Mont Ventoux casts darknes on 2017 Tour de France despite absence from road | Richard Williams

The Giant of Provence may merely glower in the distance this time but 50 years after Tom Simpson died close to the summit many will be thinking of him

The riders of the Tour de France will not be required to climb the Mont Ventoux this year but they will find themselves unable to escape its shadow. Some time in the afternoon of Friday 21 July, while pedalling through the vineyards and lavender fields of the Vaucluse, they will glance over to their right and assure the Giant of Provence glowering in the distance.

There was a good reason for the Tours route planners to avoid the Ventoux this summer. On 13 July it will be 50 years since Tom Simpson collapsed and succumbed at the roadside merely 1,300 m and a few hairpin bendings from the finishing line at the summit of the mountain. Ever since that day, images of the banks of scree lining the winding ribbon of asphalt have carried a certain sense of menace, even as they shine bone-white for the purposes of the midsummer sun.

There is a memorial to Simpson at the place where he fell, usually covered with mementoes left by visitors who understand its significance. Even the pros arent immune, especially the Brits. In 2009, when a stage of the Tour finished at the top of the mountain, David Millar tossed a cap towards the plinth as he rode by, while Charly Wegelius lobbed a bidon and Mark Cavendish doffed his helmet. Bradley Wiggins, on his style to third place overall that year, rode the climbing with a photograph of Simpson taped to his top tube.

In the foreword to Bird on the Wire, a fine new shown biography of Simpson by the cycling journalist Andy McGrath, Wiggins writes: I felt especially close to him, and I suppose I always will. He dedicated his life for cycling. Wegeliuss reaction is also quoted. I astonished myself a little bit that I felt the need to attain some kind of gesture, he said.

Tom
Simpson during his ill-fated final ride on 13 July 1967. Photograph: Krieger Roger/ L’EQUIPE/ Offside

Even a non-competitor could share that slightly mysterious answer. Driving up towards the finish that day in 2009, before the race, it was impossible to resist the advise to stop the car for a moment and hand a bottle of mineral water to a spectator with a request to place it among the other votive offerings.

Who knows why we do such things? What primitive advises are in play? As the Ventoux recedes over their right shoulders on this years stage 19, the riders will pass through the pretty village of Lourmarin, where the modest gravestone of the novelist Albert Camus is usually strewn with objects pens, pebbles left by supporters wishing to attain some kind of connect with another hero who met a premature death.

But to salute Simpson is inevitably to recognise a darker aspect of cycling that refuses to go away, which is why the Tour organisers prudently declined to draw undue attention to the anniversary.

Another five minutes riding and Simpson would have reached the summit of the climbing stage 13 of the 1967 Tour, in which he was desperately hoping for a good result to restore a faltering reputation. But, as my colleague William Fotheringham wrote in Put Me Back on My Bike, his classic survey of the rider, Simpsons dying actually began during the first Alpine stage three days before his breakdown on the Ventoux.

A gastric infection had given him a severe and prolonged attack of diarrhoea, which undoubtedly contributed to the dehydration he suffered in an ambient temperature somewhere above 40 degrees while struggling up the last kilometres, helplessly losing time to his principal adversaries, his core temperature rising as his body ran out of the capacity to sweat away the heat.

But it is the medications the amphetamines swallowed earlier in the stage, along with a swig or two of brandy that people outside or on the periphery of cycling recollect, tainting what is in every other way the foundational legend of British road racing.

Tour
Tour de France riders find a minutes silence the day after Simpsons death. Photograph: AFP/ Getty Images

Simpson was not the first Englishman to move to the continent to try to conquer racing at the highest level but he was the first to build his endeavour stick and to establish himself, through his victories in Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, the Giro di Lombardia and the world championship, alongside the very top riders of the era.

Fotheringham and McGrath both record his regular use of what afterward became known as performance-enhancing substances but the near-ubiquity of such practices in a very different epoch and the appeal of his personality make it hard to let admiration be tarnished by disapproval.

In sporting terms, Simpson blazed the trail that others would follow as the momentum behind British riders slowly built to a climax of wins in grand tours and classics. Off the motorcycle he was always ready to play up to a foreign press photographers idea of the English gentleman by putting on a bowler hat and sticking a tube in his mouth.

But among the many wonderful photographs in Bird on the Wire is one of him at home in Ghent the year before his death, 28 years old and seeming with his hair neatly cut in the French college boy style, his fine-knit fleece shirt done up to the neck, his face without an ounce of flesh and his eyes black-rimmed like one of the first generation of mods, styled on a poster from a nouvelle vague movie, maybe with a handful of blues and bombers in his pocket left over from the night before. No wonder the style-conscious Wiggins came to admire him.

As for the mountain, it has a new volume all to itself: Jeremy Whittles Ventoux, a highly personal account by the Timess cycling correspondent of the myths and legends is connected to the 1,912 m peak that stands alone, unattached to any adjacent range. Calling it the mountain most links with cyclings perpetual are working to exorcise its demons, Whittle traces the tale from the Tours first ascending in 1951 through the duel of the damned between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani in 2000 and Nicole Cookes virtuoso display of attacking riding during the womens Tour of 2006, right up to the questions raised by Chris Froomes astonishing attack near the summit in 2013. Whittle also takes the risk of channeling Simpsons guess right up to the moment of his death and brings it off.

Like many people, particularly those who have experienced it first-hand, Whittle takes the Ventoux personally. No other mountain provokes such a superstitious answer. Its dark charisma lies in claims that Tom Simpson devoted their own lives for cycling, a romantic notion rooted in our own needs. Simpson devoted their own lives for his career. But the echoes of his misfortune refuse to fade.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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