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HC climbs: Hautacam

Ellis Bacon
23 Aug 2017

As a climb to a ski resort, Hautacam is always a summit finish at the Tour, and it has been the scene of several race-winning moves

Fans of 1990s pro bike racing will remember Hautacam as the Pyrenean climb on which Bjarne Riis sealed his domination of the 1996 Tour de France.

The Dane theatrically dropped back alongside each of his rivals to assess how they were feeling before accelerating past them all and disappearing into the distance, as though he had a motor hidden in his bike.

Of course, we know now that the stage was indeed fraudulently won, but not through so-called mechanical doping: Riis admitted in 2007 that he’d taken performance-enhancing drugs for much of his pro career.

But let’s blame the rider, not the mountain. Climbs like Hautacam – innocent, unmoving, stoic, beautiful – provide only the canvas. They are not the artist, flawed or otherwise.

In the yellow leader’s jersey since Stage 9, Riis sought the advice of his former teammate and two-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon as to how he should defend his race lead on the road to Hautacam on Stage 16.

‘Attack!’ the Frenchman told him in no uncertain terms. ‘The yellow jersey should be laying it all on the line in the mountains.’

All the main contenders were there, halfway up the 16.3km long climb: defending champion Miguel Indurain, Tony Rominger, Richard Virenque and Festina teammate Laurent Dufaux, Luc Leblanc, Evgeni Berzin, World Champion Abraham Olano… and they were being led by Riis’s 22-year-old Telekom teammate Jan Ullrich, who had been tasked with setting the pace on the climb.

‘Just go as fast as you can for as long as you can,’ Riis told the young German, according to his autobiography, Riis: Stages Of Light And Dark.

Then it was time for Riis to put the next phase of his plan into action: wait for his rivals to begin suffering behind Ullrich, assess them for signs of weakness, and then deal the knock-out blow.

‘Now was the time for me to make good use of all the tricks Fignon had taught me about reading my rivals’ condition and effort,’ he wrote.

Riis won the stage at Hautacam by 49 seconds from Virenque, which gave him an almost three-minute cushion over Olano.

‘I wanted badly to win today,’ he told Channel 4 afterwards. When asked why he’d dropped back before attacking, his explanation was part stone-cold assassin, part deadpan comedian: ‘I wanted to see how they looked, in their faces, and most of them didn’t look so well, so…’

French favourite Virenque would eventually finish a distant third overall in Paris, while Riis won the Tour by less than two minutes from Ullrich who, in a master-and-apprentice-style scenario, would win the Tour himself the following year.

Evans above

In 2008, Hautacam was where Australian Cadel Evans took his first yellow jersey – by a single second ahead of Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck.

Evans would later lose it to Schleck, who in turn would lose it to his CSC teammate and eventual Tour winner Carlos Sastre.

The CSC team, incidentally, was managed by none other than Riis, who, perhaps seeking some kind of pardon for his own transgressions, sought out Tour director Christian Prudhomme at the finish in Paris to present Sastre to him and say, ‘Here is your clean Tour winner.’

‘I’d had a serious crash the day before the Hautacam stage, and was having a bad day,’ remembers Evans, who would return to make the maillot jaune his for keeps in 2011.

‘I was actually dropped on the first category 3 climb [the Col de Benejacq], and was at the back of the peloton. I didn’t have any teammates with me and was in danger of going out of the back. 

‘I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to finish that day. But as the day went on, and by the end of that first climb, I was feeling better.’

And it was good that he was: after a second third-category climb – the Loucrup – there was the fearsome Col du Tourmalet to be negotiated, which soon sorted the overall contenders out from the rest.

A somewhat revived Evans was up where he was meant to be, although he admits now that he didn’t know Hautacam quite as well as many of the other key climbs that year.

‘I knew that it was going to be one of the important climbs at the Tour, but it was one I didn’t have time to recce beforehand, so I just watched a couple of videos I found on YouTube and prepared for it that way.

‘By the time we got to the foot of Hautacam the race had already split quite a bit, so it wasn’t like positioning was really critical as we were quite a small group already. And then Saunier Duval just rode away from us on the climb.’

Saunier Duval was a Spanish team, now defunct, and their climbing duo of Leonardo Piepoli and Juan José Cobo showed the rest of the lead group a clean pair of heels on Hautacam that day.

The veteran Piepoli won the stage, with Cobo second, but Cobo was later handed the stage win when Piepoli was banned for two years for testing positive for EPO during the race.

‘I just stayed calm and followed my rivals for the general classification, and was feeling better and better towards the end of the stage and managed to hang on,’ remembers Evans.

Hautacam’s average of 7.8% is tough enough but belies the constant chopping and changing of gradient that characterises the climb, with a maximum ramp of 13% greeting riders as they approach the ski resort at the top at 1,653m.

‘Normally those kinds of climbs, with varying gradients, were quite good for me, but when you’re having a bad day in the Pyrenees…’ says Evans. The Australian managed, however, to completely turn his day around.

‘Having been dropped so early and then to be going for the yellow jersey at the end, it required quite a change in my mentality, of course,’ says Evans, who retired from competition at the start of the 2015 season and now works for the BMC bike company as a global ambassador.

‘As a rider trying to win the Tour de France who gets dropped on a category 3 climb, it’s not exactly great for your confidence.

And so I had to try to turn it all around, and to have some confidence in myself, and I ended up riding into the race lead.’

Evans took the yellow jersey after overnight race leader Kim Kirchen lost more than two minutes to the Australian.

Frank Schleck finished the stage third, just half a minute down on Piepoli and Cobo, but almost two minutes ahead of Evans and Sastre, which put Schleck just a second behind Evans overall.

‘In the grand scheme of that Tour, I would have actually been better off being just a couple of seconds out of yellow at Hautacam, because I didn’t have a team that could defend it.

‘Also, because I’d had that crash, I wasn’t really riding at my best. But that was the way it was, and we did what we could, and I just didn’t really have the legs to close the gap to Sastre in the final time-trial.

‘I was good enough for about fifth place overall, and I got second, so in that regard it was a good Tour.

‘And I became famous for kissing the lion at Hautacam,’ Evans adds, laughing. ‘I’d been watching the Tour de France since 1991 and I remember seeing the podium presentations on TV and seeing the Crédit Lyonnais teddy-bear lion the race leader got on the podium, and I thought, as a 14-year-old kid aspiring, hoping, dreaming of riding the Tour one day, that I’d like one of those teddy bears.

‘So finally, at the top of Hautacam, I got one of those things, and it had been a long, long, long journey to get there.’

Haut contenders

Evans would have been watching when the Hautacam was first climbed by the Tour in 1994.

Frenchman Luc Leblanc won that day, while Spain’s Miguel Indurain, second on the stage to Leblanc, consolidated his race lead overall, almost doubling his lead over Tony Rominger of Switzerland.

Indurain dominated the Tour between 1991 and 1995, winning it five times in a row, with Riis proving to be the rider who ended that reign in 1996.

Hautacam has since appeared another four times since that first occasion, featuring as a summit finish every time.

Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali is the last rider to have won a Tour stage there, in 2014, doing so in fine style – a solo victory, in the yellow jersey, confirming his status as that year’s best rider.

In 2000 it was a vital springboard for Lance Armstrong, who crushed his rivals on Hautacam’s rain-soaked slopes to take the yellow jersey before, like Piepoli in 2008, eventually having his name erased from the list of riders who have treated Hautacam with respect and legitimately suffered for their results there.

Look for it to appear on the route again in the next few years. It’s a climb that will continue to create drama and serve as a key battleground at the Tour de France.

By the numbers: Hautacam stats

Height at summit: 1,653m
Altitude gain: 1,223m
Length: 16.3km
Average gradient: 7.8%
Maximum gradient: 12%
Times in the Tour de France: 5
Most recent summit leader: Vincenzo Nibali, Astana, 2014
KoM Laurens ten Dam, Netherlands, 37m 14s (12.5km ‘Hautacam’ segment)
QoM Lauren Fitzgerald, Australia, 53m 00s (12.5km ‘Hautacam’ segment)

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