8 June 2012

A run for their money

Mt. Ventoux gives 150 motorcycle racers a chance to try the legendary hill climb in Provence, perhaps for the last time

Increasing in popularity, bicycles now clutter UK roads each weekend, creating a new brand of road user called MAMILS. Short for Middle Aged Men In Lycra, it may seem a cruel reference to bulgy individuals trying to keep fit, especially to Europeans, where cycling is respected as a national sport.

Country-wide races such as the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France attract tens of thousands of spectators, including spandex-clad individuals emulating their heroes. Several mountain climbs have become legendary, one being Mt. Ventoux in Provence in the South of France. (Ventoux means windy and the famous ‘Mistral’ often manages 200 mph on its peak, just short of 2,000 metres high.)

The mountain’s cycle fame is relatively new, in comparison to its motorcycle and race car history, which dates back to 1902. Mt. Ventoux became a hill climb venue only two years after the opening of a twisty road that zigzags up the mountain from Bédoin and down again to Malaucène.

On Tuesday, Sept. 16, 1902, dozens of competitors gathered to face ‘The Giant of Provence’. They were divided into three classes and ran to the summit observatory (at 1908 metres) from Bédoin, a distance of 21.6 km, and did not go on to Malaucène. Michelin Tyres sponsored the race, which attracted a large crowd.

This first hill climb was won by a French driver named Chauchard , driving a 13.7-litre Panhard et Levasseur at an average speed of 47.501 kph. In the motorcyclette class, a rider called Derny on a Clement averaged 30.96 kph — not bad, considering the difference in engine sizes.

To put things in perspective, the last time Mt. Ventoux was run as a full-bore hill climb for cars in 1976, a March made fastest time of the day at an average speed of 149.192 kph.

Through the years, prominent manufacturers added their names to the winner’s roll, including Peugeot, Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Ferrari. BRM and Cooper-Climax took their turns, when single seat racing cars were involved.

Top drivers took part, and Rudi Caracciola drove a supercharged Mercedes SSK in 1931. A few years later, Hans Stuck took a rear-engine, supercharged V-16 Auto Union Grand Prix Silver Arrow to the top.

Mt. Ventoux was always a key hill climb for cars, and motorcycles only appeared now and then for short periods. Up to eight classes were run and capacities ranged from 50cc to the one-litre-plus Kawasakis that dominated at the end. While Norton put on a good show for the British factories in the 1950s, they did not dominate, as they did in road racing.

The only British winners were World Champions Oliver and ‘Jenks’ in the sidecar class. Riding primarily for start money, the pair crammed the hill climb between championship commitments. They managed to win both the sidecar classes, by not stopping at the top in the under 600cc event and riding straight through the finish and down the other side of the mountain. There, they blasted back to the start and did it all again in the over 600cc class. To further top up funds, they repeated the non-stop run in the solo class on Velocette MK8s. Oliver managed a third place and Jenks finished in the money, further down the field.

The track has seen many changes over the years, including the introduction of banking on some corners. But even though the course was shortened, the cost of running hill climbs rose beyond the organisers’ pockets. The heavy costs of Gendarmes (needed for crowd control) and fire and rescue services, along with insurance and safety items, put the final nails in the coffin, and Mt Ventoux’ celebrated history came to an end.

The hill continues to play a part in cycle racing and has also been used for rally stages, but in the main, it’s quiet. Four years ago the Asso-mc2a motorcycle club started a classic event from the Malaucène end of the road. It wasn’t a full-speed competitive event, but a ‘demonstration’ run to celebrate motorcycles on the mountain.

Despite attracting a large entry, this too has become a victim of economic woes, and this year’s climb is likely to be the last, even though more than 150 machines turned out on the last Sunday in April. Warm sun rewarded hundreds of spectators who gathered on the hillsides to watch the ‘pilotes’ tackle the 2.3-kilometre closed road section in 14 classes.

A look at the programme and around the paddock showed bikes that could well have run here in the past. A 1927 Alcyon, a 1934 New Map, a brand that won in 1928, a Terrot and Magnat Debon were just a few that glinted in the sun. British machines like Manx Norton and Velocette also featured heavily, many taking a weekend away from the race track, as in the past.

And there were a number of modern classics manufactured after the hill closed in ’76, like the French Godier Genoud Kawasakis that dominated Endurance racing in the 1980s. The hill climb gave a real sense of what Mt. Ventoux must have been like in its heyday. Perhaps when the economy improves, riders will return to the “Giant” again.

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