This will be the final climb of the 2016 Tour de France. It’s an unusual climb in the French Alps, a true mountain instead of a ski station access road. What’s it like to ride on a normal day?
The Route: the D354 heads north out of Samoëns. It is 11.6km long and reaches an altitude of 1691m, an average gradient of 8.5%. You can ride up from Morzine but the Tour de France always seems to climb the southern approach from Samoëns.
For the “official” Tour route, start in the town by the Rue des Glaciers and look for the Banque Populaire where you’ll see the see the sign for the Col de Joux Plane and La Piaz. You can take take the road east out of town that starts alongside a small river as well and this joins the road later on but it’s not the race route. See Strava for a map.
The Feel: it begins with a laverie, a laundrette. You don’t see many of those these days but it’s a good invitation to get into your lowest gear and start a spin cycle otherwise you’ll be rinsed in no time. The hardest part of the climb is about to begin, within moments the 12% ramps start as you pick your way past the wooden chalets, their flat driveways inviting anyone unprepared for the sharp start or those who dropped their chain. The more you ride, the more the chalets begin to look authentic, first they’re poured concrete pavilions clad in ersatz wood panelling, further on they’re real timber Alpine dwellings and scruffy farms.
It’s a hard climb because you’re going uphill without realising it, threading through meadows without the obvious vista of the valley below to signal how high you’ve climbed nor is there a view up to the pass, at least not until late. There are few tight hairpins which let you go round and look down on the road you’ve just travelled, instead just wide bends.
This isn’t a road ordered by decree and built by engineers. Perhaps once upon a time a local walked into Samoëns and have a glass or three of génépi and once intoxicated they tried to walk home but unable to hold a straight line they waved all over the place. This went on several times until a path was established and in time everyone used it and eventually it got tarmacked. Or maybe not. The mind wanders because the road wanders, and almost all the time you have meadows on both sides, this one is safe for those who suffer from vertigo because there’s no drop-off over the edge for most of the way.
Even the pros think funny things, Daniel Friebe recounts in Mountain High that Chris Horner said it was “like 20% all the way up” while Dutch climbing legend Peter Winnen wrote it was “the nastiest climb in the Alps“. They’re wrong as you can find tougher, nastier climbs but as Friebe says there is something of the optical illusion about this climb, it feels hard work yet doesn’t seem to climb. The road is narrow for two oncoming cars to check their position carefully but the main thing is the way the gradient keeps changing subtly between 7-9% a lot of the way although there are cruel sections at 12-14% too.
Because the road doesn’t lead anywhere but to the pass and then down to Morzine there’s little other traffic on the road beyond cyclists, tourists and a few farmers. Everyone else goes to Morzine via the lower, straighter Col des Gets to the west, a big ring of a climb. It’s only near the top that the climb takes a more dramatic feel and begins to supply all the elements you need for an Alpine bingo bonanza. First come cowbells, then some proper hairpin bends and soon a view of Mont Blanc framed by pine trees.
Make it to the pass but don’t expect a rest. You’ll see the Joux Plane sign, a hut and the small lake but the road continues. In fact the actual Joux Plane pass isn’t here, it’s up a small dirt track, the road bends around below the pass and continues and even climbs further to the Col du Ranfolly where the ski lift installations mark the start of one of the best descents in the Alps.
The Verdict: atypical, it doesn’t go to a ski resort or cross above 2,000 metres but it’s still one of the hardest climbs in the Alps thanks to its 8% gradient and early sections that drain the legs, especially of the imprudent.
History: it was first used in the Tour de France in 1978 and has been climbed 11 times since making it almost a novelty in the race but it’s gained a reputation, notoriety even. Every time one except one a pure climber has surged over the top. The exception was 2006 with Floyd Landis on his roid-rage rampage although he’s been stripped of the win. Marco Pantani holds the record with 32.50 in 1997 where he was seen scaling parts of the climb in the big ring.
The last time it was used in a main race was the Criterium du Dauphiné in 2012 when Team Sky paced Bradley Wiggins up with the first full sighting of Team Sky’s mountain train, the express that would go onto derail everyone else’s plans in the following Tour de France. But one rider managed to attack and ride away that day, Nairo Quintana.
One way traffic: you can climb the road from both sides but everyone seems to go up the south side and down the north side into Morzine. This is the Tour de France route, the race has only ever crossed in this direction. There’s more to copying the pros, the descent into Morzine is one of the best descents in the Alps with the feel of bobsleigh run as the road twists and turns into town. The internet says Sean Kelly hit 124km/h on the way down in 1984, not sure if this is true – did they have speedometers capable of recording this? – but it helps tell the story. It’s this descent that the Tour de France will use for its final act before the Champs Elysées parade.
Say It: the X is silent in Joux Plane and plane is not “plain” but sounds like “plan”. A joux is a forested area of a mountain and plane means flat: Flatwood Pass.
Pedant’s pick: the road doesn’t actually reach the real Joux-Plane pass, that sits a short distance away from the road sign. But keep going on the road past the Joux-Plane signs and after a brief descent you climb to the Col de Ranfolly which is the top of the climb.
Travel and Access: the nearest international airport is Geneva in Switzerland and the area around the Joux-Plane is well served by road connections. The nearest rail station is Cluses. The base of the climb in Samoëns is far up the Giffre valley, not quite a cul de sac but it’s the last town on the road. It makes a decent base to stay with several other climbs around: head north for Morzine and beyond the Vallée d’Abondance where Team Sky hold their pre-Tour camps; head south for the Col de la Colombière, the Aravis and more. The Morzine tourist office has a dedicated website to promote their roads: morzinemountaincycling.com
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads