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Classic Tour de France climbs: Col du Tourmalet

20 Jul 2019

This article was originally published in issue 89 of Cyclist magazine

Words Henry Catchpole Photography Alex Duffill

‘Crossed Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly feasible.’ Rather than write an extra 993 words, it’s tempting to leave my summation of this Classic Climb at that. For that’s reportedly how Alphonse Steinès communicated his passage over the famous climb after doing a recce for organiser Henri Desgrange ahead of its initial inclusion in the 1910 Tour de France. 

Steinès, I think it’s fair to say, was the sort of person who liked to look on the bright side of life. He and the Black Knight from Monty Python would have got on famously.

‘Only a flesh wound!’

‘Merely a hillock!’

Steinès, you see, had indeed crossed the Tourmalet, but only just. Having abandoned the car and driver he had set out with, he then bribed (with gold coins) a shepherd boy to guide him to the top. Despite the promise of more money if he reached the summit, conditions were so bad that the boy turned back.

Exhausted, stumbling, practically hypothermic having slipped into a stream and with warnings about bears ringing in his ears, Steinès was eventually found by a search party just before three o’clock in the morning. After no more than a restorative bath in Barèges, Steinès fired off the cheerful telegram to Desgrange.

The extent of his overly optimistic description duly became clear when Octave Lapize called the organisers ‘murderers’ during the first Tour stage to feature the Tourmalet (the monstrous 326km stage also featured the Aubisque, Peyresourde and Aspin).

Given that Lapize won the stage and the Tour in 1910, who knows what the rest of the riders must have thought…

Back by popular demand

Not that any of this discouraged the organisers of the Tour. In the subsequent 109 years since that initial crossing, the Tourmalet has become the most-used climb in the race. Stage 14 of the 2019 Tour will mark the race’s 87th visit to the col, although it will be just the third time it has featured as a summit finish.

Cyclist tackled the climb from Luz-Saint-Sauveur in the west, travelling in the same direction as the peloton will. Unusually for a col, both sides are almost equally difficult.

Climb this side and you travel 19km at an average gradient of 7.4%, while from Saint-Marie-De-Campan to the east (the direction Steinès and Lapize tackled it from) you have 17.2km of climbing also at an average of 7.4%.

It’s a climb of two halves, with the first part being duller but also more deceptive. It would actually be easy enough to skip straight to the more aesthetically pleasing second half as there is an obvious and tempting starting point at a vast ski station car park.

However, you need to have your legs softened up by the more mundane first half to understand the true difficulty of the Tourmalet.

As you climb from Luz-Saint-Sauveur the road is meandering, with the rocky River Bastan sticking tight to the left of the tarmac.

The odd hairpin lulls you into thinking things are spicing up, but then the D918 settles back to its straight course up the valley, and this continues through Baregès and on to the car park over 10km into the climb.

What’s deceptive about this first 10km is the gradient. The road isn’t remarkably wide but with a white line down the middle and plenty of room for two-way traffic it disguises the steepness well. Your eyes would swear it was only about a 4% incline, but your legs and bike computer will tell you it’s about twice that.

Just before you reach the vast car park you may notice some small green and white signs with depictions of cyclists on them and arrows pointing right towards the Voie Laurent Fignon. This is the old road up the Tourmalet, which has been left in place for non-motorised traffic.

To be honest I think it’s a little cruel to give you the choice. Old or new? Which is better? Which is right? Which is more popular on Strava? Surely he could have gone eight seconds quicker?

All these questions and more pile up in your mind when you see the signs and the end result is that you’ll probably be so distracted that you just stay on the route that the Tour takes today. We did.

Tough at the top

If you do have a desire to head up the old road, watch out for stones. The lighter traffic means that it’s not quite as well swept as the new tarmac, and punctures could be a problem.

Back on the D918, the wide road continues to a big right-hand hairpin where the gradient disappears for a few blissful pedal strokes. Enjoy the brief break, because the incline is unrelenting from here to the summit 5km away. Almost immediately after this corner the white line down the middle vanishes and the road seems a little wilder as a result.

You’re now entering the craggy jaws of the mountain fortress that’s been looming ahead of you for the whole ride. No serried stacks of switchbacks here, just a punishing path wriggling its way up the slopes.

As the road gets narrower you can feel quite exposed, with seemingly little or no protection from the drops at the side. A wobble here and you feel you’d be tumbling for some time. That’s assuming you can see the side of the road.

The last time the Tourmalet held a summit finish was in 2010 when Andy Schleck and his yellow shadow, Alberto Contador, climbed through a thick, swirling mist that seemed to surround them almost as closely as the spectators.

The 1.8km from the penultimate hairpin averages 11%, and as you round the last switchback with only 400m to go you’re presented with a ramp that spikes up to over 14% in one final attempt to make you capitulate.

By being forced to tackle the hardest pitch last it really does feel like the mountain is wringing the remaining drops of strength from your muscles.

The reward for making it all the way up, however, is a beautiful finish line. The way the road crests between two walls, with vast valleys in front and behind, feels like a true summit.

And atop the left-hand wall, standing proud like a figurine on a wedding cake, is a silver-coloured sculpture of Octave Lapize straining with the sort of effort that does indeed look like it might kill him.

Since 2001 the first person over the top in the Tour has been awarded the Souvenir Jacques Goddet (not the Prix Jacques Goddet, which is a journalism prize) netting the rider a handsome €5,000 bonus.

You can pick up your own souvenir at the shop on the summit if you want, but just getting to the top feels like reward enough.

The French call the Col du Tourmalet l’Incontournable (the unavoidable) because it’s the only way across this part of the Pyrenees, which partially explains why the col has been used so many times in the Tour. But it really is only part of the reason, because it is also, as Steinès said, a very good road.