Tour de France: Iconic places – Col du Tourmalet

Stage 16, 197km from Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon sees the peloton tackle the Col du Tourmalet – from its western approach – as part of this year’s queen stage. Yes, the race is in the Pyrenees following a classic line of climbs which has featured in the Tour since 1910. The Tourmalet – local patois for bad route or Gascon for distant mountain –  is the highest pass in the Pyrenees and the most visited mountain in the Tour itinerary. It’ll be the 79th time that the Tourmalet has featured in the Tour and a stage has either finished atop it or on it on four occasions: in 1970 the winner was Bernard Thevenet, followed by Jean-Pierre Danguillaume (1974), Lance Armstrong (2002) and Andy Schleck (2010).

Tour tales

Statute of Lapize on Col du Tourmalet (image courtesy of official website)

Statute atop Col du Tourmalet (image courtesy of official website)

The Col has some epic tales to tell starting with its debut. One the Tour organiser’s journalists, having done a near-fatal reconnaissance of what were essentially private roads to the area’s thermal resorts, persuaded the local authority to make the roads more passable and announced that “the Tourmalet was very good, and quite feasible, even for an average cyclist”. It was nothing of the sort, but achieved its primary objective – increased sales of L’Auto. The winner of that year’s Tour, Octave Lapize, was rather more than your ‘average cyclist’ and first man over the Tourmalet, even though he did walk part of the way. Not so Gustave Garrigou, winner of the 1911 Tour, who managed to ride the entire climb. The organisers weren’t entirely unfeeling, they introduced the broom wagon but tempered their kindness with the establishment of cut-off times.

Do remember that during this era the riders had to carry everything – and I do mean everything – they needed for the race with them and they had to finish with it all too. Plus they were denied any assistance. This rule came home to roost in the oft-told tale of 1913 Tour where Eugene Christophe‘s refusal to concede defeat when his forks broke saw him pick up his bike, run 14km to the blacksmith’s forge at Sainte-Marie de Campan – at the foot of the Tourmalet –  repair his bike and re-start two hours later. He was docked a further ten minutes by the organisers because the blacksmith’s apprentice had blown the bellows for him!

My favourite Tourmalet tale involves Federico Bahamontes, six-times winner of the mountains jersey, 1959 Tour winner, who led four times over the mountain. Not as renowned for his descending, in 1954 he stopped at a cafe for an ice cream to wait for the others, so he had a wheel to follow down the other side.

Of course no Tour tale would be complete without examining the exploits of one Eddy Merckx who, in July 1969, having launched a solo attack just before the Tourmalet’s crest kept going for a further 140km. He went on to win the Tour by almost 20 minutes, along with the points and mountains classifications, prompting the press to henceforth call him ‘the Cannibal’. This audacious attack on the Tourmalet impelled the famous French novelist and Tour fanatic Antoine Blondin to refer to the Tourmalet as ‘planet Merckx’. Well no longer, Antoine, it’s since been tangoed and colonised by Basque fans. The Tourmalet is now quite firmly planet Orange.

The western approach

I have only ridden part-way up the shorter, more difficult and steeper eastern approach so am indebted to Graham Fife’s The Great Road Climbs of the Pyrenees for his description of the climb. I find generally that the climbs in the Pyrenees are harder than those in the Alps because they’re less regular. An average incline of 9% probably means you’re going to be lulled into a false sense of security on a climb’s gentle, lower slopes before being hit by a wall. Although, as you can see from the profile below, taken in isolation, the climb’s not too irregular, just long.

However, to prove my point, there’s apparently a totally misleading sign on the way out of Luz St-Sauveur which claims ’18km average 6% to the col’. The first kilometre to Esterre is 5%, the rest of the way it never falls below 7% and it mostly hovers around 7-9% – never too steep, but just steep enough. The climb is relenting on quite a wide well-surfaced road with not too many curves, the first is at 15km to go and there’s a few more a kilometre later but then it straightens out again. Professionals like straight roads as it doesn’t disturb their rhythm. Amatuers, on the other hand, find an unbroken vista of tarmac intimidating.

Worth it for the fabulous views (image courtesy of official website)

Worth it for the fabulous views (image courtesy of official website)

A bit of a bump as you approach the unattractive ski and thermal resort of Bareges and then it perceptibly ramps up as you head into the pastoral zone with roaming herds of wild life and their attendant insect population. A strong dose of insect repellant is necessary to keep the wee beasties at bay. You’re now mid-way and heading towards the ski station of Super Bagneres where maddeningly the road dips down towards the cafe on the Pont de la Gaubie with clear views of the peaks of the Pics du Midi and de la Caoubere but not, not yet the Tourmalet.

The road steepens and the scenery changes to bare rock, now there’s no shade and nowhere to hide but at least the road starts to zigzag and with only 4.5km remaining [only! – Ed]  you can see the final two long ramps up to the famous Tourmalet cafe. It’s time to grit your teeth, enjoy the scenery and keep turning those pedals until you triumphantly reach the summit of 2,115m.

Enjoy the last few kilometres of the climb from the western approach vicariously – often the best way!

Tour de France hosts: Up pops Pau again!

After Paris and Bordeaux, Pau is one of the most-visited staging posts in the Tour – it has previously hosted a start/finish 64 times – largely, it has to be said, because of its proximity to the Pyrenees. The list of riders who’ve won on Tour stages into Pau reads like a Who’s Who of cycling, so I’m going to be dipping in and out of Tours where either the Tour, or that stage, or both were won by some of the biggest names  in the sport.

Pau was first visited in the 1930 Tour, which introduced a number of firsts in its 24th edition. For the first time ever, teams were organised by country, with ten riders apiece, plus there were sixty touriste-routiers (amateurs and pros not allied to a national team) organised into French regional groupings. The entire peloton raced in either approved national jerseys or plain ones – no advertising whatsoever – and they all rode on identical yellow bicycles. This proved to be a successful format for the French, six of whom placed in the top ten overall. Andre Leducq, the star of the French team, won the overall while Charles Pelissier, ninth overall, achieved a stunning eight stage wins. [An early incarnation of Peter Sagan? – Ed]

Alfredo Binda (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Alfredo Binda (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

This wasn’t the only piece of modernisation. 1930 also saw the introduction of the publicity caravan and the abandonment of the rule whereby cyclists had to do their own repairs. Team time trials were given the heave-ho for a few years and an overall team classification was introduced based on the times on GC of the three highest-ranked riders. The Tour was broadcast live on the radio. The organisers named the Tour’s  ‘best climber’, an unofficial precursor to the current King of the Mountains competition. One of the more notable foreign cyclists taking part was Alfredo Binda who had, in recent years, dominated the Giro d’Italia with victories in 1925, 1927, 1928 and 1929. He was paid not to compete in 1930, so started the Tour instead winning stages eight and nine, which finished and started in Pau, before being forced to abandon the following day probably due to injuries sustained on stage seven where he lost over an hour, and all hope of Tour victory.

The Tour visited Pau every year thereafter up until 1939, returning post-war in 1947, 1949 and 1950. It was back in 1952 with a Tour which saw the introduction of more innovations – mountain finishes on stages 10, 11 and 21 – including the now iconic L’Alpe d’Huez and Puy de Dome. The overall was won by Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, the first cycling superstar who was now managed by Binda. In 1952 he was at his zenith, winning five stages, including stage 18 into Pau, the mountains classification and was a member of the Italian winning team.

The charismatic Fausto Coppi (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The charismatic Fausto Coppi (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Such was his dominance that the Tour organisers had to double the prize money for second and third places to retain interest. Coppi won by a margin of almost half an hour – such a margin hasn’t been seen since. Coppi’s domination aside, the 1952 Tour saw the introduction of the daily combativity award and TV coverage started.

Thereafter, the Tour stopped off in Pau every year. In 1964 it featured on stage 16, a mountainous parcours won by the 1959 Tour winner, Frederic Bahamontes –  known as the Eagle of Toledo – who went on to finish third overall and win the mountains classification. Trade teams were back on the menu, after Tour organisers succumbed to financial pressure in 1962. This was the only Tour to have included a mid-stage climb to Alpe D’Huez. The race was eventually won by Jacques Anquetil, his fifth Tour victory, following an epic battle in the mountains with eternal runner-up Raymond Poulidor. Having earlier won the Giro, Anquetil emulated Coppi’s Tour-Giro double.

Bernard_Hinault (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Bernard Hinault (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Fast forward to the late 1970s and the start of the reign of ‘The Badger’, Bernard Hinault, France’s last Tour winner. The 1979 edition started, most unusually, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, visiting Pau as early as stage three, where Hinault emerged victorious, having taken the maillot jaune on stage two. He went on to win the Tour, his second of five victories. He also won the points’ classification and his team won the overall team classification, which required them to wear yellow caps, and the team points competition. In fact, the 1979 Tour had a total of 16 competitions, each with its own sponsor!

1979’s Tour was also notable for a number of modifications and firsts. Doping tests performed in a Cologne laboratory were now able to detect anabolicals. Those found guilty of this transgression typically lost points and were given time penalties. It was the only Tour to ever visit Alpe d’Huez twice. US TV broadcasting of the Tour started, split-stages were banished and, as a consequence of the unwarranted attention given to the lanterne rouge [the last rider on general classification – Ed], a new rule was introduced for the following year whereby the last-placed cyclist was removed from the race every couple of stages.

From the 1980s onwards, the Tour halted in Pau most years and in 2005 it also became, as it is again this year, the location of one of the Tour’s precious few rest days. This was to be Lance Armstrong’s seventh consecutive Tour victory and, at the time, it was thought his final Tour appearance. This edition was notable for a number of reasons. It commemorated the death of one of Lance’s former team mates, Fabio Casartelli, who had crashed and died ten years earlier on the Col du Portet d’Aspet. Additionally, it commemorated the Tour’s first official mountain climb in the Tour, the Ballon d’Alsace, 100 years after its first inclusion in the race. For the first time, the race was part of the UCI’s recently introduced ProTour circuit and required to invite – albeit begrudgingly – all 20 ProTour teams. The Tour granted a single wild card to AG2R.

Oscar Pereiro (image courtesy of Oscar Pereiro)

Oscar Pereiro (image courtesy of Oscar Pereiro)

As a consequence of Michael Rasmussen making a complete balls-up [is that a technical biking term? I can’t find it in the glossary – Ed] of the penultimate stage’s individual time trial while lying third – he dropped to seventh – the race jury invoked the “rain rule” for the final stage on the Champs Elysees meaning Lance won the overall the first time the race crossed the finish line, rather than the eighth and last time. Additionally, it was the first and only time since 1994 that the stage didn’t end in a bunch sprint, rather it was won by Alexandre Vinokourov after a trademark escape in the final kilometre, a move which saw him rise from eighth to fifth in the overall. During the award ceremony, the winner was for the first time allowed to address the crowds, a practice which has since continued.

The mountainous stage 16 into Pau was won by Oscar Pereiro who also took home the race’s overall combativity prize. He was belatedly awarded overall victory in the following year’s Tour after the previous winner, Floyd Landis, was convicted of doping. Pereiro suffered a serious crash in the 2008 Tour and never really recovered his nerve. He retired in 2010 and achieved a boyhood ambition playing football for Coruxo FC in the Spanish second division. He now works as a race commentator and runs his own sporting foundation.

Will Pau be the setting for some interesting stories in this year’s Tour? The rest day is preceded by stage 15’s 158.5km run from Samatan to Pau – one for the sprinters, albeit those who can cope with a slight uphill to the finish. Here’s Chris Boardman’s  preview of the stage: