Last years Tour de France commemorated its first crossing of the Pyrenees with four stages in the mountain region and less difficult stages in the Alps but this years is very much focused on the Alps as it celebrates its own centennial. In week three, riders will tackle the Col du Galibier twice, marking 100 years since the most visited mountain pass in race history was first climbed in the Tour de France (Emile Georget was the first cyclist to top the climb). On stage 18 riders face the Tour’s highest ever stage finish on the summit of the Galibier, at an altitude of 2,645 metres with the last kilometre the steepest of all ramping up to 12% gradient. And if that wasn’t tough enough, they’ve got to go over it again the following day before culminating at the legendary Alpe d’Huez ski resort and its 21 hairpin bends on July 22. These stages could decide the overall general classification but who will prosper?
A couple of weeks ago I went out to France with Breathe Bike (voted the 3rd best place to ride in France by 220 magazine) for a long weekends riding in the Alps to tackle some of the classic climbs of the Tour de France. With the car loaded up we set off early Wednesday morning and arrived at Chalet Annabelle in Les Houches some 600 miles and 11 hours later, sitting down to a 3 course home cooked meal. We then ran through the next 4 days itinerary with our guide and host Mike; the plan was to finish the week with the Time Megeve Sportive on the Sunday so we decided it would be a good start recce-ing the route on Thursday with a few strategically positioned coffee breaks thrown in en route.
Starting out with 20kms on the flat before hitting the Col de la Colombiere, a technical 19.5km climb that has featured in 20 previous TdF stages, rising from 498m at Scionzier to the summit at 1618m. From here it was a swift descent down to Le Grand Barnard, through to Thones and onto the Col de la Croix Fry; a 12km climb which summits at 1467m. It was then a short descent before joining the Col de Aravis (1461m), a winding climb which has featured in a handful of Tours since the turn of the Millenium.
After an espresso at the top we were back on the bikes for another technical descent flying down to Flumet and in to Megeve where the race will finish. We took the easy way home and chucked our bikes on the van, heading back to the chalet for some rest and recuperation, optimistic about Sundays race.
The following day we parked up in Samoens and headed up the infamous Col de Joux Plane, summiting at 1700m and descending back down the other side into Morzine and then on to Le Gets for the finish of stage 5 at the Dauphine. Christophe Kern claimed the victory for Europcar who rode positively and aggressively in the days final stages. Wiggo crossed the line composed in 6th place and eventually shepherded the yellow jersey to overall victory on the Sunday atop La Toussuire. Although it may be regarded as a pre-rehearsal to the Tour, the Dauphine is one of the toughest and highest ranked races on the world calendar, and confirms the new National Road Champions pre Tour form.
Saturday was an easier day down at the beautiful Lac de Passy where we jumped in for a swim in the surprisingly mild waters and then hoped on the bikes, cruising over to the next lake along for a spot of lunch at a beachside cafe! It was a pretty lazy afternoon chilling out at the chalet with the main event ahead.
The race set off at 9am from Sallanches with some 2,000 riders en masse rushing through to Scionzier averaging 40kph with the field breaking up at the first climb. I felt strong riding over the Colombiere moving through the field up to the summit but took a tumble on the descent as my front wheel hit some gravel on the apex of a hairpin and was taken away from underneath me. Luckily after crashing down and skidding across the tarmac most of the damage was self inflicted (tarmac rash) so I was able to dust myself off and jump back on my bike with no major mechanicals. Wounded and with a damaged shifter and slightly buckled rear wheel I did weigh-up the shorter route of 80km but decided to go for the medium option (110km with 3930m of climbing). Descending a little more wearily there were no glitches over the remaining 70km as we wound up in Megeve at approximately 1pm for some lunch and a bit of first-aid. Having rode a few UK sportives this was an amazing experience unlike anything else, with French riders from UCI ProTour team Ag2r-La Mondiale featuring at the top of the results sheet! Altogether a great event to end a fantastic few days cycling amidst amazing scenery and breathtaking landscapes. It’s definitely inspiring riding in the path of Tour de France legends, with names of cycling greats chalked across the roads as you follow in their footsteps.
The Alps in the Tour
So, as the Tour reaches the Alps on Stage 16 relatively tamely finishing in Gap, 3 fateful days follow covering a total of 500km of high mountain category climbing, finishing with Fridays mountain sprint stage before the penultimate days deciding time trial into Grenoble. It’s not so much the shear gradient but the unforgiving relentlessness of the climbs in the Alps as they keep on going and ramp up in the final kilometres, forcing riders to dig deep in search of that little bit extra to carry them to glory. With a sizeable time difference between Contador and the other GC contenders already opened up it proves for an exciting and attacking Tour as he’ll have to combat the Schleck’s and LEOPARD Trek with a far weaker team if not solo.