Whittle’s new book is – believe it or not – about the famous Giant of Provence, that fearsome mountain in the south of France, described by Lance Armstrong (no less) as the toughest climb in the Tour de France. Every cyclist knows of Ventoux and many have ridden it (including me) but its chief claim to fame is that Tom Simpson died on it during the 1967 Tour.
The book is interspersed with an imagined interior monologue by Tom Simpson as he rides, and then dies, on the Ventoux. There’s something a bit odd and tasteless about this and it adds nothing to one’s understanding of Simpson, or of the mountain.
There is a whole section devoted to Team Sky, Chris Froome running, Sir Dave Brailsford, the jiffy bag incident and a general suspicion of Sky and their achievements. But I’m not sure what it’s doing in this book and other than raising the usual questions (Brailsford doesn’t respond to Whittle’s email, much to his annoyance!) it adds nothing to one’s understanding or appreciation of Ventoux.
There is also a long description of a film called Le Roi de Ventoux which uses archive footage to pit 5 victors on Ventoux – Merckx, Pantani, Virenque, Bernard and Garate (me neither) – against each other to determine the winner. However, as they rode at different times, with different equipment, in different stages, against different opposition, in different weather conditions and with different drugs in their bodies (allegedly), it is difficult to see what one learns. In any case, the film is available on You Tube and you’re better off just watching it yourself and making your own mind up. (Interesting idea but not a great film).
The rest of the book describes the mountain, its history, location and place in the Tour and details Whittle’s climbs of it and the surrounding area. Interviews with Lance Armstrong (yawn), and Joanne Simpson (Tom’s daughter, quite moving), pad out the rest. There is a small selection of not very interesting or inspiring photographs – a missed opportunity as there must be many fascinating vintage post-cards and photos around.
The book is nonetheless readable and Whittle is a decent, journeyman writer who writes like what he is – a journalist on the Times offered a book deal – but his prose never takes flight; it never leaves the forest to scratch the bare, moonlike scree above Chalet Reynard; it never reaches the beauty, glory, profundity and utter fearsome strangeness of the Giant of Provence.