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2016 Tour de France Mountains Preview

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Will

Bonjour, bienvenue en France. It's time for another Tour de France Mountains Preview.  While Conor, Chris, and Jens will elsewhere tell you who will win the race, and the various jerseys, I will just focus on previewing the bumpier parts of the course.  By the way, they're wrong - Pinot in Yellow!

To get started, I pulled out my Christmas present from Jens, the great book How to Write Really Really Good.  It says that every Pulitzer prize winning article needs a theme.  A theme that resonates, that informs, offering insight on an issue that others might have missed.  So my really, really good mountains theme?

This Tour is steep. Or more so than usual, there are many extra-steep stretches of road that may be critical to determining the Yellow Jersey winner. No, this is not just my usual rant at Giro fan boys accusing the French Alps of being as flat as Saskatchewan. I really, really mean it. Really.  Anyway,  I will make the case below and you will judge, telling me in the comments if you are convinced.  Deal?  Except Jens. I am not getting fucking judged by Jens.

Steep: 


I count 56 categorised climbs this Tour similar to the 57 last year.  There are arguably 10 mountain stages.  Seven of which I would call big mountain stages.  Plus a tough uphill Time Trial.  We'll visit four countries and four mountain ranges.  Nice.

This will be a long article. I'll add pictures for those that hate reading. But below we 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, plus the Time Trial.
  3. Give a brief recommendation for cyclo-tourists attending any of these stages.
  4. Let you, dear readers, vote/decide which is the Queen Stage.

Allons-y (let's go)! Below are the statistics for Hors-Categorie, Category 1, and Category 2 climbs including a difficulty rating. Note, I have also added the uphill part of the unclassified Megève Time Trial.

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 the same colour.

Bastille Day will be fun this year as the classic Bédoin side of Mont Ventoux is the toughest climb in the Tour de France. Next is the  ever-present Col du Tourmalet (over 80 Tour appearances).  3rd toughest is the not-well-known Montée de Bisanne - its fearsome rating is despite the Tour skipping the top 2 kms of this super steep road.  The final climb of the entire Tour will be Col de Joux Plane - if they ever manage to fix the collapsed road in time.  The 5th, and 6th toughest climbs are both Swiss, including the stunning finish at Lac d'Emosson - used by the Dauphiné in 2104.  7th, Col de la Ramaz, is also currently closed due to land-slide issues. The 8th and 9th toughest climbs are both in Andorra.  And finally, the 10th toughest climb is a little known Savoyard road up to Le Bettex (Mont Blanc views).

Mont Ventoux, view from summit.  Col des Tempêtes at left

Let's look at the major mountain stages in more detail.

Stage 5, in the Massif Central, is the first stage that climbs with any anger, and stage 7 has the Pyrenean beauty Col d'Aspin.  But it's stage 8 where things really heat up.

Stage 8 - Bagnères-de-Luchon

Unlike many recent Tourmalet stages with distant downhill finishes, the final summit here may be close enough to the end to make things exciting.  Note, we're climbing the better, scenic side of Tourmalet - La Mongie ski station is on the descent. That means that your favourite TV announcers will perform the annual recitation of the Eugène Christophe "forge story" after the downhill.  Hourquette 'd'Ancizan is a lovely little climb, introduced to the Tour only recently as an alternative to the also ever-present Col d'Aspin.  Col de Val Louron-Azet is actually called Col d'Azet but some ski station marketing jerk has paid a few euros for the name change - moo.  The final climb, Col de Peyresourde, is a classic "passing through" climb.  I believe this is its 65th Tour appearance, without ever a summit finish.  The descent is open, wide, and not particularly hard.  Hug the top tube stuff.

Stage Steepness Factor:  Two of the final three kilometres of Tourmalet are 11% and 10%.  Plus a super-sexy final hairpin that should be in colour by the time the Tour arrives:

Note, Tourmalet is the Souvenir (to remember) Jacques Goddet as the highest climb of the race in the Pyrenées.  Goddet was the Tour director from 1936 - 1986.  At the summit of Tourmalet is a bust of Goddet, as well as the famous Géant (giant) du Tourmalet statue.

For the Cyclotourists

Exactly at the summit of Tourmalet is an unpaved road that goes much, much higher.  In fact, with a little determination one can reach the Astronomical Observatory at the top of Pic du Midi de Bigorre (2877 metres).  Easily my favourite ride in the Pyrenées - see here.

Stage 9 - Andorre Arcalis

As the bottom of the above profile indicates, stage 9 starts in Spain, only entering the Principality of Andorra for the final 50 kms or so.  In 2009 the Tour had a stage finish at the ski station of Arcalis - won by ......... Brice Feillu (!) !!

Stage Steepness factor:  The 2nd last climb, Col de Beixalis, has a couple of very steep kms, include one at 13% average. Ouch.

For the Cyclotourists

I've never been to Andorra, so if you go please pick me up along the way.  Andorra has a population of roughly 80,000.  It has the highest capital city and the longest life expectancy in Europe.  Similar to the UK It is not a part of the EU.  The official language is Catalan, although Spanish and French is usually understood.  Its food specialty?  Brown Trout.  Who knew?

Stage 10 - Revel

This is likely a sprint stage so why have I included it? Because the Port d'Envalira is the Souvenir Henri Desgranges as the highest point in the race.  In Andorra, not France.  Boo.

Stage 12 - Mont Ventoux

Bastille Day! Expect a hopeless but very fun attack from Thomas Voeckler and every other Frenchman in the peloton. Allez Thibault, Jérôme, Romain, etc.   Ventoux is the toughest climb in the 2016 Tour  (note, I used the official Tour stats which exclude the first 6 kilometres from Bédoin @ roughly 5%).

This will be the 10th summit finish at Ventoux.  The most recent?  Mr. Froome won here in 2013. It's a climb in 2 parts: the first half winds its way through a Provençal forest and is consistently steep - 9% / 10% average.  Then, at Chalet Reynard, the trees disappear and the famous lunar landscape of Mont Chauve (bald mountain) begins.  The summit of Ventoux is one of the windiest places on earth. In 1967, speeds of 313 km/h were measured there. Col des Tempêtes (Storm Pass) — 1 km short of the summit — can often have scary strong gusts.

Stage Steepness factor:  The entire climb to Ventoux is steep.  And the last half kilometre averages 11%, possibly against the wind.

For the Cyclotourists

Join the Club des Cinglés du Ventoux by cycling all three sides in a day. Or if you need something far easier but equally beautiful, cycle the nearby Gorges de la Nesque.  20 kms at 2%.  Superb. Finally, A couple of years back, I wrote an article with more history/details about this great mountain (Petrarch climbing it in the 1300's, etc).

The peloton will pass the Tom Simpson Memorial not too far from the summit.  The British rider tragically died cycling Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour.  Note, just above the Simpson memorial is another memorial to an amateur rider - P. Kraemer - who died here in 1983.

Stage 15 - Culoz

Welcome to the Jura mountains.  This is a crazy fun stage.  Just look at that profile, mostly on quiet, lovely roads.  The stage also features the best named col of the Tour:  Col de Pisseloup (Wolf-Pee Pass).  For years Grand Colombier was the feature climb in the Tour de l'Ain until it finally debuted in the Tour in 2012 (Voeckler won the stage).  Like Ventoux, there is also a club here - La Confrérie des Fêlés du Grand Colombier (Brotherhood of the Loons of Grand Colombier) - if you can climb at least 2 of the 4 sides in a single day.   The Tour will actually climb the easiest of the four ways up  (the toughest cuts this side short and has a ramp at 22%).  But don't let the average grade of 7% fool you, as it's plenty difficult.

Stage Steepness Factor:  This stage is filled with steepness throughout.  Including the 15% stretch on the very first climb, Col du Berthiand.  But it is the final climb that will be worrying the peloton (with 14% stretches) on what the Tour is calling the Lacets du Grand Colombier.  This is the steep, quite awesome, first half of the side climbed in 2012.  It's an amazing place (trust me, watch this short video):

Basically, a part of the mountain juts out to the south and the roads winds up it. Great views of the Rhône River and Lac du Bourget (largest lake in France):

This is a stage where downhill skills could really matter.  Twice the riders will descend the lower half of the 4th side of Grand Colombier to Anglefort (they will pass the finish twice, using the Lacets to make a loop).  This descent is narrow, very steep, and through the woods with many blind turns.  Local knowledge, bravery, and superior skill required. The final few kilometres are false-flat downhill.

For the Cyclotourists

The second Saturday of every month (June through September) the side from Culoz featuring Les Lacets is closed to cars.  Bike-only.  Woooohoooo.   In 2012, our favourite Swede wore Polka Dots and climbed Grand Colombier via Les Lacets to watch the Tour.

Stage 17 - Lac d'Emosson

Forget the official finish name for this stage paid for by the village far below.   This Swiss stage features the 5th and 6th toughest climbs in the Tour.  It also passes by UCI world headquarters in Aigle.  Col de la Forclaz is a scenic but sometimes busy climb linking the Swiss Valais with France in the direction of Chamonix.

What Does Forclaz Mean? There are three Col de la Forclaz in the 2016 Tour.  Forclaz is old dialect in the north French Alps meaning "Narrow Gap."  I think I've cycled 6 cols with this name, and there are several others without roads in the high mountains.  This Forclaz and the Forclaz de Montmin (see below) are the two best on a road bike.

The climb to Emosson is tough, but the reward is the beautiful dam and lake just behind the finish.  For the Col hunters in the crowd - the actual finish line should be just a few metres from Col de la Gueulaz. In 2014, the Dauphiné finished at Emosson in a stage won by Lieuwe Westra (a stage that included Contador, Froome, Nibali, Bardet, etc).

The sexiest hairpin:

Stage Steepness Factor: Col de la Forclaz is a very "Swiss" modern road.  It smoothly averages 8% with little deviation during its 13 kilometres.  But the final climb is more savage, very tough.

For the Cyclotourists

The start of Forclaz is the town of Martigny.  Apart from its posh art museum (no cleats and lycra please), there is a well preserved Roman Amphitheatre, and the Musée et Chiens du St Bernard (a dog Museum) as this is also the start of the climb to Col du Grand St. Bernard.   High above Lac d'Emosson, after crossing the dam is another dam/lake: Lac du Vieux (old) Emosson.  There is an astonishing little paved road up to it.  Then leave the bike behind and hike higher to well preserved dinosaur footprints.  Or turn right at Col de la Gueulaz and ride through an ultra-scary tunnel to access the far side of the lake.

A distant view of the lake and dam d'Emosson:

Stage 18 - Megève Time Trial

In 1980 Bernard Hinault won the World Championships held in Sallanches.  The circuit course climbed (several times) a 2.5 kilometre little road above/through the village of Domancy. The stuff of legends. Fast forward to June 2106: three weeks ago the Côte de Domancy road was officially named Route Bernard Hinault.

I do know that at least one American pro cyclist has been scouting this climb.  He was super friendly and kind, but I believe he was secretly envying my Podium Cafe kit.

Stage Steepness factor:  The Route Bernard Hinault averages just under 10% (the final km is 10%) but further along the route, the stretch at Les Berthelets has a ramp of a few hundred metres that my legs judge to be 14% or so.

In the photo below, Mont Blanc is hidden behind those clouds.  If a clear day, expect beautiful views

For the Cyclotourists

Let me be frank:  This is an absolutely lousy region for road cycling.  And I'd include the entire valley up towards and past Chamonix.  There are just too few paved roads, and they are busy.  I cycled the TT route, and the Côte de Domancy is indeed fun, and the upper climb cleverly uses some quieter roads, but try constructing a long ride without traffic here  - not easy.  This beautiful region is for hiking, skiing, mountain climbing, but - after the next stage below - I'll suggest some great mountain biking ideas - but leave the road bike at home.


Stage 19 - Le Bettex

A relatively short stage that heads up immediately. More than any other stage, steep is the watch-word of the day.   Collet de Tamié is above the Col de Tamié and passes the perched Fort de Tamié, one of many Savoyard stone forts built in the late 1800s.  Next, the route heads north and will briefly ride along-side beautiful lake Annecy before climbing the fabulous Col de la Forclaz de Montmin (the old Moreau Dauphiné doping graffiti has washed away).  On this north side, the final 2 kilometres average 11% with some steeper ramps. After climbing the 3rd Col de la Forclaz of this Tour, the riders will tackle the Montée de Bisanne (1723 metres).   This climb is actually called Signal de Bisanne.  This dead-end road goes to 1923 metres, but the Tour used the Montée name vs Signal as it will skip the last 2 steep kilometres.  This is a quiet, monster of a climb above Les Saisies ski station.  Nice hairpins:

Mythic.  The Beaufort region tourist office used to give out route cards for their 20 signed cycling routes (they probably still do).  Of these 20, only 2 were labeled "Mythic" - not even the Cormet de Roselend merits a "Mythic."

Finally the route will climb to Le Bettex - starting just past the Route Bernard Hinault!  This climb begins on a superb little road that is crazy steep (unfortunately used as a short cut by local drivers).  There is a stretch of a few hundred metres that is 16% at least - the first km in the profile below starts out quite flat and yet still averages 12.9%.


Stage Steepness Factor: Full kilometres all day long above 10%.  Crazy tough stage.

For the Cyclotourists

The early part of this route passes through great cycling country.  The summit of Col de la Forclaz de Montmin gives one of the best views of Lake Annecy.  For the 10 best rides from Annecy see here - including a loop with Col de Tamié and its 12th century monastery, famous for its cheese.

But the stage finish is the back side of Megève ski station (stage 18's finish).  Again, it's lousy road-biking here.  But some of the mountain biking is magical.  In fact, for a religious experience, exactly from Le Bettex one can continue - on mountain bike - much higher to Col de Christ and Mont Joux.   My favourite Mountain bike climb nearby is to Col du Joly and above to Aguille Croche (2487m).  But remember, if you are a road biker, this area should not be on your list of places to spend much time.

Stage 20 - Morzine

(psssssst, is anyone still reading? Sorry this is so long).

In recent years, the Tour holds an amateur cyclo-sportive that duplicates a key stage.  This year l'Etape du Tour replicates stage 20 - featuring some of the best known road bike climbs in the north French Alps. Because of l'Etape, I wrote a detailed preview of the stage here.

Plenty of nice views climbing Col de Joux Plane:

The route starts with the almost Dolomite-looking Col des Aravis - the bastards sell cow pelts at the summit.  Next is the easier side of Tour regular Col de la Colombière followed by a quite hair-raising descent.

Colombier / Colombière -  Colombe means dove.  Grand Colombier is in the Jura mountains.  Col de la Colombière is an Alp.

Joux: Joux means something like mountain forest or woodlands.  There is also a nice climb to Col de Joux Verte above Morzine.

After the reasonably challenging Col de la Ramaz, the final climb will be the classic side of Col de Joux Plane. It last appeared in the Tour in 2006.  Remember that miracle comeback solo ride from Mr. Landis after bonking the day before? Landis was subsequently ejected from the race for you-know-what.  This is another stage where descending skills could matter.  There is a 6 kilometre stretch of Ramaz that has tight hairpins and seems to go straight down.  The final descent from Joux Plane can be crazy fast.  Sean Kelly allegedly hit 124 km/h here once.

Below:  One of the steep Ramaz hairpins on the descent (I am going the wrong way as usual):

Stage Steepness Factor:  The final two climbs of this stage are fairly tough. The steepest stretch of Ramaz is inside the modern tunnel (which bypasses the very fun and still passable old cliff stretch).  And pros seem to usually judge Col de Joux Plane as more difficult than its stats might suggest. I believe this is because it's so irregular.  Long stretches at 5%, some ramps well into the teens.  Tough to get a rhythm.

Note the tunnel %:

For the Cyclotourists

The classic loop in this region includes four cols:  Ramaz, Joux Verte, Encrenaz, and Joux Plane.  See here.  The great thing about this challenging loop is that it is possible to make any combination of one, two, three, or all four of these cols using Les Gets as a short cut to eliminate climbs.  With some planning, one can decide mid-route, based on the legs, whether to cut/add climbs.

Final Thoughts

I am excited about the mountains stages in this Tour.  Plenty of climbing, but few ridiculous stages. I like how the last two are mountainous but relatively short. Often a good recipe for exciting racing.   And did I convince you Giro fanboys that there are more ultra steep roads in France this year than usual?

Me?  I will be supporting various French riders.  Why couldn't Pinot or Bardet win?  Allez Coppel.   And while Joux Plane hasn't appeared in the Tour in a decade, in 2012, a certain Colombian was first over-the-top during the Dauphinè. Hmmm.

I appreciate you making it to the end of this long preview, and remember to vote in the Queen Stage poll below.

A FINAL PHOTO:   Jens, a super-fun Japanese tourist, and your author watch the Tour on Grand Colombier in 2012.