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HC climbs: Col de la Madeleine

Ellis Bacon
20 May 2016

28.3 kilometres of climbing with a rich Tour de France history, the Col de la Madeleine is a true icon.

The Col de la Madeleine in the French Alps is one serious climb: all 28.3km of it up its longest flank, from the town of Aigueblanche. It’s that sheer distance that makes the Madeleine so tough. The average gradient over that distance is ‘only’ 5.4%, but it’s one of those climbs that ramps up and up, and reaches gradients of 10% towards the summit. From that same northern side, but starting from Feissons-sur-Isère, it averages 6.2% for 25.3km, while the southern side, from the charmingly named town of La Chambre, is still long, at 19.2km, but with a much steeper average incline of 7.9%.

The Madeleine last featured on the Tour route in 2013, on Stage 19 between Bourg d’Oisans and Le Grand-Bornand, using that tougher but shorter side from La Chambre, with the climb starting 60km into what was an epic 204km stage.

That day, France’s Pierre Rolland, of the Europcar squad, led the race over the summit – although Portugal’s Rui Costa eventually won the stage – but it was a climb that Rolland was very familiar with, not only from his training rides in the Alps but also because he had won the stage that went over the Madeleine in 2012.

That year, Feissons-sur-Isère was the starting point of the climb, on a shorter, sharper 148km stage from Albertville to a summit finish at La Toussuire, with the Madeleine featuring as the first climb of the day. Rolland was keeping his powder dry, so it was Astana’s Fredrik Kessiakoff and Omega Pharma’s Peter Velits who scrapped over the points at the summit. 

Kessiakoff had lost the polka dot King of the Mountains jersey the day before, and was determined to score big points to take it back. Velits had his own designs on the jersey, and managed to be first over the summit, but Kessiakoff’s second place was enough for him to wrestle the polka dot jersey back from Rolland’s Europcar teammate Thomas Voeckler, who had won the stage in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine the previous day.

After the Madeleine, Rolland made his move on the Col de la Croix de Fer, beating Kessiakoff to the top and then continuing his attack on the descent. On the final climb up to La Toussuire, Rolland was at the head of affairs, taking a crowd-pleasing solo win by just under a minute from countryman Thibaut Pinot and future Tour winner Chris Froome.

It was Europcar’s second stage win in as many days, and a second Tour stage win for Rolland, adding to his first at Alpe d’Huez the year before.

‘The Madeleine is one of the iconic Tour climbs,’ Rolland, who’s signed with Cannondale Pro Cycling for the 2016 season, tells Cyclist. ‘It’s very long, and very tough, which shows in that it takes more than an hour to climb.’ (That’s at pro racing pace – the average Joe can expect to take at least twice as long as that.)

Rolland knows all about the Madeleine, having so regularly been a protagonist on one of his favourite climbs: ‘I’ve been at the front of the race going over the top of it at events such as the Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour, and it’s always special, even though it’s so hard.’

It’s a lush, green climb, with the road affording spectacular views across the valley floor, and across to the snowy peaks of Mont Blanc and the surrounding Alpine climbs.

In total, the Madeleine has made 25 appearances at the Tour de France, having first been used in 1969 on Stage 10 from Chamonix to Briançon, when Spain’s Andrés Gandarias had the honour of christening it as the first rider to the top, while Herman Van Springel of Belgium went on to win the stage.

It has been used eight times since 2000, although it has yet to be a stage finish, usually featuring en route to finishes at Le Grand-Bornand, Alpe d’Huez or La Plagne.

‘I find it hard to say which side of the Madeleine is more difficult,’ says Rolland. ‘Both sides are very tough, but it’s a beautiful route both from Feissons-sur-Isère and La Chambre, with a great road surface too. Like all high-altitude climbs, the Madeleine gets very tough once you get to that kind of altitude.’

At exactly 2,000m at the summit, the Madeleine is up with the highest of the Tour regulars – dream-conjuring mountains whose names trip off the tongue as part of bike-racing’s vernacular: Iseran, Bonette, Glandon, Croix de Fer, Izoard, Tourmalet, Madeleine.

The Madeleine played a key role on the famous stage to La Plagne at the 1987 Tour: the ‘It looks like Roche!’ one – those famous words uttered by commentator Phil Liggett – when Irishman and eventual Tour winner Stephen Roche made a monumental effort to get back into contention for the title having been dropped by race leader Pedro Delgado on the final climb up to the finish at La Plagne. 

The Madeleine had been the previous climb and there Roche had led the race alone, having attacked Delgado on the descent of the first climb of the day, the Col du Galibier, fearing the Spaniard’s climbing ability. Delgado, back in yellow having taken it from Roche the day before at Alpe d’Huez, held a 25-second lead over Roche overall, but the Irishman was determined to keep within touching distance of the race lead in the hope of taking back time in the final time-trial three days later, which is exactly how it eventually played out.

Roche’s plan almost backfired when he was pulled back by Delgado and his Reynolds teammates before the start of the final climb. He looked like losing the race, but his heroics in the final few kilometres saved him. The stage is fondly remembered as a game of chess played out over some of the Tour’s toughest climbs.

But Rolland et al will have to wait for the Madeleine’s next Tour de France chapter: it doesn’t feature on this year’s route, but it’s a French favourite that’s certain to return.

Col du Tourmalet

Col de la Bonette