NOTE: This article was first published October 2014. Tomorrow, July 23, Les Lacets de Montvernier will appear near the end of Stage 18 of the 2015 Tour.
Driving on the French A43 Autoroute towards Torino, if you know where to look - and you need to know where to look - you will see the most amazing little road crawling up a cliff. These are the Lacets de Montvernier.
They are probably the most talked about addition to the 2015 Tour de France route (stage 18). Finished in 1934 after six years of construction, this astounding feat of engineering linked the little village of Montvernier, high above on a plateau, with civilisation below.
Lacets means hairpins (think shoes laces). There are 17 hairpins (lots of publications say 18, but one is questionable and off in its own #hairpinpolice). The 17 hairpins all come in a stretch of roughly 2.5 kilometres. That's a hairpin every 150 metres. The road is narrow, the hairpins sharp, and large vehicles are forbidden. It's a steady incline, roughly 8% average.
If you don't own a helicopter, it can be difficult to photograph the road. Perhaps it's one reason they have stayed relatively unknown. But here is the secret for cyclists: Once you finish the last section and pass under the chapel, there is a big farm field on your right. There is a muddy track through the field, follow for a couple of hundred metres, walk into the trees, and there is a cliff lookout with a perfect view. Scares me to death, but I usually battle my phobias for the photo. :)
Pretending not to be terrified of falling off cliff:
Perched just above the hairpins is the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-la-Balme. Hexagonally shaped, it was built in 1863 and renovated in 1981. There is a similar little chapel down below (now beside the autoroute).
Put In Context
Les Lacets de Montvernier are situated in the heart of the Maurienne valley, a true cycling Mecca, home to arguably five of the ten most famous climbs in France -- Galibier, Iseran, Madeleine, Glandon, Croix de Fer -- and many other huge but lesser known gems.
Zoom the map below, the bright red road under the bright red star is Les Lacets. It is tiny compared to the surrounding climbs. I have highlighted several climbs that will also appear in the 2015 Tour, either the same day as Les Lacets or the following day. I won't go into any detail in this article, but wanted to give a feel for this superb cycling region.
- Pink = Col du Chaussy. Basically Les Lacets are the first 20% if this great climb.
- Green = Col du Glandon. One of my favourites (for Podium Café old timers: The Frinking Hairpins)
- Purple = Col de la Croix de Fer. Huge climb with 5 ways up.
- Pale blue = La Toussuire. Will host stage 19 finish. Also was the finish when Landis bonked (day before his miracle).
- Blue = Col de la Madeleine. Not in 2015 Tour but a nearby giant.
I've starred a bunch of other nearby climbs, Galibier is just down the road (then up of course). Also, note the red "Alert" symbol. Zoom the map. During stage 19, the peloton will descend Col du Mollard. The bottom stretch has something like 40 hairpins in close succession. Partly hidden in forest, it's a tougher one to photo, but the descent wil be "fun."
Visiting in 2015?
It's easy enough to make a good loop that squeezes in a quick visit to Les Lacets de Montvernier. Here are three ideas:
- Climb Col du Glandon, descend Col de la Croix de Fer, and visit the Lacets as you ride back to start in valley floor. Or do in reverse.
- Start with Les Lacets and continue to Col du Chaussy. The far side of Chaussy has been paved in recent years, so descend it and you have a loop.
- Bring thicker tires. Start with Les Lacets, continue to Col du Chaussy, then continue higher on an unpaved, fantastic road past Lac de Loup (Wolf Lake) all the way up to Col de la Madeleine. Descend Madeleine. Bob's Your Uncle.
Watching on Tour de France Day
I can't imagine the authorities will allow anything but a handful of fans on this road during Tour day - if any. And unless you are a mountaineer, the safe viewing points are few and far between (there is a via ferrata course that gives a good view). I would avoid Les Lacets like the plague. Watch on TV, or watch from atop Col du Glandon, the previous climb. Glandon will give a great view. The riders will be coming from this direction:
A Final Thought
Les Lacets de Montvernier are fun. But they are just a little frosting on the gigantic cake that is the Maurienne Valley. So visit for the big climbs, but enjoy the brief detour up this unique road.
- all photos by Will. From three different days (shows how the colours change).