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HC climbs: Superbagneres

Ellis Bacon
7 Dec 2017

This road to nowhere in the Pyrenees is seldom used by the Tour, and it's a shame, as its appearances always make for memorable racing

Surely it’s no coincidence that what are widely considered the two best Tours de France in living memory – the 1986 and 1989 editions – both featured the climb of Superbagnères.

And if it is a coincidence? Well, then the climb can be considered a good luck charm for the organisers, and including it again might really spice things up.

As we head rapidly towards 30 years since the Pyrenean climb last featured on the route of the world’s biggest bike race, it’s surely high time that the Tour considered going back.

What’s the hold-up? Weak road bridges on the climb’s lower slopes mean that the Tour isn’t prepared to risk catastrophe to get the race’s heavy infrastructure to the top.

One solution would be to station the weighty team buses, podium and VIP grandstands down in the town of Bagnères-de-Luchon and have only the essential finish line paraphernalia at the summit, with team cars ferrying the riders back down again at the conclusion of the stage.

Either way, one can only hope that an answer is found to bringing Superbagnères back into the fold. 

More than just numbers

A ski station during snowy months, in summer Superbagnères is a popular feature in Pyrenean cycling trips passing through the town of Bagnères-de-Luchon at its base. 

But what is it that makes a climb that has only featured six times at the Tour so special anyway?

After all, at 18.5km in length and with an average gradient of just over 6%, Superbagnères is not an especially tough climb on paper. 

First, there’s the fact that in its six Tour appearances – two of which were as a mountain time-trial, and another one as a short and sharp 20km massed start road race – it has only ever acted as a stage finish.

As a single road climb (so, not a pass), Superbagnères is essentially a cul-de-sac: when you reach the top there’s nowhere to go but back down the way you came.

What really makes it a ‘must-do’ mountain, however, is the list of illustrious names that have stood victorious at its summit, a list that includes Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, Federico Bahamontes and Robert Millar.

And don’t let that 6.3% average fool you: constant changes in gradient make this a climb that’s hard to find your rhythm on, with sections over 10% en route to its 1,800m summit.

Add the fact that when the pros have tackled it they’ve been going full pelt as a result of it being the deciding act of the day, and you’ve got a bona fide classic climb on your hands.

Greatness thrust upon it

Superbagnères made its first appearance at the Tour de France in 1961, when Italian Imerio Massignan took the stage victory.

It returned the following year, this time as a mountain time-trial, and while Massignan would go on to win a second successive King of the Mountains title, it was Spain’s Federico Bahamontes who was victorious on Superbagnères.

Its next inclusion came in 1971, and it was an altogether more curious affair – an experimental 19.6km road stage starting in Luchon and finishing at the top of the climb.

The winner this time was another fêted Spanish climber, José Manuel Fuente, who crossed the line almost half a minute clear of Belgian climbing specialist Lucien Van Impe.

In 1979 Superbagnères was included on the route once again as a slightly more conventional mountain TT, won by France’s Bernard Hinault on the way to the second of his five Tour titles.

As for those classic 1986 and 1989 visits, they bring back memories of bike racing at its best, when more unpredictable racing – including huge attacks and spectacular struggles – ruled the roost, in contrast to today’s far more calculated ride-to-power processions.

Hinault may have won on Superbagnères in 1979, but his 1986 experience was somewhat different, in that it was simply one climb too far for him on a gruelling Stage 13.

The previous day – Stage 12 between Bayonne and Pau – had seen Hinault at his attacking best, putting more than four-and-a-half minutes into his young La Vie Claire teammate Greg LeMond, who he’d promised to help win the 1986 Tour after LeMond had unselfishly helped the Frenchman win his fifth and, as it turned out, final Tour the year before.

It meant that, going into the Superbagnères stage, Hinault led LeMond overall by 5 minutes 25 seconds, having already beaten the American by 44 seconds on Stage 9’s time-trial in Nantes.

It was hard to see how any of this was helping LeMond, especially when Hinault began Stage 13 by attacking again, this time on the descent of the Col du Tourmalet early on, with the Col d’Aspin, the Col du Peyresourde and Superbagnères itself still to come. 

It was a curious move given that Hinault was already in the leader’s yellow jersey. The Frenchman would later claim he attacked ostensibly to put LeMond’s rivals under pressure, and to be fair the move did indeed force Urs Zimmermann, Robert Millar and Luis Herrera to chase, allowing LeMond to sit on their wheels while they did the work.

Having ridden hard over the Aspin and Peyresourde, Hinault blew up at the bottom of Superbagnères. Two days of racing from the front had proved too much even for The Badger.

LeMond was then helped by a brave attack from a third La Vie Claire rider, fellow American Andy Hampsten, which put Millar and Zimmermann under further pressure, until finally he went on the attack himself. 

Hampsten had won the Tour of Switzerland just ahead of the 1986 Tour, and so could have legitimately staked a claim for additional leader status that year – despite it being his first Tour – giving La Vie Claire a three-pronged attack. Instead, he rode all-out for LeMond.

‘I was able to help Greg that day by attacking the small lead group he was in after I was dragged back up to it by Robert Millar,’ Hampsten remembers, talking to Cyclist from Tuscany, where he runs his Cinghiale Cycling Tours company. 

‘That attack forced Zimmermann and the other contenders to chase, which was good because LeMond liked to attack when he knew his opponents were toasted.

‘After he bridged over to me, I worked pulling him for nearly two kilometres until I’d run completely out of energy.

‘I remember the gradient going into Superbagnères in 1986 was gradual before a steep final slope that started about 8km or 10km from the summit.

‘That steep bit happened to be where I was able to regain contact with LeMond’s lead group, so I attacked as soon as we joined them to surprise the competition.

‘It wasn’t planned by the La Vie Claire team. We were used to keeping the racing aggressive, so I just did what I could.’

LeMond won the stage alone, a minute and 12 seconds ahead of Millar, with Zimmermann third. Herrera was another half a minute behind, while Hampsten was fifth at 2min 20sec.

Hampsten’s efforts saw him claim the white jersey as best young rider, too, a classification he would lead from there into Paris, where he finished fourth overall. Not a bad Tour debut…

As for Hinault, he would lose 4min 39sec to LeMond, which left him still wearing the yellow jersey but now just 40 seconds ahead of his American teammate.

LeMond would do further damage in the Alps, leading to that famous moment on the stage to Alpe d’Huez when the two teammates would cross the finish line having linked hands, with Hinault finally conceding defeat.

Millar time

From having dominated on the slopes of Superbagnères to set up his first Tour win in 1986, LeMond would lose his yellow jersey there in 1989 – teammate-less and exposed.

At the front of the race on Stage 10, defending Tour champion Pedro Delgado, having lost 2min 40sec before the race had even begun by missing his start time in the prologue time-trial, clearly had something to prove.

As the race moved onto the slopes of Superbagnères for the finale of the stage, the Spaniard moved forward to link up with earlier breakaway riders Charly Mottet and Millar.

Delgado’s constant pressure would soon put Frenchman Mottet in trouble, and only Millar could follow his wheel. 

With 100m to go, Millar attacked, and Delgado had no answer. The Scotsman won the stage, his third at the Tour following victories in 1983 and 1984, and more than making up for the disappointment of missing out to LeMond on Superbagnères three years before.

In terms of the Tour’s general classification, though, the real action was happening back down the climb.

France’s Laurent Fignon, sensing that LeMond in the yellow jersey might be struggling, started to turn the screws, then launched an attack inside the final kilometre.

At first the American managed to claw his way back up to the Frenchman, but the effort put him deep into the red, and when Fignon pushed on his rival had no answer.

LeMond, defeated, virtually slumped over his bike, his nose just inches from his fluoro yellow bike computer (everything was fluorescent yellow in the late 80s, from LeMond’s regular ADR team kit, to his sunglasses, to his podium cap, to his now sweat-covered bike computer).

It may have been only 12 seconds that Fignon gained from the American on the line, but having started the day just five seconds down, it was enough to put him in yellow.

And in this Tour more than any other in history, seconds were vitally important. By the end of the final time-trial in Paris 12 days later, Fignon would have lost the race to LeMond by just eight of them.

Friends reunited

While the likes of Hinault and LeMond have experienced both ends of the spectrum of cycling emotions on Superbagnères, Hampsten would enjoy consistently good rides in both 1986 and 1989, first as LeMond’s teammate and then as a leader in his own right at 7-Eleven.

Hampsten’s attack on Superbagnères had been instrumental in teammate LeMond’s 1986 Tour victory, and in 1989 he would again be there almost by LeMond’s side – although on a rival team – eventually beating his stricken former team leader to the line by three seconds.

That left Hampsten in fifth place overall, but his form would fall away in the Alps and he would eventually arrive in Paris outside the top 20.

The climb of Superbagnères surely has plenty more Tour stories like these yet to tell. So while the proud old Grand Hotel high on its summit, with stunning views out onto the Pyrenees, awaits its next batch of winter ski guests, here’s hoping a way will be found for it to once again be pressed into action in welcoming a similar influx of colourfully clad characters around the middle of July.

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