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Classic climbs: Col Agnel

In-depth
24 Mar 2021
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Straddling the France-Italy border, steeped in history and soaring to 2,744m, it’s odd that the Col Agnel isn’t more celebrated

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

A bit like Chris Froome’s Grand Tour potential back in 2010, I can’t help feeling that the Col Agnel is underappreciated. After all, at 2,744m it’s the third-highest pass in Europe (and eighth-highest road), beaten only narrowly by the glamorous celebrity climbs of the Col de l’Iseran (2,770m) and Stelvio (2,750m).

Straddling France and Italy, Agnel is also the highest border crossing in Europe. As a test of climbing chops it’s a decent 20.6km in length from Ville-Vieille on the French side and it averages a healthy 7%, according to Strava. The final 5km of the climb in the thin air above 2,200m actually averages closer to 9%.

So it’s fair to say the numbers stack up in favour of fame. But, of course, it takes more than just the right numbers on paper for a climb to achieve stardom.

 

In the same way that a good VO2 max doesn’t automatically mean you will be a Tour de France winner (you might have the mental fortitude of a damp lettuce leaf, for example), so an ascent needs more subjective attributes to commend it to the pantheon of great climbs.

Attributes such as attractiveness, for example, are a help. Yet here too the Col Agnel strikes me as fitting the bill. In any catwalk of climbs, I really think the Agnel would be up there in supermodel territory, unable to get out of bed for less than the price of a Team Sky contract.

Admittedly, the first half of the climb isn’t particularly spectacular, but it’s also far from ugly.

The actual start point seems to be debatable, but the roundabout at Ville-Vieille where the D5 spears away from the main D947 and across the river Guil seems like a logical place to press go on your bike computer.

You work your way up through trees for about 5km and then, just after the landscape starts feeling a little more pastoral, you’ll see the first of several tiny villages.

This is La Rua, and almost immediately after it you need to dart off to the left, taking the D205 into the cluster of chalets that make up Molines-en-Queyras.

The hamlet of Pierre Grosse arrives next, then Fontgillarde. And while each bunch of buildings gives you something to aim for and provides bucolic scenes such as a game of geriatric boule to distract you, the road also seems to rise up steeply at some point through each one.

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Why villages often have these sharp ramps I have no idea, but they certainly don’t provide much respite for the legs. Anyway, once the final sloping roof of Fontgillarde has slipped past, you’re in the truly beautiful part of the Agnel.

Apart from the thin ribbon of tarmac, it feels like civilisation has ceased to exist.

Traffic, which had never been more than a steady trickle up to the junction at Le Serre anyway, now just melts away. It’s as if you’ve been gradually returning to nature ever since the beginning of the climb.

From the shops at the start you pass through ever sleepier villages until everything manmade has evaporated and you’re left only with the sounds of birds and babbling water, the occasional marmot or cow and the wind (meteorological, not the gastric rumblings of ruminant mountain herds).

 

Heavy with history

Some climbs are like pedalling your way through a sort of cycling theme park. The graffiti on the road, the cafe at the top, the sense that you are following in the wheels of thousands of others that have gone before, the selfies, the commemorative jerseys on sale… none of this applies to the Col Agnel. It feels blissfully unadorned.

This third quarter of the climb, between the villages and the steep last 5km is itself rather unusual for an entirely different reason. Instead of snaking back and forth across an incline it plots a mildly meandering but essentially straight course up a valley.

It’s not even all uphill, with the occasional short descent and flat section thrown in as you pedal against the flow of the gin-clear stream to your right.

 

The only problem is that if the wind is blowing directly down the valley there isn’t the usual fluctuating switchback feeling as you tack back and forth across a slope. You simply have to battle into it.

Talking of battling, you may now be following in the weighty footsteps of Hannibal’s war elephants.

While it’s more likely his army went over the Petit St Bernard or the Col de Clapier further north, the Agnel is a possible route and it’s a welcome distraction imagining what might have occurred here more than 2,000 years ago.

A lot more recently, the Tour de France has beaten its own path over the Agnel, although only twice, and just once – on Stage 15 in 2008 – in this direction. Even then it was a leg-softener, with the stage finishing up at Prato Nevoso (Simon Gerrans winning from the break).

The Giro d’Italia has also used the road twice, but both times from the Italian side, where it is known as the Colle dell’Agnello (the pass of the lamb).

 

The latter visit, in 2016, saw arguably the Agnel’s most famous cycling moment to date as Steven Kruijswijk crashed into a snow bank while descending, effectively ending his hopes of winning the race.

A few moments earlier Michele Scarponi had led over the summit, and there is a memorial to the late Eagle of Filottrano at the top of the pass.

The Agnel’s anonymity is no doubt connected to its lack of Grand Tour action. But it verges on crazy that the third-highest pass in the Alps, one that lies so close to the Izoard and Galibier, has been used so little.

Perhaps I’m missing something, and perhaps Col Agnel doesn’t deserve a place in this series of Classic Climbs, but everything I experienced while pedalling up it suggests to me that it does.

And if you ever find yourself breathing hard in the thin air of its hairpinned finale you too will be in no doubt that it stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best.

But perhaps, as I did, you will also come to another conclusion: that it’s something of a blessing that the Agnel remains largely untrammelled by professional racing and is relatively unknown as a result. Because the wild, unspoilt nature of it is a large part of what makes this climb not only beautiful, but special.

I’m sure Chris Froome would disagree, but perhaps some things should remain underappreciated.