Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Cottonmouth Tom

49 years ago today (13 July 1967) Tom Simpson (1965 World Champion) fell off his bike a kilometer shy of the summit of the famous Mount Ventoux in France. The mountain is a scant 1,912 m (6,273 ft) high, but its peak is scoured by winds that can be unimaginably brutal. Venteux is French for “windy”, and the winds on Mount Ventoux have been clocked at up to 320 km/h (200 mph). The winds did not push Tom Simpson off his bike on that fateful Thursday.

This Thursday the tour De France will revisit Mount Ventoux; the finish line for stage 12 will be at its summit. The Tour will use the Bedoin route, which is, of the three routes, the most widely used by the tour, and arguably the most difficult. About 7 kilometers north of the town of Bedoin the road kicks up to a punishing 9ish percent, and then continues to be steep all the way to the top. Interestingly this is similar to the stats of a local(ish) Utah climb; that of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

In 1970 Eddy “The Cannibal” Merx, often called the greatest cyclist of all time, collapsed after a summit finish on Mount Ventoux. He required oxygen to be revived. Then he went on to win the Tour De France for the second time, and he also won the polkadot Jersey (maillot à pois rouges or King Of the Mountains) classification that year. Just a few weeks earlier, on June 7th 1970, Eddy had also won the 53rd edition of the Corsa Rosa (Giro d’Italia). He was not known as someone who casually passed out after a hard effort.

I am thinking of riding up Little Cottonwood Canyon this Friday in honor of Tom Simpson. I will be severely undertrained as a way of simulating the crippling diarrhea Tom had been suffering since a disastrous setback a few days earlier on the Col du Galibier. Unlike Tom I will not be compensating for my physical condition by filling my water bottle with brandy or taking large amounts of amphetamines; I will probably have a pre-ride quad espresso though.

Many cyclists have quit on seeing the bald top of Mount Ventoux. Although geologically part of the Alps it is the tallest mountain for many miles, and the bare white rock of its summit makes it look imposing and snow-covered all year. Few make it to within a kilometer of the summit and quit. Tom insisted he be put back on his bike, and he was.

As he rode off his helpers heard him saying “on on on”.

These would be Tom’s last words.

Tom’s handlers were concerned with his drug usage, but they were mostly concerned with the descent of Mount Ventoux. The potentially hallucinogenic combination of heat (it was over 120F at times during the day), amphetamines and alcohol could have made for difficulty on a fast windy descent. The stage did not end on the summit like this year’s stage will. It descended the other side and ended in the town of Carpentras. Pope Clement V (first of the Avignon Popes, died 5 April 1314) and his Roman Curia were the most famous residents of Carpentras. Julio Jiménez Muñoz would win the 1967 stage, and go on to win the 1967 polkadot Jersey, and come in 2nd overall in the 1967 TDF.

Tom never made it to the summit.

About 500 meters from the summit Tom fell off his bike again. He never recovered. His hands were reportedly gripping the handlebars so tightly it took considerable effort to pry them loose before CPR could be started.

There is an unassuming monument to Tom Simpson on the slopes of Mount Ventoux. It is more than a monument to a doping athlete who blew himself up. It is a monument to cycling. Everyone who has ever cycled up a grade that was way too steep for them to do (like my potential assault of Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday) knows how foolishly painful that amount of pointless effort can be.

Tom Simpson’s death on Mount Ventoux is not a cautionary tale about not pushing yourself too hard; it is a message from the past that others have tried even harder than you are willing to.

Tom did not have to worry about getting run over by a car though. One does not want to ride up Little Cottonwood canyon on weekends or holidays.

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