It’s just gone 2.00 am and we’ve had to abandon the tent and crawl into the mini-bus, the water in the plastic one gallon containers has frozen solid – Alaska? Welcome to Mount Ventoux, Provence, France; 12 hours later the sun feels like a blow lamp playing on your skin. It’s the 1987 Tour de France and there’s everything to play for – let’s go back a smooth 20 years and enjoy the action anew.
Charly Mottet of France has the yellow jersey, but in second place is the new French sensation, the handsome, talented but smug and not particularly popular in the peloton, Jean-Francois Bernard. Ever-cool Stephen Roche of Ireland has a Giro win fresh under his belt and lurks in third spot. The man who would win the Tour in 1988, Pedro Delgado of Spain is fourth and our hero – Robert Millar of Scotland is fifth, albeit a rather distant 5-40 away from yellow.
We’ve driven our hired mini-bus close-on a thousand miles to be here, it’s 20 years since Britain’s greatest-ever cyclist, Tom Simpson died on this stark lump of rock ‘The Giant of Provence’, in the 1967 tour; we’re here to pay homage to him and watch the 36.5 kilometre mountain time trial and just maybe, see our man from Glasgow do the business.
The placings behind Millar reflected the growing ‘mondialisation’ of cycling with Mexican, Raul Alcala in sixth; Andy Hampsten of the US in seventh and Colombians Luis Herrera and Pablo Wilches filling eight and ninth places respectively.
Ya Gotta Get There First
All through southern England and northern France it rained on our mini-bus as if there was no tomorrow, but when we picked-up Le Autoroute du Soleil south of Paris, the skies cleared and the windows were rolled open, a position they remained in for days to come.
The Autoroute du Soleil, literally ‘the motorway to the sun’ is a dangerous, crazy road; every summer, thousands of French families hurl themselves south along its smooth, fast tarmac heading for the beaches and the sun.
We passed horrific wrecks on a regular basis, largely due to the suicidal tail-gating, passing on the inside, lack of indication and machismo which all characterise French motorway driving.
It was around ten in the morning before the sun began to warm us after we froze on the mountain, we had to spend the night up there because the roads were closed in the small hours and if you weren’t up there, then it was walk or pedal up the steep slopes under that blow lamp sun.
This is the corner everyone was yearning for…even though you’re about 2% from needing climbing gear to get up it.
Early Goings And Quick Burning
The test started in the dusty Roman town of Carpentras, a fast and flat first 14 kilometres; the lovely village of Bedoin marks the start of the monster’s lower slopes, tree-lined at first then out onto the infamous white, scree-slopes which reflect the sun’s heat back like a blast-furnace.
The final 22 kilometres of the race would see the riders gain 1600 metres in altitude with nowhere to hide from gravity – or the sun.
Battle commenced as the sun was at its highest, the brown-skinned southern European fans basted in the sun as we did our best to keep our white Scottish skin from frying.
Oh that’s just evil.
The early starters had a thankless task; get to the top without wasting too much energy but whilst mindful of the dreaded time-cut.
Long-haired Dutchman (some claim they were hair-extensions) Gert-Jan Theunisse gave us our first glimpse of pulse monitors, initially puzzling us as to what the little wire dangling from his skinsuit was.
Britain’s Malcolm Elliott rode to a decent 37th place with his ANC team boss, Tony Capper standing on the team car seat, leaning out of the sunroof, basking in the ‘buzz’ that only the Tour generates after the Tour, ‘Big Tony’ would disappear, leaving the whole team “unpaid and jobless”.
There was the big guy that the Spanish were raving about – Indurain, was it? Anyway, he failed to impress and looked like he needed to lose some weight – I wonder what happened to him?
A slightly different view of the top.
The Big Boys Come Out To Play
The restlessness in the crowd was palpable as we awaited the top ten.
The bird-like Herrera was impressive, his frail body totally suited to the exercise, smooth and focused ‘he could win today’ we thought, but his classy ride would only be good enough for second.
Despite his smooth style and super-cool 7-11 skinsuit, Hampsten would slip from seventh to ninth overall, dropping a yawning 6-12 on the stage over a distance of less than 25 miles.
Alcala was struggling, his chunky body unsuited to the task, he had to surrender eight minutes.
Bad Day At Black Rock
Then it was time for our boy, the media-unfriendly climber from the city on the Clyde, twice a runner-up in the Vuelta and hero of several World road race championships.
I had raced against him in the 70s; for me it was a ‘career’, marriage, divorce and pounding big gears up and down Scottish roads early on Sunday mornings in Scottish time trials.
Robert Millar didn’t have the best of days, and he probably got more of an earful for his efforts.
Ten years later, here I was standing by the roadside living the life I hadn’t had the courage or talent to pursue, through him.
It was ‘Bad day at Black Rock’ for both of us, Pedro Delgado – who had ‘stolen’ the 1985 Vuelta from Millar with the help of a Spanish conspiracy that Oliver Stone couldn’t have invented – had caught our man en route to third place on the stage, ‘sore-one!’ as we say in Scotland.
Millar had already been at the receiving end of tongue lashings from his Panasonic DS, Peter Post, for missing moves, the Dutchman would be incandescent after this one – maybe fitting windows wasn’t so bad after all.
Roche nearly melted in the heat.
Some Don’t Like It Hot
Roche wasn’t at his best either, never a lover of the heat he suffered whenever the mercury climbed; in the style of the best Tour men though he was limiting his losses and would make this Tour his own before the end.
At the top he would be fifth on the stage and second overall at 2-34.
Bernard was no picture of style on a bike, but he was effective, prodding at the pedals as his shoulders bobbed, rising from the saddle frequently but those watches don’t lie – he was flying.
Jean-Francois Bernard was on fire all the way up the Ventoux and took a solid, popular win.
The French crowd were in raptures as their slim, handsome, pain in the neck lunged his way towards the observatory at the top and a yellow jersey.
It was over for Mottet, always a gutsy rider and respected as being a man whose career was ‘clean’ he was cheered to the echo by the partisan crowd; but at the top he would slide to third on GC at 2-47.
For us, it was six hours to get off the mountain then another thousand miles in the mini-bus.
Robert had broken our hearts again, but what the hell – he was still our hero.