On this day in 1967 the Tour de France was climbing Mont Ventoux. The name means “Windy,” and the peak (not a mountain pass like many of the other tour climbs; here the road goes right over the top) looms high above the plains and low ranges of Provence at just under 6300 feet. The wind blows above 55 mph 240 days a year. It’s a limestone dome, so it appears white in the distance, much higher than any surrounding land. Centuries ago the peak was deforested to build ships, and the extreme weather conditions have prevented regrowth of any vegetation. Thus the last kilometers of the road present a landscape that Lance Armstrong compared to the surface of the moon. The temperature on a given summer day can be very cold or very hot.
In 1967 it was hot. Tom Simpson, riding for Peugeot, was a top British cyclist who had won the World Championships in 1965 and had been a Tour contender. He was generally in good form in 1967, but in the Tour he began suffering a stomach
ailment. Desperate to get time back and stay in contention, he saw the Ventoux climb as an opportunity. The story is well-known to cycling fans: three km from the top, Simpson began to wobble on his bike. Helped to the side of the road, he insisted on going on. Three hundred meters later he crashed. Still photos show him prostrate on the white stones of Ventoux, while a frantic doctor renders emergency aid. A helicopter airlifted him out, and he was resuscitated four times, but he was essentially dead. By the time they arrive at the hospital, he was gone for good. The air temperature on Ventoux was 113°; Simpson’s body temperature on the mountain was 108°. At that temperature body organs begin to cook.
Simpson is supposed to have said heroically, when first given aid, “put me back on my bike.” This is a journalist’s indirect quotation. What he really said was “on, on.” The former version expresses that heroic determination that endurance athletes need, and is one of my favorite phrases. The latter less coherent version reflects Simpson’s drug and alcohol induced daze, in which he had lost all judgment and most of his consciousness. They found amphetamines and other forms of “speed” in his system, on his person, and in his luggage. He had shared a bottle of brandy while riding the stage that day. He was figuratively and almost literally fried. He’s still a hero, given the cycling ethos of the time, and also a sad figure, embodying the distortions that ambition can create.
Back in 2010, everybody lived through the third straight Alpine stage, that included the climbs of the Colombiere, the Saisies, and the mighty Madeleine. The racing and climbing today was strenuous, heroic, and entertaining. But of all the contenders for general victory, most survived in name only. Evans lost 8 minutes, Sastre and Wiggins 5, and everybody else 2 or 3, except for Andy Schleck and Contador, who finished just 2 seconds behind breakaway rider Sandy Casar. Looks like the top spot will be filled by one of those two in Paris. But of course there is still a lot of tough racing left.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.