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.