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2021 Tour de France Mountains Preview - Let's Rank the Mountains

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Bonjour, bienvenue en France. Join me for a review of the 2021 Tour de France Mountains. La Grande Boucle isn't exactly a circle this year. It starts in the Armorican (!) Mountains with some fun stages in Brittany. The route will just touch the edges of the Massif Central, while completely ignoring the Vosges and Jura Mountains, But all six of the big mountain stages are in the Alps (3) and the Pyrénées (3).


TdF Route

The Alps has three absolutely stunning mountain stages, but it looks like the race will be decided in the Pyrénées. In fact, the three highest climbs in the race are all in the Pyrenees - that must be a first. It's there we'll see two mountain-top finishes on the final two mountains stages 17 and 18.

There are 60 classified climbs:

hors categorie = 5
category 1 = 13
category 2 = 9
category 3 = 10
category 4 = 23

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 six 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 the twenty-seven 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.

2021 Difficulty Ratings

According to our methodology, Mont Ventoux is the toughest climb of the 2021 Tour. Note, it is also the 8th toughest climb as stage 11 will climb two of its three sides. Woohoo!

Col de Portet, in the Pyrenees is the second most difficult climb. This will be its 2nd Tour appearance. It debuted in 2018 after (sadly) being converted to paved from gravel.

Col du Tourmalet is the third toughest climb. It has made over 80 Tour appearances. Yikes.

Duplicating the recent Dauphiné, the Tour will climb Cormet de Roselend via Col du Pré, the 4th toughest climb. This means that after its 26 hairpins the peloton will get to ride over the Lac de Roselend dam. Hopefully, this time it will get televised.

Spot the cyclist:

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Note: I used data provided by the official Tour de France website, except for Mont Ventoux. Strangely, the Tour doesn't think the first 5 uphill kilometres from Bédoin at 4%-5% should be included.

Before we discuss the 6 official mountain stages, here are the same twenty-seven climbs grouped by stage:

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Let’s walk through the six mountain stages:

Stage 8: The Alps

There were rumours that my home mountain would appear in this stage, alas no. But the route will pass about 5 kms from where I live. I've added me to the profile. :-)

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In 2009, Col de Romme made its Tour debut. It's basically the 3rd way up Col de la Colombière, joining the main route to Colombière at Le Reposoir. Romme, the 7th toughest climb in the Tour is steep. And the final few kilometres of the shortened 11th toughest Colombière are also steep. If you think of it as one climb with a brief descent midway, it's a monster.

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The climb to Romme is a narrow little road rising up from the autoroute. Very quiet, relentlessly 9%-10%. From its summit the riders will just about be able to see Col de la Colombière in the distance:

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Col de la Colombière is one of the closer famous climbs to me, and to quote my wife: "The final steep stretch is always against the wind!" Yep.

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Contador and the brothers Schleck nearing summit of Colombière during 2009 Tour de France, after climbing Romme:

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Below. TRANSLATION: All Roads Lead to Romme:

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For the Cyclo-tourists:

In Le Reposoir is a very well preserved 12th century Carthusian monastery, Chartreuse de Reposoir.

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And a couple of kilometres into the descent of Col de la Colombière looks out for the fabulous bridge art of Bernard Hinault:

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Stage 9: The Alps

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This is a beautiful stage!

It starts with the very famous little Domancy climb. This was used several times in the 1980 World Championship won by Bernard Hinault - and more recently in the 2016 Tour. The road is now named Route Bernard Hinault and there is a monument to him at the start. I did an amateurish video preview of it for the 2016 Tour - running into Greg Lemond. If interested see here.

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Next, the stage climbs Col des Saisies (15th most difficult and part of the Route des Grandes Alpes). Hopefully. we'll see glorious helicopter shots of nearby Mont Blanc. At the summit of Saisies is a World War 2 monument commemorating a weapons drop to the French Resistance where one of the American parachutists died.

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Then the route climbs the stunning 26 hairpins of Col du Pré. Similar to Romme, this is a better third-way-up of a famous climb, Cormet de Roselend. A few years ago I wrote an article about the ten best 3rd-way-up climbs in the Alps - including Roselend via Col du Pré. See here if interested.

This is the fourteenth Tour de France appearance for Cormet de Roselend. Its first appearance was 1979. The only other time the Tour has climbed Roselend via Col du Pré was in 2018 with Warren Barguil first to the summit.
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I love Col du Pré. 26 hairpins!

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But the highlight of the climb is the view from the summit of Lac de Roselend and its dam.
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Cormet is a local word for col or mountain pass.  Parallel to Cormet de Roselend is Cormet d'Arêches.  Higher (2100m) and mostly paved it's a superb alternate link between the same main valleys.  See here. 

After cycling across the dam, it's a lovely loop around half the lake and then the road heads higher. There was quite a bit of snow higher up during the recent Dauphine, but it should all be long gone now.

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The 20 kilometre descent to Bourg St. Maurice is occasional technical. Ask Johan Bruyneel (1996 TdF):

My wife skillfully re-enacting his crash:

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Finally, the peloton will climb to Tignes a huge ski station connected to Val d'Isère. It's the 5th toughest climb in the Tour mainly because of its 21 kilometre length. But it's not that steep averaging 5.6%. But it's a tough finish to a very long, beautiful stage. This will be only the third appearance of Tignes in the Tour. 2007 (Rasmussen), and 2019 when the stage was stopped due to a landslide on the descent of Col de l'Iseran.


The final stretch to the village of Tignes is in view on the far side of Lac/Dam du Chevril.

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There is a smaller lake at Tignes itself:


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For the Cyclo-tourists:

The start of the climb to Tignes is also the start of the road to Col d'Iseran, the highest paved mountain pass in Europe. It's only 48 kilometres up from Bourg St. Maurice. The final 20 kilometres stretch to Iseran that starts a few kilometres from Tignes is magnificent. If you hurry, it's bike-only day on both sides of Iseran on Sunday June 27th!

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Stage 11: The Alps

"J’ai fait aujourd’hui l’ascension de la plus haute montagne de cette contrée que l’on nomme avec raison le Ventoux, guidé uniquement par le désir de voir la hauteur extraordinaire du lieu."

"Today I climbed the highest mountain in the region that is correctly named Ventoux, guided only by the desire to see the extraordinary heights of this place."

1336 – The Italian Poet Francesco Petrarca

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The Mont Ventoux stage! Ventoux is geologically part of the Alps, but stands on its own in Provence. I find it one of the more unique mountains with its lunar-like upper slopes.

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This will be Mont Ventoux's seventeenth Tour appearance, the first in 1958. Its last appearance was 2016 when Chris Froome decided to run up the giant of Provence.

There are three paved routes to the summit of Ventoux. This stage will visit all three. They will climb the easiest side from Sault and the most famous side from Bédoin (they meet at Chalet Reynard and share the final six lunar kilometres to the summit). The stage will also descend the 3rd side down to Maulacène twice. This is a fearsome descent of equal difficulty as the Bédoin side.


The Sault side is longer but far easier than the Bédoin side. It also starts several hundred metres higher. Strangely, the official Tour graphics says it is 21.4 kms long. It is in fact several kilometres longer:

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The final climb, profiled below is listed by the Tour as only 15 kilometres in length, but I've included all 21 kilometres in the difficulty rating.

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The first road to the summit was opened in 1885. The first timed ascent by bicycle took 2 hours 29 minutes (1908).

"L’ascension du Mont-Ventoux demande 7 heures en voiture, 6 heures à pied, et 3.5 heures pour un cycliste entraîné." The ascension of Mont Ventoux requires 7 hours by car, 6 hours by foot, and 3.5 hours for a trained cyclist.

1902 Post Card written by Adrien Benoît

I once wrote a detailed post on Mont Ventoux with Tour history as well as non-cycling fun facts. See here.

So the riders will climb the 6 kilometres from Chalet Reynard to the summit twice. It is one of the windiest places on earth. In 1967 wind speeds of 313 km/h were recorded. Near the summit they will pass Col des Tempêtes (Storm Pass). I once got off my bike here and walked instead of descending as the wind was terrifying coming over the pass (far left hairpin in photo looking down from summit).

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I've included the Maulacène profile below as they'll be descending it twice. The best descenders may be winning this stage.

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For the Cyclo-tourists:

The Club des Cinglés (Loons) du Ventoux is well known. To become a member is simple: Climb at least three paved sides of Mont Ventoux in a single day. The website lists a 4th forest option that includes much of the Bédoin route. Your author is a member - details.

Note: there is a brilliant gravel route that starts all the way down in Bédoin not discussed on their website that joins their forest route up high and avoids duplicating the paved route lower down. See here.

The Tom Simpson memorial is a couple of kms below the summit on the Bédoin side.

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Just above the Simpson memorial is another sad monument. Pierre Kraemer was a well-liked amateur long-distance adventure cyclist. He was diagnosed with cancer and in 1983 rode up Ventoux and got off his bike near the summit and froze to death in the snow.

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Stage 15: The Pyrénées (Andorra)

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I have some good news for everyone! This section will be short as I don't know these climbs. You can see on the bottom of the profile that the last 50 kilometres will leave France for Andorra. While only the 14th toughest climb in the race, Port d'Envalira is the highest point in the 2021 Tour. Thus the first rider to reach its summit will win the Souvenir Henri Desgrange prize.

This will be the tenth Tour appearance for Port d'Envalira (first in 1964). It's most recent appearance was in 2016 with Rui Alberto Costa the first to the summit.

Why don't I allow someone in the comments give their views on this stage. Thanks!

Stage 17: The Pyrénées

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A mountain-top finish at Col de Portet. Wow. At 2215 metres it's a 100 metres higher than it's more famous neighbour Col du Tourmalet. Note, it is Col de Portet not Col du Portet as misspelled in the official Tour profile and thus my difficulty charts. Sorry.

The first climb of the stage is Col de Peyresourde. The 9th toughest climb in this Tour is the ultimate through-col. In the Tour something like 70 (!!) times including seventeen times this century. And I don't think it's every had a summit finish.

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Col de Val Louron-Azet is a marketing creation. It's Col d'Azet but leads to the Val Louron ski station so they changed its name. It's an excellent cow col.

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Col de Portet (2215 metres) is a huge climb, the second most difficult in the 2021 Tour. It's basically an extension of the road to Pla d'Adet (1680 metres). Pla d'Adet ski station appeared as a mountain-top finish in the Tour twelve times from 1974. In 1982 there were plans to build a road to Col de Portet and include it in the Tour. But it wasn't until 2018 that it was finally paved and appeared in the Tour. Stage 17 won by Nairo Quintana.

The first part of the climb from the valley floor is basically one giant hairpin:

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But it gets far more interesting above Pla d'Adet with lots of fun hairpins. Note, when I visited in 2012, Col de Portet was still gravel, but good gravel.

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There is a monument to Raymond Poulidor at the start of the climb. He won the first ever stage at Pla d'Adet in 1974.

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For the Cyclo-tourists:

When I visited, I went over the top of Col de Portet on an unpaved link to the Route des Lacs. But you can also visit via a paved route from near the base of the climb. For me, Lac Cap de Long and the Route des Lacs is easily the most beautiful climb in the Pyrenées - and also higher than Tourmalet. It's never appeared in the Tour due to its protected status. Details here.

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Stage 18: The Pyrénées

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Another beautiful, challenging mountain-top finish stage. Tourmalet has been in the Tour over 80 times! This year they are climbing the east side of Tourmalet, so the Eugène Christophe forge story will be told by the commentators at the start of the climb. Drink!

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From a cyclo-tourist point-of-view this is the less beautiful side of Tourmalet as it climbs through the La Mongie ski station but it is still superb.

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The Souvenir Henri Desgranges is given to the highest point in the Tour, usually this is the Alps. This year it's Port d'Envalira in the Pyrénées. I thought the Souvenir Jacques Goddet was awarded to the highest point in the Pyrénées. This is almost always Tourmalet. The official profile above says Tourmalet is the Souvenir Jacques Goddet, which is bizarre as it's the 3rd highest in this Tour (Col de Portet is second).

But, there is a bust of Monsieur Goddet at the summit of Tourmalet which could explain the decision.

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The Mountain top finish at the ski station Luz Ardiden is hairpin heaven. This will be its ninth Tour appearance (first in 1985). Its most recent appearance was 2011 in a stage won by Samuel Sanchez.

This will be fun to see the helicopter shot. Here's the view from the summit. Drool.

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For the Cyclo-tourists:

At the summit of Tourmalet you will find loads of cyclists congratulating themselves, taking photos, having a beer, and of course getting ready for the descent. The fools. Exactly at the summit is a gravel road that heads much higher all the way to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre observatory above 2800 metres. One of the most fun rides you'll ever do. Details here.

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Another fun cyclo-tourist idea that I have never done: Early June every year Le Géant (giant) du Tourmalet statue is driven up to the summit in the back of a truck accompanied by amateur cyclists as a way to kick off the year. All welcome.

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Final Thoughts

There are only 6 mountain stages and three mountain-top finishes in this Tour. But each of these stages seems very interesting. This is the first ever Tour with the three highest climbs all in the Pyrénées and with Tourmalet being only the third highest climb in the Pyrénées. Fun.

What am I looking forward to most? Watching the Peloton descend Col du Pré down to (a fuller) Lac de Roselend and then across the dam. Damn!

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QUEEN STAGE POLL

Don't go yet. I need your help deciding which of the 6 mountain stages is the QUEEN stage.

Oops. Damn, for some reason I can no longer add polls to articles here. Sorry. So please just use the comment section to select your queen stage. Frankly, I think it's a wide open vote but probably has to be one of the mountain-top finish stages.