The Strange Tale of our Ascent of Mont Ventoux - By Car

From early in my life I always had a fascination about the career and death of the British cyclist Tommy Simpson. In my youth I was a keen cyclist but I never cycled competitively. I had one of those ‘can you remember where you were when JFK was shot’ moments in 1967 when Simpson died that July day during the Tour de France on his ascent of Mt Ventoux. I do remember exactly where I was when Kennedy died; I was in a Fish and Chip shop in Darwen, Lancashire, my home town and clearly remember my parents and everyone around being very shocked. I vividly recall that when Simpson passed away I was in Blackpool on one of our ubiquitous summer holidays, listening in my earpiece to a cricket commentary on my transistor radio when a newsflash interrupted this very English scene flowing around in my head. I think importantly for me though it was that Simpsons death was the first one in my life that really registered on my consciousness, how could such an athlete just die?

Simpson it is true contributed to his demise due to his response to the extreme pressure to succeed that surrounds the Tour de France and continues to do so to this day. Sadly, it was ever thus, that ways were being found to enhance a rider’s performance in the Tour and it was concluded that he also had done so and this had made him go unknowingly beyond the limits of endurance. Due to having been quite debilitating ill in the previous days of the Tour a tragedy was the inevitable consequence. He was, despite joining in with the culture of the times in striving to be better at any cost a very popular figure and in England he was revered as an athlete which was unusual for the somewhat minority spectator sport of cycling. What I am saying really is that he was not a Soccer playing superstar but through strength of character and that determination to win he had broken through the barrier into much wider popularity.  He certainly had with me and I had followed his career avidly and for that reason his death was a massive event in my life. The modern comparison for my son would be the death of Ayrton Senna.

When travelling in Provence I had always looked up at Mt Ventoux, you have to as you cannot miss it, thinking that I must go up there and pay my respects at Simpsons memorial, constructed where he fell, just one kilometre from the summit on the route going up from the village of Malaucène. In 2005 I decided it was high time that I did and so we set out first of all for Malaucène.

 

We did not go up Ventoux straightaway as there was a morning market on in the town and we spend an hour or so browsing around and as usual we were unable to resist the temptation to buy. After a coffee in the market square we finally set off up Ventoux via the route D974. The road is quite steep even in the early stages from Malaucène and you reach a service station looking like an Alps chalet but we past it by and pressed on towards the summit and our goal for the day.  Even early on in our climb up the mountain by car it is clear that to do this on a racing cycle must require a certain almost superhuman strength and without condoning it you can see that many would resort to assistance from whatever source available to try to deal with this immense pressure placed by the Tour de France. I cannot comprehend how anyone can attempt this at all but on this day there are a few amateur cyclists, some equipped with oxygen, attempting to emulate their heroes from the Tour. I am not sure how sensible it is to try but try they must.

Our car is new, a Skoda Octavia top of the range diesel model with the larger engine and has never missed a beat in all the time I have owned it as a company car. It has taken us the nearly 1000 miles from the North of England with ease and for the last week we have toured around the area without it offering complaint. The car is in the very best of condition. We round some zig zag bends and bizarrely at a couple of points I have the sensation of going downhill. I have had this feeling occur also in the English Lakes at higher altitude when your car seems to be almost cruising with minimum power being applied. We carry on uphill quite slowly as I need to concentrate and we hesitantly reach somewhere around 4500 feet in altitude.

It is around this point on the climb and not very far from our objective of Tommy Simpson’s memorial that something very strange starts to happen with our vehicle. The car becomes very unresponsive and does not gain any further height with ease, becoming very sluggish and you sense that the engine has the signs of overheating and I half expect to see some smoke coming from under the bonnet. This is very much a quite disconcerting sensation, but worse follows in that it now appears to be most of the mechanics of the car that are starting to shut down and not responding to my control. This was quite scary as we were at a high altitude with serious drops going down from the side of the road and I did not feel I was in control of the vehicle even though I was only progressing the car at a very low speed. I decided to ease the car over to the mountain face side of the road and it did so very reluctantly. I was I have to admit shaking and extremely stressed by this as was Niamh.

There was definitely no possibility of me trying to continue up the mountain road as my nerves were completely shot at. It was essential in view of what was going on with the mechanics of the car that we try to get back down the mountain safely. Sadly, I would be thwarted in getting up to Simpsons memorial but discretion is as they say the better part of valour.

I told Niamh to get out of the car while I try to attempt to turn the car around to head back down the mountain road. I have visually checked the engine etc.. and nothing seems on face value to be mechanically amiss with the vehicle. The car really does not want to move but eventually I do manage after about a twenty point turn to safely get it pointing in the opposite direction and Niamh reluctantly gets back in. We start to retrace our steps down Ventoux and come immediately to a sharp turn. I brake and there is absolutely no response from the pedals. Fortunately at this gentler part of the decent we are not going too fast and I negotiate the bend which then straightens out to a long steeper descent. Again I try the brakes and – nothing! I manically pull on the hand brake and point the car to the mountainside and eventually bring it to a stop in a small ditch by the side of the road. Our nerves have been through the wringer and back again.

At this point we both get out and now see our car as a demented enemy no longer the faithful friend that has served us so well this far. The only plan I can think of is that we bide our time and let the car completely cool down and then hesitantly and conservatively try again. This is what we do and when I am happy that we have left it long enough we get back inside. Heading cautiously down the descent the brakes are not perfect by any means but they seem as if they will get us back to Malaucène if I take considerable care. We slowly but surely do this and it was an incredible relief to get back down and park in the commune, get out and have a double expresso and mop each other’s brow. I had been thwarted in my plan for the day but worst of all we had got ourselves into a very serious position on that climb and had felt that it could easily, very easily have ended with a far worse result.

I have no explanation as to what occurred with the car on that mountain road. The altitude and the cars reaction to that height was the only thing that I could put it down to. What made it completely bizarre was that we got back in the car and traveled all the way back to Mazan where we were staying and the vehicle drove and responded perfectly as it always had done previously. I couldn’t take it to a garage as there was nothing to look at, it was fine. It drove perfectly for the rest of the week and the long journey back to England.

It was indeed time for a bottle of wine or two! I never got to Tommy Simpson’s memorial and reaching it is still on my ‘to do list’. I will get there, probably without Niamh, I will pay my respects to my childhood cycling hero but I will do it with great respect for this dangerous mountain and I will do it with care and talk kindly to my car on the way up.

 

Neal Atherton