A friend messaged me from France last week: "The memorial on Mont Ventoux has fallen on its face," he said. "I thought you'd want to know."
This was news but only, really, to me. Because he wasn't talking about Simpson. If it had been the memorial to Tommy Simpson – the British professional cyclist who collapsed and died on those pitiless hot slopes, chasing his dream of winning the 1967 Tour as it disappeared up the hill ahead of him – it would have made headlines across the cycling press. And besides, Simpson's stone is too famous to be left to tumble. So many people stop to leave bidons or cycling caps on its steps in homage that they are often cleared daily, to save the plastic blowing away and littering the pine, spruce and oak forests below.
But only a short scramble across the bare white limestone is another stone plinth, one that nobody visits or really cares about. I've sat at its base and watched fifty cyclists pass without breaking their contemplation of their stem. And it tells a different story than Simpson's – both about Ventoux and about cycling itself. ‘En mémoire du Gaulois P.Kraemer décédé en Ventoux 2.4.1983 Union Audax Français’ it says. ‘In memory of the Gaul, P. Kraemer, who died on Ventoux April 2 1983.’
Let's unpick that.
Pierre Kraemer was not a famous man, but was a celebrated member of the French Audax Union, the brotherhood of amateur, long-distance cyclists that organises, among other events, the historic Paris-Brest-Paris brevet – a 1,100km ride that participants must complete in less than 90 hours. Henri Desgrange, the founder of the Tour de France, also had a hand in Audax Français's earliest origins, in effect stealing the idea from the Italians (Audax is taken from the Latin word meaning ‘daring’).
Unlike the Tour, however, Audax is resolutely non-competitive and amateur: modern Audax rides take place over set distances – 200, 300, 400, 600 and 1000+ kilometres – with participants asked only to follow a set of printed directions (or, these days, GPS) and ride the route in a minimum time, as well as to be entirely self-sufficient between the mandatory checkpoint 'controls'. Start together, finish together is the motto, and it's quietly heroic: undertaken not for glory but for camaraderie and the love of cycling only.
Pierre was a veteran of Paris-Brest-Paris, Paris-Brussels-Paris, Bordeaux-Paris and all the great long-distance brevets. He was known for his generosity to less experienced riders, his cheerfulness and his work as a 'ride captain' – organising groups and making sure everyone was on the right track. There's a photo of him as an older man floating around on the web. He is still blonde, and it’s easy to see from his Asterix-like handlebar moustache why he is nicknamed 'the Gaul'. Compact and stocky (the typical Audax rider looks more like a mule than a leggy thoroughbred pro), he is wearing a blue short-sleeved jersey. In his oily hand he holds a glass litre-bottle of milk, half drunk, which he rests on his leather saddle. Another rider, mostly out of shot, has his arm round him. It is sunny and Pierre is smiling.
At the age of 56 – not all that long after this photo, perhaps – Kraemer was told he had an incurable cancer. So in April 1983 he decided to climb Ventoux one last time. And there, near the top, where the road ran into a snowdrift, he got off his bike, sat down and let the cold take him away. They found him later, buried under a metre of snow.
The first time I climbed Ventoux I cried, but that’s OK. It's OK to cry on mountains.
I've been up quite a few now, and guided cycle tour groups up them too, including Ventoux, and it happens pretty often. I think most people expect the physical hardships, but far fewer are prepared for the mental journey. For when your thoughts slip into that gap between discomfort and concentration and roam untethered around the subconscious, before alighting, perhaps, on a wound you didn't know was there, or had forgotten. So there's often a moment on the top of a col when someone goes to stand behind the van for a minute to themselves; or, alternatively, a spectacular implosion, like a supernova becoming a black hole. That happened to me once on the Col du Galibier. I hadn't eaten, and had toiled on my own interminably from the heat below into an ominous cold and gathering storm. Then, just near the top, Pharaoh Sanders started playing in my earphones, encouraging me to let go, and the deconstruction began. My vision darkened around the edges, the world collapsed in on itself, folding like an empty cardboard box into two dimensions and, trapped between a rock and the infinite sky, I let it all out. The hail fell from clouds dark as bruises all around me while two beams of sunlight, God's fingers, arrowed diagonally from somewhere high above the mountain into the valley below
That other time, on Ventoux, it hadn't been so hard. But the wind was cutting like a cold blade even as the sun was reddening the skin of my arms, and there, with the weather station tower beckoning me towards the finish, I passed Tom Simpson's memorial for the first time and thought, 'What a miserable place to die.'
That's still true. The top of Ventoux can be a miserable and desolate place – even if that thought was later mitigated by the discovery of this counterpoint monument only a few metres away. The final footage of Tom Simpson’s last ride shows a man climbing jaggedly into a desperate, lonely oblivion. Whereas Pierre's story speaks of a love. A harsh and inhuman love, as hot as the sun on the white rocks that day, and as cold as the snow and the wind. But a love, nevertheless.
It would be a shame to remember one and not the other. I hope someone rights that stone before the snows fall.