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2018 Tour de France Mountains Preview

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Let’s Rank the Climbs

Col de la Colombière
© Will’s great Friend Katy Huang

Bonjour, bienvenue en France. It’s time for another Tour de France Mountains Preview. It’s an interesting set of mountains this year. There are lots of old friends (Alpe d’Huez, Tourmalet, Aubisque, Madeleine, Croix de Fer, Peyresourde, etc.). But the route has a few fun innovations: some “hipster” 3rd-way-up climbs, some gravel, and I am guessing that many of you have never even heard of the highest and toughest climb in the entire race:

Col de Portet has just recently been paved, and will be the highest and toughest climb in the 2018 Tour de France. I visited when it was gravel.
© Will

I (probably incorrectly) count 53 categorised climbs this Tour the same as last year and similar to the 56 two years ago, and 57 three years ago. There are six mountain stages versus five last year, four mountain-top finishes versus three last year, and nine hors-categories climbs versus only seven in 2017. It’s a fairly easy first 9 stages before the peloton arrives in the Alps for an nastily steep Stage 10. We’ll see a touch of the Massif Central, finally arriving in the Pyrénées.

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 look at all 6 mountain stages.
  3. Let you, dear readers, vote to decide 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.

Note, I have used the official Tour de France start/end points for the climbs which sometimes differ from climbbybike.

Col de Portet is the toughest and highest climb in the 2018 Tour de France. It’s in the Pyrénées. At 2215 metres, it’s a 100 metres higher than Col du Tourmalet. Portet is an extension above Pla d’Adet, a ski station that has appeared 10 times in the Tour. Feel free to correct me, but I believe with the recent road works it has become the highest paved road in the French Pyrénées.

We’ll go through the top climbs in some detail by stage, but a top line grouping of the toughest climbs?

  1. Three exciting Tour debuts: Col de Portet, Plateau des Glières, Cormet de Roselend via Col du Pré.
  2. Plenty of famous Tour de France regulars: Madeleine, Croix de Fer, Tourmalet, Alpe d’Huez, Peyresourde, Colombière, Aubisque, etc.
  3. Some fun recent Tour additions re-appearing: Montée de Bisanne, Col de Romme, les Lacets de Montvernier, etc.
Les Lacets de Montvernier
© Will

Before we discuss the 6 mountain stages, here are the climbs grouped by stage:

Let’s walk through the six mountain stages:

Stage 10: North Alps, Steep

Stage 10 is also the 2018 Etape du Tour. This is a hugely popular sportive for amateurs a few days before the pros. A stage being selected for the Etape is a sign the organizers feel it is particularly interesting.

Note, it is so challenging that I had to edit the official profile below to add Col des Fleuries, a small climb that should have been rated Category 3.

This is the steep stage. A few years ago, I started ranting about how certain writers kept incorrectly saying French mountains roads weren’t steep. My response: the Tour just didn’t use the steep roads. Things have changed in recent years with the Tour using climbs like Col du Grand Colombier, Mont du Chat, Romme, Bisanne among others. Stage 10 is this years hyper steep stage.

It will start alongside beautiful Lake Annecy with the first difficulty Col de la Croix Fry. This is my favourite winter climb - as always open (it’s my twitter avatar). More interestingly, it was the final climb before that crazy descent in 2004 where Lance argued with Jan trying unsuccessfully to gift a stage to Floyd. The good old days.

Col de la Croix-Fry
© Will

I’ve read people being surprised that Plateau des Glières is rated hors-categorie as it’s only 6 kilometres. But I defy you to find a steeper 5.8 kilometre paved stretch in France. It’s a long way to have that average steepness. Perspective: It is roughly as steep as the Koppenberg but 10 times longer. 10 times.

Steep
© Will
Ouch

Excuse me or hate me for some minor gloating, but this is another climb making it’s Tour debut after appearing in Podium Cafe’s series on climbs ignored by the Tour de France. From my blog:

Dear Monsieur Prudhomme: it’s a shame that Plateau des Glières has never appeared in the Tour de France. If there isn’t enough money for this historic and important French location to be a summit finish, then remember: it’s easy to traverse the gravel summit.

Plateau des Glières is famous in France as one of the major bases of the French resistance during World War 2.

During WW2, this plateau was generally inaccessible in winter and the Maquis (French Resistance) used it as a base and for weapon drops from the English. It was the site of one of the biggest battles between the Nazis and the Maquis, with 149 of the French resistance killed in March 1944 (more here). There is a museum, an informative signed walk, and the Monument National de la Resistance.

It’s never been in the Tour for two reasons. First, while a brilliant location for cross-country skiing , there is no major downhill ski resort to pay for a finish. Second, to traverse the plateau there is two kilometres of gravel. But these days gravel is à la mode.

But don’t be confused like some cycling publications. The official classified 6 kilometre steep climb is entirely paved. Then, there is a 2 kilometre gravel stretch at perhaps 2% to Col des Glières. The gravel is short, high quality, and not steep. But, with all the cars and the big peloton, it will be dusty,

The gravel across the Plateau
© Will

After descending the west side of Glières (technical, steep descent) the route climbs Col des Fleuries and heads towards Col de la Colombière (don’t confuse with the Jura giant Col du Grand Colombier). A north Alps Tour regular appearing over 20 times since its debut in 1960 - in part because the ski station of Le Grand Bornand is happy to pay for stage finishes.

But this will be only the second time for Colombière via its “hipster” third option using Col de Romme (2009 debut). This is a much more difficult version of Colombière as it climbs above the main road and then descends down. The profile below is a perfect example of why average grades can be very misleading. This has 10 very steep kilometres. And as my brave wife points out, the last three kilometres always seems to have a strong headwind :) .

The brothers Schleck and Contador were first over the top the only other time the Tour climbed Colombière via Col de Romme:

© Will’s great friend Katy Huang
The final kilometre of Col de la Colombière
© Will

Note, on the descent of Colombière, a certain Mr. Hinault will be watching the riders very closely:

© Will

Stage 11: A Dam Good Route

This is the stage that was previewed in the recent Dauphiné. The stage winner Pello Bilbao will not ride the Tour, but Geraint Thomas finished second that day.

First, the Tour will climb for only the 2nd time what it is calling the Montée de Bisanne (it’s known locally as Signal de Bisanne, but the Tour skips the final 2 brutal kilometres). But this is still steep.

Signal de Bisanne - quiet and steep
© Will

Next, from Beaufort, they will climb the fantastic Cormet de Roselend, part of the Routes des Grandes Alpes. BUT, importantly, they will for the first time take the best, alternate 3rd route, via Col du Pré. This makes the climb far tougher, and far more beautiful. Col du Pré offers towering views of Lac de Roselend and its dam.

Dam / Lac de Roselend viewed from near Col du Pré
© Will

Col du Pré is yet another steep climb. But for me, the reason it’s a great addition is because of the views. The Dauphiné TV footage of the peloton approaching then crossing the dam was as good as it gets.

The peloton will ride over the dam.
© Will
Moo
@ Will

The final climb is to La Rosière, a French ski station. It’s linked with the Italian ski station La Thuile. The stage in fact ends just a few kilometres below Col du Petit St. Bernard (the French/Italian border). Descending just above La Rosière is where Jens Voigt had that terrible crash in 2009. It’s a long slog, but it’s not steep. Better for a GC candidate than a mountain goat?

Stage 12 - Traditional Alps Giants

I promise I won’t complain that Alpe d’Huez is over-rated or that Madeleine lies about its altitude (1993 metres). I promise.

This is a gigantic stage. It includes the 2nd (Madeleine), 3rd (Croix de Fer), and 5th (Alpe d’Huez) toughest climbs in this Tour. And don’t let the average grades for the first two climbs fool you. They are long and challenging, and small descents or flat stretches make the average grade almost meaningless.

Madeleine
Col de la Madeleine climbed the same north side in 2010
© Will

Note, between Madeleine and Croix de Fer the Tour will climb Les Lacets (hairpins; think shoe laces) de Montvernier. Its less than three kilometres and won’t take long, but the hairpins are impressive. Expect fun helicopter shots. Last autumn, Moo Productions made a video here partly using a drone.

Lacets de Montvernier
© Will

There are at least six ways to cycle up Col de la Croix Fer, and the 2018 Tour route takes perhaps the least interesting. But the last six kilometres are filled with remote, sexy hairpins.

Col de la Croix de Fer
@ Will

Last year the Croix de Fer (Iron Cross) at the summit was broken by vandals. But happily it has now been repaired.

The descent of Croix de Fer will be fast, but includes a couple of short, steep uphill stretches. In fact, I wonder if the steepest kilometre of the stage is mid-descent. There are several consecutive uphill hairpins like this, and a 12% sign .... mid-descent.

An uphill descent, Croix de Fer

Then comes Alpe d’Huez, perhaps the most famous climb in professional cycling. It will be a zoo. If you’re attending the stage, arrive early, bring a picnic, and carry up the beer.

Alpe d’Huez
© Will

TRIVIA: Fausto Coppi won the first Tour stage here in 1952. Alpe d’Huez has signs at each of its 21 hairpins with the names of former stage winners. It counts down, so the first hairpin down low is #21. Fausto Coppi’s name is on this sign. But there have been more than 21 stages at Alpe d’Huez, so Fausto has to share his sign. Who is the other rider on the sign at hairpin #21?

See here for the answer. (I spent a descent once getting a photo of all the signs except #2, missing at the time).

The Pyrénées

Stage 16 - small but interesting

The descent of Portet d’Aspet is ultra steep (17% stretch). It was here that Fabio Casartelli sadly crashed and died during the ‘95 TdF. His monument:

© Will

Col de Menté is a pleasant medium difficulty climb. After Menté the route sneaks into Spain, then returns to France. The summit of Col de Portillon is the exact border with Spain.

Cheese and cold cuts for sale at the mountain summit
© Will

Ola?

Spanish sign at the (border) summit
@ Will

Stage 17 - The Highest Pyrénées Finish Ever

First, notice the length of this stage in the profile below. Only 65 kilometres but two big climbs, and one gigantic climb. Short, sharp, innovative. This will be fun.

Second, note the Tour has misspelled Col de Portet. Somehow causing the local tourist office to launch www.colduportet.fr - scandal!

The stage starts with Col de Peyresourde, the Col de Vars of the Pyrénées: often in the Tour (67th appearance), but never a summit finish here. It’s a nice through-road though.

© Will

In case you don’t recognize the name, Col de Val Louron-Azet used to just be Col d’Azet but the Val Louron ski station wants its money’s worth these days. This will be its eighth Tour appearance since its debut in 1997 (Pantani!).

Col d’Azet
© Will

But the exciting part of this stage is the debut of Col de Portet. At 2215 metres, it’s a 100 metres higher than Col du Tourmalet.

Traditionally, the Tour awards the Souvenir Henri Desgranges to the first cyclist to the summit of the highest climb of the Tour (usually in the Alps). Desgranges the founder of the Tour de France has a monument near the summit of Col du Galibier. This year, Portet is the Souvenir Henri Desgranges.

Col de Portet is the continuation of the road above Pla d’Adet which has appeared ten times in the Tour, most famously in 1974 when French legend Raymond Poulidor won here. There is this plaque at the base of the climb.

Vive Poo Poo!
© Will

Pla d’Adet is a strange, vaguely uninteresting climb with one giant hairpin, clearly visible from below.

Pla d’Adet - early slopes of Col de Portet
© Will

But 3 kilometres before Pla d’Adet summit is a turn off to a gravel road that hairpins much, much higher - to Col de Portet. Gravel? Well, it was mostly gravel until this spring when it was paved, just for the Tour. Progress?

Col de Portet, above Pla d’Adet in its gravel days
© Will

The summit is the top of a ski lift. It’s a beautiful, remote location. If visiting alone, beware of the ferocious wildlife:

Moo
© Will

This is a great addition to the Tour. The Pyrénées suffers from seeing the same climbs year after year (see stage 19 below). Portet is not only the toughest climb in the 2018 Tour de France, but as I mentioned at the beginning, I believe it is now the highest paved climb in the French Pyrénées (Port de Boucharo becoming “unpaved” in recent years). And to feature as a mountain top finish in a 65 kilometre stage? Fun.

Stage 19 - Pyrénées Old School with a Twist.

Again, why is the Col de Portet debut exciting for the Tour de France.

2018 will be the 105th Tour de France. And it will mark the 74th appearance for Col d’Aspin, 86th for Col du Tourmalet, and 72nd for Col d’Aubisque - if I haven’t miscounted.

Not .... much .... variety.

Note: The Souvenir Jacques Goddet will be awarded to the first rider over Col du Tourmalet. Usually, this prize is given at the highest point in the Pyrénées, but with Portet offering the Souvenir Henri Desgranges, the Goddet prize will stay at its usual spot. There is a Jacques Goddet memorial at the Tourmalet summit.

After climbing the scenic Col d’Aspin, the peloton will climb the less beautiful (Mongie!) east side of Tourmalet. So we get the Eugène Christophe forge story at the start of the climb (drink!).

Tourmalet will be the 4th toughest climb in 2018 Tour.
La Mongie Ski Slopes
© Will

Happily, there is a fun innovation in this old school route. While the Tour has climbed Aubisque 72 times, they will climb it via Col des Bordères - I think - for the first time. Bordères has been used twice before (‘87, ‘89) but in other direction. Regardless, this is a more scenic option on the lower slopes than the direct way to Aubisque.

Either option requires climbing Col du Soulor. Important note, this is a sheep Col whereas Aspin is a cow col

© Will
Steadily higher: Bordéres, Soulor, Aubisque

The route will still ride the amazing Cirque du Litor cliff stretch where Wim Van Est fell in 1951 (mostly the flatter green part of above profile). There is a Wim Van Est plaque there now.

Cirque du Litor
© Will

At the summit of Aubisque the riders will have completed all the categorised climbs of the Tour, so they will all pull over and drink beer at the summit, descending arm-in-arm to the finish in drunken reverie, singing La Marseillaise. Right?

Cheers
© Will

Final Thoughts

I know absolutely nothing about pro cycling, I just watch to get route ideas and enjoy the views. But I know a little about the mountains and I like the route choices a lot in this Tour.

  1. Plenty of famous gigantic roads (Madeleine, Tourmalet, Croix de Fer, Alpe d’Huez, etc).
  2. Three climbs that take (far) lesser-known-but-more-interesting “third” ways up. (Colombière via Romme, Roselend via Pré, and Aubisque via Bordères).
  3. Two fantastic Tour hors-catégorie debuts: Plateau des Glières, and Col de Portet.

Not bad. Not bad at all. Enjoy.

Queen Stage Poll

Don’t go yet. We need your vote in our super important Queen Stage poll. I’d say there is no obvious Queen Stage this year, but several worthy candidates. I’ve included the Stage 20 Time Trial as an choice as Conor and Andrew chose it as the top stage of the entire Tour in their preview. Madness to a mountains geek like me, although it certainly has a chance to be the decisive day.

Poll

The 2018 Tour de France Queen Stage is ......

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Stage 10 - Super steep Etape and some gravel.
    (49 votes)
  • 3%
    Stage 11 - A dam good stage.
    (18 votes)
  • 32%
    Stage 12 - I am an Alpe d’Huez fan boy.
    (164 votes)
  • 39%
    Stage 17 - The shortest and highest mountain stage.
    (199 votes)
  • 12%
    Stage 19 - Tourmalet the Assassin
    (61 votes)
  • 1%
    Stage 20 - Time Trial may be decisive.
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    Other - please explain in the comments.
    (2 votes)
503 votes total Vote Now