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Tour de France climbs: Superbagnéres

29 Jul 2022

Words Jamie Wilkins Photography Alex Duffill

Where to start. This feature could be twice the length and it would still be difficult to do justice to this climb and the legends forged on its slopes. Yet for all that it has contributed to cycling history, Superbagnères has appeared in the Tour de France only six times, and not since 1989, so it’s possible that many race fans have never seen it in action.

Pronounced soup-air-ban-yair, Superbagnères is a ski station and therefore always a stage finish, meaning it naturally attracts drama, but even so its hit rate of special moments is quite something.

Take the 1971 Tour, for example. Spain’s Luis Ocaña had Eddy Merckx on the ropes, with a near eight-minute lead overall, only to crash out on Stage 14. For Stage 15, an unusual 19.6km mass-start hill climb up Superbagnères, the race had no yellow jersey, as Merckx requested not to wear it out of respect to Ocaña. Instead, Merckx wore the white combination jersey.

While José Fuente skipped clear to win the stage, Merckx finished fourth, marking his GC rivals. Minutes later he was presented with a yellow jersey that he now felt was his by right and duly wore all the way to Paris.

From one day without a yellow jersey to just one day in it. Back in 1962, Tom Simpson became the first Brit to wear the yellow jersey and he did so for less than an hour of racing. He had taken the lead on GC on Stage 12 – no one from outside of mainland Europe had ever led the Tour before, in nearly 60 years. Imagine his euphoria.

Unfortunately, the following stage was an 18km time-trial up Superbagnères, which didn’t favour Simpson. Despite a brave effort he came in 31st on the stage and the jersey immediately passed to Belgian Jef Planckaert. More than 70 riders have worn the yellow jersey for just one day, but few for quite so short a time as Simpson.

Incidentally, that TT was won by legendary Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes, with Planckaert second and Jacques Anquetil third, on his way to his third of five Tour titles. When this climb had debuted the year before, Anquetil had sailed up it in a yellow jersey he would wear from start to finish. Superbagnères was becoming a VIP club.

Hub of the Pyrenees

The climb starts from the pretty town of Bagnères-de-Luchon, which is almost exactly in the centre of the Pyrenees. It’s a frequent waypoint for the Tour and a lively summer cycling hotspot, with the Port de Balès, Col de Peyresourde and Col du Portillon also starting here.

Superbagnères sits atop Pic d’Aspe, towering over the town, its old hotel at the summit visible against the sky for a long time as you get slowly nearer. It’s rare to be able to see the top of a hors catégorie climb from the base. It leaves you in no doubt about the task ahead.

On leaving Bagnères-de-Luchon, the gradient dabbles with double digits, as if to check it has your full attention, then eases and the road even nudges downwards in parts as it follows the valley south. Another steep ramp brings you to a fork: left for the climb of Hospice de France, right for Superbagnères. From here, the climb settles into a purposeful rhythm, winding for several kilometres up a valley, its steep sides blanketed dark green.

As you pass 1,000m in altitude, with 8km completed, the valley opens out and the road delivers the first three hairpins. They’re shallow, so there’s plenty of opportunity to look up and spot the road above the tree line, another 500m up, before you climb the back of the mountain.

It was around here that Greg LeMond attacked in 1986 on a hugely tense day in perhaps the most fractious Tour ever. The previous year, LeMond had helped his teammate, Bernard Hinault, win his fifth Tour and the favour was promised to be returned a year later. However, Hinault was torn constantly between keeping his word and going for a sixth win, which would have been an outright record.

Hinault had ambushed LeMond on the first Pyrenean stage, taking a massive 4min 36sec. On Stage 13 from Pau to Superbagnères, Hinault, now in yellow, attacked again on the descent of the Col du Tourmalet. He stayed away over the Aspin and Peyresourde and was only caught on the run down to Bagnères-de-Luchon.

Superbagnères was Hinault’s undoing. LeMond grabbed his chance and wasted no time in twisting the knife, storming to a solo win and regaining all of the time lost the previous day. Not that this eased the tension – team owner Bernard Tapie had to break up a row between his stars that evening.

The jersey was only prised from Hinault’s grip in the Alps, four stages later. In Paris, LeMond wore yellow, Hinault wore polka dots and was named Most Combative Rider. Never was the title more appropriate.

Scenery explosion

The next triplet of switchbacks leads you out of the trees and the view to the south erupts into a mountainscape of vast scale and beauty. The gradient is a consistent and manageable 7-8%, so everyone gets to find their own rhythm, basking in the scenery or sweating the numbers.

With 1.5km to go a broad hairpin left takes you onto the ridge. Here the gradient cranks up to 9-10% until the finish. It’s a cruel twist if you’re suffering after 16km of climbing, yet also an ideal launchpad for an attack. Laurent Fignon seized upon it in the 1989 Tour.

It is often regarded as the greatest ever, thanks to the incredibly close and constantly shifting battle between LeMond and Fignon that was decided by eight seconds in the final day’s TT in Paris. Stage 10 across the Pyrenees was the whole race in microcosm: the two riders were inseparable throughout, with LeMond wearing yellow during the day and Fignon in the evening, his late attack having turned a five-second deficit into a seven-second lead.

For most riders, just reaching the summit will feel like a victory. The reward is one of the best views in the Pyrenees – you can see the full 20km length of the valley north and out to the plains. The Col de Portillon, with the Spanish border at its summit, lies to the east and looks like a mere speed bump way below. Pico Aneto, the highest point of the Pyrenees at 3,404m, is king among giants on the horizon to the south.

Superbagnères has not featured in the Tour since 1989. Maybe ASO forgot about it. Maybe those legendary races are too much to live up to. It deserves a return for many reasons – sporting, aesthetic and nostalgic – but perhaps none matters more than highlighting it to a new generation of cyclists.