The Puy de Dôme is an extinct volcano in central France with a road that winds around the cone to the top. It’s been the scene of one of the greatest duels in the Tour de France.
It has become a road that belongs to the past because the construction of a railway line to ferry tourists to the top has meant the road is now closed. Or is it?
Start in Clermont-Ferrand and take the D941-Avenue du Puy de Dôme out of town. The road rises straight out of town, climbing past shops and housing at first before leaving the urban confines with a series of wide hairpin bends. When the road straightens out at La Baraque keep going past the traffic lights and then at the Font de L’Arbre, turn right for the Puy de Dôme.
From here you take matters into your own hands as the climb proper of the Puy de Dôme volcano cone starts. There’s a car park… and a gate with warning signs. Cyclists are not allowed to use the road but it seems to be tolerated or maybe just ignored if you go at the crack of dawn before the railway starts operating. From here it is about 4.5km at a steady 12%.
The city of Clermont-Ferrand has all the homogeneous features of French cities with chains of shops, shaded boulevards and Haussmannian architecture but there’s a difference: the black buildings like the cathedral which, despite the city’s industrial heritage, are not soot-stained but instead made from the local volcanic rock. That’s why you’re here and the volcano itself, the Puy de Dôme, sits high above the town. Its lacks the grace of Mount Fuji or the menace of Vesuvius, but looms above the city like a part of the city’s industrial past, as if the giant chimney of some redundant factory.
Riding out of town is not pretty, passing blocks of housing on a busy road where drivers, keen to preserve momentum on the slope, itch to pass the cyclist who blocks their way. Archive video shows the Tour climbing past Chamalières on the wide road but on a normal day it’s packed with fast traffic rather than spectators. There are some hairpin bends but you can’t choose your line because the cars are coming past at speed. If you want a breather there’s a lookout on one corner with impressive views of the city below, you’ll see just how far you’ve climbed. The road levels out through Orcines and then it’s on to the turning for the volcano itself. A car park, a barrier and then the road to the top awaits. Sure it’s famous but not viciously steep – as Poulidor recounts below he just got his gearing wrong – but it is a consistent gradient of 12% with fine views of the world below as the road circles the conical peak. Unlike other cols, this is not a pass to another valley but a road to the top and so you must return back the way you came, at least until Orcines where where you can take a variety of other routes.
The French tire company has its corporate headquarters in Clermont and retains some manufacturing. The world’s leading tire company as measured by sales, it’s one of France’s most successful businesses and was started by the Michelin brothers who turned their rubber factory into a bicycle tire plant. The company grew fast thanks to insatiable industrial demand for rubber and played its part in fermenting the Vietnam war as the French colony was notorious for slave-like working conditions on the rubber plantations, provoking resent and unrest. The company rode the motoring boom with its tires, but also what we’d call “content” today: its famous maps and travel guides, all accompanied by the famous “Bibendum” rubber man character which encouraged people to travel. Michelin maps, paper or online, remain excellent ways to survey the terrain in France.
The road to the top has been closed to cyclists for some time. In the past visiting tourists would assemble in the car park and then a large coach would ferry them up and down, the vehicle could be seen from afar as it spiralled up the cone, its windows reflecting the sunshine.
Now a railway has built, a special mountain train to tackle the slope. It was feared the railway would replace the road completely but fortunately half the road remains, it’s for access in case the train breaks down, and also allows an ambulance reach the peak in an emergency.
The road is well-surfaced and perfectly ridable but closed because it is reserved for the emergency services. For example if a cyclist were to crash halfway up while simultaneously a tourist was having a heart attack at the top then the ambulance would be blocked by the fallen rider. This might seem excessive but it’s the explanation that is given. It’s sad because this could be a draw for cyclists, the tourist train station sells cycling jerseys. It would be unconventional but they could even sell tickets for cyclists to ride up, €5 a go as a way of limiting the traffic.
If you’re not supposed to ride the answer is to do it very early. Go at dawn in the summer and hopefully nobody will notice.
The History, The Story
What makes this place so special? Well the view is good but this climb saw one of the sport’s best duels.
12 July 1964 sees the rivalry between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor hit a new high as the Tour de France is drawing to a close. With two stages to go Anquetil leads by 56 seconds which sounds close today but then it was almost microscopic. And Anquetil is t-i-r-e-d, he’s done the Giro and the third week of the Tour is getting to him. Poulidor’s had setbacks but has overcome them. This should be the moment for Poulidor to strike back. But the slope would get the better of the Poulidor, the “eternal second”.
“I lied to Antonin Magne. He’d asked me to go and check out the Puy de Dôme. I had 42×24, too big. At the stage start in Brive, when he saw Bahamontes had fitted a 25 tooth sprocket, he asked if I’d been to see the climb, yes or no. I didn’t dare tell him the truth. But in those days we had such small salaries and three days before the Tour we rode criteriums.”
Raymond Poulidor, L’Equipe 8 July 2013
Poulidor was supposed to recon the climb but opted to pocket some cash from a criterium instead. Did the gearing cost Poulidor the race? That’s one of history’s impossible questions. Poulidor managed to put 42 seconds into Anquetil on the Puy de Dôme but he lost time in the final stage of the race, a time trial from Versailles to Paris. In fact had Poulidor taken twice as much time he still would have lost the race to Anquetil given the TT result… although Anquetil later said he was so tired that he would have gone home had he lost the jersey that day although this is typical of his flamboyant talk and you sense if he was ten seconds down he’d have liked nothing more than to school Poulidor in the final time trial.
On the day Anquetil lived up to his crafty image and was bluffing on the day, half-wheeling Poulidor in an attempt to imply “anything you can do, I can do too” and deter attacks. In fact Anquetil was struggling and probably could not have matched an earlier attack but in riding alongside Poulidor he fooled him and helped provide one of the sport’s most iconic images. Almost forgotten is the fact Julio Jiminez won the stage.
If the photo had not been taken then the legend would never have existed
Raphaël Géminiani, L’Equipe 8 July 2013
Géminiani raises an interesting question. Without the photo this could have been just another one of Poulidor’s defeats, this time because he was too busy collecting a criterium fee to visit the climb? But the duel, the photo and the TV commentary helped make this moment more special and today the Puy de Dôme’s notoriety lives on largely thanks to this moment rather than any of the other 12 times the Tour visited. Thanks to the railway the Tour might never come back, logistically a mountain time trial is possible but only by banning spectators so this seems an improbable prospect. As such the Puy de Dôme now remains fossilised in cycling’s past, its myth larger than reality and an inaccessible dream. Unless you get up early.
Travel and Access
Clermont-Ferrand sits in the middle of France only its central location doesn’t mean it is well-connected. There’s no international airport. Instead there’s a slow train from Paris and rail connections in other directions are even worse. Road access to Paris and Lyon is better. But this difficulty means it’s a rewarding place to visit for cycling with many scenic roads in the national park. It’s one of France’s least densely populated areas and, like the Pyrenees, to visit sometimes feels like going back 40 years. Old farmers in blue overalls work smallholdings, ancient vans criss-cross the roads and le wifi has yet to enter the vocabulary, let alone a local café.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads