2012 Tour de France "Mountains Preview"


Photo: Fans await the peloton near top of north side of Col de la Madeleine (which appears in 2012 stage 11)

The mountains are coming!

"Hey Cavendish, no hanging onto cars." "Yo, Sagan, now can you impress me?" "Salut Fabian, ....." never-mind you're just awesome. If the Tour is currently too flat for your taste. Then read this, it will elevate your spirits.

There are twenty-five "Category 2", "Category 1" and "Hors Categorie" climbs in the 2012 Tour de France. There will be three huge mountain days all vying to claim the title of "Queen stage": Stages 11, 16, and 17. Three mountain top finishes: stages 7, 11, and 17. And the first Tour appearance of the hors categorie Jura giant Le Grand Colombier in stage 10.

After the jump let's:

  1. Rank the top twenty-five climbs in terms of difficulty.
  2. Look at the five toughest climbs in some detail.
  3. Look at five more climbs that may be the most decisive.

I'll make a few fearless predictions and then expect you to make your own predictions in the comments.

As usual, we will use the difficulty index to rate the climbs

Note: If you are interested in calculation methodology, see this link for more on the difficulty index. But in brief, the formula results in an arbitrary difficulty number - by taking into account length, ascent, and altitude - that can then be used to contrast and compare with other climbs. I've added Alpe d'Huez as a benchmark - it's not in the 2012 Tour.

NB: I am using the climb stats posted on the official Tour de France site and thus my difficulty ratings may differ slightly from


So the toughest climb in the 2012 Tour de France is .........

#1 Col de la Croix de Fer / Col du Glandon (stage 11)

Col du GlandonNear top of Glandon & Croix de Fer

Let's get this straight: they are climbing Col du Glandon, not Col de la Croix de Fer. The summit of Glandon just happens to sit on the shoulder of the west side of Col de la Croix de Fer -- thus after Glandon the route joins Croix de Fer for just three kilometres to its summit. Glandon is a relentless climb that saves its hardest slopes for the finish, before a tiny downhill and an easier dash to Col de la Croix de Fer.

The last visit here in 2006, Floyd Landis was in yellow. He would struggle up Glandon and then fall apart climbing La Toussuire. Michael Rasmussen would win the stage on his way to winning the polka dot jersey (photo above: Rasmussen approaching). Oscar Pereiro would ultimately "win" the 2006 Tour when Landis was disqualified. Oh the good old days.

Impact on the Race: Probably huge. Stage 11 is the Alps Queen stage. Glandon follows the almost-as-tough Col de la Madeleine, and is just before the 18 km mountain top finish climb to La Toussuire. The Souvenir Henri Desgrange will be awarded to the first rider over Col de la Croix de Fer as the highest climb in the Alps.

Important Programming Note: Look for our Jens eating herring and waving to you near the top of Glandon.


"Col de la Croix de Fer" means "Pass of the Iron Cross" and there is indeed an iron cross at the summit.

The Croix de Fer

#2 Col du Tourmalet (stage 16)

Another year, another Tourmalet visit. This is the most climbed pass in Tour history, 2012 being its 78th visit (if I counted correctly) since its first apparance in 1910. This year it’s the more beautiful west side - they'll descend past the less-than-beautiful La Mongie ski station.


Impact on the Race: It’s the second big climb of four in the Pyrennées Queen stage. Its doubtful a GC contender will attack here, but one might get dropped on later slopes after suffering on Tourmalet. At 2115 metres, Tourmalet is the highest pass in the 2012 Tour de France and the first rider over the top will win the souvenir Jacques Goddet. Goddet was a French journalist and director of the TdF from 1936 to 1986 - wikipedia.

Photo: Tourmalet west side - A long way up to go. The Pic du Midi Observatory is high in the middle distance


#3 Col de la Madeleine (stage 11)

Col de la Madeleine

Another monster climb with a misleading average grade. There are a few easy stretches and plenty of steep kilometres. But don't believe the sign at the top (small photo @ left) or the Tour organizers, Madeleine's summit is at 1993 metres not 2000 metres. Trivia: name another famous north French alps climb that "lies about its height."

Impact on the Race: Madeleine is at the beginning of the gigantic alps stage 11. This difficult ascent is followed by a tricky 40+ hairpin descent and then almost immediately by Col du Glandon. Once they start Madeleine it is pretty much either up or down for the next 134 kilometres. Expect the grupetto to form here.


Millar Cancellara Jens killing himself for Andy The last time the Tour climbed this side of Madeleine in 2010, Andy was battling Alberto, Fabian from Saxo was saying hi, and David was needing a helping hand, (small pics at right).

Meanwhile Cadel was about to lose the yellow jersey after bravely battling on with an injured arm.

Until the mid-18th century, Madeleine was called "Colombe (Dove)" until a chapel was built dedicated to Saint Madeleine. Separated for far more than half the year, locals on each side of the pass meet each July for a festival at the summit.


In photo above, I am fairly certain that Captain America at left is Jimbo.

#4 Le Grand Colombier (stage 10)

Views from lower slopes of Col du Grand ColombierLe Grand Colombier has been the feature and final climb of the Tour de l'Ain for several years. It will make it's Tour de France debut this year climbing the same side as the recent Dauphiné.

There are four ways up Grand Colombier, this is the third hardest side but the most scenic with views of the Rhone river, Lac du Bourget (largest in France), and the nearby Alps. For the stronger cyclostourists, if you can cycle all four sides in a day, you become a Master of the Confrérie des Fêlés du Grand Colombier (Brotherhood of the Loons of Grand Colombier) - roughly equivalent to cycling all three sides of Ventoux. I am a lowly member: 2 sides in a day.

Moo Productions will release a video preview of Le Grand Colombier and Col de Richemond before the stage.

Impact on Stage: In the Dauphiné, Le Grand Colombier caused massive splits of the peloton among GC contenders. Cadel attacked, Wiggo chased, Coppel's break failed - but ultimately things all came back together. But the Tour finish line is much closer to Colombier (and Col de Richemond that follows). Only a fast downhill to the Rhone river from the top of Col de Richemond.

My Fearless Prediction: Expect local boy Jerôme Coppel to finally get his first stage win - yes, I am keeping the faith.

Note, David Moncoutié sealed his 2011 Tour de l'Ain victory with a superb performance on the final stage that ended at the summit. So he likes this lessor-known giant-of-a-climb.

Hey Sminer, there will be a test later. :) --- Don't confuse Le Grand Colombier - which is in the Jura mountains - with its easier but more famous Alps neighbour Col de la Colombière - 50 kms away.


#5 Col d'Aubisque (stage 16)

This is the second most climbed Tour de France mountain (73 times?). As in 2011, the peloton will climb the slightly less scenic west side - but the descent will feature the incredible cliff road of the Cirque du Litor (below) as they head towards Col du Soulor (barely up from this side), and Col du Tourmalet.


Impact on Stage: Stage 16 is a climb-fest, and this is the start of the fun, followed by Tourmalet, and so on. Don't expect any GC attacks here, but if there is television coverage, pull up a chair early for the spectacular views.


For the sake of brevity and relevance, I am now just going to detail - in order of appearance - the remaining climbs that I think will matter the most.

#15 La Planche des Belles Filles (Stage 7)

"The Plank or (diving board?) of the Beautiful Girls" - should be a great ending to a very bumpy stage seven. Making its Tour debut, it's the only ski resort in the Haute-Saône and likely desperately trying to diversify into summer sports due to a lack of snow on it's relatively low slopes.

The name La Planche des Belle Filles comes from an episode in the 30 years war in 1635 when according to legend the young girls of a neighbouring village hid themselves up this mountain to escape the cruel Swedish mercenaries who were stationed nearby at Plancher-les-mines. To escape abuse and probable massacre they preferred to commit suicide by jumping from a plank into the black waters of a lake on the plateau. A wood statue by a local artist commemorates this legend.

This is a tough, tough finish and one of only three long uphill finishes in the 2012 Tour. Plenty of steep stretches with a knee crushing 14% at the very finish. I highly approve - not to be missed.

Impact on General Classification: This will be our first good chance to see which of the GC pretenders have their climbing legs this year.

Fearless prediction: A Giro replay, Ryder grinds and grinds and grinds his way to victory. Canada gets moderately excited. Beer sales remain strong.


# 9 La Toussuire (stage 11)

The biggest mountain finish of the Tour. It's not the steepest climb to the ski station of La Toussuire - but it's 18 kilometres long and follows a day almost without flat stretches and two of the three toughest climbs in the entire three week race. Landis suffered la fringale on these slopes - before his miracle comeback day back in 2006 - perhaps as much due to the suffering from Glandon as the difficulty here.

Just before La Toussuire, they will descend the most technical stretch of the entire Tour, the hairpin filled Col du Mollard. On the lower slopes the hairpins are very close to each other and numerous - map photo - worth clicking.


Impact on the Race: There is no-where to hide on these open slopes. This will set the GC stage for the Pyrénnées.

Fearless Prediction: Rolland wins the stage. Cadel wins the GC battle attacking on Mollard slopes and destroying the descent where Wiggo struggles.


#14 Col de Peyresourde (stage 16)

Col de Peyresourde

The final climb in the Pyrénées Queen stage. The west side of Peyresourde is not the longest climb, but steep enough to hurt riders that have already survived Aubisque, Tourmalet and Col d'Aspin.

Peyresourde is another Tour favourite appearing sixty-ish times -- with both sides being cycled this year. In the old gascon language peyresourde means "the stone that bursts out or sits up." This ancient route is famous for its well preserved Romanesque churches and their well preserved painted interior walls.

Impact on Race: After the summit and initially some great hairpins -- it's only a very, very fast descent to the finish in the charming spa town of Bagnéres-de-Luchon. The finish is close enough to this summit that any but the smallest break should stay away.

Fearless prediction: Cadel for the Win!


#7 Port de Bales and #15 Peyragudes (stage 17)

Col de Peyresourde top hairpins

These are the last two climbs of the last mountain stage with a mountain top finish at the ski-station of Peyragudes. It's now or never for any GC pretenders.

Port de Bales was for a long time just a little forestry/farm path unsuitable for cars or bikes. As the Tour de France searched for new climbs they had it properly surfaced for the 2007 Tour de France - its first TdF appearance. Kim Kirchen was first over the summit. It then made its second appearance in 2010 with Thomas Voeckler first to the top.

Note: Officially the tour has called this an 11.7 kilometre climb, but the road starts going up at Mauléon-Barousse, 7 kms earlier - see profile below. For me, the climb seems more like a tough Category 1 than hors categorie, but I'm a grumpy old guy. There is certainly no shortage of plus 10% stretches.

Peyragudes: After descending Port de Bales, the riders will join this climb 5 kms above Bagnères-de-Luchon. Most of the route is the classic east side to Col de Peyresourde - they will have descended this in stage 16 as they raced to the finish at Bagnères-de-Luchon. At the Col there is a 3 km descent then it's up to the ski station at Peyragudes - who must be footing the bill for this stage. There is about a kilometre of flat to the finish, after the KOM line.

Difficulty Rating Debate: The Tour says this is a 5.1% average climb, but it subtracts the descent from the ascent to reach this number. I have ignored the not inconsiderable descent, making the average grade 6.3% (I assumed descent is flat). This increases the difficulty from #15 to #10. Agree?

Race Impact: This is it fellas. This is the last chance for climbers to take some time on the GC. If Wiggo is ahead in the GC (with the long TT in stage 19 coming up), then the Tour is won. So every other contender better attack, and attack right here. Now!

Fearless Prediction: Rolland wins again. Cadel gaps Wiggo taking some time. Everyone starts calculating what needs to happen in the Time Trial for Cadel or Wiggo to win. Exciting.



Final Words

If you are a lover of mountains stages then pencil into your calendar stages 7, 10, 11, 16 and 17 as the top five mountain stage of this Tour de France. Enjoy.

OK, that was a very long post. Sorry about that! Did anyone actually read it all the way through? If your still here please feel free to use the comments to discuss any of the 25 climbs or to make YOUR fearless predictions.


All Photos and Profiles by Will

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