'Very slowly, like a snail, I crawled up on a mountain bike': Meeting the Brits at the Tom Simpson memorial on Mont Ventoux

Amongst the thousands of fans lining the mythical climb were a handful of Brits, we spoke to them

Mont Ventoux
(Image credit: Jonny Long)

Henry woke up at 5.30 on the morning of stage 11 of the Tour de France, having been told he could hire a bike from the start town of Sorgues to make his way up Mont Ventoux.

"I just very slowly, like a snail, crawled up on a mountain bike. I didn't even know if I was going to get to the top. At some point, I thought I would just stop but it then became obvious that you actually can make it," he told Cycling Weekly at the Tom Simpson memorial, waiting for the peloton to arrive.

Henry, a twentysomething who is originally from the UK but currently living in France, isn't necessarily a cyclist but is a fan of the Tour. Having gone along to a few stages last year, including the Col de la Loze, this year he's been hitch-hiking around, and getting a few trains in between, to try and watch as much of it as he can.

"I knew it was here somewhere," he said of the Simpson memorial. "I didn't really know much about the story. So I've kind of learned more about it through these guys. And actually more about the details of how he died."

By 'these guys' he means John McCarthy, a Brit living in the south of France, and Rod Stroud, who lives in Stourbridge in the West Midlands but is equipped with a strong South African accent.

"I just come here because I love this mountain," says McCarthy. "You can fall in love with this mountain and it's really, really weird. You don't get that with so many mountains, but the Ventoux is just f***ing magic.

"It's hard to describe. It's quite sinister. Very, very loving and very unforgiving, it's very strange."

"My father was a cyclist," explains Stroud. "He was in the Olympic squad in the 1950s, he never went to the Olympics but he was training and then he hurt his back. One of his heroes was Tom Simpson so every time I've ever come up here I've always waved or saluted or stopped, because this to me is the essence of the mountain really, not the top."

Stroud had already been up here for a few hours and saw two riders decked out in black and white Peugeot kits like Simpson used to wear, and they came right past the memorial and didn't even stop.

"I just couldn't believe these guys are coming to the memorial [dressed in replica kits to pay tribute] and they didn't even look to their right."

Stroud said about how the last time the Tour came up Ventoux he saw Cavendish threw a bidon to join the other bottles and tributes lining the granite steps and plinth.

This time, resplendent in the green jersey, Cavendish took his helmet off the first time up before throwing a cap on the second ascent as he chased the time cut.

Nigel and Christopher on Mont Ventoux

(Image credit: Jonny Long)

Further up the mountain were two more Brits, given away by the big Union Jack flag draped around one of their shoulders. These two also appeared to have met on the mountain - you're unlikely to find somewhere more welcoming and friendly than the atmosphere atop the mountain on race day. 

Christopher [on the right] is 84 years old, who walked up the mountain that morning in order to see the race. He seemed a bit annoyed it only took him four hours (a time already much quicker than Google Maps says) as it used to only take him two when he was a younger man.

He's been walking up Ventoux for 40 years on and off, having made his nearby holiday home his permanent residence after retiring from his career as a diplomat.

"I'm not into cycling but cycling up Ventoux I have to watch," he says. "It's compulsive. This is the fourth time I've been on Ventoux watching the Tour de France and every time I walk up.

"They're on the limit of their strength. And the thing which frightens me today is somebody will do a Simpson because it's so dangerous and so crazy."

"I was really surprised how close to the side they cycle when you've got the whole road," added Nigel [left]. "I can't understand why. Because I mean, you're trying to take a picture you're trying to film and they're literally coming by you. I mean, it's great."

Contained within the thousands of fans lining the climb, these are the stories of only a handful. For every guy hitch-hiking around and hiring bikes at the crack of dawn, as well as 84-year-old's trekking up the harsh gradients, there will be many more, each unique and full of life.

The Tom Simpson memorial, in particular, is striking the first time you see it, and knowing before you've arrived that there will likely be a Brit there, ready to see the British green jersey-wearer pay two tributes as he passes by, gives a sense of belonging that does Simpson's memory justice.

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