Roads to Race

There are more than 10,400 mountain passes in France according to the Club des 100 Cols, a touring group for French cyclists. Some are not accessible on a road bike but many are and provide options for the Tour de France which tends to stick to the same roads again and again. Here are ten alternatives, some novel and some forgotten…

Cirque de Gavarnie – Col des Tentes: how many times has the Tour ridden straight past this road? Every time the race passes through Luz St Sauveur for the Tourmalet or Luz Ardiden it passes the turning for this valley. It’s not famous for cycling but is known for its beauty and since there’s no ski station to foot the bill perhaps it’s been left off. Maybe it’s for preservation, seemingly like much of France it has UNESCO heritage status. Daniel Friebe recounts in Mountain High a file codenamed “Gavarnie” apparently sits in an ASO office but local objections to a theatre festival and the environmental damage it incites would be insignificant compared to the Tour de France, the shiny comet of July leaves a trail of debris and litter in its wake. But all the more reason to visit to show the Tour can itself be as clean as it wants the riders to be. A clean-up might be expensive but cheap compared to the sumptuous television images and after a dragging valley road there’s a fierce climb with 10km at around 8% to ensure sport too.

L’Hospice de France: The spa town of Bagnères-de-Luchon in the Pyrenees has been a Tour regular since 1910 and sometimes they’ve used the Superbagnères ski resort which, as the name suggests, sits above the town. But there’s another road leading to the Hospice de France, a small hostel high in the mountains near the Spanish border. Once a crossing point, today a draw for hikers and tourists. The attraction for the Tour de France is the wild gradient. 11km at 6.5% sounds fine but the last 4km sees the slope go beyond 12%. It’s one of those climbs that resembles a fishing tale where each time the catch increases in size, reports say 12%, others 14%, some 18% and there’s even talk of 22% when the prestigious Ronde de l’Isard U23 stage race visited, proof that a race can go here.

Col du Mantet: 14.8km at 7.3%, this is a long climb with the best saved for last, a long sections at a selective 10%. It’s in the Pyrénées-Orientales department, often forgotten by the Tour de France by rewarding for cyclist because it’s blessed with good weather. Think Pyrenees and you’ll conjure images of lush valleys but the Catalan Pyrenees are dry and this area has cactus plants and snakes basking on the empty road. It serves to highlight how the Tour tends to visit a narrow section of the this long mountain range.

Le Mont du Chat: here’s one that’s better to race up than ride, at least if you’re on a good day. The eastern side is a very steep climb but there are few panoramas to enjoy as the road climbs through dense woodland, much like the picture above all the way up. Instead the breathtaking aspect is the gradient, 13km and most of it at a highly selective 10-11%. Only used once in the Tour de France in 1974 this deserves to feature on the race again, ideally with a stage finish nearby in Aix-les-Bains or Chambéry after a tight descent tests the riders’ skills.

Grenoble’s Bastille: Grenoble is one of the main cities in the Alps but what if a mountain stage ended with the wall-like climb to the Bastille? Normally the locals take a cable car to the top and the sport has visited before, famously in 1977 with the Dauphiné when Bernard Hinault crashed on the descent of the Col de Porte on the way down to Grenoble and then climbed off the bike on the Bastille because it was too hard before getting some choice words from his team manager and remounting. Reusing this road would allow the Tour to indulge some musteline nostalgia but also provides a thrilling finish, under 2km but 15% and more all the way up making for a very different effort to the usual Alpine formula of a long summit finish.

Col du Pré: this is one of those “secret” climbs in the Alps that get overshadowed by bigger names, this time the Cormet de Roseland. The Col du Pré (“Field Pass”) doesn’t sound exciting nor famous so it gets ignored. Only it’s the quintessential Alpine climb with switchbacks, chalets, postcard views and even a mountain lake along the way. So much for the tourism pitch, this is also a great for the Tour de France because it’s steep, over 12km long and the final 8km vary between 10-12% with hairpin bends so tight that they force even the most sluggish rider to line up their approach while high speed racers can exploit the change of pace. As a bonus there’s the nearby Signal de Bisanne, labelled on roadsigns as mythique but who has heard of it? It is challenging and climbs parallel to the more regularly used Col de Saisies, a harder alternative that’s crying out to be used.

Col de la Lusette: there’s more than the Alpes and Pyrenees and the Tour does visit other mountain ranges like the Vosges, Jura and Massif Central. The Lusette is in the Cevennes and the sister to Mont Aigoual, scene of Tim Krabbé’s semi-biographical race novel The Rider. Near to the scenic Tarn valley gorge and little else this offers hard climbing with a slope that’s constantly varying with 12% sections. Ideal to place midway in a transition stage and combine with Mont Aigoual for a genuine mountain stage that’s not in the Alps or Pyrenees.

Col de Turini: Antoine Blondin once quipped that for 11 months of the year General de Gaulle presided over France but in July it was Jacques Goddet, the Tour boss, who took over. Yet this presidential seal doesn’t allow the race to reach all parts of France. On his retirement as race director in 2013 Jean-François Pescheux mentioned two regrets: first the proliferation of street furniture that has put many large French cities off limits for stage finishes and the race’s inability to reach France’s south-eastern corner, the Alpes-Martimes. The theory goes that if the race visits the roads are closed and traffic arteries are closed, jamming the Côte d’Azur which is packed in July in a way that it isn’t in March when Paris-Nice visits. The Turini is a fine climb, better know for motor racing but it and other roads often bring dynamic racing to the finale of Paris-Nice, this is ambush countries where teams can be taken apart on the scenic climbs and sinuous descents. Better still it makes for a television director’s dream with stunning vistas. ASO also have a new three day gran fondo event in the area called Explore Nice is this would be an ideal way to put these roads in the spotlight.


Col d’Herbouilly: “discovered” by accident when on a recon of the Dauphiné stage this year only to find the stunning Gorge de la Bourne closed for repairs prompting a long detour via this pass. It has the merit of being a high pass on the Vercors plateau rather than being an access road that climbs up to the plateau so it offers extra elevation: climb up to the plateau then climb this pass. It’s 15km at 6.5% which sounds steady but the rasping road surface is as rough as a cat’s tongue and makes the work just that bit harder. The Vercors plateau seems to bring great racing, this year’s stage to Villard de Lans was no exception and the venue was a regular in the 1980s with some fine racing. Is the Tour going back?

Moneytime: many of these climbs are remote and isolated so who would pay for the Tour to visit? The answer is you and me. A lack of money from the host town or region and reduced crowds could be largely compensated by the scenery and the tactical novelty of new roads that confound the riders on a voyage of discovery and millions would tune in to see the drama.

Conclusion: out of 10,400 or more cols the ten ideas above feels like nothing but it’s for illustration. It’s not for the Tour race director to read this, merely to point out that there are so many more climbs that could be testing and visually appealing alike yet they’re not the radar. Some have featured in the Tour de France once or twice but others are almost unknown, proof of the Tour de France’s hold on the cyclist’s psychogeography, as if a climb that has not been in the race does not exist. In the meantime they’re all their to ride for visitors.

36 thoughts on “Roads to Race”

  1. I climbed the Col du Pre the day before yesterday (after the Col de Saisies). It’s a beast, especially when it’s hot. We carried on around the lake, over the top of the Roseland and down to half way up the Iseran – stopping at Ricolaz). A tough day out! Would love to see this raced. Thankfully, camper vans are banned from the Col du Pre although some still snuck through and it made for some hairy passing moments and very blue language! I’d think the caravan might struggle to get up though?

    • That is good day out TD! I was in that area end of July and we went up Roseland the other side and therefore the Pre too, thought on the way down I’d love to give it a go the other way! Next time you’re there, you must do the complete Iseran from Bourg – 50k climbing, the last 10k really bites and that was with stopping in Valdisere for crepes!

  2. Thanks for some ideas, I love articles like this.

    The road to Col des Tentes also leads to Port de Boucharo (Spain border) – a touch higher. I think last km blocked to cars these days, but a bike can get there – highest paved road in French Pyrenées.

    Also the same road to Gavarnie forks at Gavarnie. Col des Tentes in one directions and another amazing paved road to Cirque de Troumouse. Paved to 2100 metres. Amazing and quiet:

    Mont du Chat is a great addition – so hard, so quiet, great views at summit. Once in the Tour. Merckx was dropped on it. (made it back on the descent). It’s a very good loop with Col du Chat.

    Herbouilly: Any col in the Vercors is worth a recommendation 🙂

      • Thank you so much for articles like this, and also for linking to Will’s site – I had perused his site before but I forgot about it and didn’t have it bookmarked! Essential reading/planning guide to what will hopefully be a visit to France for mountain cycling soon.

        It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize the Tour only covers a tiny number of beautiful climbs. I like how they keep a good handful in legendary and repeated status while peppering the sauce with unknowns here and there for good measure. No need to “out” these lesser-known roads to the TV world if not necessary!

    • Will, I rode the Col des Tentes last year and when I got to the top it appeared that the extension to the Port de Boucharo was not passable on a road bike. Apparently the local authorities deliberately tore up the road to help protect the environment. I guess they were not thinking about the danger from mountainbikes?.

      +1 on any col in the Vercors! Col du Mont Noir or the Gaudissart/Machine suggest themselves in particular…

  3. After spending a week in the Pyrénées-Orientales last year I have the impression it’s not just forgotten by the Tour de France but by the French in general. Beautiful region and some fantastic riding with roads contouring around valley sides up to rustic villages; just make sure to take some heavy duty tyres.

    • You can have the beach and the mountains on the same day, with wine/vineyards in between. It can be windy though. The French Federation has used Amélie les Bains as a base for training camps in recent times.

  4. Ha, good point, I think the “mythic” part to Signal de Bisanne is mainly because it is so steep. The last 2 kms especially …. just under 11%. There are maybe 8 road bike routes up to Col des Saisies and the extension to Bisanne (above Saisies) is excellent.

    Agree: Col du Pré is the great “secret” way to climb the north side of Cormet de Roselend for three reasons:

    1. It’s far more difficult/scenic than direct route
    2. You get to cycle over the dam on the way to Cormet de Roselend
    3. It has some of the best views in the Alps from above lac de Roselend:

    • I saw a rumour yesterday for next year’s Tour that predicted a stage from Morzine to La Rosiere… could be a monster stage with Joux-Plaine, Colombiere, Aravis, Saisies (from the north rather than Bisanne, sadly) and Roselend via Pre!

      But I wonder if Pre and/or Bisanne were ever used, would they restrict the crowds as per Montvernier this year?

      Your suggestion of Glieres below is also excellent, especially with the dirt track at the top!

  5. The Bastille climb would be awesome to see at the end of a stage! If anyone is in Grenoble in for the 6th of September, the annual time trial event up the Bastille is a great event to both participate in as well as watch. There are two rounds – everyone rides up in the morning, followed by lunch at the restaurant at the top, then the top 50 get to do the ride again to determine the final result. Fun times.

  6. Surely the problem for the organisers of the tour is the necessity of a large parking lot at the finish for the 100 vehicles of the press, TV, the organisers and the VIPs . Anyone who seen a stage finish knows what I mean. Hence the use of Plateau de Beille and Planche des Belle Filles. Mont Ventoux has the back road on the north west ridge that cars can descend so that team buses and trucks can remain at the large parking lot the village at the bottom and there is the ridge behind the Tom Simpson memorial for the broadcasters. I’ve cycled some of these quiet cols and while they are beautiful and quiet, there’s no way that the tour circus will fit. The tour has become too big for these small cols.

    • Space at the top is a small but relevant factor. But I think that money is a far bigger issue.

      Here’s my candidate for the best climb never in the Tour: Col des Glières.

      At the summit of Plateau des Glières there is plenty of room for a million people. It’s also historically important to the French as the site of one of the great battles between the resistance and the Nazis. There is a huge “Monument national à la Résistance” often visited by French presidents.

      The climb itself is challenging/steep and beautiful.

      But …. there is nothing at the top. Great cross-country skiing in winter, but no resort, no tax base, no-one capable of paying up. So instead nearby Le Grand Bornand or Morzine get a stage finish.

  7. I’m not sure if you really would like to see the TdF do those climbs but your text reads as if you’re serious. I for one am totally against a stage finish above the Cirque de Gavarnie to name just one example. Why?

    Because the race won’t change. The Tour has already more than enough difficult passes and mountaintop finishes to choose from in order to make the race exciting. It’s up to the racers to use those chances. If they don’t as on the Plateau de Beille this year it has nothing to do with the climb being too well-known. Contrary to your expectation if the racers don’t even know the climb like the backs of their hands why would they risk what they don’t want to risk on those climbs that they have done before numerous times?

    But the impact on the environment is giant. And not only during the race but also afterwards. Many visitors during the TdF litter, pee and … you get the picture. They simple don’t care. And if the TdF makes another climb famous it will see a lot more visitors with their cars and camping cars afterwards.

    So who will benefit? Those who watch the TdF on TV because of the beautiful pictures of the landscape? Come on, are you sure it matters whether they see the Mont Ventoux or the lakes above L’Alpe d’Huez for the umpteenth time? And even if it mattered to them who cares and who will really benefit?

    As I said I’m totally against it and glad that the ASO (or maybe even some government authories) have renounced (or forbidden) any plans to “consume” even more incredibly beautiful areas for the TdF.

    When is the last time you went up to L’Alpe d’Huez a few days after the Tour was there? If you did you know what I mean. Even on a climb like the Madeleine or Glandon you are treated to a plethora of odours which simply don’t belong there and lot’s of litter even after it has been cleaned up. And don’t get me started talking about all the stuff painted onto the road surface which becomes slick as ice when the road gets wet.

    Please let those real gems to be “discovered” by those cyclists who search for them. It’s evidently o.K. for me to have someone like the tireless Will help them with his great stories but we certainly do not need more “famous” climbs like Alpe d’Huez, Mt. Ventoux, Galibier and other must-do-climbs in France. Let the hooligans and lemmings do their pilgrimage to those few places over and over again and keep the rest for those who can really tell whether a place, climb, mountain deserves to be (more secretely) adored.

    • OK, that is an interesting comment. And I am not an expert on this but, I believe there is a pretty great organisation that spends a lot of time “cleaning” up post stage for the morons littering during the Tour- also adding garbage containers along a climb pre-stage.

      I know climbs like Ventoux/Galibier etc. fairly well, and they don’t seem “damaged” to me.

      But – I don’t disagree much with the sentiment. I prefer for the over rated Alpe d’Huez to be a an outdoor “toilet” for a few days versus more beautiful roads. And I think it’s why Gavarnie (and above) and the even better nearby Route des Lacs (Cap de Long) have never been allowed in the Tour.

  8. I’d recommend the D530 to La Berarde from Le Bourg D’Oisans. Not especially steep or selective, but one of the prettiest roads in the area.

  9. So want to see a proper short sharp Stage of the TdF in the Cevennes. The best book i’ve ever read every year on the bike. Oh Pruddy pls could we have a stage that happened too follow the mythical route of the Tour of Mont Aigoual . Crowd sourced funding anyone to get it done? It looks like its gonna work to get the Foos too Cesena!

  10. Nice Piece INRING Thanks

    Cirque de Gavarnie – Col des Tentes – after reading about this mythical Climb in the Book Mountain High I rode the climb this year, the book gives the impression that its a nice relaxing ride, well i rode it at 47 degrees and it is a tough one indeed the climb brutal as it extends into the Tentes with its poor road surface.

    The Cirque itself is legendary with the walking population being able to reach Spain through the Breche Roland and being part of the GR12 coast to coast route.

    I am not too sad that the TDF does not get to visit here, but you must visit the Cirque it is beautiful.

  11. Very nice piece, but I think importance should be given to the difference between “passing” passes and possible mountain-top finishes. The latter are overused sportwise, and difficult logistically, whereas as a pass that connects two valleys is always a useful and cheap addition to a course. Of course Glières could be employed, but not as a finish. Anywhere in the last 100km of a stage finishing in a town would be great. Am I the only one to imagine a Tour without mountain-top finishes but with many wild cols on the way?

  12. Lovely article INRNG, gets you salivating about all the beautiful climbs out there.

    I spent a few days in the Var department in France in June. The pros do visit (Tour de Haut-Var, Paris-Nice) but the tour does not. Although the climbs are not quite as steep they are just as long and couple that with very quiet roads, great road surfaces and wonderful views and weather they are perfect for the touring cyclist. As your article alludes to there are plenty of these “off-piste” areas in France to enjoy.

    I kind of echo the sentiment from STS. Let the tour do their greatest hits tour each year and leave the rest to those of us lucky enough to enjoy them.

  13. Nice article, but I dunno, you start putting all these long climbs with double-digit gradients and before long you’ll have….the Giro d’Italia. I still remember the comments of BigTex when he sampled the Mortirolo one day – and how they pretty much defanged La Corsa Rosa just for him in 2009.
    As someone who runs a tour called Legendary Climbs of the Giro d’Italia I see nothing wrong with LeTour keeping traditions alive with their own legendary climbs, most of which I’ve been lucky enough to ride back-in-the-day. Vive LeTour!

  14. I just think the Tour prefers to build up the mith on the very same climbs every year. Whether Zomegnan loved to find Gardeccia, Zoncolan or Finestre, the Tour preferred ride twice in the same Tour on Galibier, Alpe d’Huez, Croix de Fer. Same tests over the years, the climbs like a brand, chased by amateurs. I respect the idea, a bit boring, like often the Tour, but with some logic.

    PS My dream is a Tour stage with the Parpaillon. can you imagine what a final climb to Risoul or Vars we would see?!?

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