As the seventh part of a series to explore the famous roads of cycling, here is the Col de la République in the France’s Massif Central. The idea is to discover the road and its place in the world, whether as part of cycling’s history or to look at the route on a day without racing and it is open to all.
The République has a grand name, as if it is the pass of the entire French republic but in fact its origins are more bizarre. Also known as the Grand Bois, it lacks altitude but when it comes to cycling it’s arguably one of the most influential roads in France. It was the first ever high altitude col to be used by the Tour de France in 1903 and is the spiritual home of Paul de Vivie, the man who invented the word cyclotourisme and whose seven commandments of cycling still form the basis of any pre-race team briefing.
The D1082 leaves the city of St Etienne to climb straight up to the top. It is 17.8km long at 3.8% and rises to 1161 metres.
Don’t be fooled by the D1082 name. France has categories for roads and D means départmentale and normally a quiet road. But look on the Michelin map and this is a red road, a transport artery. This is a main road. It’s fine but if you went with a friend you would not be chatting side-by-side because of the traffic.
The start is notable. The road has been redesigned with a large roundabout called the Rondpoint Velocio that is decorated with steel tubing in the shape of a bicycle. Just off to the side is the Paris-Nice, a modest café on the Rue Paul de Vivie. Remember these names.
Start climbing and you rise above St Etienne’s industrial legacy. This was once the cradle of the French cycling industry with many top names in the sport. Today only a few live on like Stronglight and Zéfal and the wider decline is noticeable as you pass dilapidated factories. Not all the activity’s gone as trucks rumble past, the gradient already testing their engines as black soot pours out.
The road is marked to provide space on the side for the cyclist but this is more a tarmac verge that a cycle path. It’s a steady climb up if there was a race the bunch would be together and the sprinters would be fine but the solo rider can flounder. It’s the most rewarding ascension for the challenge or the view but as you’ll see below it is a special place.
Tour de France
The was the first col used in the Tour de France when the race crossed on 5 July 1903. The feat is commemorated with a sign at the top. It’s not the toughest climb but still worth noting.
The race returned in 1904. Things were quiet different in those days and the race tackled the climb in the dark and often with large time gaps between the riders. But there were already fervent supporters and a crowd of 200 were waiting on the col to cheer on Antonin Fauré, a local rider. They must have been delighted to see Fauré lead the race. But things went sour as the others approached. First the Italian rider Gerbi was pushed off his bike and got a broken finger after he was beaten. Then the crowd surrounded defending champion Maurice Garin and chants of “kill him” went out. Here’s French writer Pierre Chany:
A bunch of fanatics wielded sticks and shouted insults, setting on the other riders: Maurice and César Garin got a succession of blows, the older brother [Maurice] was hit in the face with a stone. Soon there was general mayhem: “Up with Faure! Down with Garin! Kill them!” they were shouting. Finally cars arrived and the riders could get going thanks to pistol shots. The aggressors disappeared into the night
The race did not return until 1950 and the col has been passed 11 times in total with the last passage in 1997.
Velocio, Le Cyclotourisme and the Seven Commandments of Cycling
There’s a sign to celebrate the Tour de France at the top but the show is stolen by the memorial to Paul de Vivie, the man often known as Velocio. Remember the Col starts in St Etienne just by the Rondpoint Velocio and the Rue Paul de Vivie and the entire 18km climb is a tribute to him.
Who was he? Well take your pick. He’s up there with Tulio Campagnolo and John Dunlop when it comes to bicycle design. He was a sports scientist with ideas on nutrition well ahead of his time. And he invented the word cyclotourisme or cycle-touring. He ran Le Cycliste. He convinced local industrialists to abandon weapons manufacture for bicycle production.
First the gears. Velocio is credited with the invention of the derailleur but this a myth. Others had invented this and Velocio experimented with different ideas like two chains before he got hold of a British example called The Whippet and spent time perfecting it on these roads but this was a select technology that was reserved for pure enthusiasts rather than the wider public, like a electronic shifting today. Velocio’s riding pal Joanny Panel took things a step further and produced a bike with derailleur called Le Chemineau (the vagabond) and arguably the first bike that allowed people to tame mountain roads. Perhaps the proximity to these hills and also the booming cycle industry in St Etienne and nearby Lyon meant the ideas took off.
Velocio lobbied hard for the derailleur but it was banned in the Tour de France. He reasoned that gearing would assist the riders and put his Le Cycliste magazine to work to help run the Polymultipliée race. Poly and multiplied as in many gears and the race was run over a hilly course designed to show riders with multiple gears would beat those on a single gear.
He also wrote seven commandments:
- Stop rarely and briefly, so as not to lose your rhythm
- Eat little and often and eat before you are hungry, drink before you’re thirsty
- Never push yourself into such fatigue that you lose appetite and cannot fall asleep
- Wrap up before you get cold, undo layers before you get hot and do not fear exposing the skin to the sun, air and water
- Cross out, at least when riding, wine meat and tobacco from your diet
- Never force the pace, ride within your means, especially during the first few hours when you’re tempted to ride hard because you feel full of energy
- Never ride for show or vanity
It all makes perfect sense whether you’re training, touring or racing.
It’s also called the Col du Grand Bois, remember this for the next cycling quiz. Grand Bois means “big woodland” and is the obvious name for the forested flanks of the Mont Pilat hills. The name has been used for many years but has changed with République being more commonly used on maps and signs.
The République label is not a grand celebration of France’s political settlement. France had created its republic in the 1789 revolution but a Jesuit sect didn’t want to be part of this and, in a village along the road, they tried to to start The Republic of Jesus Christ in 1794. But whilst the faithful waited for the Prophet Elijah, the police appeared and cleared the area.
The city of Lyon with its airport and high speed rail links is not far away and the city of St Etienne is just at the foot f the climb. St Etienne is ok but an industrial sort of place, it’s not a prime pick on the tourist route. But it’s small and a few turns of the cranks sees you in the hills for the day with a big choice of rides nearby.
I knew the road but in writing the piece I’ve learned a lot more. This road deserves a lot more fame and not just because it was the first col used by the Tour de France but also as a celebration of Paul de Vivie, a hero of French cycling who is known but rarely celebrated.
Having celebrated the “inventor” of the derailleur this week, time to think of another great invention in cycling, the quick-release skewer its genesis on the fine climb of the Croce d’Aune in Italy
Part I – Alpe d’Huez
Part II – The Ghisallo
Part III – Mont Ventoux
Part IV – Col de la Madone
Part V – Col du Soulor
Part VI – Passo Dello Stelvio
Part VII – Mont Aigoual
Part VIII – Col de la République
Part IX – Croce d’Aune
Part X – Strade Bianche
Part XI – Col d’Eze
Part XII – The Poggio
Part XIII – Arenberg Cobbles
Part XIV – Col du Tourmalet
Part XV – Côte de La Redoute
Main photo thanks to Fantomette A Vélo