Among all the mountains that intertwine with the history of motorsport and cycling, there is one that is not in the Alps or in the Pyrenees, but dominating the skyline of the plains in the south of France. The first ascent car to the Mont Ventoux, in 1902, established a route then cycling has become a ritual since the Tour de France made its first stage finish at the top in 1958. In those same miles of road riders and cyclists have been constructed stories of their own legends and tragedies. In 1967, on the slopes of the giant of Provence, two of them crossed their destinations: Rolf Stommelen and Tom Simpson.
In 1902, when the gasoline cars had not yet surpassed those of steam and electric, took place the first automobile race on the Mont Ventoux. The cars they came from Bédoin zigzagging between fields to the east until you reach Saint-Estéve, where it began a steep climb through the forest that led to the Chalet Reynard, in which revolved to the northwest to cover the last kilometres through a landscape of stark in the hit face the worst winds of the continent. 21’6 km after from Bédoin, to 200 meters of height, the cars arrived to the finish, to almost 1900. That path, by a non-asphalted road, it became since the first edition in a kind of way ritual for the rose, triumphed and failed, the best riders of the first half of the TWENTIETH century. From 1902 to 1949, and from 1953 to 1973 the Mont Ventoux hosted high-level competitions in which winners from Boillot, Caracciola or Stuck up Behra, Scarfiotti, or Hermann. That’s why when the Tour de France incorporated it into their stages chose the same score, only to climb at a tempo much slower and dramatic.
The cyclist who decided to lead
To Rolf Stommelen not interested him too much team sports. From small, in contrast, had a great fondness for running, skiing, and, above all, go on a bike ride. When years later became a professional pilot continued to practice the cycling, something exotic in an era of runners with more taste for the party which by the exercise. Some who knew him closely, like his friend Hugo Emle, thought even that Rolf had conditions and attitude to have been a professional cyclist.
Stommelen instead chose to drive a car. Drive them very fast. Their ambition and their ability to manage the limits they gave him a belt with victories very useful though, in a time in which advertising and the mass media were changing the sport, never got that big win that will cover of prestige. But he was to point in the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1979.
After 15 hours of racing, the Porsche of Rolf was to 15 turns of the first, another 935 that the brothers Whittington had purchased in cash to Kremer minutes before the race so as to impose one of them leads in the output. The Sunday morning leader broke a belt and the repair took about an hour. Stommelen was launched then to an unforgiving time trial that left him just 10 minutes on the head when he came in to do the last tire change. But then a nut bloquada made him lose almost half an hour, and out again to the track with a piston holed warned that the engine was on the point of collapse: Rolf had to spend a good part of the last hour standing next to the finish line, because the car could just walk just to cross it when you met 24 hours a day. Thus secured the second position, his best result at Le Mans, with a taste of defeat: What all the world would remember is that in that same Porsche 935 had driven a few hours for the actor Paul Newman.
Everything fast: Tom Simpson
Tom Simpson had a special relationship with the speed, and maybe that is why also the had with the car. As an amateur, had managed a bronze in the test of persecution by teams of the Olympic Games in Melbourne. In the track cycling, everything revolves around the speed and the extreme: throw the machine to full speed, maintain a lot of speed in curves, to have a pedaling speed and bring the body to the limits of their performance… not to overcome them.
In 1959 he moved to the continent to make the leap to professionals, settling in Ghent. For a runner of his time, the money came about all thanks to the victories and to win races you had to run races, many of them. Thus, in addition to good legs also needed a car that would be able to walk many kilometers and sometimes compete on consecutive days in cities very far from each other. That is why one of the first things he did Tom in the continent was to buy a car, but not exactly a break: against the opinion of their friends and family, Simpson bought an Aston Martin DB4, second-hand, a gran turismo fast and elegant, a novelty launched the previous year, and, in addition, was English.
The DB4 was not the only sport Simpson. Years later, already running for the Peugeot team, he had the slim, beautiful and impossible to Jaguar E-Type, which had been launched in 1961. With a body that inherited knowledge of aerodynamics, purchased at Le Mans and the spirit of artist Malcolm Sayer, the Jaguar was not practical, but it was full of meaning, and that also counts in the life of an athlete: not only are there competing to be the best, but also seem good, and believe it.
Rolf and death: a long getaway
In the 6 hours of Riverside 1983 Derek Bell and Rolf Stommelen were crew aboard a Porsche. Towards the middle of the race Bell, three-time champions of the 24 hours of Le Mans, gave the car Stommelen, who took to the track in second position. A few minutes later on a curve at more than 250 km/h, the rear spoiler broke and the car was crushed against the wall. Rolf died almost in the act. He was three months short of 40 years.
But death, with all the cards in the hand, had given a rodeo for 13 years until crossed with Stommelen. The Great Prize of Spain of Formula 1, 1975, which was played in the circuit of Montjuic, was controversial from the start because of the problems with the security. Some riders refused to compete and the organization made reforms in the guardarrailes against the clock trying to save the race. Rolf started the ninth with his Hill-Ford, but a strong accident of the leaders will be left to the front of a Formula 1 race for the first time in his life. Only four laps later he lost control of his car at high speed, impacting violently against the barriers, bounced back by jumping over the fence opposite. Rolf saved his life, but the impact killed one firefighter, two journalists and a bystander. The cause of the accident was the same who 13 years later would cost him the life: the detachment of the rear spoiler in full career.
The journey of Rolf had begun in 1967, when he moved on to professional recruiting for one of the structures that he would fight all the victories: the Porsche factory team. This was meant to be available for the big races like the 24 hours of Le Mans or the 24 hours of Daytona, but also for the old testing resistance on the road and the Targa Florio. And also compete in the European Championship of the Mountain on the roads of some of the ports more rugged and fearsome on the continent with racing cars fastest in the world after Formula 1. Rolf suffered in the first person, the magnitude of the risk to the little bit of premiering as a professional. On the climb at Rossfeld, 1968 had a strong crash with the Porsche 910 Spyder, from which he escaped with life, but that cost him several fractures. A few minutes later at the same point Ludovico Scarfiotti lost control of his car crashing and losing the life in the act. For any pilot who were putting up a good to the middle of the last century, death was not only a chance: it was part of the landscape of each race weekend.
A Mercedes for the Tour
A few weeks before departing for the Tour de France 1967 Tom Simpson was presented at the local Mercedes dealer in the city where he lived, Ghent. In his 8 years as a professional he had won the Tour of Flanders, Milan – San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia, the World Championships and had just overcome in the Paris – Nice. It was a star of world cycling, finished the reign of Anquetil, was considered to be ready to dominate the Tour de France.
In those years that a cyclist who would like to survive as a professional I had to run a lot inside and outside of the track. In July 1965, returning home after a race, the Mercedes they were traveling Tom and his wife collided head-on with a car of tourists after they are passed to the oncoming lane in a curve taken too fast. Everyone came out unharmed but the vehicles were destroyed. Just one month after Simpson traveled to San Sebastian to compete in the World Championship. He did it aboard a BMW 1800 Ti just released and, by the looks of it, the new car was a good omen: he won the race and with it the maillot arc-iris, his biggest victory as a professional to date.
That day of June 1967, Tom had gone to the local Mercedes dealer to give the signal for a new car. We don’t know exactly what model it was, but the brand had presented the version 250 of your precious SL “Pagoda”, and perhaps to Tom it seemed to him a trophy suitable. Expected return from the Tour full of money in prizes, perhaps with the victory. I didn’t need extra motivation, but a new and sculptural Mercedes would be an inspiration more during the three weeks of the route.
The Mont Ventoux in 1967
In the spring of 1967-Rolf Stommelen had his debut as a professional with the factory team Porsche. In may he had won the Targa Florio together to Hawkins, after leaving three laps brillantísimas to the circuit of about 70 km At the beginning of June the 24 hours of Le Mans had been closed with a landslide victory for the Ford GT40 Gurney and Foyt, but the team Porsche had taken its 907 until the 5th square, with Stommelen and Neerpasch sixth in the 910. The first few months of Rolf as a professional were still bright.
The June 18, 1967 Stommelen was in Bedoin sitting in his Porsche 910 Spyder, hoping to compete for the first time in the 21’6 kilometres of the climb uphill to the Mont Ventoux. Only a week after surviving the 24 hours of Le Mans, I was going to tackle the corners, the winds and the depths of the giant of Provence. And also to the myths, the shadow of Stuck and Caracciola, and to the heritage of motor racing that came down most of the bike of the carriages. That day, Rolf was the only rider to lap under 11 minutes, and took the victory by over 25 seconds on Gerhard Mitter, which would be the european champion that year. In just over a month from the Targa Florio Rolf had started its own race to the summit and the victory on the Ventoux on the leader of their team was their confirmation.
The Tour of 1967 was not dealing well with Tom Simpson. Had to wait until the eighth stage ends at the top of the Ballon d’alsace to enter among the first 10 of the general classification, but it took many minutes lost with Pingeon, who had been leading the same day. In the stage that passed the Galibier, on July 10, a strong diarrhea had cost him losing 3 minutes to the leader and to be ahead in general by Julio Jiménez. As many cyclists in that time, Simpson used a blend of stimulant drugs to minimize the loss and relaxing to try to rest. On July 13, the day he left Marseille and finished in Carpentras: in the middle, the Mont Ventoux and its ritual ascent through Bedoin. It was a day of heat heinous in a landscape of extremes.
Tom started to over 8 minutes of the yellow jersey. Path of ascension tried to take stock of all sorts of drinks. As was common then, he charged his herd Colin Lewis that cogiese what could be a bar: Lewis came back with some cocacolas and a quarter of a bottle of brandy to which Tom gave a good drink. The rest ended up in the drum. What happened a little later on the slopes of the Ventoux is one of the tragedies more seedy and evocative of the history of sport and popular culture: the fatal combination of drugs, alcohol, and heat ravaged the body of Simpson. A little over a kilometre from the top zigzagueaba so much that he was about to come out by the side of the road. With the look lost just happened to say to his mechanics “subidme again to the bike.” Helped him to continue: 40 ride later, moving like an automaton that runs out of rope, his assistants picked him up before desplomase on the shoulder. Tom died on the rocks of Mont Ventoux, in front of the cameras, in the living rooms, in bars all over the world.
The life of Simpson ended up a kilometre from the summit of Mont Ventoux three weeks after the young Rolf Stommelen, with a bold victory, began there a very long game of cards with Death. Today a monument, restored in 2017 thanks to a crowdfunding, it reminds the cyclist to the edge of the road in the middle of the hostile landscape and fascinating that attracted pioneers of the cycling and motorsport. While the wind tolerates it, the monolith is usually surrounded by jerry cans and caps fans to leave as an offering to ascend to the port.
The Tour de France will not pass the Mont Ventoux in this edition. However, this year it will be held for the first time a professional career in ICU with end at the top. It will be the 17 of June, the eve of the 52nd anniversary of the victory of Stommelen.
Rolf is buried in Cologne, and his grave still appears from time to time covered with offerings of the fans.
But before the Tour de France and the Mont Ventoux, cars and bikes shared the challenge of the ascension most legendary of Europe. In the next and final installment, we will get to the ramp of the Stelvio…
Photo: Mirko Tobias Schäfer | Daimler Media | Porsche Press | British Pathe
In Diariomotor: When in high: stories of cars, bicycles and mountain passes