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 and a famous photo, you can read the story of both below.
It had become a road that belongs to cycling’s past because the construction of a railway line to ferry tourists to the top has meant the road is now closed but this Sunday it’ll be open to the Tour de France.
Start in Clermont-Ferrand in the Puy-de-Dome department of France. 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. It’s a climb just to get here.
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 and tourist staff start their shift. 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. Take the cathedral, despite the city’s industrial heritage, it’s 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. Topped with a giant TV transmitter it lacks the grace of Mount Fuji or the menace of Vesuvius, it 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 road to the top has been closed to cyclists for some time, there’s a gate and several signs. 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 mountain railway has been built, or rebuilt as the road itself takes the route of an old railway built for tourists in 1906. It was feared the new 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 given. It’s sad because this could be a draw for cyclists, the train station even 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.
There’s an annual event where the road is open if you want to ride up. But if it’s closed the rest of the year it seems plenty of locals try their luck and on local advice your blogger was able to ride up at sunrise with nobody around to care. Anyone going up in the day is going to be spotted and grilled.
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. It was first climbed by the Tour de France in 1952, the year the route had its first ever summit finishes with visits to Alpe d’Huez, Sestriere and then the Puy.
The 1964 Tour de France was a vintage edition, up there with 1989 as one of the best ever. Late in the race and Jacques Anquetil is tired from the Giro and being well into the third week, he is on the ropes but still leads the race. Poulidor’s had setbacks but has overcome them. This should be the moment for Poulidor to strike back. But Anquetil bluffs Poulidor, half wheeling him on the slope and this deters Poulidor from attacking. Plus Poulidor could have done with with a lower gear and didn’t recon the climb despite being asked to by his manager.
Poulidor finally made his move and managed to put 42 seconds into Anquetil on the Puy de Dôme but still couldn’t take yellow. Anquetil said if Poulidor had taken yellow he’d have gone home out of exhaustion but whether it was a quip or serious, it’s hard to tell. Either way in the final TT in Paris Anquetil pulls out more time for a clear win.
The photo of Poulidor and Anquetil’s duel that day has become one of the sport’s most iconic images. It was taken by Roger Krieger of L’Equipe. “Krikri” was a regular on the Tour in the 1960s and would shoot from the back of a motorbike. As Poulidor and Anquetil rode side by side, the photographers were desperate to shot the moment but on the 10% slopes the racing was slow and the motorbikes clumsy. Two motos touch, one veers sideways and its exhaust pipe sears Poulidor’s leg and he flicks right, bumps into Anquetil and in the split second Krieger takes the photo that encapsulated up the race… an exhaust pipe was really to blame. Oddly the negative has gone missing, copies today are reproductions of the photograph.
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. 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. Almost forgotten is the fact Julio Jiminez won the stage. The first winner in 1952 was Fausto Coppi, the most recent was Johnny Weltz in 1988. In 1986 for the first and only time the Tour organisers tried to charge people money to attend the finish but the experience was a disaster, the public barged through leaving ticket sellers powerless.
Now it’s back on the route. Tour director Christian Prudhomme likes to tell how when he started work at ASO in 2004 he sat down in front of his computer and the first thing he did was open a file he’d label along the lines of PuyDeDomeReturn.doc and more recently his sister was gravely ill in Clermont-Ferrand and reports say he promised her the race would return, there’s a personal aspect as well as the Tour’s history.
It’s not been easy, the Tour is so much bigger than before and so getting all the infrastructure to the top is a logistical challenge but as his then deputy Jean-Louis Pagès recounts, ASO came up with a system where they can relocate some of the finish line’s technical infrastructure well away from the finish, they did this for the Galibier summit finish in 2011 and other places since. The road is narrow too since they’ve built the railway but this isn’t the only reason spectators will not be allowed, the mountain is a protected environmental zone which means no spectators.
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. You can easily spend several days here riding many different mountain passes but pick your season, June to October is probably best.
This piece is an update of a piece from 2013. More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads