Tour de France Mountains Preview

The peloton approaches - Will

The Football World Cup Final will take place on July 13th. The next day, Bastille Day, will be the first big mountain stage of the 2014 Tour de France. Nice scheduling!   It's a clock-wise Tour this year. From England, to cobbles, into the Vosges mountains, through the Alps, a toe into Spain, up and over the Pyrenées, and then off to Paris. Fun.

More Climbs Than Usual This Year

By my count, there are sixty-four categorised climbs in this Tour. Recently, fifty or so has been the norm.  And while Stage 10 may the first big mountain stage, prior to this there are almost 30 categorised climbs. So while in this preview, I will focus on the six mountain stages, take note that there are plenty of other very interesting stages this year (stages 2, 5, and 8, in particular look exciting).

While I was admittedly disappointed to see only two Alps stages (boo!), 2014 will introduce the Vosges mountains to many of us.   There are three terrific stages (8-10) in this eastern France mountain range that runs along the German border.  Full of medium to low altitude cols on quiet roads, it's a great place for cyclo-tourists.

Big mountains this year?  Not really.  And you'd be hard pressed to convince me that there is a "Queen" stage.  The most difficult climb in this Tour would have been the 7th most difficult in the recent Giro.  In other words, there are no monster climbs. None.  And few climbs that are terribly steep.  But, along with some shorter than usual mountain stages, perhaps this will lead to some exciting racing.

The Plan

This will be a long article.  I'll add pictures for those that hate reading.  But below I will:

  1. Rank the toughest 25 climbs by difficulty.
  2. Take a quick look at each of the six mountain stages.
  3. Give a brief recommendation for cyclo-tourists attending any of these stages.

Allons-y (let's go)!   Below are the statistics for all twenty-five Hors-Categorie, Category 1, and Category 2 climbs including a difficulty rating.

DIFFICULTY RATING METHODOLOGY

To rate the climbs I have used the difficulty index from www.climbbybike.com that we have used previously. I know, I know, it's a slightly flawed formula. But it's easy to calculate and useful as a starting point for discussion. I am using the official Tour de France lengths and average grades for each climb, so rankings may differ slightly with those at climbbybike.com.  Climbs in same stage are same colour.

Chamrousse is the hardest climb in the entire Tour? It's a nice enough climb, but even my weak legs have never thought of it as particularly difficult (relative to its many neighbours).   How to wrap my head around this?  I think this Tour is about nicely designed stages, not massive climb-fests.  There are more uphill finishes than last year, some cobbles, some bumpy Yorkshire, Jura, and Vosges stages, etc.  In sum, hopefully stages designed to promote racing, not just survival.

I'm ok with that. Below the chart, let's take a closer look at the six mountain stages and see how interesting they might be.

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Stage 10

Seven categorised climbs!  This is a monster stage through the Vosges with a very difficult uphill finish at the wonderfully named La Planche des Belles Filles.  And it is Bastille Day, so French riders will be attacking all day long, some looking for TV face time (Tommy V?), and others dreaming of true glory.

According to legend, during the 30 years war, a group of young girls jumped to their death the avoid being raped and massacred by Swedish mercenaries.  Hence the name:  "The Plank of the Beautiful Girls."

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This is a much, much, tougher stage than the last (and only) time the Tour visited La Planche des Belles Filles (2012 stage 7  - Froome). The penultimate climb, Col des Chevréres, is particularly steep.  The short finish climb is also very tough and very irregular.  Average grades are near meaningless, as it ranges from unbelievably steep (see photo below) to three short  stretches that are actually downhill - including in the last kilometre just before the crazy final ramp.Img_0394_-_version_2_medium For the Cyclotourists: Don't get me wrong: Belles Filles is a great final climb for a Tour de France stage.  But it is a boring, viewless, wide, purpose-built, hot, lousy climb-to-no-where. It wouldn't make my top 100 French climbs. Not even close.  I have no clue who is paying the Tour for the honour of hosting this finish, as it is a tiny, tiny ski station that would barely be the worst 3% low un-used corner of many big Alps resorts.  And the villages below are small and seem quite depressed economically.  If you are cycling up to watch a stage: at Col des Croix, take a long-cut  via the quiet and far more interesting Col du Ballon de Servance. Better yet, the three sides of the historic Ballon d'Alsace are just down the road.

If you do climb Belles Filles, below is your time to beat (Note, I finished somewhere between Froome and good old Etienne Laurent.  :)Img_0409_-_version_2_medium

Stage 13

One of just two Alps stages, this features a finish atop the medium-sized ski station near Grenoble. By our rankings, Chamrousse is the toughest climb in the 2014 Tour.

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This final climb is certainly not a monster.  But it is long and steady. Maggie once called it one of the fastest descents in France - wide, non-technical.  This stage has a far different feel than stage 10.  One can imagine the bigs staying together in a tight group that gradually thins on the final climb until someone attacks.

The Tour has only made one previous visit to Chamrousse. Mr. Armstrong won a Time Trial there in 2001.

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For the cyclotourists:  Col de Palaquit is a nice little col but not a summit.  Two roads merge into one here, and you can cycle much further and higher into the Chartreuse Alps.  For example, from Palaquit, just keep heading up past Col de Porte, and you can reach 1680 metres on a beautiful little road to Charmant Som.

If you are watching atop Chamrousse, consider avoiding the crowds and cycling up via the tiny, steep, and very fun route to Col du Luitel, starting in Séchilienne.

In 2010, Daniel Navarro - now on Cofidis - was first atop Chamrousse during the Dauphiné:

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Stage 14

I like this stage.  The peloton heads south through the Alps for a tough mountain top finish at the ski station of Risoul.

The long, rarely steep climb to Col du Lautaret passes by all sorts of old Tour friends (Croix de Fer, Alpe d'Huez, Les Deux Alpes, Galibier, etc).  At 2360 metres, Col d'Izoard is the highest point in the 2014 Tour (the souvenir Henri Desgranges).  But the start of Izoard is higher than, for example, the summit at La Planche des Belles Filles - so it's not quite as huge an ascent as one might imagine.

This is the first Tour appearance for Risoul,  although the ski station has hosted two Dauphiné stages recently.  In 2010 Vogondy was victorious, and in 2013, Alessandro de Marchi held on against a charging Froome for stage victory

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Col du Lautaret is beautiful once you get above the tunnels:

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A challenging final climb:

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Lots of Dauphiné road paint:

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For the cyclotourists:  The north side of Col du Lautaret climbs through 10 tunnels, several long, dark, narrow, and wet.  It is also a through-road, so there can be trucks.  For me, it is one of the most miserable climbs in France for a cyclotourist.  BUT, above the tunnels is magical and at the Col is the turn off for 8.5 kms of dream road up the south side of Col du Galibier.   The Tour descends the best side of Izoard - if you have the chance, it is a great climb including the legendary Casse Deserte near the summit. Remember to look for the easy-to-miss Coppi-Bobet monument 2 kms from the summit on the south side.  La Casse Déserte:

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Stage 16

Welcome to the Pyrenées!

This is the only mountain stage without a mountain-top finish. The route starts in Carcassone - a beautiful fairy-tale-like castle town. After a flat start, the peloton enters the Pyrenées, first climbing the short but steep Col de Portet d'Aspet. They will climb the steep side where Fabio Casartelli died descending in a tragic crash during the 1995 Tour - Casartelli Monument.

Will the summit of the beautiful and remote Port de Balès be close enough to the finish to be decisive. The final 20+ kilometres are downhill, and non-technical finishing in the Spa town of Bagnères-de-Luchon.

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In 2006, in preparation for the 2007 Tour, the paths near the top of Port de Balès were finally paved linking each side and creating a fantastic, new Tour de France cow-filled climb. It appeared in the 2007, 2010, and 2012 Tours.

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Port de Balès starts off gradually, but has some very challenging kilometres up higher.

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For the cyclotourists:  If you are staying in Bagnères-du-Luchon consider climbing to Superbagnères, the ski station above.  Surrounded by 13 peaks higher than 3000 metres, it's a beautiful location.   And when descending Port de Balès don't forget to watch out for the house with photos of every Tour de France winner on its wall.

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Stage 17

A very fun Pyrenées stage over four medium mountains. The route starts in Spain - the Spain/France border is the summit of the first climb: Col du Portillon. Col de Peyresourde makes its millionth Tour appearance. The finish is atop the ski station of Pla d'Adet. Pla d'Adet is fun to say and makes its 10th Tour appearance. It last featured in 2005, in a stage won by George Hincapie.

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You are now leaving Spain:

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There are very few hairpins up to Pla d'Adet.  The first several kilometres as viewed from the bottom near Saint-Lary-Soulan has just one:

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In 1974 Raymond "Poopoo" Poulidor won the first ever stage to Pla d'Adet and there is a plaque at the location where he made his decisive attack:

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The first few kilometres are harder than it may look.

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For the cyclotourists:  Pla d'Adet is not the most exciting climb ever invented.  However, if you have thick tires, you can go much higher on some great hairpins to Col de Portet.  Better yet, on a road bike, just down the road from St-Lary  is -- in my opinion -- the best climb in the French Pyrenées:  The Route des Lacs, including the climb to Lac de Cap de Long.  A high alpine climb to several beautiful dams/lakes.  Trust me, this will make your trip.

Stage 18

The final mountain stage of the 2014 Tour is a Pyrenées beauty.

First over the the uglier La Mongie side of the legendary Col du Tourmalet, and then up a steep and challenging climb to the ski station of Hautacam.  First appearing in 1994, this will be the fifth Tour finish atop Hautacam.  Jaun José Cobo Acebo won the last stage here in 2008 (Piepoli was stripped of the stage after a doping infraction).

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The top of the east side of Col du Tourmalet passes over the ski slopes of La Mongie ski station:

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Part way up Hautacam a house has an "interesting" painting:

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Definitely some challenging kilometres:

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For the cyclotourists:  If you are a "col hunter" remember that the paved road continues above Hautacam for a little more than a kilometre to Col de Tramassel.  Separately, at the base of the Tourmalet descent, starting in Luz-St.Saveur is a road that heads deep into the Pyrenées to two amazing climbs:  Port de Boucharo is the highest paved road in the French Pyrenées, and nearby super-scenic Cirque de Troumouse is as high as Tourmalet.  Two of the best climbs in the Pyrenées - usually ignored by cyclotourists

Summary

We only looked at the high mountain stages here, but I think the theme for this Tour will be nicely designed, challenging stages, hopefully leading to exciting racing.  Far more categorised climbs than usual, but few monster mountains. And plenty of uphill finishes. I think it just might work.

So pull up a chair and enjoy.

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