A mountain of people, that’s what it looked like, sucked from across the globe to convene on a giant slab of rock in the middle of nowhere. “I’ve never seen so many people on the Ventoux,” said Lance Armstrong after Saturday’s penultimate stage.
One million people, all combined to form a hot, heaving pile of sun-broiled stippled flesh, the citizenry of Europe and beyond all here to witness the day of reckoning Tour organisers called “judgment day” when the route was announced over nine months ago.
Fitting too that such a time frame should apply in this case. To many, this 96th Tour has been about re-birth. Too many black sheep have emerged in the past but on Saturday, on 22 kilometres of uphill, undulating torture in a place called Bedoin, the sport of cycling produced an audience and a setting that may have been the most impressive ever assembled for a single day of sport.
Truly inspiring sporting moments are as few as they are impossible to fabricate but this day, Saturday July 25, is one that will live long in the memory bank of sporting aficionados.
The legendary Mont Ventoux earns its status for its sheer lethality. Soaring 1912 metres into the sky at an average gradient of 7.4% makes it one of the most revered and infamous climbs in cycling, not least because it claimed the life of British rider Tom Simpson back in 1967.
On Saturday, while one Spaniard, Juan Manuel Garate scrawled his name into history for being the first rider over the line after 167 kilometres from Montelimar, his fellow countryman Alberto Contador proved yet again, that he is currently the best rider on the planet after yet another swashbuckling display of power and grace.
The Astana team captain has focused his whole season on this day and this three-week ordeal, making it his sole priority and while his winning margin of over four minutes is quite flattering, Contador knew that everyone wanted him brought down.
This was clear on the road to Ventoux as painted intermittently in large, carefully edged white letters were catchy phrases like “Alberto Puerto” and even elaborate images of the flyweight Spaniard dosing himself with ‘juice’. “I don’t focus on that,” he broads, “it’s a great victory for cycling.”
Chief among those bidding for Contador to display some chink in armour was the lanky figure of Andy Shleck and all week who has tried to bulldoze his nemesis with attack after attack. The Saxo-Bank rider, along with his older brother Frank both trailed Contador on Saturday morning but not even a staggering 12 consecutive attacks could rattle the 2007 champion.
Each assault was met with wild euphoria from that army of Luxembourgers that accumulated on the Ventoux but each one was met with an even more violent and raucous counter-support from the bonfire-lit patriotism of Spanish supporters.
Having absorbed everything that the Shlecks had to offer, Contador-on approach to the summit of Ventoux broke out that dazzling smile and that ultra smooth dance rhythm on the pedals that makes his supporters froth at and his enemies boil over with rage.
Sunday’s final stage therefore proved to be little more than a ceremony. A victory parade for the groom of the sport and while he laughed and joked amongst his peers on the glacial pace ride into Paris, the millions who watched around the world hoped and prayed that this was a clean Tour, reborn, reset and recalibrated.