Pra-Loup has only been used twice in the Tour de France. It is the the climb that defeated Eddy Merckx and on the route of the Tour de France and Dauphiné for 2015. Is it enough to make anyone nervous?
The Route: the profile above shows the road from Barcelonnette but the climb really starts from Uvernet-Fours where it’s 6km at 7% including a tough middle section. It’s all signposted, look for Molanès and Pra-Loup.
The Feel: if this is the mountain that defeated Eddy Merckx it’s hard to start the climb without trepidation about what’s about to come. If this undid Merckx, what if it’s the equivalent of a knockout blow to Ali? Even the name invokes something foreboding as loup is French for wolf. Perhaps they should be playing some Wagnerian theme or Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain or at least there’d be an archway over the road to announcing what’s coming like the “welcome to hell” sign on the Zoncolan?
But there’s nothing. It’s all so ordinary. The road begins at a banal junction. It is wide and so are its hairpins, you can get out of the saddle and take the inside line without much fear of stalling, the only worry is the traffic coming in the other direction.
The steepest part comes before the Pra-Loup 1500 village, ambitiously named given it sits at 1,400m above sea level. There’s a clue here because if the municipality is complicit in the real estate promotion then the whole road serves to ferry people to the ski resort so they can buy a ski pass or even an apartment. Don’t stop in Pra-Loup 1500 as this is only a staging point along the way, keep going to Pra Loup 1600. The higher you go the better the views get, the large Ubaye valley below is impressive.
In the end it’s a good climb but nothing special, a dead end road to a mid-size ski resort in an area surrounded by more scenic and challenging ascensions. The junction at the foot of the climb is the road for the Col d’Allos, a gem of a road. If you were to visit the area Pra-Loup’s the sort you’d do on arrival in the evening to spin the legs before a big ride the next day. There’s little trace of Merckx or Thévenet and it’s a lesson that anyone can crack anywhere. As you ride back down remember to eat and drink.
History: the 1975 Tour de France is better remembered for two reasons, Eddy Merckx losing to Bernard Thévenet and the introduction of the Champs Elysées finishing circuit for the final stage to Paris. But it featured other novelties such as the introduction of the polka-dot jersey and the first transfer by air. Another was the use of Pra-Loup as a stage finish. Used only once again in 1980 the name is synonymous with the defeat of Merckx.
In 1975 Merckx, in the yellow jersey, dropped his rivals on the Col d’Allos with a late attack and after a fast descent he reached the foot of the climb to Pra-Loup a minute ahead of his rivals. It looked like another feast for The Cannibal but it turns out he was the dish of the day. First Felice Gimondi went by and then Thévenet rode past, eventually putting three minutes into him. Thévenet won again the next day and took the Tour de France. To this day Thévenet is not just a former Tour de France winner but Le Tombeur de Merckx, The Man Who Brought Down Merckx and it happened on Pra-Loup.
Or did it? Merckx was suffering from a punch to the kidneys from an angry “fan” on the Puy-de-Dôme and so he was wounded and his late attack on the Allos could be seen as a defence rather than aggression, to take time on the descent because Thévenet was climbing better that year. The Allos descent is very tricky; that year the Bianchi team car went into a ravine.
Thévenet later admitted to cortisone abuse. A scandal? I’m not so sure, its use was rife and perhaps this says more about Thévenet’s honesty? That’s thinking aloud but he’s always seemed open and approachable, an ordinary man who won the Tour de France rather than someone pretending to be better than Merckx. He was born in a village called Le Guidon which translates as “The Handlebar”. Talk about destiny.
Tour Prediction: who knows what will happen in July? One thing is predictable: you’ll be sick of the Thévenet/Merckx story by then.
Name: pra is an old word for a field or a clearing and loup means wolf. Wolf Field? There are wolves around but the loup term apparently is just the name of an old village. This doesn’t stop the ski resort using a wolverine logo.
Travel and access: it’ll take you a while to reach this place. Nice is the closest airport and Gap is the nearest railway station. Barcelonnette sits in the valley below and makes for a good base for a week with several climbs available in all directions. But this isn’t for beginners as rides have to take him some of Europe’s highest mountain passes including the Bonette-Restefond.
You might think of a visit to Pra Loup for the Tour de France but you’d stay for the riding. The local tourist office has plenty for cyclists with the Col d’Allos reserved for cyclists only on Friday mornings and you can get a certificate to stamp for climbing all the seven cols in the area. The best ride of all is the circular loop of the Col de Cayolle (2,326m) , the Col des Champs (2,045m) and the Col d’Allos (2,250m) which takes you from the foot of Pra-Loup in a 115km loop that’s so good it’s worth doing clockwise and then repeating anti-clockwise for the views.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads