Roads to Ride: Pra Loup

Thevenet Merckx Pra Loup 1975 Tour de France

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?

Pra Loup

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.

Bernard Thévenet

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

28 thoughts on “Roads to Ride: Pra Loup”

  1. Interesting, thanks for the post. And how odd to see them (the riders) weaving and bobbing like this!
    Oh, btw: the tv commentary was just appalling, they thought Gimondi (light blue) was Merckx (in yellow no less), then when it becomes obvious this is not the case, they say they had known all along, but couldn’t believe it… Makes Phil and Paul look brilliant…

    • “…Makes Phil and Paul look brilliant…”

      That takes some time and doing.

      Granted back in ’75 tv graphics and race radio were not as good or as accurate as they are today, so that makes Paul and Phil even less brilliant.

      Didn’t know until now that The Cannibal suffered a fans indignity with a punch to the kidney. That he finished at all is a testament to him more so than to Thevenet being able to out climb him.

  2. “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.”

    Better do it counter-clockwise first, ascending the Col de Champs from its western side (Colmars). You can then decide if you really want to descend this side on your road bike which you have to do if you do the loop clockwise. It’s kinda steep and in a really bad state, you have to be a confident descender in order to go down with considerable speed, albeit it will still be not too enjoyable.

    Apart from that it’s really a brilliant loop, definitely some “roads to ride”.

    • Good advice. If the Tour passes over here then they’ll re-do the road. It’s one thing that the route gets leaked in advance but often we don’t know the route until the presentation next week… or even in May for the full route publication.

    • In terms of getting to the area, there’s a rickety old train line up the Var valley from Nice. Get off at Entrevaux or Annot and head up in the direction of Colmar and Allos. Pra Loup is on the other, northern, side.

      Not that Nice is cheap either…

  3. Thank you. I was already thinking of those very clockwise trips for my next holiday (+ Bonette and Lombarde). The only reservation is how expensive the area seems to be, especially for a pretty remote location.
    On Thévenet and stuff, watching the video and picture, it’s true that climbing styles (and bodies) seem to differ a lot from your Froome, Contador or Nibali. Less cadence, and (I think) a lot more power coming from lumbar muscles. I think it’s more spectacular, and I’m not so sure I understand why this pedalling should be less efficient, if you are mobilizing muscles that Froome doesn’t seem to use (or have). Someone correct me if my perception is wrong or I’m saying something stupid.

    • I think it’s more inefficient but stems partly from the lack of gearing, they only had 6 speed free wheels at the back, typically 13,14,15, 17, 19, 23. Now riders have changed their style to sit still and pedal in a more controlled manner. But you can still see the likes of retiree C-A Sorensen or Dan Martin chopping away.

  4. And, by the way, if Le Tour returns to Pra-Loup, it goes without saying that we will expect that the 3 main favourites arrive at its foot completely cooked, with many seconds between them, and without a domestique in sight.

  5. I was told by a bar owner/cyclist in Barcelonnette that Pra Loup would be in the 2015 tour. It’s really nothing special, other than the Merckx history, but worth a ride.

  6. Yet another marvellous accompaniment to morning porridge and coffee.

    The first sentence in the first paragraph of ‘The Feel’ ends abruptly, and I can’t help thinking it’s missing a few words.

    I was lucky to get one of the first batch of caps. You might enjoy knowing that the first time I wore it, a guy I don’t know well told me he’d missed out. Wellington, New Zealand isn’t a huge city, but still large enough that two inrng fans randomly meeting brought a smile to my face!

    • I think the climb almost ends abruptly. It’s hardly over before you know it but as the graveyard of Merckx’s Tour de France run there’s not much more to it, it’s a short access road compared to the big climbs in the area.

  7. Great write-up and video. Thanks. For others interested in etymology, “prato” is Italian for field or meadow and, especially in dialect, is routinely shortened to “pra.” (I see that Pra Loup is within spitting distance of the Italian border.) The Latin version is “pratum” and accounts for “prado” in Spanish, “pre” in French and – eventually – “prairie” in both French and English. Or so I understand.

  8. The allos, champs, cayolle loop ( in that order) is a gem of a ride, very quiet, in around 120ks I saw no more than 10 cars & not many more cyclists. This ride was very near my favourite during a month of cycling in July 2013.

        • I don’t have much near Gap on my site, but a couple of ideas:

          High on my “will-do-soon” list is Mont Colombis, Supposed to be steep, quiet, and fun.

          Also near Gap is the harder side of Col du Parpaillon, formerly the highest road in France (top half not paved) …. amazing road – tough climb.

          Separately, just to agree with many commenters here: the Cayolle-Champs-Allos loop is amazing – must be one of the very top Alps loops (is included in the 2nd Friebe book). Almost entirely on quiet roads. SO beautiful. I’d suggest that Counter.clock-wise is best. Gives the best side of Allos, and importantly, can climb the lousy surfaced side of Champs and descend the well-surfaced side (unless it’ been recently fixed).

    • Hills? Gap is in the Département Hautes-Alpes, so what about some serious mountain climbing?

      Visiting Gap and not riding the Col du Noyer – Lac du Sautet loop has to be considered a big missed opportunity. You can avoid riding on the N85 besides a few kms if you choose the alternative roads which run west and east of that national road.

  9. Remember doing the Allos – Champs – Cayolle loup, sorry loop, about twenty years ago, when the Col de Champs was still not much above gravel in places and 39×24 was considered a low gear for climbing! The Cayolle is one of the great unknown roads in the Alps, especially the north side (though both are worth climbing).

    While in the area, a day south has the Gorges du Daluis – Gorges du Cians – Valberg loop which is another scenic gem.


  10. Brings back fond memories of a day in September 2007 when I stayed in the area : Barcelonnette up the Col de Bonette, down the valley from St Etienne and overshot the turn – fortunately, as I was able to fill my bottles at the fountain on the edge of St Sauveur – then up the Cayolle.
    It was a seriously, seriously hot day and I wet the Buff I was wearing to protect my neck from the sun and wore it on my head rather than a helmet; went past some workmen who were digging a hole in the road and they all downed tools and clapped, shouted ‘Allez!’ as I rode past – brilliant !

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