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Classic Tour de France climbs: Col d’Izoard

8 Oct 2019

Words Henry Catchpole Photography Alex Duffill

For such a formidable climb, the Izoard has a surprisingly relaxing start. Clip in at the town of Guillestre and the Izoard greets you in a friendly fashion. Yes there’s a bit of traffic on the D947, but the road is wide and the air is often cool as the sun struggles to find a way down into the steep-sided gorge.

The gradient is also more of a false flat, so you can easily turn the legs over with the chain on the big ring.

And as you pedal, quietly pleased at how quickly you’re ticking off the 31.5km, it’s worth thinking of Fausto Coppi. When he raced along here on the way to the summit in 1949 he’d started the day with the smell of the sea in his nostrils.

It seems crazy now, but the stage had begun all the way down on the coast in Cannes, and this had been the norm since the Izoard first featured in the Tour in 1922.

It has been 70 years since the organisers thought this was a good idea, and when the Tour goes over the Izoard this year, the peloton will have started its journey in Embrun, 180km inland from the Côte d’Azur.

After 16km of relatively relaxed cycling a couple of hairpins grab your attention and mark the end of the false flat. Soon you need to turn left onto the D902, otherwise you’re heading for the Col Agnel and the Italian border.

This junction is really the start of the climb proper and as if to ram the point home there is a rather ugly yellow and black branded Le Tour de France sign, with the climb’s statistics depicted on it.

A climb of two halves

The numbers reveal that from this point the ascent is 14.1km long with an average gradient of 7.3%, a maximum sustained gradient of 10% and a finish line at an altitude of 2,360m.

But actually, the hard work only really starts in the second half of this section of the climb. For the 7km from the last village to the top, the average gradient is more like 9% and there are a couple of kilometres that average more than 10%.

The D902 is narrow and it meanders before straightening as the valley blooms. It’s usually hot in this section too, with the sun on your back and no trees to shade you, although plenty of pines stand tantalisingly out of reach on the valley sides.

Three small settlements give you something to aim for as you ride between great green meadows, but at times the road seems to be an even falser flat than the opening 17km.

The road’s width and lack of corners disguises the 7-8% gradient horribly, wearing you down until it culminates in a final ramp out of Brunissard that doesn’t look difficult but feels interminable as it flares up to 14% in places.

Then the first hairpin arrives and you crawl in among the trunks and the welcome shadows thrown by the evergreens. The scent of pine hangs heavily in the air and it’s hard to tell whether the smell is refreshing or slightly sickly.

This is where the gradient consistently cranks up a couple of degrees more, and although the switchbacks provide some welcome targets to aim at, the respite they offer is fleeting.

Unlike me, Coppi wasn’t alone when he climbed here in 1949. Alongside him was his fierce rival Gino Bartali. Ferdi Kübler had been with them too after a long-range attack earlier in the day, but a flurry of punctures had thwarted him. And it would be another puncture that would ensure the stage went down in history.

Coppi crested the Izoard first but Bartali was with him (the peloton some 15 minutes in arrears by this point) and they descended together before, agonisingly, Bartali punctured 10km from the finish in Briançon. Incredibly, Coppi waited for his rival and was duly beaten in the sprint for the stage victory.

Why? Perhaps it was because it was the 18th July and therefore Bartali’s 35th birthday. Perhaps it was because both Coppi and Bartali knew that the younger man would be the one to go on and win the Tour overall that year. Either way it was an act that seems almost bewildering in this day and age of competition.

This is an ascent that has inspired daring long-range attacks in the modern age too. In 2011 Andy Schleck shot out of the peloton on the climb’s lower slopes, 62km from the finish on the summit of the Galibier. He would win the stage, although Cadel Evans’ brave solo pursuit would help him claim yellow in Paris.

And then there was Annemiek van Vleuten’s solo assault on the 2017 La Course, dropping everyone with 4km to go and winning alone. So this is a climb where you can let thoughts of glory distract you. Although nearer the top the scenery will be distraction enough.

The desert up a mountain

I often find descents in the middle of climbs slightly disconcerting. While pleasant, they upset any rhythm that you might have settled into. Plus you know that they’re damaging that average gradient figure and making the climb look easier to the outside world than it really is.

The bonus in this case is you can claim to have bagged two cols for the price of one, as technically the first 30km or so of climbing is up the Col de la Plâtrière, with the Col d’Izoard taking the glory for the last 2km to the summit.

But it’s the bottom of the brief descent and the start of those 2km to the summit that scenically sets the Izoard on a pedestal. The huge pale scree slopes and scattered spikes of stone are known as the Casse Déserte, and it’s a landscape that is somehow both barren and beautiful.

This is where Louison Bobet’s wife would be waiting to cheer him on, while his father waited on the hairpins above with a restorative sponge. Bobet was first over the Izoard on no fewer than three occasions during the Tour in the 1950s and it is his face that you will see, alongside Coppi’s, set into a rock face to the left of the road just at the end of the Casse Déserte.

In fact, given the choice, I would actually shun any tilts at the Strava segment and pause here, rather than at the very top. The last 2km are beautiful, with stunning views back down the valley, but the summit car park itself only has a slender stone tower (and a place that looks like the entrance to an old indoor swimming pool).

There’s really nothing up top to rival the Casse Déserte’s more rugged monuments to Il Campionissimo and the elegant Frenchman who was the first man to win the Tour three times in three consecutive years.

So before you tackle the final handful of hairpins to the summit, pause down here, admire the view and catch your breath. You don’t have to stop for long – about the amount of time it would have taken Bartali to mend that puncture should be enough.

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