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Plateau de Beille

Ellis Bacon
31 May 2016

This exposed mountain at the end of the Pyrenees has always been a summit finish at the Tour, so the first man to the top is the winner.

The climb of Plateau de Beille had only been used five times previously by the Tour de France when, in 2015, Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez joined the short list of names to have triumphed atop the mountain.

In truly biblical weather, a soaked-through Rodriguez emerged from among the gloom-busting headlights of the Tour vehicles accompanying him on his ascent to take the second of his two stage wins at last year’s
Tour, well over a minute clear of chaser Jakob Fuglsang and third-placed Romain Bardet.

Indeed, every time Plateau de Beille has featured at the Tour, it has been employed as a summit finish, mainly owing to the fact that there is only one decent road up it, but also thanks to its ski-resort car park being big enough to cram in the plethora of Tour vehicles – officials’ cars, TV trucks, team cars and buses – which almost outnumber the riders. It’s the reason that the Tour can’t just use any old climb for a stage finish.

So Plateau de Beille is special in that respect. It can claim to be among a select group of Tour climbs, including greats such as Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux, where a winner is crowned on its summit at the end of a stage. It still has a little way to go to match its brethren in legend, but its brief history in the Tour proves that it’s certainly working on it.

Man at the top

Just as Rodriguez was a lone winner last year, Belgium’s Jelle Vanendert was also alone when he triumphed at Plateau de Beille on Stage 14 of the 2011 Tour de France.

‘I had never ridden the climb before that Tour stage, nor have I ridden it since,’ Vanendert reveals to Cyclist. ‘I’ve only ever climbed it on the day that I won!’

As Tour climbs go, Plateau de Beille sits remote from some of the more famous names. The likes of the Galibier, Alpe d’Huez and Croix de Fer are clustered together within view of each other in the Alps of eastern France, while the Tourmalet, Aubisque and Hautacam form a tight-knit group in the Pyrenees of southern France, near Lourdes. Plateau de Beille, by contrast, can be found keeping its own company in an area of the eastern Pyrenees, just north of the border with Andorra. With a summit height of 1,780m, it’s lower than many of its illustrious hors catégorie companions, but still manages to pack a punch stronger than its stats might suggest.

Plateau de Beille rises steeply out of the small Ariège town of Les Cabannes and, over a distance of 16km in length, averages a gradient of 7.8%. As such it’s not the longest or the steepest of climbs used by the Tour, but the real challenge lies during the last 5km, when the gradient hits double figures.

Despite only having ridden it once, Vanendert – who still rides with the Lotto team he joined back in 2009 – says he remembers tackling Plateau de Beille very well.

A mental battle

‘What makes it such a difficult climb is that, during the last 5km or so, you can see all the way to the very top. This means it is mentally very daunting, as you can see the finish from so far away, as well as the distance you need to ride to get there,’ says Vanendert. ‘In this way, it’s different to other climbs, where you might make your way to the top through a lot of corners that obscure your view to the top. Psychologically it makes Plateau de Beille very difficult for any rider.’

The mountain is certainly very exposed towards the top, with relatively few hairpins to help break up the climb, but back in 2011 Vanendert had additional pressure in the form of Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez breathing down his neck.

Vanendert had begun the climb as part of an elite group of Tour contenders, including Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, trying to haul in lone leader Sandy Casar, who was looking to provide France with its first stage win of that year’s Tour (which eventually came courtesy of Pierre Rolland on Stage 19 to Alpe d’Huez).

Vanendert went on the attack with just 6km to go to the summit, quickly sweeping up Casar and leaving him for dead. The main protagonists were kept busy marking each other, which only played into the hands of Vanendert, who was no threat to the overall classification but had been given a free pass following the withdrawal of his Omega Pharma-Lotto team leader Jurgen van den Broeck earlier in the race.

Sanchez went after Vanendert with 3km to go, but it was a case of too little, too late, and the Belgian crossed the line 21 seconds clear of the Spaniard, with Schleck bringing home the rest.

‘When I look back on that day, I remember how it was the most beautiful day of my career to date,’ Vanendert says. ‘It was an important moment, as it signified my ability to start producing my own results. This contrasted
with the situation beforehand, when I had always ridden for one leader or the other – like Philippe Gilbert or Jurgen van den Broeck, for example. However, since then I’ve been able to work towards producing results for myself, which I think I’ve proved over the last few years or so. For instance, in the Spring Classics, I’ve been up there in the finale and finished with some good results on several occasions [fourth at Flèche Wallonne in 2012, and second at Amstel Gold in both 2012 and 2014, among others].

‘So, looking back, I really believe that my Tour stage victory on Plateau de Beille symbolised the next step up in allowing me to do my own thing, and to work towards my own results in the sport.’

Heroes and villains

Vanendert was a popular victor atop Plateau de Beille, although the climb has provided us with a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the riders who’ve won there: Rodriguez in 2015 (yay!), Vanendert in 2011 (double yay, having chatted to us for this piece), Alberto Contador in 2007 (reasonable yay!), Lance Armstrong in both 2002 and 2004 (boo!), and Marco Pantani in 1998 (sort of yay, depending on whether you fall into the ‘flawed genius’ camp or ‘druggy cheat’ camp).

For a climb that has only featured six times at the Tour, Plateau de Beille has certainly seen its fair share of controversy. Surely, though, it’s a case of ‘blame the rider, not the mountain’? 

After his stage win there in 2007, Contador went on to win that year’s Tour thanks to the disqualification of race leader Michael Rasmussen. Three years later, Contador himself was disqualified, ostensibly having won the 2010 Tour but handing the crown to Andy Schleck.

Lance Armstrong, of course, has had both his stage victories on Plateau de Beille scratched from history, along with his seven overall ‘wins’. And the late Marco Pantani, who passed away after a cocaine overdose in 2004, would go on to win his one and only Tour de France in the same year that he won on this mountain – in 1998, when it was first used by the race.

For sportive fans who fancy taking on the climb, Plateau de Beille is also a regular feature on the most extreme route option of the challenging L’Ariégeoise – an Etape du Tour-esque ‘jaunt’ up and down the myriad climbs in the area.

But for those who prefer the more genteel pursuit of armchair viewing, it surely can’t be too long before Plateau de Beille features on our TV screens once again. You won’t find it featuring in this year’s Tour de France, but going by the pattern of years between its appearances on the Tour route – 1998, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2015 – expect to see the climb back on the menu somewhere around 2018.

It can’t come soon enough.

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