself and preferring a controlled race in which he can pick his spots.
When he does show off, he primarily does so by putting himself on the front and doing too much work, as he did in both Strade Bianche and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, in both of which he later endured a mini-crack and missed the final.
What he does have, in comparison with Van der Poel, is even more versatility, as he showcased in Tirreno Adriatico. There, he won a bunch sprint, came second and third in uphill sprints behind a combination of Van der Poel and World Champion Julian Alaphilippe, won the final time trial, and climbed well enough to finish second on GC. The only man to beat him, by little more than a minute, was Tadej Pogačar, the man who is currently running away with the Tour de France. Everyone else was minutes behind.
It seems odd that a year in which he produced that performance, won Gent-Wevelgem, Amstel Gold, and the Belgian Road Race National Championship could register as something of a disappointment. But after failures to repeat at Strade and Milan-Sanremo or improve (or even match) his second place at De Ronde, it felt as though his season actually needed a bit of saving.
Making matters worse, a bout of appendicitis in May mangled his Tour prep, and called into question his plans of pursuing the yellow jersey in week one.
He made no secret of the fact that he was still off the boil heading into the Tour, and once he got there, his performances made no secret of it either. He didn’t have the legs to contest either of the uphill sprints in the first two stages, and was summarily dismantled with the rest of the field by Pogačar’s eye-watering time trial on stage five.
Entering week two, with leader Primož Roglič out of the race following a couple of the many crashes that have dogged Jumbo-Visma’s Tour, Van Aert needed to produce a result. A second place behind Mark Cavendish in a bunch sprint in Valence was close, but not going to cut it.
So, today, he found himself in the breakaway on a stage with two ascents of Ventoux, once on the “easy” side from Sault, then again on the traditional side from Bédoin, and then a descent finish.
It was crazy, wasn’t it? Maybe you didn’t see it. I could describe it for you blow-by-blow, the way we often do here, but the truth is that it wouldn’t sound like much. There were no devastatingly explosive attacks and few animated grimaces. In textbook Van Aert fashion, there was only metronomic cadence, devastatingly consistent power, and a characteristic open-mouthed thousand-yard stare.
One by one, they all fell away. Dan Martin is, on his day, one of the world’s best climbers. Today wasn’t that day. On the final climb, Van Aert rode Alaphilippe and Bauke Mollema off of his wheel as if they were juniors. Elissonde held out as long as he could, but was eventually distanced by a single out of the saddle acceleration. It wasn’t much to watch, but it was some thing to watch.
Time trialing his way to the top and then plummeting down the fast descent into Malaucène, he was home free. Rolling into the line, he performed one of the stranger and more impressive victory salutes in Tour history, standing straight up on his pedals and raising his arms in the air.
Behind, his teammate Jonas Vingegaard was charging, having successfully cracked Pogačar with a late attack on Ventoux. With help on the descent from Richard Carapaz and Rigoberto Uran, both trying to secure spots on the podium, Pogačar would catch Vingegaard just before the finish. Adding insult to injury, all three pursuers would sprint past the Dane at the line. Sometimes, a day on the Ventoux can be cruel even in small, inconsequential ways.
Was it an all-timer of a stage? Absolutely not. Still, it was a career-high performance from Van Aert, and certainly more than enough to “save” an otherwise excellent season that somehow still wasn’t quite up to scratch.
Tomorrow, Van Aert will likely contest another sprint, and given a more challenging and technical parcours than the Tour’s other sprint stages so far, he will come in as something of a favorite. Wouldn’t it be something if he were to win a stage with two Ventoux ascents one day and a bunch sprint the next?
Still, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, as we often do. Cavendish has reminded us several times in this Tour that any one Tour de France stage win is plenty worth celebrating on its own merit, and Mont Ventoux is no ordinary stage win.
Ventoux means forever, and now, forever, it means Wout Van Aert too.