The legendary passes of the Tour de France
In its early days, the Tour de France kept within the country’s borders, a policy that changed in 1951. Today, riders continue to launch themselves up and down mountain roads in the Alps and Pyrenees, where a number of passes have become legendary names in Tour de France lore thanks to the cycling exploits that have taken place on them.
The 13.8km ascent of Alpe d'Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends and a gradient that in places hovers around 14% and averages 8%, is renowned for the suffering that it heaps on riders. The crowds massing along the sides of the road are so great that that it is barely possible to see the tarmac, so it is hardly surprising that the race organisers include this legendary ascent on the Tour’s route every year.
Nestled amid the Hautes-Alpes, the Izoard Pass is an impressive beast in every respect! Reaching an altitude of 2,360m, it is not the hardest col to climb, but its wild and imposing environment sets it apart. Pedalling up this pass gives a sense of being elsewhere, on a different planet almost, far from civilisation.
Inevitably, this atmosphere has created the stage for sporting dramas that can be cruel to riders. One example was in 1986, when the Frenchman Bernard Hinault, wearing the yellow jersey on the Izoard stage, lost his race leadership here to American Greg Lemond, who went on to win the Tour. This was to be the swansong for the French cyclist, a five-time Tour winner (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985), who would never wear the yellow jersey again.
Located close to the town of Carpentras in Provence, the arid, inhospitable and eroded slopes of Mont Ventoux (1,912m) bring a sense a fear to riders. The suffocating July heat and gusts of wind that batter the slopes are the two main barriers to a successful ascent on the summit, but a win on Ventoux commands the full respect of your fellow riders and guarantees your place in the pantheon of cycling greats.
Col du Tourmalet
The High Pyrenees have also written their own chapter in the history of the Tour de France.
Here, amid an array of famous passes which proudly rise up beneath the Pic du Midi between Tarbes and the Spanish border, one giant stands out: the Col du Tourmalet.
It is here that a certain Eugène Christophe created his own legend in 1913 as a result of broken front forks on his bike. An extraordinary adventure which saw this cycling champion walk 15km through the mountains to find a helpful blacksmith who lent him his tools so he could repair his bike!
It was an event that saw Christophe abandon the race but go down in the history of the Tour... on a day that Le Tourmalet cemented its reputation as the tamer of cycling ambition on the mountain stages of the Tour de France.