Bonjour, bienvenue en France. It’s time for another Tour de France Mountains Preview. While 2017 might not be the toughest Tour route ever, similar to last year, it features some very steep roads, steeper than anything in the latest Giro. And while some may grumble at the lack of mountain-top finishes, anyone that saw the descent of Mont du Chat (stage 9 in TdF) during the recent Dauphiné will understand that downhill racing can be exciting.
Let’s be optimistic. There are several wonderful mountain stages that should produce some great memories.
I count 53 categorised climbs this Tour similar to the 56 last year, and 57 two years ago. There are five mountain stages and five "hilly" stages. While there are only three uphill finishes, a couple of the final descents could be terrifyingly fun. We'll visit all five of the main French mountain ranges in the following order: Vosges, Juras, Pyrénées, Massif Central, and the Alps. Nice.
This will be a long article. I'll add pictures for those that hate reading. But below we will:
- Rank all the Hors Categorie, Cat. 1 and Cat. 2 climbs by difficulty.
- Take a quick look at the 5 mountain stages and a couple of the hilly stages.
- Give a few brief recommendation for cyclo-tourists.
- 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.
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.
Note, I have used the official Tour de France start/end points for the climbs which sometimes excludes a few kilometres of uphill.
Col du Galibier is the most difficult climb in the 2017 Tour de France according to the climbbybike difficulty formula in part due to its height - altitude is rewarded by the formula. At 2642 metres, it is the highest point of the Tour and thus the first over the top will win the Souvenir Henri Desgranges (the Desgranges monument is 1 km below the Galibier summit).
Col de la Croix de Fer is the second toughest climb in the Tour (Note, I have used total ascent in the formula. The 5.2% average grade listed by the Tour for Croix de Fer is misleading as there are two significant descents mid-climb).
The third, fifth, and sixth toughest climbs (Mont du Chat, Col de la Biche, and Grand Colombier) will appear consecutively in stage 9, easily the toughest Jura Tour stage ever. Some might have expected higher difficulty rankings for these three. But, as I’ll explain below, the official Tour stats exclude several uphill kilometres for both Biche and Chat, and the Tour joins Grand Colombier part way up the climb. In summary, they are relatively short, but all hyper steep.
And the legendary Col d’Izoard, the fourth toughest climb, will host the 3rd highest Tour stage finish ever in stage 18. Drool.
Let's look at the major mountain stages in more detail.
Stage 5: Vosges Mountains
We have to wait until stage 5 for the first real mountains in this Tour. In the Vosges, this will be the third mountain-top finish at the little ski station La Planche des Belles Filles (‘12, ‘14)
The name La Planche des Belle Filles (plank of the beautiful girls) 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.
It’s a short climb, under 6 kilometres, but steep, especially the final 200 metres, at 22%. But once you are finished you can write your time under Froome’s 2012 winning time on the sign (I beat Etienne by 7 minutes)
For the Cyclotourists - The Vosges Mountains are full of peaceful, attractive, mid-altitude cycling. But La Planche des Belles Filles - a purpose-built road to the only ski station in Haute-Saône - is one of the least charming rides I know. No need to prioritise it. Visit the Grand Ballon, the Ballon d’Alsace, or endless other more charming climbs.
Stage 8: A Hilly Jura Stage
Only classified as "hilly," this Jura mountain stage looks fun to me.
The final climb and finish is very similar to the 2010 Jura stage won by Sylvain Chavanel, including the excellent les lacets (hairpins) de Septmoncel during the final climb.
For the Cyclotourists: The French department Jura is full of excellent, signed cycling routes. See bottom of this link here for a detailed map with routes.
Stage 9: Jura Mountain Madness
Back in 2011, I wrote my first in a series of articles on climbs ignored by the Tour de France. The top of the list: Grand Colombier and Mont du Chat. I never dreamed of seeing them both in the same stage. And frankly, it was shoddy work on my part not to have included Col de la Biche at some point in the series.
This stage is slightly insane. Not because it has a series of big climbs. But because the final three climbs are all so consistently steep. Steeper than Galibier, Tourmalet, Alpe d’Huez, Ventoux, etc.
I don’t know why the first climb to Col de Bérentin has been split into two classified climbs - it’s briefly less steep in the middle I suppose. But this first climb enters the massif containing both Biche and Colombier. A tasty amuse-bouche.
Col de la Biche is listed by the Tour as 10.5 kilometres in length. But they will be doing the full 16 kilometres in the profile below. The Tour stats ignore the easier first 3 kilometres starting beside the Rhône River, below a main road. And they only measure the climb to Croix de Famban (the first summit on profile below). But the road goes down then up before reaching the Col.
Although beside Grand Colombier and Mont du Chat, Biche has a much different feel. The young deciduous forest gives no shade. Plenty of hairpins, the road just goes up. Nearing the top are great views of the distant Alps.
This stage will feature three narrow, hair-raising descents with Biche being the first. Blind turns, steep narrow roads, and a mediocre surface. Local knowledge, courage, and technical skill will be valuable this stage.
Soon after descending Biche, the ascent of Grand Colombier begins. This will be its third Tour appearance (2012, 2016). There are four sides up this Jura giant. The Tour has climbed the scenic Culoz side (with its lacets), and the "easiest" west side. But this year they climb the steepest side - sometimes called the Directissime. It is basically the "easiest" side with a massive short-cut.
The first time I heard of the Directissime, a very good cyclist told me "whatever you do, don’t descend it. It is too steep." This short-cut is a tiny road that initially stays above 10% for a couple of kilometres. It is strange and frightening on such a long steep stretch to then see the road get visibly much steeper. Max grade 22%. But teens for a very, very long way.
The most scenic route up Grand Colombier via Culoz (2012 TdF, les lacets) has been closed for several months due to a giant landslide. But apparently will soon re-open. Fortunately, the impressive hairpins were above the landslide and undamaged.
On a clear day, there are superb views from the summit of the distant Alps. Mont Blanc:
This is another super steep descent (14% stretches) in a forest with many blind turns. It’s a small road, but wider than the Directissime short-cut.
After a scenic category 4 climb through Vineyards, the peloton will see the imposing silhouette of Mont du Chat dominating their view. The Tour officially calls it an 8.7 kilometre climb @ 10.3% average grade. But the peloton will be climbing for several kilometres before this official start, joining the climb for roughly the final 12 kilometre in the profile below. Is it a marketing gimmick to increase the average grade by excluding easier kilometres from the official stats of Biche and Chat? No matter, they are both beasts.
Mont du Chat: Pronounced "Shaa." The CH is soft and the T is silent.
How tough is Mont du Chat? The local Tourist office kindly places kilometre markers with the average grade for the entire next kilometre. From the summit, kilometre 5, 3, and 2 are all listed as 12% average.
Above: The "relais" in the name refers to the Ventoux-like telecommunications tower exactly at the road's summit.
The views on the climb itself are few and far between as it winds up through rough terrain and forest, although nearing the summit is a look-out with an interesting view of Grand Colombier. Unlike neighbouring Grand Colombier, this mountain is too rugged for high pasture land or any farms. From the summit are views of Lac du Bourget below (the largest lake in France), Mont Revard across the lake, the high Alps in the distance, and a Canadian up close:
Cat Mountain? Chat means Cat in French, but this is not the origin of the name of this mountain. Do you really think a thousand years before Youtube people were naming places after cats? The old French word Chas - pronounced like Chat - means "eye of the needle" and describes the distinctive massif when viewed from the north.
If you didn’t see Mont du Chat in the recent Dauphiné, you still probably heard about the descent. While few hairpins, the steep narrow road is "wiggly." And it was scary but riveting to watch pros flying down it. The finish in the Tour is further from the summit than the Dauphiné stage. But hopefully that routing mistake doesn’t spoil an abosolutely brilliant Jura stage.
For the Cyclotourists: Tourists flock to nearby Lac d’Annecy and it’s great cycling options. But the Lac du Bourget region is also full of interesting cycling climbs. See here.
Stage 12: The Pyrénées
This is the best of two Pyrénées mountain stages, featuring a steep uphill finish.
As the story goes, the organisers of the Tour de France were looking for new routes in the Pyrénées, so in 2006 they paved the last 5 kilometres of an old trail on the south side of Port de Balès (pronounced “baal – ess”) to link to a little forestry road on the north side creating a huge “through” climb. Dear Monsieur Prudhomme, I can think of a few places in the Alps where this strategy could be repeated.
The Tour has now crossed Port de Balès four times (’07, ’10, ’12, ‘14). Kim Kirchen was the first to cross the summit in its debut year but its most famous Tour memory must be “chain-gate” in 2010 when Andy Schleck dropped his chain during an attack and lost the yellow jersey to Alberto Contador. In 2012, and in the 2013 Vuelta, stages climbed Port des Balés and finished in Peyragudes, the same as this stage.
Port de Balès is a lovely remote-feeling climb. I had lots of fog when I visited, but I fondly remember the house that had a photograph of every Tour winner posted on its exterior wall.
The route descends Balès then turns onto Col de Peyresourde a few kilometres above it’s "start." Peyresourde has been in the Tour something like 66 times. Usually (always?) as a "through" climb. Peragudes is a little nearby ski station with some very steep ramps to the finish.
This is a very long stage, with an easy first 100 kilometres. But Col de Menté has some bite. But I don’t think I’ll turn on the TV until they’ve ridden at least 165 kilometres.
Stage 13: More Pyrénées
A Tour de France without Tourmalet or Aubisque? There has been some risk that Col d’Agnes would be removed from the Tour due to landslides. But it seems repair work should be finished in time.
I don’t know the final climb but "mur" means "wall." And cycling fans know that a name like this means steep - see profile below. A knee-jerk reaction to this stage profile is to complain about the finishing descent. "A waste of mountains." And that may be true. I’ll just point out that this stage is crazy short. 101 kilometres in the Tour de France? Maurice Garin is turning in his grave. But maybe this will lead to some aggressive and fun racing. Thoughts?
For the Cyclotourists: Here are my favourite rides in the Pyrénées. Great cycling.
Stage 17 - A Traditional Giant Alps Stage
Strangely, yet another great stage lessened with a downhill finish. And this downhill is on a wide road. Not remotely technical .... barely a hairpin on the final 20 kilometres. Even a coward like me wouldn’t be braking much.
Here is a stage with a couple of venerable Alpine giants - the two most difficult climbs of the Tour according to our ranking formula. But first, being petty, let me celebrate the route descending Col d’Ornon and ignoring Alpe d’Huez which starts a couple of kilometres down the road.
Col de la Croix de Fer is a glorious climb. The Tour will climb the west side. There are two very steep sections, two descents, and then after a beautiful alpine lake/dam an easier finish.
I must admit, when the Tour route was announced, I didn’t even notice that Col du Galibier via Télégraphe was included. I was too fascinated with the Mont du Chat and Izoard stages. But this is fun. This is a long, tough, double climb. A Tour regular. But let me double back to my stage 9 hyperbole. Look at the average gradients here. Nothing like stage 9. There must be 20 kilometres or so in stage 9 that are steeper than every kilometre on Télégraphe/Galibier. /hyperbole
It’s worth remembering that Col du Télégraphe is a big climb in its own right. If you think of it as part of the Galibier climb, there is more than 2000 metres of ascent, easily the biggest challenge of the Tour.
Just behind the Col, accessible on a tiny road, is the Fort du Télégraphe dominating the valley below. The Fort was built in the late 1800’s and is one of many Savoie stone forts lining the high alpine valleys here. View of fort from across the valley:
Le Grand Galibier (3228m) is a mountain peak above the Col. Here it is, viewed from the last kilometre of the climb - above the tunnel.
View from above Col du Galibier. Note, the north side gets more snow.
This is an old-school candidate for Queen stage. Shame about the final descent.
For the Beer drinkers: There is a Galibier beer brewed by the Brasserie Galibier located in Valloire. Tasty.
Stage 18: Col d’Izoard Mountain Top Finish
I believe this will be Col d’Izoard’s 35th Tour de France appearance. But its first summit appearance. The highest Tour de France summit finishes ever: Col du Galibier (2642m), Col du Granon (2413m), and now Col d’Izoard (2360m).
The Tour will climb the legendary south side through La Casse Déserte. Just for fun, here are the riders first over the summit of Izoard between 1947 and 1954: Robic, Bartali, Coppi, Bobet, Coppi, Bobet, Bobet. Legends!
The top half of this arid south side is steeper than the (also great) greener north side. The route reaches Col de la Platrière (2220m) and the Casse Déserte begins. A short descent and a lovely, hairpin-filled finish. This is one of the most beautiful and famous climbs in cycling. Pay attention when climbing as in the middle of the Casse Déserte is the easy to miss but quite cool Coppi/Bobet monument.
For the CycloTourists: The Hautes-Alpes department leads the Alps in hosting many bike-ony car-free days on some of the most famous climbs in France. Here is a 2017 list including Izoard (twice), Col du Galibier, Col de Vars (twice; Vars is earlier in this stage), Granon, etc. I cycled Izoard on one of these closed road days in 2014. The silence is deafening.
I know some people are down on the 2017 Tour route. But hopefully, a few of the above mountain stages will cheer them up.
Me? I am truly excited for the stage 9 in the Juras near where I live. I can’t believe they will actually race up the steepest side of Grand Colombier (starting from VIRIEU le PETIT). Assassins!
Please remember to vote in the Queen Stage poll below. I have identified three candidates but expect Holmovka to vote for the sprint on the Champs-Élysées.
The 2017 Tour de France Queen Stage is?
This poll is closed
Stage 9: Jura Madness
Stag 17: Old School. Galibier and Croix de Fer
Stage 18: A Casse Déserte Dessert
Other: Please Explain in Comments