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2015 Tour de France Mountains Preview

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by Will

Bonjour, bienvenue en France. How exciting to have a Tour de France with so many contenders, including a few French pretenders.  Allez Thibault. The route may not be full of giant mountains, but there are plenty of uphill finishes and interesting climbs to promote exciting racing.  And there seems little doubt that the yellow jersey will be won in the Alps (and perhaps lost in the Pyrénées).

I count 57 categorised climbs down from 64 last year.  But there are seven high-mountain stages, more than usual, and six have mountain-top finishes.  Nice.

This article will focus on these seven high mountain stages - three in the Pyrénées, and four in the Alps. Of course there have been a few uphill finishes and KOM points awarded already, but Stage Ten will be the first day with a climb more difficult than category 3.

The Plan

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

  1. Rank all the Hors Categorie, Cat. 1 and Cat. 2 climbs by difficulty.
  2. Take a quick look at each of the seven 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 Hors-Categorie, Category 1, and Category 2 climbs including a difficulty rating.  Note, for perspective, I have also added the four earlier uphill finishes that are ranked below the above criteria.

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.

Col de la Croix de Fer in stage 19 is statistically the most difficult climb of the 2015 Tour.  Strangely, three of the top seven climbs are different sides of the Glandon/Croix de Fer. It's confusing but, the Croix de Fer climbed in stage 19 is really Col du Glandon, with a short extension to Croix de Fer.  And Col du Glandon in stage 18 is really Col de la Croix de Fer with a turn off to Glandon before the summit.  Don't worry, all will be explained below.

rankings

For lovers of big climbs (like me), it seems à propos that the real party begins on Bastille Day.  Let's have a look at each of the seven mountain stages.

STAGE 10 - La Pierre-St-Martin (Pyrénées)

Three Pyrénées High Mountain stages and they're all mountain-top finishes.  Nice.

La Pierre St-Martin is a ski station in the Pyrénées, perched high on the Spanish border.  It appeared mid-stage 16 in the 2007 Tour, although they climbed from Spain.  This seems a straight forward stage:  I assumes all the bigs will arrive at the bottom of La Pierre-Saint-Martin together.  Then we'll see who has legs.

For the Tourists: Near the finish is the Gouffre Lépineux or Pierre-St-Martin Cave, one of the more important caves in speleology.

Stage 11 - Cauterets (Pyrénées)

No Aubisque this year, but the usual visits to Col d'Aspin (72nd appearance) and Col du Tourmalet (84th appearance). In recent years Tourmalet has often seemed wasted mid-stage with an easy finish.  But this year, it may be more relevant.


Col d'Aspin is beautiful and an excellent Cow Col. Then they'll be climbing the less scenic, Mongie-scarred, side of Col du Tourmalet through the ski slopes:

After listening to Phil and Paul recount the usual Eugène Christophe forge story as the climb starts near St-Marie-de-Campan get ready for a tough second half, consistently between 8% and 10%. The first rider over the summit will win the prix Souvenir Jacques Goddet - as this is the highest point in the Pyrénées.  There is a bust of the former Tour de France Director at the summit.

For the Tourists: The bottom of Tourmalet (start of the final climb) is one of the great valleys for cycling in the Pyrénées.  Col d'Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, Hautacam, Luz Ardiden, Col des Spandelles, Col du Soulor, etc.

But most cyclotourists linking Tourmalet and Aubisque bypass the best climbs.  Heading south from here deep into the mountains are the roads to Cirque de Troumouse and Port de Boucharo (highest paved road in the French Pyrénées). Details here and here.

And for the adventurous: the unpaved road starting exactly at the summit of Tourmalet that heads to the Observatory at Pic du Midi de Bigorre at 2877 metres is one of the most fun rides anywhere.  Details.

Col du Tourmalet is far below the lower road:

Stage 12 - Plateau de Beille (Pyrénées)

Expect lots of comparisons between Plateau de Beille and Alpe d'Huez as they share similar statistics.  Plateau de Beille is a touch longer, with more ascent, but far less developed than it's more famous Alps cousin.

This will be the 6th appearance of Plateau de Beille in the Tour.  Pantani won the first stage here in '98.  Mr. Armstrong won twice ('02, '04).  Alberto Contador won here in '07 eventually winning the Tour that year - wow eight years ago? And Jelle Vanenert in '11.

Note, early in the stage, the route will climb Col de Portet d'Aspet, passing the Casartelli monument.  In 1995 the Italian cyclist - and Olympic Gold medalist - Fabio Casartelli crashed and tragically died here during the 1995 Tour.

I have no idea why these riders are smiling.  This is hard work.

For the Tourists:  More caves?  Some of the most famous prehistoric cave paintings are near the base of Plateau de Beille. And while there is not much at the summit, they do serve beer, even to charlatans:

Stage 17 - Pra Loup (Alps)

Welcome to the Alps.  This is the stage that was previewed in the recent Dauphiné stage won by Romain Bardet. Tejay van Garderen was 2nd, and Christopher Froome 3rd.

The highlight of this stage is the stunningly beautiful Col d'Allos - the highest point in this Tour de France at 2250 metres (now that Col du Galibier is no longer in the Tour). Thus, now the souvenir Henri Desgranges.  Pra Loup is a small ski station, far from the most interesting road in the region, but perhaps perfect for an exciting stage finish.

Prepare for Eddie Merckx stories.  The great Belgian was attempting to win a record 6th Tour de France in 1975.  A French spectator (an Anquetil fan?) punched him in the liver during stage 14.  Stage 15 finishing at Pra Loup would be the last stage where Merckx ever wore yellow - losing two minutes to eventual Tour winner Frenchman Bernard Thévenet.

Pra Loup means "wolf meadow" - there is a howlingly fun wolf statue in town.

For the Tourists: Below Pra Loup is the town of Barcelonnette, perhaps the best base-town for Col hunters in the south French Alps.  Completely surrounded by huge climbs including Cime de la Bonette at 2802 metres the highest paved road in France.  The quintessential big south Alps cycling loop is here: Col d'Allos, Col de la Cayolle, and Col des Champs:  120 kms almost completely on quiet roads over 3 huge cols.  Stunning.

South side of Col d'Allos:

The south side that the Tour will climb is closed to traffic each Friday morning during summer:

TIME OUT

We need to talk.  Let me try and explain Col de la Croix de Fer / Glandon.  Ridiculously, it will be climbed three times this Tour de France. The original plan was twice.  But sadly the collapse of a tunnel below Col du Lautaret linking Col du Galibier and Alpe d'Huez meant that Galibier has been cut from the Tour. The only logical alternate route from the Maurienne valley to Alpe d'Huez was via Col de la Croix de Fer.  Hence the trilogy.

Col de la Croix de Fer means Pass of the Iron Cross:

I've made a map to try and explain the mountain.

The pink and red routes are the west and east sides of Col de la Croix de Fer.  The blue route is Col du Glandon. Glandon (1924 metres) is on the shoulder of Croix de Fer, 2.5 kms below the summit of Croix de Fer (2067 metres) on the west side. Details of all three sides plus two more routes from the east via Col du Mollard see here.

Makes sense? OK, let's continue.

Stage 18 - St-Jean-de-Maurienne (Alps)

This is a monster stage that just happens to be the only non uphill finish of the seven high mountain stages. But don't expect a sprint.  The Peloton will descend the fabulous Col de la Morte (see here for climb details) and then pass near the start of Alpe d'Huez climbing the pink side of Croix de Fer .... turning up to Glandon before the summit.  This is the way La Marmotte cyclosportive climbs Croix de Fer/Glandon.

View down from Glandon:

After descending Glandon we finally arrive at Les Lacets de Montvernier, perhaps the most discussed hairpins in Tour history.  The hairpins are difficult to photograph, but by helicopter will be superb. See here for a 2014 Podium Café article detailing les Lacets de Montvernier.

Les Lacets de Montvernier.  Yes this photo is crooked.  I was hanging off a cliff and am scared of heights.

For the Tourists:  The Maurienne valley markets itself as the largest cycling region in the world.  It is the home of at least half of the ten most famous climbs in France:  Col de l'Iseran, Col du Galibier (via Télégraphe), Col de la Madeleine, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Glandon, Col du Mont Cenis, Plan du Lac, etc.).  It has a very good cycling web site here.  My favourite 15 climbs in the region.

How great is St-Jean de Maurienne? Truly great:

Stage 19 - La Toussuire (Alps)

This stage is similar to the infamous Floyd Landis bonk stage in 2006  ... before his miraculous comeback stage on Joux Plane.   It includes the toughest climb statistically of the 2015 Tour: Col du Glandon (blue route) plus the extra 2.5 kms to Col de la Croix de Fer.

Hidden in light woods, so less sexy than les Lacets de Montvernier, I encourage you to look at the map of the Col du Mollard descent.  40+ hairpins on the lower slopes.  Technical, technical, technical.

Note, the start of this stage climbs the supremely underrated Col du Chaussy  Usually one should start this via Les Lacets de Montvernier ... but the Tour will bypass these hairpins.  Still a lovely, challenging, often overlooked climb:

The final couple of kilometres of Col du Glandon are some of the most beautiful in all cycling.  For PdC old-timers:  they are the Frinking hairpins.

Our own Jens has conquered Glandon.  Wave to your fans Jens:

The final climb to La Toussuire is significantly less steep, but still hard work:

For the Tourists: At the summit of Croix de Fer, behind the parking, is an unpaved wide road that goes far, far higher up to a couple of alpine dams/lakes and then even higher to the glacier de St. Sorlin. Truly amazing.  Details here.

Glacier de Saint Sorlin:

Stage 20 - Alpe d'Huez (Alps)

This was the Galibier stage.  Sadly, a collapsed tunnel meant a route change.  Me?  I would have kept Galibier and cut Alpe d'Huez.  But then what do I know?

A simple stage. Climb the 30 kilometre Col de la Croix de Fer from St-Jean-de-Maurienne, descend, then it's Alpe d'Huez.  Lets hope the GC is still undecided.  The last 6 kilometres of the "red side" of Col de la Croix de Fer are superb:

Alpe d'Huez.  The most famous climb in cycling?  Not a bad way to end the Tour.

Alpe d'Huez will be a zoo with hundreds of thousands of fans on the mountain enjoying its position as the final meaningful climb of the Tour.  Each of its 21 hairpins are signed and includes the name of a former stage winner. There is a certain symmetry to the 2015 Tour de France: starting in the Netherlands and finishing (excluding the champagne stage 21) at Alpe d'Huez - sometimes called "the highest point in Holland" as 8 of the first 14 stages here were won by Dutch cyclists.

You can find 20 of the hairpin signs here.  Strangely hairpin sign #2, near the top, was missing that day - does anyone have a photo? This will be the 29th stage with a summit finish at the Alpe, so some of the hairpins signs have 2 names. The first hairpin has the first ever stage winner at the Alpe, Fausto Coppi 1952, sharing the sign with a certain American.

For the Tourists: OK, I am not a huge fan of Alpe d'Huez.  The most over-rated road in cycling?  Calm down, I phrased it better here: "I believe many cyclo-tourists do themselves a huge disservice by prioritising Alpe d'Huez above many far, far more interesting roads."   But it's a great place for a bike race to finish a Tour.

The Alpe is indeed a great climb but I am such a hater so here are my 100 better climbs than Alpe d'Huez.

And dear cyclotourists, if you need to climb this piece of history, please don't stop at the line on the road as you enter town by the restaurants and Trek store.  At least follow the road to the signed official finish line a kilometre further.  And then please climb higher to the beautiful lakes a few kms above town.

OK, I am truly sorry for my usual "Alpe d'Huez is over-rated" rant. Still, it's an exciting location to end the Tour.  At this point I usually add a poll so you can tell me which stage is the Queen stage.  But you idiots will say Alpe d'Huez. You're probably correct, but it will just piss me off.

What am I doing for the Tour?  I'll be hanging out at the top of Col d'Allos drinking beers, perhaps for months.  God Bless the tour, and thanks for your attention. Allez Jérôme Coppel.

Please look out for me while watching on TV: