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2019 Tour de France Mountains Preview

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Let’s Rank the Mountains

Bonjour, bienvenue en France. It’s time for another Tour de France Mountains Preview. La Grande Boucle is a strange shape this year, ignoring the north / west of France. After a start in Belgium, the route passes through Champagne vineyards, over the Vosges mountains, avoids the Juras, heads through the Massif Central to the Pyrénées, then traverses Provence before climbing into the Alps. Finally Paris.

A strangely shaped loop

Unlike the relatively easy first 9 stages last year, there will be plenty of hills from the very first stage. I count (probably incorrectly) 65 categorised climbs up significantly from 53 each of the last two years, 56 three years ago, and 57 four years ago. There are 7 mountain stages versus 6 last year, and only 5 the year before. There are 5 mountain-top finishes, versus 4 last year. And this is a high Tour with 4 summits higher than anything climbed by the Giro d’Italia in the last two years. In stage 1 we’ll see the first categorised climb at a whopping 100 metres above the nearby Belgium sea. Whereas, Stages 18, 19, and 20 will have climbs far more than two vertical kilometres higher.

Long-time Podium Cafe members will know that we have published several articles over the years campaigning for the Tour to include several great climbs long ignored by the Tour de France (see here, here, here, and here). Our campaign has had some recent successes with the inclusions of Plateau des Glières, Mont du Chat, and Grand Colombier.

This year? From our list we will see Val Thorens (the highest Ski Resort in Europe) and Col de l’Iseran (the highest paved mountain pass in Europe). Woohoo!

Col de l’Iseran

I asked this last autumn but it’s a new year:
TRIVIA: “Col” means “mountain pass” in French. But among the climbs appearing in the 2019 Tour, can you identify at least 3 other local synonyms for col?


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 7 mountain stages.
  3. Give a few brief recommendations for visiting cyclo-tourists.
  4. 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.

So according to our methodology Val Thorens, a mountain top finish in stage 20, is the toughest climb in the 2019 Tour. What a great way to potentially decide the entire Tour. Col du Tourmalet is the second toughest climb. I believe this is its 80 appearance but only the third time used as a mountain top finish. Exciting. The third toughest climb, Col de l’Iseran, has too often been ignored by the Tour. This will only be the 8th appearance for this absolutely stunning, high altitude road.

Before we discuss the 7 mountain stages, here are the climbs grouped by stage:

Let’s walk through the seven mountain stages:

Stage 6: Vosges Mountains

We haven’t seen much of the Vosges mountains in recent years, but this monster stage visits several of the best known climbs there. Le Grand Ballon is one of the highest roads in the region. The Ballon d’Alsace is often cited as the first mountain climb to ever appear in the Tour (1905, a fake claim as Col de la République was the first climb > 1000 metres in 1903).

René Pottier was first atop Col du Ballon d’Alsace in 1905 - “climbed at an average speed of 20 km/h passing all his adversaries.” Monument at summit.

Col des Chevrères is a famously steep little climb just before the final challenge (PdC’er Broerie has raced over it). While officially only 3.5 kilometres long, they’ll be going uphill for almost 7 kilometres beforehand.

But the focus of this stage will be the final climb to La Planche des Belles Filles. I’ve called this wide, modern ski station road the least charming climb in a charming region —— but it is steep! This is its 4th appearance, all since 2012. NOTE: the other three appearances finished at an altitude of 1035 metres. The road has since been extended a kilometre and the finish is now at 1140 metres. So previously there was one hyper steep ramp at the finish, now there are two.

Ouch
Sign to the old finish. Now the first of two hyper steep ramps.

According to legend, during the 30 years war (1618-1648), a group of young girls jumped to their death the avoid being raped and massacred by Swedish mercenaries. Hence the name La Planche des Belles Filles or “The Plank of the Beautiful Girls.”

A terrible photo of the statue of a Belle Fille jumping off a Planche (I didn’t initially see the statue when there but edited it from the background of a different photo - sorry):

Stage 12: A Classic Pyrénées Stage

Classic? You know, a stage that crosses Col de Peyresourde then finishes a long way from any summit (usually Pau) and everyone wonders “what’s the point.” Peyresourde is the quintessential through-col. It’s been in the Tour almost 70 times (including 15 times this century) without ever having a mountain top finish. Hourquette d’Ancizan is a nice little climb that is an alternative route to the oft-used Col d’Aspin. It will be making its 4th appearance debuting in 2011.

It’s not uncommon to see animals wandering around on the big Pyrénées climb. Sheep atop Soulor: horses/cows up Hautacam, cows at summit of Aspin, etc. Visit Hourquette d’Ancizan and you will see donkeys. I promise.

Col de Peyresourde:

Stage 14: A Tourmalet Mountain-Top Finish!

Col du Soulor is usually climbed form its west or east sides as it links Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet. But this year they will climb the quieter, scenic north side, and turn left/east to Tourmalet, skipping Aubisque for a change.

Col du Soulor north side viewed from Cirque du Litor (cliff road to Aubisque):

A sheep col

The Tour will be climbing the more interesting west side of Tourmalet (no Mongie ski station). The big news(!): since there will be no descent, we won’t be passing St-Marie-de-Campan. Thus the TV announcers for once won’t tell the Eugène Christophe Forge story (prediction: they will anyway). Drink!

As highest race point in the Pyrénées, the first rider to the summit of Tourmalet will win the Souvenir Jacques Goddet. A monument to Goddet is at the top near the Le Géant du Tourmalet.

Pic du Midi Observatory high above Tourmalet

For the Cyclo-Tourists

We’ll see lots of helicopter shots of the Pic du Mid Observatory (2877 metres) high above Col du Tourmalet. Exactly at the summit of Tourmalet begins a gravel road and with some determination it’s possible to cycle to the Observatory while all the road bikers far below have descended in cheerful ignorance. Details.

Col du Tourmalet is several kilometres below

Stage 15: Something New in the Pyrénées

It’s nice to see a Pyrénées stage with something new. I don’t know the finish climb although it’s not too far from Plateau de Beille. This looks like a less crazy mountain stage with an uphill finish. Might it lead to some aggressive attacks?

The biggest climb of the stage, Port de Lers, has been used 5 times by the Tour, 3 times on the way to a mountain top finish at Plateau de Beille. The cyclists are very cheerful here:

Here’s a tweet with a nice photo of the final climb Prat d’Albis:

Prat d’Albis is lovely climb out of Foix. I rode it for the first time last weekend, this was taken about 6 km up after the steeper middle section. It’s a rad climb pic.twitter.com/z40SSuflpw

— Nick Frendo (@NickFrendo) October 25, 2018

For the Cyclo-Tourists

Just down the road from Prat d’Albis is the climb to Plateau de Beille. It’s often compared to Alpe d’Huez as it has similar stats, although Plateau de Beille is a bit tougher and far quieter. Details.

Stage 18: The Alps - Three Old Friends

Three old friends as the Peloton heads north. Col de Vars is the Peyresourde of the Alps: They’re always just passing through. Then they will climb the more famous south side of Col d’Izoard through the beautiful Casse Deserte - always fun. Izoard is the 4th most difficult climb in our rankings with some steep ramps especially just before La Casse Deserte.

That’s nor Richie - it’s our boy Jens
La Casse Deserte
Brilliant hairpins near Izoard summit ... from a gravel view

Here’s Warren Barguil winning the 2017 mountain top finish on the same south side of Izoard:

The Tour will also be climbing the south side of Col du Galibier, from Briancon via Col du Lautaret. They then descend the north side to finish at the ski station of Valloire (a few kms short of Télégraphe).

It’s a long climb, but rarely very steep. The real fun doesn’t begin until they turn right at Col du Lautaret:

View of the south side from the summit:

Note the 12% sign. the final ramp to the col is steep.

Looking down on summit. South side at right. North side at left:

It’s 19 downhill kilometres to the finish in Valloire. Except for the top few kilometres it’s not the most technical descent. They will fly down. But the helicopter shots will be fantastic.

For the Cyclo-Tourists

Col du Galibier first appeared in the Tour de France in 1911. But did you know they used to use a different road on the south side than today? And it’s still “rideable.”

First built in the 1880’s, this was the only way up the south side until 1938. As best I can tell it was abandoned/closed in 1947. This means that between 1911 and 1938 the Tour de France would have climbed or descended this road over twenty times. It is far to the east of the modern road and except near the beginning the two routes don’t intersect until the top near the Desgranges monument at the entrance of the tunnel (2556 metres). Details.

The old Galibier “road.”

Several years ago I wrote: “Col du Galibier - A Brief History.

IMPORTANT: Beer!

There is a Galibier brand beer brewed by the Brasserie Galibier located in the stage finish town of Valloire. Behind me and my beer is the Henri Desgranges monument (one kilometre below the Galibier summit on the south side).

Stage 19: The Roof of the Alps

Col de l’Iseran is the highest paved pass in all Europe. It’s 2764 metres not 2770 as listed. Details matter when you’re the highest. Here’s what I wrote in the “ignored climbs article:”

Col de l’Iseran has in fact appeared a handful of times in the Tour, but barely at all when compared to its little brother Galibier far down the Maurienne valley. Iseran is one of the most beautiful climbs in France. I taste a little vomit every time it is excluded. I am supposed to get excited about Alpe d’Huez - almost a vertical kilometre lower?

As the high point in the 2019 Tour, the first rider over the top will win the Souvenir Henri Desgranges. Here’s the south side of Iseran on June 23rd this year (there is summer glacier skiing with the bottom of the piste ending just below the col on south side):

This stage follows a superb route through the Maurienne valley, the Haute Maurienne, then Iseran before an uphill finish at the popular ski station of Tignes.

Note: The route climbs a different Col de la Madeleine than its more famous namesake further down the Maurienne valley.

The route ascends the less developed, prettier south side of Iseran then descends a magnificent 17+ kilometres to Val d’Isère ski resort.

The remote south side
My wife descending north side of Iseran.

Fun Fact: Col de l’Iseran is only 9 kilometres as-the-crow-flies from Lago Serrù, the 2019 Giro d’Italia stage finish part way up Colle delle Nivolet. But it’s hours away by car as they’re separated by rugged high mountains. The French and Italian park staff share the management of the Ibex herds.

After passing through some raw, wet, nasty tunnels below Val d’Isère they’ll descend past and below the dam/lac du Chevril and start the final climb on a smaller road beside the main road. It’s roughly 7 kilometres uphill to Val Claret with a flat final kilometre beside Lac de Tignes to the finish.

Lac du Chevril. The road to Tignes is on far side going up from right to left:

Lac de Tignes (Tignes in the distance):

This (and the next) stage are the ones I will watch solely for the helicopter shots.

For the Cyclo-Tourists

I love Alpine climbs to high altitude lakes. As you see above, we’ll see two near the finish of this stage. But with a little effort, one can find many more along Stage 19’s route. For example:

Above the Cat 2 climb to Aussois are two beautiful dams/lakes. Lanslebourg at the base of Madeleine is the start of the climb to Lac du Mont Cenis (and Italy). Just beyond Lanslebourg is the climb to Plan du Lac. Cycling author Daniel Friebe once called it possibly the best climb above 2000m that “no-one” has heard of. In between the tunnels just below Tignes is a tiny turn off up to Lac/Dam du Saut, the 14th highest paved road in France. The photo above of Lac du Chevril is part way up this road. etc.

Stage 20: The Alps - The Toughest Climb in the Tour

This is my favourite mountain stage of the 2019 Tour. The organisers seem to agree as it will be the stage used for L’Etape du Tour, the amateur cyclo-sportive that rides one Tour stage every year.

They will climb the west side of the beautiful Cormet de Roselend. Unlike last year, they won’t ride over the dam but instead will take the direct route via Col du Meraillet - but they’ll still ride alongside lac de Roselend for a couple of kilometres before the final stretch to the summit.

La Chapelle de Roselend, Lac de Roselend, and a slanty tripod (Damn dam far right at back).

After a fairly crazy 20 kilometre descent of the east side of Roselend (see video below), the route rides through the Tarentaise Valley towards Moûtiers. It’s a busy road for cyclists. But the Tour smartly takes the only option to avoid this by climbing to Notre-Dame-du-Pré via Longefoy. Look closely at a map and you’ll see at least 30 hairpins on this tricky descent

Johan Bruyneel descending same side of Cormet de Roselend as 2019 Tour:

From Moûtiers the peloton faces one of the longest climbs in France to Val Thorens, the highest ski station in Europe. I believe it’s the 10th highest paved road in France and yet has only appeared once in the Tour (1994, Nelson Rodriguez). This is a good addition.

It’s the toughest climb in the Tour according to our difficulty rating.

Note: The first third or so of the climb takes the D96 bypassing the main road. For cyclo-tourists this is the correct decision. Far, far quieter and very scenic.

The D96 in autumn, early stretch to Val Thorens
The stage finish is likely just beyond the little tunnel upper left.

For those that are richer than me, you can stay near the finish line at La Datcha (Oleg) Tinkoff in Val Thorens and enjoy the stage finish.

For the Cyclo-Tourists

Val Thorens is part of the Les Trois Vallées ski domaine, one of the largest in the world. To increase summer tourism they a plan to link the three valleys with a high altitude paved road open only to cyclists. Phase one: Above Courchevel they have just opened a 6 kilometre paved extension to Col de la Loze (2304 metres). They are in the process of paving the far side down to Méribel. And then they will pave a road over the ridge into the valley that includes Val Thorens. Trust me: Col de la Loze will be in the Tour de France very soon. Maybe next year. Details.

Col de la Loze. Freshly paved, bike-only.

Final Thoughts

With 12 more categorised climbs than the previous two Tours this will be a hilly event throughout. Seven mountain stages with five uphill finishes along mostly interesting roads. Lots of old friends (Galbier, Tourmalet, Izoard, Roselend, Peyresourde, etc) but some unfamiliar roads too like a MTF finish at Prat d’Albis in the Pyrénées.

And personally I am excited to see two of the the ten highest roads in France making rare but welcome appearances: Col de l’Iseran and Val Thorens.

Don’t forget to leave a comment if you found the 3 synonyms for “col.”

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.

Poll

The 2019 Tour de France Queen Stage is .....

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Stage 14: Tourmalet. A rare mountain top finish.
    (13 votes)
  • 16%
    Stage 18: Vars, Izoard, and Galibier. Drool.
    (32 votes)
  • 4%
    Stage 19: Col de l’Iseran. Get high.
    (9 votes)
  • 69%
    Stage 20: Val Thorens. Saving the toughest for last.
    (131 votes)
  • 2%
    Other: Please explain in comments
    (4 votes)
189 votes total Vote Now