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Classic Tour de France climbs: Col du Galibier

24 Jul 2019

This feature was originally published in Issue 64 of Cyclist magazine

Words Ellis Bacon Photography George Marshall

While race leader Jan Ullrich cracked in the cold, wet weather, Marco Pantani appeared galvanised. This was Stage 15 of the troubled 1998 Tour de France, between Grenoble and Les Deux Alpes, which Pantani had started with a three-minute deficit to the German. It would require an explosive effort on his part to get back on terms.

And so when he attacked on the Col du Galibier, Pantani gave it everything. The Italian’s on-the-drops climbing style mimicked the way the sprinters grip their handlebars, and he wouldn’t have been far off them speed-wise, either.

On such a damp and grey day, Ullrich’s equally grey pallor contrasted with Pantani’s glowing, glistening tan, and the pops of blue and yellow of his matching bike, team kit, glasses and bandana.

‘Il Pirata’ would end the day all in yellow, after turning his three-minute deficit into a six-minute advantage.

While the German would claw back two and a half minutes in the final time-trial to secure the second step on the podium in Paris, Pantani’s heroics on the Galibier had decided the race and he held on to win his first, and only, Tour de France.

Tragedy would later befall one of the Galibier’s heroes: Pantani was found dead as the result of a cocaine overdose in a Rimini hotel on Valentine’s Day 2004 – a sad end to one of the most exciting, if flawed, riders of the modern age. 

Early years

Happily, the Col du Galibier is more often the stage for hot, sunny days and happy memories. Situated in the heart of the French Alps, on the northern edge of the Ecrins National Park, the 2,642m-high Galibier will make its 64th appearance in the Tour de France in 2019.

The last time the Tour visited was in 2017, when Primoz Roglic was first over the top on Stage 17 on his way to a debut Tour stage win.

The time before that was in 2011, when the Galibier featured in two stages. It made its first appearance in 1911 as one of four climbs to showcase the Alps, after the Pyrenees had been introduced to the race the year before.

On the fifth stage of that 1911 edition – a truly epic 366km between Chamonix and Grenoble – the Galibier was on the menu alongside the Col des Aravis, the Col du Télégraphe and the Col du Lautaret.

The stage was won by Frenchman Emile Georget, 15 minutes ahead of countryman Paul Duboc. Georget also holds the honour of being the first rider to crest the Galibier in the Tour.

He, Duboc and race winner Gustave Garrigou are said to be the only riders who got up the climb without walking, which was no mean feat seeing as it was still an unmade road in those days.

The Galibier has only been used as a stage finish once in the 63 times the Tour has visited. Instead, it tends to feature either early or late on in a stage, with Briançon to the south a popular start or finish, depending on which way the climb is tackled: north to south or south to north.

From the north, the Galibier ‘officially’ starts from the town of Valloire, from where it’s 18km uphill at an average of 6.9%. In reality, the climbing starts another almost 20km further north, at the town of Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, and takes riders via the Col du Télégraphe, with a short, shallower downhill section splitting the two climbs.

From the south – the direction being used in this year’s Tour, the climb begins from the top of the Col du Lautaret, and as you turn north onto the D902 road from the D1091, you’re faced with an 8.5km climb at an average of 6.9%, with a maximum gradient in the final kilometre of 12.8%.

A huge monument to Tour founder Henri Desgrange stands proudly near the summit on the south side, and the Souvenir Henri Desgrange, introduced in 1947, remains a prize awarded at the Tour to the rider who is first across the highest summit featured in the race each year: often it’s the Tourmalet (2,115m) or the Izoard (2,360m) in years when the Tour skips the Galibier, which is in turn trumped by the Iseran (2,770m) – the high point of the 2019 Tour – or the Cime de la Bonette (2,802m).

In fact, from its first appearance in 1911 until 1938, the Galibier appeared in every edition as the Tour’s highest point, before the Iseran was introduced.

Both climbs featured again in 1939 before the Tour ground to a halt during the Second World War. Once it started up again in 1947, the Galibier was back (now boasting the monument to Desgrange, who died in 1940) although the climb would never again enjoy the same frequency of use that it had prior to the war.

In recent years, the Galibier has twice had to be omitted from the route due to bad weather. In 1996 it was dropped from Stage 9 because of snow, and the resulting shortened 46km-long stage, famously – or, given what we know now, infamously – saw Denmark’s Bjarne Riis trounce his closest rivals, putting 30 seconds into them to win the stage and take the yellow jersey, which he kept hold of the rest of the way to Paris.

In 2015, the Galibier was also dropped just prior to the race due to landslides that blocked the tunnel near the summit.

That tunnel was closed between 1976 and 2002 for major repair work, and it was the new road diversion that took the riders up to 2,645m, dwarfing the previous col pass height of 2,556m, which was still nothing to be sniffed at. 

The great escape

Arguably the mountain’s finest hour came at the Galibier’s double appearance on the race in 2011, when Andy Schleck punched the air with both fists as he crossed the line as the winner of Stage 18.

It was, and remains, the only time that a Tour stage has finished at the summit of the Galibier, yet otherwise it was a throwback to the epic solo stage wins of yesteryear, conjuring up the ghosts of the likes of Coppi, Bahamontes or Schleck’s Luxembourg compatriot, Charly Gaul.

In the lead-up to the stage, Schleck and his Leopard-Trek team hatched a plan that they then carried out to the letter.

Maxime Monfort was one of two riders (the other being Dutchman Joost Posthuma) who got into an early breakaway, ready to assist Schleck later on in the stage – a classic tactic employed by the likes of manager Bjarne Riis, from whose Saxo Bank team many of the Leopard-Trek riders had defected.

Monfort recounts his exploits that day in journalist Richard Moore’s book Étape. ‘When I knew I had Andy on my wheel, I could really kill myself,’ the Belgian says of leading Schleck through Briançon and on towards the start of the Col du Lautaret, where he finally ran out of steam.

‘I had a real role. It was important for the team, and there was a plan, a tactic. And it was Andy’s last chance.’

Alone now, going over the Lautaret and on to the Galibier, Schleck was reminded of the difficulty of going on the attack so far from the finish.

‘The headwind was all day, 65km into the wind,’ he tells Moore. ‘You could see the flags. There were lots of Luxembourg flags on the Galibier but all I could focus on was that they were blowing towards me, because of the headwind. It made it very, very tough.’

Fine as Schleck’s victory was, it was only the next day, when the Galibier again featured on the stage, climbed from the north, that the Luxembourger could finally wrest the yellow jersey from Frenchman Thomas Voeckler’s shoulders.

And even then it wasn’t enough. Schleck lost the jersey to Cadel Evans in the time-trial the next day, and Andy and elder brother Frank would have to be content with flanking the Australian on the final podium in Paris.

Back with a vengeance

Thanks to those landslides that saw the climb removed from the 2015 Tour route, the Galibier endured a six-year hiatus since Schleck’s win before returning to the course in 2017.

And with Andy Schleck now retired, and Roglic not riding the Tour this year, a new name will be crowned atop the mountain in 2019.

Unlike for Schleck, whoever is first to the summit this year is going to have to have their descending hat pulled on good and tight, as they will then have to contend with a 19km-long high-speed drop down to the finish in Valloire.