Each October the Tour de France announces the planned route for next year’s race. Every several years that announcement generates particularly intense excitement among fans, and some dread among riders, when it is revealed the race will include an assault on le Mont Ventoux.
Called The Giant of Province, Mont Ventoux is one of the two most iconic and daunting challenges in all of Tour de France lore; it is unique unto itself, and bizarre. Ventoux is the highest mountain in the region, rising stark from the rolling lavender fields of Province, the upper two thirds of the mountain utterly bald of trees. A narrow road scales past what for all the world looks like a lunar landscape, ending at a lone weather station at the top. It is always a mountaintop finish.
The mont was scoured clean of trees for shipbuilding beginning as early as the 13th century. Now barren and windswept, it presents a surreal appearance. On the day of the assault on Ventoux, most often in the third week of the Tour when they are already exhausted from two grueling weeks on the road, the riders will see it looming in the distance hours before they arrive at the bottom, warning of what awaits. They will ride out of the searing heat of a Province July, sometimes into snow, sometimes into hot winds. Winds at the weather station have been recorded at over 300 kilometers an hour. Days before, fans begin to arrive on the slopes, with tents and campers. On the day of the climb the slopes will be jammed with a quarter million or more, cramming the road so tight the riders barely have room to get through on the tortuous climb to the top, agonizingly inching their way up at walking speed.
To see Ventoux has been on my bucket list for years. For many cyclists climbing it is a lifetime goal. I have never been that capable a rider. For me, the bucket would be filled just to see it, just to drive up that road to the weather station, to travel over cycling’s hallowed ground. Several years ago the opportunity presented itself.
It was March in Province. Traveling south from the Alps towards the Aude we realized we could alter course for a day or so and finally get to see Mont Ventoux. The weather had begun to warm. Spring was coming. Far off in the distance, I caught sight of The Giant for the first time. We found a room at a small hotel in the village of Aurel in the valley below, had dinner, and made plans to drive up the mountain road to the weather station the next morning. But the next morning, unexpectedly cold and damp in the valley, snow and glaze ice had closed the road up le Mont. I never made it out of the treeline, nor did I the next day, or the next. And, after three days of failed attempts, we decided to move on, having only seen Ventoux from the valley below. Those attempts, though, were glorious, the trees sparkling with ice crystals on their sunless sides each day. Impossible (for me) to catch by camera.
The morning we were preparing to leave I went for a walk around the village and came upon an elderly gentleman having a conversation with a fellow in a car parked by the road. He caught my eye instantly; there was a look about him that was perfect for this tiny French village. As unobtrusively as possible I unslung my camera and began shooting. There was something about that face.
The fellow in the car (as it turned out, the mayor) spotted me and waved me closer. We exchanged greetings, he, the cheerful elderly gent, and me. One thing led briefly to another. And then the man in the car pointed to his compatriot and said, with great pride, “He is Maquis.”
Maquis! The Resistance! I was thunderstruck. This elderly man with the roguish smile who stood before me, had been there. His was the face of The Resistance, the face of living history. What stories he could tell of the occupation right here in this village. I wished I could ask him for some of those stories. For my poor French, I had to settle for the photos and the memories.
The French are tough-minded and resourceful. Three invasions and the hell of occupation will do that. They know how to survive, how to get along. They know how to comply but not be subdued. Thoughts of that elderly gentleman come to mind these days. We are in the second year of the pandemic. After last year’s confinement, new restrictions, thought by many to be draconian and senseless, are now in effect, but for the French, this is not their first rodeo.
The new rules allow many stores, but not restaurants, to be open and people go about their business wearing masks, living life mostly as usual. Until 6 pm. There is now a nationwide, take-no-prisoners curfew in effect from 6 pm until 6 am every day. Presumably, the Covid, like a vampire, comes out at sundown and roams the streets seeking victims, but scurries back to its casket at daybreak.
Gendarmes patrol the streets, striking fear in the heart of M. Jean-Average Frenchman and you had better be off the streets and roads at 6. If you get nabbed at 6:01 it’s a 135-euro fine, because apparently 135 is just the right number for a fine. They aren’t kidding…last week in Paris 60,000 people were nabbed for curfew violations. A handy little moneymaker that is, you betcha. In one instance they nabbed 81 people at an orgy (swear ta god), presumably for failing to maintain social distancing at an orgy. Well how could you?
We have a friend, who will of course go unnamed, who lives in a tiny hamlet. There are no street lights, no traffic lights, only moonlight. She and her young son live perhaps 30 yards down the road from Grandma’s house. It is night time, It is dark. They want to visit Grandma.
Sticking to the shadows they peek out into the street, on the lookout for patrolling gendarmes. When the coast is clear they bolt for the house and, arriving undetected at the furtively opened door, they share triumphant thumbs up with Grandma before quickly ducking in, lest they be spotted by a collaberateur peeking out of a neighboring house.
It is a small victory for les Maquis de le Covid.
Vive la resistance!