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Will this be the climb that decides the Tour de France?

In-depth
16 Sep 2020
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With the tarmac barely dry, Cyclist heads to the Alps to explore a brand new climb over the Col de la Loze that, uniquely, is just for bikes

It is also the climb that could decide the 2020 Tour de France as the pros tackle it on today's Stage 17

Words Stu Bowers Photography Alex Duffill

Anyone who skis will no doubt be familiar with the Trois Vallées. This vast region of the French Alps is serviced by several major resorts, all interconnected by a lift system that allows skiers to move from one valley to the next as seamlessly as possible.

When the summer arrives, however, and the snow disappears, only mountain bike and hiking trails connect the resort of Courchevel in the Saint-Bon valley to Méribel in the Allues valley. Or at least, that’s how it used to be.

In the summer of 2019 a road was built over the Col de la Loze, connecting the two ski resorts and creating a brand new playground for road cyclists in the process. Even better, the entire length of the route is closed to motor vehicles, so cyclists can enjoy the smooth, sinuous tarmac without being disturbed by any cars, lorries or lunatics in white vans.

At 2,304m, the Col de la Loze just misses out on a top 10 slot in the French Alpine road hierarchy, but thanks to its car-free status the region’s 11th highest paved col goes straight to the top of Cyclist’s must-do list.

Hot property

It’s not by chance that we are here so soon after the road’s opening. Adrian Hill – Ade to his mates – runs cycling company Alp Cycles in nearby Bozel, and he has been our ‘man on the inside’, keeping a close eye on the new col’s development. The minute it was officially open for business, Ade gave us the signal and we were on the next flight from London.

The sun is just starting to emerge above the surrounding mountain peaks as we prepare to set off from our hotel in Brides-les-Bains. Given that France is currently in the grip of a heat wave it’s promising to be a scorching day.

Temperatures north of 40°C have been recorded in the valley recently. That won’t have made life easy for riders taking part in this year’s Etape du Tour, which finished in nearby Val Thorens just a few days ago.

Ade was there, supporting some of his cycling clients, and says he has ‘never seen so many riders looking so broken’. They were simply frazzled by the heat and many failed to finish the 131km course.

With that in mind we slather on a generous helping of factor 50, don our sunglasses, clip in to our pedals and head out onto our planned route for the day. We’ll have to wait a while before we get to experience the Col de la Loze, though. In fact our ride begins in the opposite direction by crossing the valley on the other side of the Doron de Bozel river on a serene balcony road.

We keep the pace easy in these early kilometres, but still gain height rapidly through a quick succession of hairpins. Peering down into the valley below, already the trucks and lorries on the main arterial road look the size of kids’ toys and Brides-les-Bains is now just a model village.

We pass through the village of Montagny and descend into Bozel, passing by Ade’s house along the way. I was already jealous of the idyllic mountain village setting he calls home, but this only intensifies when Ade points out the start of the off-road downhill mountain bike trail his son takes to get to school every morning. I can’t think of any better way to start the day. 

New heights

After a few more kilometres of gentle descending we suddenly find ourselves in the clutches of the main valley road. It’s busy with traffic, but fortunately it’s only a couple of kilometres before we swing off again onto a quieter road that signals the start of the climb to Courchevel and, beyond that, the Col de la Loze.

Before now it was only possible to ride up this road as far as the ski resort at Courchevel 1850, a 17km climb at a gradient between 5% and 7%. But the opening of the Col de la Loze has changed the nature of the climb completely. The extra section adds another 6km to the distance along with an additional 377m of vertical ascent. What’s more, the steepest gradients are towards the top, which means we’ll need to hold something back for the final effort.

From the valley, the complete climb measures 23km in length, with a vertical gain of 1,458m to the summit at 2,304m. That puts it on a similar footing to Mont Ventoux, with its 1,640m of ascent over 21.4km.

Given that, the Col de la Loze may well, in years to come, write itself into Tour de France legend too. It doesn’t have long to wait to get its first chance, because the 2020 edition has a summit finish here at the end of Stage 17 from Grenoble on Wednesday 16th September.

Given what lies ahead of us today, Ade and I click through the gears to settle into a comfortable rhythm. The early part of the ascent is forested, allowing us a modicum of shelter from the heat, with occasional gaps between the trees affording magnificent views across the surrounding mountains.

Despite the manageable gradient it’s quite an irregular climb. The switchbacks aren’t regimented like they are on so many Alpine roads, but are more erratic in pattern, like the flourish of an artist’s brush.

By La Praz at around 1,300m my bidons are dry, so I stop to refill them from a water fountain in the town square while admiring the ski jumps on the hillsides opposite.

They were built for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, and there seems to be a flurry of activity around them. Not of skiers, but rather builders, which, Ade tells me, is a redevelopment to ensure future World Cup skiing events can be held here.

As we continue climbing the towns we pass through act conveniently like an altimeter. Courchevel 1550 comes first, then Courchevel 1650, and by the time Courchevel 1850 is behind us the landscape is starting to feel much more isolated. With 16km of the climb under our belts it feels like we’re up among the high peaks. But we’re far from done yet.

This part of town, just above 1850, is known as ‘Millionaires Row’, Ade tells me. ‘You’re looking at €30 million minimum to get a place on this stretch of road,’ he says. ‘Oleg Tinkov owns a hotel up here.’

It all looks quiet as we pass, so I’m guessing Tinkov’s not at home. Besides, my attention is focussed more on the black ribbon of tarmac snaking out above us.

The main event

With the road having only been completed days before we got here, all that’s currently in place to prevent traffic from going up the Col de la Loze is a pair of metal barriers. I’m somewhat dismayed when a vehicle pulls up and the driver jumps out, simply moves the barriers aside and then continues driving up the road.

Ade too expresses his surprise, however we’re not too far down the road when we hear another car approaching from behind us. This time it’s the gendarmes in hot pursuit of the outlaw.

On any other day a car chase might serve as a welcome distraction from the climb, but today my focus remains on my surroundings.

The new section of the Col de la Loze starts off relatively sedately, which is nice enough at the time but actually just lulls us into a false sense of security. With around 4km to go things start to ramp up – literally. From here 7% is the shallowest slope we can expect, but mostly we’ll be tackling gradients in double figures.

We attempt to pass the azure-blue waters of the lake at Rocher de la Loze, but the scene is too beautiful not to stop and savour. Ade points out Mont Blanc gleaming in the distance on this crystal-clear day.

We have an almost unbroken panoramic view of snow-capped peaks that demands to be appreciated, but equally I don’t want to stand still for too long. I can see the summit of the Col de la Loze is tantalisingly close, but between it and us is a stretch of tarmac that looks brutally steep.

It turns out to be every bit as tough as it looked from below, and the last part of the climb is truly arduous. Fatigue, combined with the thinner air, is taking its toll and the final 100m stretch is the steepest of all. Ade and I attempt to unleash our sprints in a head-to-head battle for the summit sign, but it’s like watching two old men race to the newsagents on Zimmer frames. My legs begin to buckle as I tackle what feels like a wall. By the time I reach the top I’m done in, and all I can do is slump over my handlebars.

Over the top

Swinging around the corner to begin the descent off the Col de la Loze I get a bit of a shock, because it looks like we’re about to ride off the end of the world. So steep is the initial drop down into the Méribel side of the valley it has effectively created a blind summit.

It’s at least 25% and feels so sheer that after descending just a few hundred metres, Ade and I stop to look back up at it. I can’t help feeling glad we didn’t decide to ride the Col de la Loze in the opposite direction, as this side really is a wall.

As it happens, this is the way the 2020 Tour de France will tackle it on Stage 17. This is the penultimate mountain stage and the last summit finish of the race, so it’s likely to be a crucial and potentially decisive 168km day. Whatever unfolds in the battle for the General Classification, the viciousness of that final incline means whoever triumphs will be a worthy winner.

The road continues to fall away beneath us. I can feel my bike going light as we whizz over slight crests, and my disc brakes hum as I pull hard on the levers to scrub speed for the many twists and turns. The freshly laid tarmac, though, feels extremely grippy, which gives me the confidence to lean into the bends.

In virtually no time at all we’ve dropped a vertical kilometre to Méribel, and there’s still more to come as we head further down the Allues valley and eventually all the way back to Brides-les-Bains.

With the cooling rush of air during the high-speed descent I’d almost forgotten about the temperature until, back in Brides-les-Bains, the sweltering heat hits us once more. We decide it’s time we stopped for refreshments and, given the warmth, iced coffees accompanied by ice creams seems the sensible option.

With around 65km ridden, and now back in the town where we started, we could potentially call it a day here. After all, the ride so far has certainly served up more than enough challenges and delights to be considered well worthy of drawing that line. But not today. Ade, bright spark that he is, has other ideas.

Back in the saddle, we head further down the valley and, after another short blast on a main road, reach the turnoff for Saint-Laurent-de-la-Côte.

As we begin to ascend once more, Ade has me fretting when he announces it’s a 32km climb to Val Thorens – the same climb that was hit by floods on Stage 20 of the 2019 Tour de France – but before I can choke on the last dregs of yet another drained bidon, mercifully he adds that we’re only going about halfway up.

The road to the ski resort is a dead-end so we’re not going to bother with the upper out-and-back section. Instead we will turn off and cross to the far side of the valley before descending back to Moûtiers.

I nod nonchalantly when Ade delivers the news, but the relief must surely be written all over my face. He remains the consummate host, sticking by my side through every twist and turn, over every rise and fall, but over the next few kilometres it’s clear I’m starting to flag. The early-afternoon sun is high and at full strength now, and through the meandering switchbacks there are numerous times when we are completely without shade.

I feel like I’m being cooked alive. My bike computer reads 35°C, my jersey is agape and behind my sunglasses my eyes are stinging from the ever-present sweat. The skin on my arms and legs feels like sizzling strips of streaky bacon on a red-hot grill.

When we reach Les Varcins, having climbed around 14km, a large water trough beneath a fountain appears like an oasis. I dunk my arms in deep, then cup my hands together and scoop big handfuls over my head, face and neck. It’s tempting to climb right in, but I’m not sure the locals would approve so think better of it.

The villagers have clearly been getting in the spirit of Le Tour, putting out flags and bunting, and hanging painted bikes on walls in readiness for the arrival of the race.

We, on the other hand, are ready for our finale. This is our turning point, and it feels good to be descending again, but even these higher speeds seem incapable of delivering any significant cooling breeze. The air is just so warm, it’s like being in a wind-tunnel with a hot air fan.

My mouth is completely dry by the time we emerge in Moûtiers, and so too are my bottles. Ade, once again acting like some sort of super-domestique, passes me one of his.

‘We’re not quite done yet,’ he says as he does so. ‘We’ll turn left just up there. It’s a little road the locals call The Wall.’ My heart sinks.

Ade explains that the climb is a steep ramp to connect with the balcony road that we began our day on, the alternative being a long steady drag using the main trunk road. I agree that short, sharp pain seems the better option, so we make the turn, I click into my smallest gear and commence The Wall, staring at Ade’s back tyre.

Twinges in my hamstrings tell me that cramps are imminent, but happily we make it to the top before my legs succumb. I’m grateful that, soon after, the road tilts downwards and stays like that all the way back to the finish at Brides-les-Bains.

The town takes its name from the reviving spring water that bubbles up from underground, but I have an entirely different kind of recovery drink in mind.

Highs and Loze

Follow Cyclist’s route around the Trois Vallées

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/98france. From the centre of Brides-les-Bains take the Route des Frasses, and after about 2km turn right onto the balcony road to La Thuile, then Bozel. Join the main valley road (D915) and descend, then turn left towards Courchevel. Climb through Courchevel 1300 and on to 1850, which is where the new road begins.

From the summit at 2,304m descend west to Méribel-les-Allues and Brides-les-Bains. Follow the D915 down the valley and turn left before Salins-les-Thermes towards Val Thorens. Turn at Les Frênes, crossing the valley, and descend to Moûtiers. Take the D915 to Salins-les-Thermes and climb Rue du Colonel Duboin to meet Route des Frasses back to Brides-les-Bains.

The rider’s ride

Trek Émonda SLR 7 Disc eTap, £5,950, trekbikes.com

Of all Trek’s race bikes, the Émonda is the climbers’ favourite. The emphasis is on weight – a lack of it, of course – and the bike is built around the manufacturer’s lightest ever road frame, which comes in at a claimed weight of just 665g. Throw in the fork and the frameset is still only a shade over 1kg, helping this complete bike to come in at an impressive 7.11kg including disc brakes and Sram Force eTap AXS shifting.

The combination was everything I could have asked for on this particular Alpine ride. The spec was flawless and the combination of low weight and unrelenting frame stiffness paid dividends on the climbs. And while the Émonda may be a featherweight, never once did it feel too flighty or unstable on fast descents, plus there was ample comfort too, despite the fact I was only running 25mm tyres.

Trek has left little, if anything, to complain about in what can only be described as a superb all-rounder.

Do it yourself

Travel

Cyclist flew with Swiss Air from London Heathrow to Geneva. Expect to pay £90-£130 each way depending on the time of year. Geneva is one of the best-served airports in the world so there’s a huge choice of airlines and flight times to suit all. Brides-les-Bains is around two hours by car.

Accommodation

We stayed at the superb Hotel Les Chalets in Brides-les-Bains (brideslesbains.com), a hotel well used to cyclists. There is a secure garage with basic workshop facilities for bikes, and a breakfast buffet that caters for hungry riders. There’s even porridge.

Thanks

Huge thanks to Ade and Shelley of Alp Cycles (alpcycles.com), who were a big help making this ride happen. Thanks also to Elodie Guignard of Courchevel Tourism Office (courchevel.com) and Nadine Carle-Edgar of Montagnes Representation in the UK (montagnes.uk.com), for their support.