Opinion: The mistral blows cold at the inaugural Mont Ventoux Denivele Challenge

This month saw the inaugural edition of the ‘Mont Ventoux Denivele Challenge’, a new race to the pro cycling calendar.

The 175km race was, obviously, billed as ‘one for the climbers’, and with a series of small climbs falling before a summit finish on the ‘Beast of Provence’, it was well-deserving of its billing.

The final ascent of Ventoux took the peloton up the most feared approach to the iconic weather tower at the summit of the possible three; the 21.4km climb from Bedoin.

This was the slope that saw both the tragic death of Tommy Simpson and the comic scene of Chris Froome running up the mountain without a bike. With such a legendary point for the finish line, in theory, the race could be a cracker.

However, the race left many cold. The fearsome reputation of Ventoux and the brutal winds of the mistral failed to whip up a storm, instead leaving a cold draft. But why?

In the race, a fatigued Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), coming hot (or not so hot) off a tough Criterium du Dauphine, didn’t have the kick to match eventual winner Jesus Herrada’s (Cofidis) acceleration in the final kilometre.

The pair had gone clear with 9km to go of the ‘bald mountain’ after the infamously brutal climb had whittled the group down to the strongest few.

Bardet came into the race the clear favourite, and his team took up the responsibility of controlling the peloton on the approach to the summit finish, keeping the five-man breakaway in check.

Any hopes of a peloton ripped apart by Provence’s fearsome winds were dashed as the sky shone blue and still.

As the climb bit, the slope soon whittled the group down to a select few, with Herrada, Bardet, Rein Taaramäe (Total Direct Energie), Adrien Guillonet (Interpro Cycling Academy), Joe Dombrowski (EF-Education First), Tony Gallopin (Ag2r-La Mondiale), and Élie Gesbert (Arkea-Samsic) the last men standing.

When the race came down to just Bardet and Herrada, it felt as though the action slowed. With a 20-second gap on the solo chaser, Taaramae, it was clear Herrada was the strongest of the two.

Bardet was clearly lacking his usual punch, failing to dislodge the Spaniard with a series of accelerations. Instead, the Cofidis man took his time and left it to the final 500m to push clear, leaving Bardet trailing nine seconds behind at the line.

Two things may stand out from reading that summary: where were the World Tour riders in that final battle? And where was – well – the action? In essence, the race came down to a final 15-minute slug-fest, two boxers eyeing each other out, fighting in slow motion as they staggered around the mat in the 12th round.

Herrada cannily watching his weaker opponent, easily defecting any killer blows, simply waiting for Bardet to fight himself into exhausted submission.

The race felt underwhelming. I tuned in with high expectations, a lover of Ventoux and the area in which the race was set. I should have known better. A one-day race with a 21km summit finish? It was only going to go one way.

The inaugural Denivele Challege had eerie similarities to the Fleche Wallone, and the way hours of racing come down to the few final minutes of slow-motion ‘sprinting’.

Race-organiser Nicolas Garcera told Andrew Hood of Velonews that he had hoped the riders would “make it a race from the beginning and don’t wait until the final climb.” The firecrackers both he and I were hoping for failed to bang, however, instead just fizzling into obscurity.

However, the way the race unfolded was not the fault of the riders. A small breakaway would never legitimately expect to last through the entirety of the killer finale if a peloton of chasers coalesced behind them.

The entirely pro-continental make-up of the break screamed sponsor showroom rather than a legitimate threat, as the pre-race favourites bided their time in the peloton and waited for the inevitable scrap on the moonscape atop Ventoux.

But what could be done differently? Perhaps take a note from the Tour de France’s recent formula, or the Vuelta a Espana’s tendency for stages being short and punchy, maybe with a decisive climb mid-way, or with a finale at the base of the climb?

Imagine how the race could have played out if the route took in the iconic ascent of Ventoux from Bedoin before finishing on the other side of the mountain, in Malaucene?

Attacking would be encouraged and bravado would be rewarded, rather than letting the race come down to a watts/kilo contest.

Think of the thrills delivered by the final descent and breakneck charge to the finish of Il Lombardia or the 2018 Worlds in Innsbruck, only on a more Hors Categorie scale.

Or would a move in the calendar spark more excitement? The race did its best to make itself appealing to the WorldTour riders by starting the day after the Dauphine, just a hop over the Alps away from the stage race’s finish in Champery.

While it worked with teams easily able to get themselves down to Provence for the start, what spark and crack are riders going to have in the legs after what Simon Clarke of EF-Education First has described to me as ‘the hardest race of the year’? And based just three weeks before the Tour, wouldn’t most legitimate climbing prospects for the Grand Boucle either be heading home for rest after the Dauphine or head down in the Tour de Suisse?

Perhaps a place later in the calendar could be more fitting, in the vein of the post-Tour de France shakeout that is the Clasica San Sebastian, or the final fling of the year like Il Lombardia.

Racers would have nothing to lose when a grand tour isn’t looming. But then, perhaps they would have nothing to gain from taking part in a 1.1-rated race at the end of the season either.

I criticise, but I admire the concept and the bravery of the organiser. Garcera is the organiser of the long-standing Santini Gran Fondo Mont Ventoux, and a local to the area.

The project was largely funded from his pockets, with little sponsor or media investment. Clearly, the man worships at the font of the Ventoux to some extent, with his life devoted to it.

When discussing the race with Velonews, Garcera said “Everyone kept saying, this route [of the Gran Fondo] is so beautiful, wouldn’t it be great to make it a race? I live right at the bottom of Ventoux. It’s like a dream come true to make this race happen.”

And perhaps it’s in this very admirable passion that the race fails. Garcera seems so in awe of the concept and the mountain itself that he perhaps can’t see the reality that finishing on the summit isn’t the way to go.

I’d love to see him run it again. However, if the race is to get the long-term status and recognition Garcera so desires, I can’t help but feel something needs to change.

But if he were to find a winning formula, imagine the prospect of a spin-off string of one-day events, with races based on other iconic climbs; the Stelvio, the Tourmalet, Alp d’Huez but to name a few?

“Imagine [that] this iconic place in cycling history has never had its own race?” Garcera asked Velonews. It does seem somehow ‘correct’ that we get to see racing on Ventoux every year, rather than waiting for its inclusion in the Tour or Dauphine.

Let’s hope Garcera does the iconic mountain justice with a similarly iconic race formula.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Allez! Allez! CC or its editors.

Images courtesy of Team Cofidis.

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