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Rise of the giant: Paying homage to a Tour legend on the Col du Tourmalet

In-depth
15 Jul 2021
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Each June cyclists gather in France to accompany the statue of Octave Lapize up the Col du Tourmalet. Meet the Montée du Géant…

Words and photography: Jamie Wilkins

If you follow the Tour de France (and read our Classic Climbs feature) you will be familiar with the many tales surrounding the Col du Tourmalet. It’s one of the most fêted mountain roads in cycling, up there with the likes of Alpe d’Huez and Passo dello Stelvio.

It’s the highest paved pass in the French Pyrenees and the most visited major col in the Tour de France, featuring an impressive 87 times to date (the Tour is preparing for its 88th visit on Stage 18 of the 2021 Tour).

You’ll also know about the statue at the top. Known as Le Géant du Tourmalet, it is a representation of Octave Lapize, the stage winner when the Tour de France first visited in 1910.

A climbing specialist, even Lapize was reduced to walking and he famously yelled at the organisers, ‘You are murderers!’ in response to a stage of 326km and more than 6,000m of climbing, contested on heavy, two-speed bikes. He had a point.

Anyone who has struggled up the 19km and 7.4% average gradient of the Tourmalet will have shared a knowing glance with the statue at the summit, and sympathised with his plight.

The 3m high, 350kg statue was created by Jean-Bernard Métais and shows Lapize heaving at the bars and gasping for air, setting a precedent for the countless thousands of riders to follow in his wheeltracks since.

It sits atop a wall at the road’s zenith, where it was unveiled by five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault in 1999, and is a fitting crown for a king among climbs.

What many people will not know, however – I certainly didn’t until I moved to live in the Pyrenees – is that Le Géant enjoys his view for only four months through the summer.

From October each year, he winters in a park in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, a town at the foot of the Tourmalet, where his steel construction suffers less from the mountain’s wind and snow.

The migratory habits of a monument would be of little note were it not for the fact that Le Géant’s return to the summit has become an annual cycling festival. On the first Saturday of June each year, hundreds of riders gather in Bagnères-de-Bigorre to accompany him on his ascent.

Not only is participation free, so too are the local delicacies provided at the start and summit. It’s entirely and refreshingly non-competitive, a simple and joyful celebration of the region’s affection for its talismanic mountain and its first hero.

Having discovered the existence of the Montée du Géant, I decide to join in.

Taken for a ride

Now, a friend in our village had told me that lots of people ride the Montée du Géant event in vintage fashion, with old bikes and gear. I just happen to own a glorious Pashley Guv’nor – a beast at 14kg and with just three gears – and all things considered decide this would be a fitting bike for the occasion.

However, as I haul its bulk around the foothills for an hour and a half to reach the start, I become increasingly aware that no one else seems to be embracing le style d’epoque.

The nearest most people get is painting their faces with a twirly ‘Lapize’ moustache. Otherwise they’re armed with lightweight modern bikes and kit, the sort that are perfectly suited to ascending an HC climb.

I feel a bit like I’ve been duped, however my self-conscious angst is relieved somewhat upon meeting two gentlemen, both named Christophe, riding the Montée for the first time on vintage bikes.

These are the real thing, dating from 1915 and 1920, borrowed from a museum in Tarbes and subject, apparently, to no preparation whatsoever. Whereas my Pashley gleams, these bikes wear a century’s patina. The tyres are cracked and worn, the brakes stiff and ineffective. The Christophes tell me they won’t be riding back down.

The park is soon packed; organisers later claim a record attendance of over 1,000 for this 20th anniversary edition. Le Géant sits in the back of an open truck, surrounded by a brass band, facing towards the Tourmalet.

The Pic du Midi observatory above the col dominates the skyline. This mountain is the beating heart of the Pyrenees, its god, and all kneel before it. There is an element of pilgrimage to the day’s ride.

We roll out steadily as one until the drag up to the village of Campan strings everyone out. We gradually lose sight of Le Géant and his surprisingly naked backside (which is said to represent the authenticity of his effort), and the sound of the band fades into the distance. The Pashley’s three gears run out all too soon, and it’s getting hot.

A day for heroics

At Sainte-Marie de Campan we pause to photograph the statue of Eugene Christophe, the first rider to wear the yellow jersey in 1919 (although he’s better known for being penalised 10 minutes in 1913 for allowing a boy to operate the bellows while he mended his broken fork in a blacksmith’s – the commissaires were tough back then).

This year marks the centenary of the yellow jersey, and the Tour is celebrating by having historic images printed on the jerseys to mark each stage. Fittingly, Stage 13 in nearby Pau will have a picture of Eugene Christophe on the jersey, while the winner of Stage 14 will wear a jersey emblazoned with an image of the Tourmalet.

We are now at the start of the climb proper, so I knuckle down to churning the Pashley’s big gear. I feel good for a while until the heat and the grinding cadence bite, but there’s plenty of encouragement on offer from other riders.

The final 4km from the ski resort of La Mongie gets ugly. My woollen jersey is soaked with sweat and sags below my saddle. When the gradient nudges into double digits my cadence is squashed into the forties. My vintage-style bidon refuses to release more than a few drops at a time, as if repurposed from a hamster’s cage.

The summit is a welcome sight, if a chaotic one. It’s a small area and the road is still open, with cars, campervans and touring motorcycles all trying to pick through the crowds of bikes, some with more patience than others.

The diversity of cyclists atop one of Europe’s hardest climbs is remarkable: men and women, young and old. Some of the veterans must be 70 if they’re a day, and a handful of kids look to be as young as 11.

Many look as though this is the only mountain they climb all year, and they have suffered to get here. There it is again, that sense of pilgrimage.

Le Géant is positioned with relatively little ceremony other than the accompaniment of the brass band – whose feat of endurance in the heat of the day rivals that of the riders – and some inaudible words from double Tour winner Bernard Thévenet.

Then everyone jostles for position to get a selfie with Lapize. It’s no wonder his expression looks so pained.

The following day we ride over the Tourmalet again – this time on modern bikes. The col is quiet. Le Géant is once more part of the scenery, his watch resumed, ready to welcome the Tour and every other cyclist, and to empathise with their suffering.