Tour de France 21 Stories: Vicious Ventoux

Stage 12: Montpellier-Mont Ventoux

Everyone knows the tragic tale of Tom Simpson, collapsing in the heat, amongst the white rocks of Mont Ventoux’s burning upper slopes, pronounced dead on arrival in hospital.

But what of Jean Malléjac, who narrowly avoided the same fate, 12 years earlier?

There were many brutal stages in 1955, but the 198k stage from Marseille to Avignon was one of the worst. It was won by Louison Bobet, one of the few riders to make it over Ventoux intact, despite excruciatingly painful saddle sores. He crossed the finish line with less than a minute’s grace, having been pursued by a scary bunch of Italians—one of whom, Pasquale Fornara, was right behind him on GC—and a tenacious Belgian, Jean Brankart, who would finish second in Paris.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever ridden such a difficult Tour,” a grim-faced Bobet told press afterwards, while confiding to his brother, Jean, that he wasn’t sure how he could continue.

“Spectators with sunstroke were dropping like flies,” Bobet’s team-mate Raphaël Géminiani later recalled. “At the bottom of the Tourmalet the Swiss [Ferdi Kübler] got up on his pedals and went sprinting away. He was off like a locomotive. That was his trademark. I just had time to warn him, ‘Steady, Ferdi! The Ventoux isn’t like other climbs.’ And then, between two apocalyptic attacks, Kübler put me in my place in his shaky French: ‘Ferdi also not champion like others.’ On the line, they had to scoop him off the road with a teaspoon.”

It was the closing moment of Kübler’s career.

Here was a stage for the specialist climbers, yet they were on their hands and knees. Charly Gaul, the handsome, slightly creepy Luxembourger who’d given everyone a fright in the Alps, now wilted like a poppy on hot tarmac. Gilbert Bauvin, the punchy little grimpeur from Nancy, was pedalling squares. The Belgian climber, Richard Van Genechten, keeled over into a ditch.

But 10k from the summit was the worst scene of all. Malléjac, one of the top French riders, had collapsed, a terrifying wheezing sound emanating from his throat, one leg still pedalling the air. Sauveur Ducazeaux, a DS from another team who rushed to his aid, was horrified by what he saw: Malléjac was inanimate, his eyes rolled back to their whites, his stretched features waxy and contorted. The Tour’s Dr Dumas quickly arrived on the scene. “His jaws had to be forced apart to try to get him to drink and it wasn’t until a quarter of an hour later, after he’d received an injection of solucamphor and been given oxygen, that Malléjac recovered consciousness,” l’Equipe reported. “Carried off in the ambulance, he still hadn’t recovered his wits. He struggled, gesticulated, shouted, called for his bike, wanted to climb out, so much so that he had to be strapped down.”

Fortunately Malléjac lived to tell the tale – or not. The doctors suspected amphetamine abuse. Malléjac declared he was perfectly clean, then claimed he’d been poisoned by his soigneur. A furious Doctor Dumas declared he would press charges for attempted murder.

Malléjac recovered, rode two more Tours, and went to his death at the age of 71 protesting his innocence.

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