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HC climbs: Col de l'Iseran

Ellis Bacon
17 Nov 2017

Officially Europe’s highest pass, the Col de l’Iseran is as daunting a prospect for race organisers as it is for the riders

Racing over the highest mountain pass in Europe isn’t for the faint of heart. It also isn’t the easiest thing in the world to arrange logistically, which goes a long way to explaining why the 2,770m-high Col de l’Iseran last featured in the Tour de France in 2007.

High time that it was used by the Tour again, then? Well, the organisers have been burned before: even at the height of summer, the Iseran often still has snow at the summit, and in 1996 it had to be dropped from the route at the last minute, along with the Col du Galibier, due to bad weather.

In all, the Tour has only successfully crested the summit seven times in the race’s history. Clearly the Iseran deserves to be treated as something rather special.

Hitting new heights

Belgian Félicien Vervaecke was the leader over the summit when the climb was first used by the Tour in 1938.

Up to that point the highest climb was the Galibier at 2,556m – this was before the construction of a road that raised the Galibier’s summit to 2,645m.

However, given the Iseran’s status as Europe’s highest pass outright, its crown is now assured.

Another Belgian, Marcel Kint, would win that stage in 1938 between Briançon and Aix-les-Bains – his first of three that year – but the race would be remembered as a battle royal between Vervaecke and Italy’s Gino Bartali, with Bartali eventually coming out on top in Paris with an almost 20-minute advantage over Vervaecke.

The race returned to the Iseran the following year, this time for the Tour’s first ever mountain time-trial.

The stage started halfway up the climb’s ‘short’ side – from Bonneval to the south – and finished with a descent into Bourg-Saint-Maurice for a total distance of 64km.

As if that wasn’t hard enough, this test against the clock was sandwiched by two others on one of the Tour’s then-popular ‘triple-stage’ days: three stages held in one day – in this case a 126km circuit around Briançon, followed by the Iseran mountain TT, followed by another 104km from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Annecy.

It wasn’t even the first triple stage at that 1939 Tour. Stages 10a, 10b and 10c had taken place in a single day just the previous week, and the riders still had back-to-back ‘double stages’ to look forward to before the race finished in Paris – four stages in the final two days.

Belgium’s Sylvère Maes won the Iseran TT stage, and went on to finish the race in yellow, his second Tour win, having also won in 1936.

Double trouble

Most recently, Yaroslav Popovych led over the top of the Iseran when it featured early on Stage 9 of the 2007 Tour.

Starting at Val d’Isère to the north, the stage crested the Iseran before a 50km descent to the foot of the Col du Télégraphe, then the double-whammy of the Télégraphe and Galibier before the finish in Briançon.

The stage was won by Colombia’s Mauricio Soler, his effort going a long way to securing him the King of the Mountains jersey a fortnight later in Paris.

‘I remember that,’ 20-year-old Alex Braybrooke tells Cyclist over the phone from Provence.

‘It’s one of my first memories of the Tour de France – the year it started in London.’

It’s literally half a lifetime ago for Braybrooke, who now lives in the south of France, racing for French division-one outfit AVC Aix-en-Provence.

Like that 2007 Tour peloton, Braybrooke was part of a 126-strong bunch that tackled the Col de l’Iseran almost from the gun on the opening stage of this June’s Tour de Savoie, a five-stage UCI 2.2 race that, as its name suggests, takes place in Savoie and Haute-Savoie in the French Alps, close to the Italian border.

Tackling a 48km-long climb would be mind-blowing at the best of times, even ignoring the fact that it came at the start of a tough four-day race (yep, one of the days included two stages, just like the Tour de France used to do).

Factor in UCI Pro Continental competition in the form of the Italian Androni Giocattoli team, ‘fresh’ off the back of riding the Giro d’Italia, and the French Fortuneo-Vital Concept squad, who were heading to the Tour de France the following month, and you can see why Braybrooke says he found the prospect of racing up it ‘daunting’.

‘The night before I’d kind of broken it down in my head as being a 20km climb at the start, and then nearly 10km of flat through to Val d’Isère, and then a 16km climb to the top from there,’ the British rider explains.

‘And in fact, with fresh legs with it coming at the start of the race, those first 20km weren’t too bad, as it was a very wide bit of road, and a little bit rolling.

Braybrooke went over the top of the Iseran in the first group, although it was perhaps no surprise that he went so well.

Campervan holidays to France when he was younger were often dictated by the climbs he’d read about.

‘I had this book of climbs, and when we came on holiday to the Alps, I’d persuade my parents to stop and camp close to the mountains I’d read about so that I could ride up them – although the Iseran was never one of those.’

Road? What road?

Tackling the climb from the north, up its longer route, as the Tour de Savoie did, was last done by the Tour de France in 1992, when Claudio Chiappucci dropped self-styled French housewives’ favourite Richard Virenque.

It provided the springboard for his epic solo victory at Sestriere, remembered particularly for the sheer number of fans – many of them ecstatic Italians, cheering on one of their own – and the insanity of Chiappucci and the camera motorcycles almost grinding to a halt with little hope of being able to see the road in front of them.

After passing through a series of tunnels next to the lakes at Tignes and Le Chevril, the ski-resort-town of Val d’Isère is where the climb really starts, with an average gradient of 6% versus the shallower 4.1% average over the entire 48km.

‘I’d ridden the Ronde de l’Isard earlier in the year, and we went up the Port de Pailhères, which was the first time I’d done a climb over 2,000m in a race.

‘This was obviously 2,770m. I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think I’d ever gone that high even in a car!’ laughs Braybrooke.

‘I didn’t know what was going to happen to my legs, but it was OK, actually. My form was pretty good.’

Braybrooke finished an exceptional 26th at the Tour de Savoie, marking another step on his journey to becoming a pro rider – a journey that wouldn’t have been possible without financial assistance from the Dave Rayner Fund.

‘I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if the fund didn’t exist,’ he says. ‘It would be very difficult to base yourself abroad as a rider; the fund provides the financial lifeline that you need.’

One former beneficiary of the Dave Rayner Fund is Dan Martin, who now rides for Quick-Step Floors and finished sixth overall at this year’s Tour de France (he also won the Tour de Savoie in 2007).

Another beneficiary of the fund is Team Sky’s Tao Geoghegan Hart, who came second at the Tour de Savoie last year.

The Iseran certainly gets the thumbs up from Braybrooke, then, although he’s momentarily surprised when we tell him that the road had only reopened for the summer the week before he raced up it.

‘It wasn’t too bad at all. Someone, somewhere, perhaps knew that it was going to be OK for us to ride over it, so maybe they’ll be thinking about using it again at the Tour soon…’

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