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The Tour de France's secret climb

24 Jul 2018

Words Emily Chappell Photography Camille McMillan

The Col de Portet isn’t much of a road these days, and until recently would probably only have been of interest to a few Pyrenean shepherds and some hikers. This year it has exploded into relative fame with the news that it would feature as a finish at the Tour de France.

Today, it remains a challenging gravel ascent, and we were eager to discover whether rumours that it would be made anew in tarmac were true, or if a sadistic ASO were keen to rekindle the tradition of savage gravel ascents from the Tour's earliest years.

The Col de Portet is happily overshadowed by the neighbouring Pla d’Adet, which shares the same 7km climb out of Saint-Lary-Soulon, before turning left and climbing up the opposite side of the valley to a ski station that has hosted several Tour de France stage finishes.

Early in the climb I passed a plaque commemorating Poulidor’s stage-winning attack on Merckx in 1974. The plaque states, proudly, that he went on to finish second in the Tour, and I wondered if this was to be the fate of Pla d’Adet itself – long known as a challenging climb, but now to be eclipsed by the neighbouring Col de Portet, whose 2,215m summit hosts this year’s highest stage finish.

The col 'has all the assets to become a new Tourmalet,' boasted Christian Prudhomme as the 2018 Tour de France route was unveiled.

It is, after all, both higher and steeper than the nearby monster that features in almost every Tour. And this year’s parcours certainly favours novelty over convention, with a heavily cobbled stage between Arras and Roubaix (admittedly more of a rarity than an outright novelty) and the much-fêted 2km of gravel on the Plateau des Glières in the Alps.

Gravel or tarmac?

The Col de Portet, with its 8.7% average gradient, is both higher and steeper than the Tourmalet, and depending on how the race plays out on 25th July, Pla d’Adet mightn’t be the only Pyrenean climb to find its star on the wane.

We were assured that Col de Portet would be tarmacced especially for the Tour, but by early May the internet rumour mill was churning away.

The road was still gravel. Maybe they wouldn’t tarmac it.

After all, it comes at the end of the Tour’s shortest stage in 30 years – a mere 65km racing, including Peyresourde-Peyregudes, Val Louron-Azet and Col de Portet in daunting succession.

Perhaps a long gravel climb would be the sting in Prudhomme’s tail. It could be an attempt to inaugurate a 'French Finestre' – and after Froome’s astonishing breakaway on the Finestre in this year’s Giro, that’s an even more enticing prospect.

I rode the route of this year’s Stage 17 in mid-May, asking everyone I met what they knew about plans to surface the Col de Portet.

'Oui,' said most, decisively, but when I pressed them for more details, all were uncertain.

'Avant le Tour,' was the firmest answer I got. I suspected that these local experts knew little more than I did.

The ascent

When I reached it, the col was still magnificently untamed. The first two climbs of the day had been pristine in chocolate-box fashion, the Peyresourde’s green meadows glowing beneath snowy peaks, and Val Louron-Azet offering views back towards the Peyragudes airstrip, and forward to the almost imperceptible scratches on the mountainside that are the Col de Portet’s 14 hairpins.

Both had felt transcendently, but also somewhat implausibly, beautiful. I was ready for something more gritty.

As I neared the head of the valley, the air chilled and the mountain belched out thick white clouds, as if wanting to hide itself from this interloper.

The sparse sections of tarmac were so pitted they might as well have been gravel, and I steered round large rocks that had thundered down the mountainside during the winter.

Large bergs of dirty snow leaked meltwater and very quickly my bike and legs were generously spattered with mud.

At the seventh switchback, steel netting had been pinned across the upper bank like an oversized hairnet, and I rode past with the curious impression that the mountain had been muzzled.

I remembered the suffering of early racers like Octave Lapize and Eugene Christophe, battling over the Tourmalet when it was still gravel and modern gearing systems existed only in the realm of science fiction, and wondered if Prudhomme, rather than literally paving the way for new traditions, was instead hearkening back to the old.

Wouldn’t it be amazing, I thought, to watch the peloton battle its way up this ragged track?

The top of the col is currently just a muddy car park, and I struggled up the final kilometres accompanied only by the sound of rattling stones and the drip-drip-drip of melting snow, finding it easier to imagine myself a victor in the Tours of old, with few witnesses and little fanfare, than to picture the legions of luridly costumed fans who will no doubt line this road in July.

Before the Tour

On my way down I passed two incongruous men in jeans and down jackets, one of them holding a sheaf of paper, and the other a long pole with a large yellow sensor on the end, which he rested on the ground at regular intervals, taking some sort of reading.

I stopped to see what they were up to.

'Yes, this will all be tarmac by July. That’s our job – we’re road surveyors.'

Could they tell me when? They exchanged non-committal glances.

'Before the Tour,' said one, and the other nodded in agreement. 'Before the Tour.'

A scattering of raindrops hit us, as if thrown by the indignant mountain, and I thanked them and carried on down the hill. I had my answer.