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HC climbs: Col du Tourmalet

Ellis Bacon
27 Jul 2018

The Col du Tourmalet has featured in the Tour de France more than any other climb. We take a look at its story

The Col du Tourmalet is the Tour de France’s most-used climb, appearing for the 82nd time on Stage 19 of this year's race, when it features on the route of this year’s Tour, a 200km ride from Lourdes to Laruns also featuring two other well-used Pyrenean climbs, the Col d'Aspin and Col d'Aubisque.

It was back in 1910 that the Tourmalet made its debut in the race, alongside both the Aspin and Aubisque, as well as the Col du Peyresourde and the Col du Portet d’Aspet. The Alps wouldn’t feature in the Tour de France until the following year.

In 2010 the Tourmalet was scaled twice, from each side, on consecutive stages – both the 16th and 17th stages, albeit separated by a rest day – to celebrate the centenary of its appearance.

Tales about the Tourmalet are manifold, with arguably the best of them coming from early on in its ‘Tour life’. At the 1913 edition of the race, Frenchman Eugène Christophe was leading the field, and potentially heading for a Tour victory, when he fell foul of both the mountain and the race organisers after his forks broke on the descent of the eastern side of the Tourmalet. 

Crying with rage, and carrying his bike, Christophe was forced to run the rest of the 10km down the mountainside until he eventually discovered a blacksmith’s in the town of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan.

By now he had lost two hours in the race, and it took him a further three hours  to repair his forks. In those days riders were not allowed any assistance during the race, even for mechanical mishaps, so Christophe had to do the welding himself. However, he required someone to pump the bellows, a task done by a seven-year-old boy. 

Despite all the lost time, and the resilience Christophe had demonstrated in returning to the race, the organisers decided that the boy’s help with the bellows constituted an infringement of the rules, and subsequently penalised him 10 minutes.

Christophe eventually finished the Tour in seventh place, more than 14 hours behind the winner, Philippe Thys.

Harsh arena

On the Tourmalet’s 43rd appearance at the Tour in 1967, it was climbed during Stage 17 between Bagnères-de-Luchon and Pau – the same way the riders will be tackling it this year, albeit over 250km in the 1960s versus the relatively easy 200km the pro riders will cover this year.

Colin Lewis was one of just three riders left in the race from the British national team by that point, with six days to go to the finish in Paris. The Tourmalet stage came just five days after the death of the team’s leader, Tom Simpson, on Mont Ventoux, which made things even tougher for the British riders.

‘There was Barry Hoban, me and Arthur Metcalfe left. Vin Denson had packed two days before,’ recalls Lewis, who’s now in his early seventies but still very much a part of his eponymous bike shop in Paignton in Devon.

‘The Tourmalet starts off relatively easy,’ he tells Cyclist, remembering the route up the eastern side from Saint-Marie-de-Campan that the 1967 Tour took.

‘Of course, in the summer what really exacerbates the climb’s difficulty is the heat. But once you get up to where the snow barriers are, it’s almost a bit of a relief as, although the climb gets steeper, it starts to get a lot cooler. There’s often snow up there – even in the summer.’

Indeed, there was still so much snow during the 1922 Tour that the Tourmalet had to be dropped from the route altogether.

Permanent reminders

At 4,780km in total, that 1967 Tour was the fourth-longest Tour of the post-war years and, with most of the stages each over the 250km mark (Stage 21 was a ridiculous 359km long: ‘We had breakfast at 3am, started the stage at 6am, and finished at 6.15pm,’ remembers Lewis), it was a race that took its toll.

‘In 2002, I’d heard that my old teammate Arthur Metcalfe wasn’t very well, so I phoned him to see how he was, and kept in touch over two or three weeks,’ says Lewis.

‘He wasn’t too good, and in the week before he died he said to me, “Colin, I’m going to go.” I, trying to make light of it, said, “Where are you going?” And he replied, “I don’t know where I’m going to go, Colin, but let me tell you something: you know that Tour we rode? I never recovered from it.

‘The sheer exertion of that Tour – I never, ever recovered from it. I was never the same again.”’

Lewis has returned to the Tourmalet a number of times in recent years, leading tour groups. ‘My memories of riding it during the Tour came flooding back,’ he says. ‘And I tell you, the road surface is a lot better now!’

Climbing from the east, it’s all too tempting for riders to stop at the ski-resort town of La Mongie, with its bars and cafes, Lewis explains. ‘But there are still 4km to go from there. So when you do get up to the top and see the monument, it’s a case of sheer relief.’

There are in fact two monuments to speak of at the summit, at 2,115m: a bust of former Tour boss Jacques Goddet, who organised the race between 1936 and 1986, and the dominating silver statue of Le Géant du Tourmalet, based on the French rider Octave Lapize, who was first to the top in 1910 and went on to win that year’s Tour.

Lapize is famed for arriving at the summit, having pushed his single-speed bike up much of the climb on gravel roads, and yelling at the Tour organisers, ‘Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!’ – ‘You are murderers! Yes, murderers!’

The statue of Lapize is taken down at the start of each winter – presumably to protect it from strong winds and the elements (and, no doubt, to stop anyone nicking it) – and then ceremoniously reinstalled each June during the Montée du Géant du Tourmalet, a cycling event that sees more than 1,000 riders accompany the statue (on the back of a lorry) back up the climb.

The statues are unmissable – in summer, at least – no matter which side of the Tourmalet you scale. From both Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and Luz-Saint-Sauveur (the greener western flank) you face an average gradient of 7.4%, with maximums of 10%, although it’s a 2km longer climb from Luz: 19km versus 17km.

It may not be the steepest, longest or highest Tour climb but, as one of the oldest, it has served as a battleground over the years for so many head-to-head confrontations between the greats. 

Long may it continue to do so.

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