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HC climbs: Col d’Izoard

Ellis Bacon
20 Jul 2017

The Col d'Izoard's summit of wind-carved rocks provides an otherwordly setting for some of the Tour de France's greatest battles

Today's Stage 18 of the 2017 Tour de France could be decided upon the summit finish of the Col d’Izoard. This will be the final chance for the likes of Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondal-Drapac) to hit out to try and steal the yellow jersey from Chris Froome (Team Sky).

Both rivals are inferior to the current leader at time trialling, so will not only need to overturn the 27 second lead her has on them both but also gain a margin before the Stage 20 race against the clock.

Earlier in the day, the best of the professional women's ranks hits the slopes of the Col d’Izoard in Stage 1 (of 2) of the new format La Course by Le Tour de France.

The winner here will go into Stage 2's pursuit-style race with a lead they'll be looking to defend to take the overall win.

HC climbs: Col d’Izoard

The Casse Déserte, says double Tour de France champion Bernard Thévenet, can only really be compared to the ‘moonscape’ of Mont Ventoux.

The vast, middle section of the southern route up the Col d’Izoard marks it out as quite a different beast to the other big climbs in the Alps.

Most of them boast a lush, green, summer covering – picture the Heidi hills of just across the border in Switzerland. The Izoard, however, and the Casse Déserte in particular, bring something very special to the table.

‘It’s wild and empty,’ Thévenet tells Cyclist. ‘There’s nothing there – barely a plant or a tree among the rocks. And when you see photos of it in the newspapers or cycling magazines, it’s stunning. For photographers at the Tour, there’s nothing else like it – save, perhaps, for that top section of the Ventoux.

'But when you’re there racing, you simply don’t see it,’ he adds, referring to the tunnel vision of suffering, as well as the sheer volume of spectators who flock to the roadside whenever the Izoard appears on the Tour route.

The other, northern approach – nearly 20km uphill from the town of Briançon at an average of just under 6% – bears all the hallmarks of a typical Alpine climb, as do the lower slopes of the Izoard from the south.

Starting at the town of Guillestre, the southern route takes around 30km to reach the top, with the first half taking in a steady and stunning climb through the Guil Gorge, against the flow of the River Guil, until you reach the start of the climb proper, where the D902 meets the D947.

The meeting of these prosaic road names is an important waypoint if you’re looking to ride the Izoard from the ‘classic’ side, and are going old-school with a map in hand.

Indeed, if you reach the 13th century castle of Fort Queyras, you’ve missed the turn. And from there it’s another 15.9km of stunning but hard climbing, averaging 6.9% up through the small villages that pepper the lower slopes, and on through the nothingness of the Casse Déserte, briefly reaching a maximum gradient of 14% as you near the summit.

It’s as you reach the top of the Casse Déserte section that, on your left, you notice a thing of beauty in the otherwise wild and untamed environment: two plaques set into a rock, one for the Italian rider Fausto Coppi and the other for Frenchman Louison Bobet, both featuring three-dimensional profiles of the champions, paid for by the readers of French sports newspaper L’Equipe.

The Tour classic

Upon reaching the summit, you can’t miss the stone tower marking the altitude: 2,360m. The climb has been conquered by some of the sport’s greatest names – to perform well on the Izoard is to announce yourself as a Tour contender.

Bobet made his name in the Casse Déserte, first winning a stage at the 1950 Tour having crossed the summit in the lead, before following it up with dominating displays of climbing on the then-unmade road en route to the first two of his three consecutive Tour victories in 1953 and 1954.

The Izoard has been used 34 times by the Tour de France so far. Its debut appearance came in 1922 when Belgian Philippe Thys was first to the top, going on to win the stage in Briançon.

In 1939 another Belgian, Sylvère Maes, used the Izoard as a springboard for a lone stage victory in Briançon and an overall win, before the great Italian rivals Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali – to the delight of their divided countrymen – did battle on the Izoard’s slopes in the 1940s.

Thévenet, too, is one of those whose name is indelibly linked to the climb, having built his 1975 Tour victory on a solo stage win in Briançon after conquering the Casse Déserte and a certain Eddy Merckx. 

Quite bizarrely, on the day Cyclist first got hold of Thévenet on the phone, he was busy climbing – where else? – the Col d’Izoard.

‘Give me a call first thing tomorrow,’ he cheerily suggested, explaining that he’d been riding with a bike-tour company from Briançon to Barcelonnette.

Back at the 1975 Tour Merckx, the defending champion, had been punched in the kidneys by a spectator (who claimed it was accidental) on Stage 14 while on the final climb of the Puy de Dôme.

He kept his race lead, but only by 58 seconds from Thévenet, who had finished the stage second to Belgian climber Lucien Van Impe as Merckx limped home in third.

After a rest day, Merckx was still on painkillers. Thévenet won the 15th stage between Nice and Pra Loup, with the pendulum swinging to put him in the yellow jersey by the same margin, 58 seconds, over Merckx.

There was therefore all to play for on the 16th stage between Barcelonnette and Serre Chevalier, with the climbs of the Col de Vars and the Col d’Izoard on which to try to do some damage.

‘The stage was very short – only 107km – and I didn’t have much of an advantage. Having less than a minute’s lead on Eddy Merckx was nothing, so I needed to try to increase the gap,’ he says.

But Thévenet had been given some additional advice and motivation that morning – from none other than Bobet, whose plaque would subsequently decorate the Casse Déserte following his death eight years later in 1983.

‘He told me that to be considered a grand champion, I needed to cross the summit of the Col d’Izoard with the yellow jersey on my back,’ remembers Thévenet, no doubt more than a little starstruck at the time.

‘He was a rider to whom the Izoard had meant so much during his career, which was why he was visiting the Tour for that particular stage.

‘I remember that the crowds on the climb were crazy. I was a Frenchman leading the race – in the yellow jersey – and it was an unbelievable experience. Truly magical. It was the first time I’d ever worn the yellow jersey, too, and on top of that it was also July 14th – Bastille Day. I’ve never again experienced a moment like that in my life.’

Old TF1 footage of his struggle up through the Casse Déserte that day confirms Thévenet’s memory: thousands of spectators, five or six deep, with others having clambered up onto the rocks for a better view, straining forward for a look at their Merckx-busting, yellow-clad hero, his overly long, woollen maillot jaune bunched around his waist, with an equally floppy number 51 drooping across his left back pocket.

Thévenet won the stage by 2m 22s – from Merckx – which gave him a lead that Merckx could only peg back to 2m 47s by the time they reached Paris a week later. The Izoard had been instrumental in Thévenet winning his first Tour, and he would go on to take a second crown in 1977. Merckx’s Tour reign, meanwhile, was over.

Izoard memories

‘Both routes up the Izoard are tough, of course,’ says Thévenet, ‘but it’s the other riders who make any climb tough. If you’ve got riders attacking, or you’re on the attack yourself, you’re going to suffer! So the Izoard was tough that day at the Tour – no doubt about it – but at the same time I’d prepared mentally to go on the
attack, so I was ready.

‘I certainly didn’t have time to admire the scenery of the Casse Déserte,’ he laughs. ‘It’s only been afterwards, when I’ve returned as a visitor in the car, or by bike yesterday, that I’ve really noticed what it’s like, and feel immense pride at what I achieved on that stage in 1975.’

In a 2012 interview I conducted with Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, he demonstrated his lifelong passion for the race with a story from the Izoard.

While travelling ahead of the 2011 Tour he laid some flowers at the Coppi and Bobet monument in the Casse Déserte, alongside Thévenet, Merckx and five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault. The race radio in the car a few metres away from them suddenly crackled into life, heralding an attack by Andy Schleck further down the climb.

‘And suddenly I was a little boy again,’ Prudhomme reminisced, ‘listening to the radio, in love with cycling, yet this time I was in this amazingly privileged position, surrounded by the biggest names in cycling history: Hinault, Thévenet, Merckx, Coppi, Bobet.

‘That is romanticism,’ he said, ‘and it really is the riders who create it. We, as the organisers, just do what we can to give them the route on which they can do something.’

And when the Izoard does next feature on the Tour route, whenever that might be, you can be sure that the riders will again be inspired by the climb to ‘do something’.

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