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Classic climb: Col de l’Iseran

19 May 2021

The highest col in the Alps has had surprisingly few visits from the Tour, but it was pivotal when the peloton attacked its slopes in 2019

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

There’s a philosophical quandary attributed to 18th century thinker George Berkeley that asks, ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ Similarly, if a rider crosses a finish line that they don’t realise they’re crossing, is it actually a finish line? And if there is no stage winner then did the stage even take place?

These and many other questions arose on Stage 19 of the 2019 Tour de France, when the Col de l’Iseran became the summit finish that nobody knew was a summit finish.

This col is the highest pass in the Alps (despite some protestations from those who live near the Col de la Bonette), soaring to 2,764m above sea level – or 2,770m if you believe the sign at the top.

Either way, it just beats the Stelvio’s 2,757m, and yet curiously the Iseran is nothing like as famous or revered as its Italian rival.

Tall stories

The Iseran’s first appearance in the Tour was in 1938, just a year after the road was completed. But in the subsequent 82 years it has appeared in the race a scant seven more times.

Its second inclusion was as part of the race’s first mountain time-trial in 1939, when the TT was merely the meat in the unappetising sandwich of a three-part stage that day.

Yet the col’s most (in)famous contribution to Tour history came last year. As the peloton set out, the Iseran was the penultimate climb on the schedule, but there was to be no glass-cranking to the final ramp up to Tignes.

Julian Alaphilippe had France in the palm of his hand and yellow on his shoulders. Every time the race headed into the mountains people thought he’d crack, yet somehow he had held on to his lead, which remained at a reasonable 1min 30sec.

Now, with just two real stages remaining, Ineos were worried the Frenchman might perform a miracle and break the team’s remarkable run of success, so they set about making the race as hard as possible on the slopes of the Iseran.

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After a train of red and black jerseys had performed the usual lead-out duties, Geraint Thomas attacked first with 6km to go to the summit.

His blow wasn’t enough to unship Alaphilippe, but as Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk went over the top of Thomas, the Frenchman finally came unstuck. Then Ineos’s Egan Bernal attacked and nobody could hold the young Colombian’s wheel.

Big and beautiful

The attacks were made all the more spectacular by the scenery. Some climbs tend to pack all the best vistas into the final few kilometres, but on its southern side the Iseran has full IMAX quality visuals from the start in Bonneval-sur-Arc.

Now, you could say that the climb actually begins all the way back in Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis, 33km from the summit, but seeing as 12km of that averages mostly less than 1% as you pedal through the vast and beautiful Arc valley it seems better to concentrate on the final 13.4km, which averages 7.3% in spite of a couple of interludes in the incline.

Bonneval-sur-Arc is a picturesque collection of chalets that’s Swiss-like in its charm, and it has indeed been used as a film set. It is officially recognised by an association called Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – the only village in the Savoie region to achieve such an honour.

The climb kicks off on a big left-hand hairpin and instantly rises up to over 8%, where it then stays for the next 4km. As the road rises up above the higgledy-piggledy carpet of roofs you almost instantly feel the remoteness of the climb set in.

The road has no barriers and few markings, giving it a wonderfully wild feel. You’ll almost certainly spot marmots on the slopes, but there is also the sort of stillness that you only get when you are a decent distance from civilisation.

When the road swings round north into the Vallon de la Lenta you actually descend for a short distance but all too soon the road kicks up again into another set of long zigzags.

Thomas’s kick came out of this section’s second hairpin, which has a lonely, dishevelled building on the outside and signals the start of a kilometre that averages 10.5% and takes you through 2,300m in altitude.

Even as the biggest bike race in the world tackled the slopes of the Iseran on that day in 2019 the spectators were startlingly sparse, lending an almost bygone look to the images being beamed around the world.

The second, easier section really allows you to pick up speed, despite a big drop to the left. Near the end is a short, slightly random tunnel – although I’m no engineer, it seems odd to cut through the rock here and nowhere else.

Perhaps it’s just decoration, but either way you cross a bridge into the bottom of the final valley that leads you up to the edge of the Espace Killy ski area that covers Tignes and Val d’Isère.

From here to the summit you’re more than 2,500m above sea level and the gradient averages 9%. The road also widens a little, which lessens the look of the incline but does nothing to soften its blow.

The final hairpin is majestic and gives you a few revolutions of recovery before the last 800m to the summit. All the way up the road has sporadic small red flags with a white cross, and on this last left-hander there’s one more tattooed on the tarmac.

While you might initially think this is some loyal support for Mads Pedersen, Denmark’s World Champion, it is in fact some PR for the Savoie region: this is the region’s flag.

Then, as you ascend the final ramp, the graffiti suddenly kicks in with a vengeance, with big road-spanning flags, jerseys and exhortations all the way to the finish line… that wasn’t a finish line on 26th July 2019. At least not one that Egan Bernal was aware of.

Twist in the tale

As the race went over the top of the climb on that stage it also went past the highest chapel in France: Notre Dame de Toute Prudence. And the race organiser ASO did indeed show prudence on Stage 19, calling a halt to proceedings while Bernal, Thomas, Simon Yates et al were descending the D902 towards the famous ski resorts.

Unbeknown to the riders, a huge storm had covered the road up ahead in hailstones and caused a landslide that made the route impassable.

The result was that the times (even though there was no timing gear) were taken from the top of the previous climb, catapulting Bernal into the yellow jersey, which he would wear all the way to Paris.

And thus the Iseran unwittingly hosted a summit finish. Perhaps in the future it might host another, proper finish. It certainly deserves it.