By 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.
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.
Then there's nothing for 90 minutes, the riders having descended down to Malaucène, making it across to Bédoin before climbing up the hardest side.
Moving up to the corner before the summit, I am there to see Belgian champion Wout van Aert blast past, the same as when won Strade Bianche last year, and on his way to a remarkable stage victory that few would have expected at the start of the day.
Then comes the Trek-Segafredo pair of Kenny Elissonde and Bauke Mollema - little and slightly larger. Soon, whispers turn to chatter, as news passes through that Jonas Vingegaard has dropped the yellow jersey Tadej Pogačar. The young Dane would have hardly believed he'd be in Jumbo-Visma's Tour team at the start of the year but now he's their de-facto leader. He receives a huge cheer as he flies past and looks to be making a race of this Tour de France. Pogačar then chunters into view, clearly suffering, before the South American duo of Richard Carapaz and Rigoberto Urán thrash their way up to get back into contention.
Riders grit their teeth as I've never seen before. Never have I witnessed at the roadside a bike race so brutally blown apart.
In even smaller groups they come past, the fans have done a 180° turn on Chris Froome, the days when boos would greet him are gone, replaced by cheers as he digs deep to get himself up the climb he once dominated, the French love an underdog.
Mark Cavendish, for the second time, pays tribute to Simpson by tossing a cap. A hundred metres later up the road, his Deceuninck - Quick-Step team-mates hover as the sprinter crouches low over his handlebars, willing himself forward as he chases the time cut.
As the last few riders make their way up, fans start to descent down towards Bédoin, but the broom wagon is yet to pass.
Then, minutes after who everyone believed were the last riders on the road, emerges Luke Rowe, slowly being chased by the great hunk of white metal signalling the last rider on the course. He doesn't give up but still finishes outside the time limit.
Hopping into the car of one of the race photographers, I've saved myself a four-hour descent on foot. Now, we're being chased by team cars down the mountain, the corners taken very swiftly, the car clinging onto the road as every item dumped onto the back seat veers from side-to-side.
We're soon back in civilisation. The the real world. Where rules apply and everything isn't centred around a bike race. The tranquillity to be found at 1,900m up is gone, the pleasant breeze accompanying the sunshine replaced by a humid heat.
At the same time, everything and nothing is complicated about a bike race over the Ventoux. The chaos behind the everyday race organisation and the patient hours of work from the riders who still have to push themselves to breaking point to get up. It results in an intoxicating mix, the calm before the storm leading up to the eruption from the fans as each rider passes, complying with the cheers as they get up out of their saddle for a couple of extra watts, soaking in the energy of it all.
There it is, a piece of cycling history. Something that can't really be understood as its happening but in years to come will be an "I was there" moment. That is, until Prudhomme chucks in three ascents in five years' time and each rider takes their turn to pass the lead race car and shoot a look of disgust his way. Entertainment, humanity, danger, man vs. nature. The Ventoux has it all.
Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races. I'm 6'0", 26 years old, have a strong hairline and have an adequate amount of savings for someone my age. I'm very single at the minute so if you know anyone, hit me up.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab, reporting about students evacuating their bowels on nightclub dancefloors and consecrating their love on lecture hall floors. I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.
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