I spent the night and day up Mont Ventoux to witness Tour de France history

Equipped with just a sleeping bag and no ride to the summit was still not enough to pass up seeing the Tour de France peloton ascend Mont Ventoux twice

Mont Ventoux
(Image credit: Jonny Long)

Catching a ride with a colleague to Malaucène, I jump out and the first car that comes past my thumb pointing in the direction of Mont Ventoux is a Tour vehicle. They stop.

"Au sommet?"

"Ouai."

The driver is stocky, short brown hair and a beard, a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. His passenger is leaner and taller, with longer hair, a cap worn backwards.

They're driving up the mountain to set up the 20km banner for tomorrow. As we crunch up the gradient it takes a good five minutes for a joke asking how much I weigh to be successfully translated - such is the grind to the top. For future reference, Lourd means heavy.


We arrive, 2km from the summit. There's a '20' written in chalk on the road, underlined, that's how they know where to stop. With trepidation, they wish me well, and I set off towards the summit, hoping to make it to some free-to-use cabins near Chalet Reynard that I've been told about. 

It's past 9pm and after about 500m of walking I can already feel the light fading and see the mist rising. I turn around and start making my way back down the mountain. Chalet Liotard is only a couple of kilometres away and will have to do.

Darkness descends and the mist thickens, there's a more direct path down the mountain of the freshly-paved tarmac roads, the loose stones slip underneath my feet, the light from a phone giving only a couple of metres of visibility.

The once-thumping Europop fades away as the rain begins to fall, revellers retreating to their campervans. I arrived with just a sleeping bag, hoping to bask en plein air in the balmy 10°C overnight temperature at 1,400 metres. Instead, I hopped the fence of the outdoor seating area and settle in for the night behind the ice cream kiosk. Headlamps illuminate me as the car of the last café staff member pulls out of the car park, leaving me in peace.

The rain abates around 5am, so I move 10 yards over into the woods, watching Chalet Liotard open and the early morning spectators make their way up for a coffee before continuing to the summit. The merchandise van pulls up, flogging brollies and caps (these guys must be the hardest workers of the Tour, you see them everywhere) and amateurs whizz through the trees having already conquered the summit and presumably not staying for the main event later on - or perhaps they were bravely mimicking the pros' double ascent.

Starting back up the mountain, in the daylight, the vastness of the Ventoux becomes apparent. Looking down you see the sprawl of Provence, uninterrupted by other mountains surging up and providing a more vertical view.

More amateurs whoosh past on the bends, going at a terrifying speed considering it is not part of their livelihoods to descend that fast. Then the publicity caravan arrives. I think I might be the first person in Tour history forced to wave their finger so as not to receive whatever tat they're throwing from their advertorial castles.

A packet of Haribo through the legs, FIVE pencils deflect off my shins. I can't carry it all, and anyway, the Tour clears the sides of the routes every day after the stage.

"Where are your sheep?" my 20km banner friends ask me when I make it back to where I started the night before, the question on account of the stick I've picked up for my hike up (if you don't find and use a big stick when you go for a walk, can you really call what you're doing living?)

They had stayed the night too, in a campervan, which I did not know the banner people did. They told me to squeeze down a path on the cliff edge to the left, rather than carrying on to the right up the tarmac. The noise of the Tour disappears as I zig-zag up the path of rubble towards the summit, and then the telecommunications mast looms into view.

Over the summit from this 'wrong side', I could then see the Tour. Not the riders, they weren't to arrive for two more hours. But I saw the Tour. The road snaking up towards the summit lined with a kaleidoscope of spectators, of internationality, of a determination to share the mountain with the peloton.

Some people napped, some listened to music and drank, others crowded around a phone, using the good 4G connection to stream the race. One young man dressed in a tracksuit tried in vain to roll a joint, attempting to flatten the tobacco inside the longskin to resist the wind. Some simply sat and looked into the distance. Waiting.

Immediately, the mountain feels special. The topography, the people, the vibe.

The 'lunar landscape' description is perhaps overplayed (although seriously, how did all that rubble get up there?) but the one thing that feels ethereal is, of course, the Tom Simpson memorial. An assortment of Brits who didn't know each other could be found standing on the steps, discussing the current political climate of the UK and its relationship with the European mainland, setting the world to rights, drawn together by the memory of their compatriot.

Shiny cars carrying officials storm past carrying VIPs and ASO higher-ups, then you hear the helicopter before it roars into view, the first riders arriving soon after.

The first time past the Simpson memorial, Peter Sagan gives a nod of acknowledgement, Cavendish tipping his helmet before Wiggins comes past on a motorbike video-ing it on his phone.

The groups are already scattered all over the road, Geraint Thomas giving a shake of his head as he pours himself up the climb.