Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme wants to pay homage to the race’s historical kingmakers and heartbreakers, while seeking out fresh challenges.
Mission impossible. It can’t be done. Certain places will be sieved out, because something’s got to give when new clashes with old. “The Tour always evolves. Today, the great summits of the Tour are Mont Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, the Tourmalet and the Galibier. But it is no longer the Izoard, for example. That was the great climb of the 1950s and ’60s,” Prudhomme told Bicycling in 2011.
Didn’t anyone tell Monsieur Prudhomme to respect his elders? Greatness is a subjective thing. Besides, the Tour’s treatment of its dearest, oldest mountains varies. The Galibier and Tourmalet remain staples, helped by the attention-grabbing Botox of modern racing: hosting recent summit finishes, honouring 100 years since their first inclusions.
On the other hand, there are practically forgotten climbs of yesteryear, like the Ballon d’Alsace or Col d’Allos, left proverbially cradling petrol station-bought flowers and blowing out lonely candles on muffins to celebrate their centennial passages.
The Col d’Izoard, a nonagenarian whippersnapper by comparison, sits somewhere in the middle: it has all the right ingredients to still delight, tempered with caveats. It is high and gruelling, yet its venom is often neutralised by being placed far from the finish. It has an overpowering weight of history, yet the burden of limited infrastructure on top; it is less regular on the parcours, but still seen every five years or so. The contemporary Tour has a growing habit of whistling over it, even committing the cardinal sin of descending through the Casse Déserte in the 2014 Tour, which is a bit like visiting the Sistine Chapel and spending all your time in the gift shop.
You can never measure exactly how much the knife has been twisted or what dark psychological torture the Izoard has inflicted, because time never stops there: it has never hosted a stage finish and surely never will. The sweet vendor and modest car park on top are no match for the Tour circus. It’s a shame, given the over-attention given to summit finishes by riders and fans. But then, we’re entering a wake-me-up-for-the-final-climb, quicker-gratification generation of Vine clips and 30-minute Jamie Oliver recipes. Whereas the Izoard – and the Tour itself – is something of a simmering slow-cooked roast, demanding careful attention to get the full taste.
Back in 1922, the race had no such impatience or infrastructural insistences. The Izoard was one more craggy criminal being introduced to the roguish band of original murderous mountains that included the Galibier, Tourmalet and Aubisque. It had only been 25 years since a tiny berger path up from Guillestre was widened into a goat-track by the French army, on the orders of Baron Henry Berge. Its proximity to the Italian border – the Izoard has featured several times in the Giro – made it a strategic necessity.
That summer’s maiden passage was a damp squib. So anxious were the riders about this mysterious new mountain that five men rode up in close quarters, with Philippe Thys first over the top.
The 1923 edition was more like it, as yellow jersey holder, Ottavio Bottecchia, resorted to walking and nearly abandoned. “At the moment you’re about to let out a sigh of relief, the Izoard hits you in the legs with a ramp that would make a mule whimper,” Tour founder Henri Desgrange wrote, probably in between rubbing his hands with sado-masochistic fervour.
The Allos-Vars-Izoard combination and finish in Briançon quickly become a showpiece stage, starting the legend of the climb’s south side. The foot of the climb is unexpectedly arresting: rising gently out of Guillestre, the road twists through tunnels blasted into the corniche rock high above the rushing river Guil. The wind often gusts down the valley, another slap in the face for the climbers.
The left turn for the final 14 kilometres is where gentle uphill fare turns to hors-catégorie horror. A long, straight road leads to Arvieux, all green pasture and chalet roofs, before becoming bulging hairpins like over-stuffed sausages. It tricks the mind, making the road look even steeper than it is. The seven kilometres from the hamlet of Brunissard – last outpost of civilisation before the summit – to the col is one of the most difficult regular stretches in Grand Tour climbing, rarely dropping below eight per cent. Antoine Blondin called it “the climb which slowly kills,” and many riders have been caught out.
The verdure soon falls away to moon-like rockery, and two kilometres from the top, you come upon the Izoard’s indelible visual stamp, the Casse Déserte. Beige rocks rear up like hunchbacks with frowning faces, scattered among the soaring slopes of dark scree. This natural amphitheatre is another world, “a new version of Hell,” according to Jacques Goddet, Tour director from 1937 to ’86.
Cold, hard numbers – kilometres, average gradient, and steepness – are all well and good for a climb’s classification, but what really counts is its atmosphere – how it makes you feel.
Surveying the natural grandeur, another sensation accompanies awe: loneliness. Civilisation is seven kilometres back the other way. “It is unending desolation, ruin, the agony of the mountain,” Ferrand writes in La Route des Grandes Alpes.
In contrast to the anguished scenery, the road through the Casse Déserte slackens off, providing a breather before a two-kilometre haul to the summit at 2,360 metres. It has sweeping views over the north side’s beard of larch trees and the Massif des Cerces.
Whereas many other Alps are visually functional, sustained more by the strength of their Tour legend, the Izoard overpowers, bike race or no bike race. There’s no other place in the Alps like it.
The Izoard’s Tour consecration came after the Second World War, as Coppi and Bobet rode themselves and the climb further into folklore (see right). A generation of riders grew up wanting to emulate the pair.
As new climbs like Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux gained favour into the 1970s, the Izoard’s reputation peaked. Other Tour winners – Federico Bahamontes (1958) and Eddy Merckx (1972) – crested it first, and so its legend was sustained: you weren’t a great Tour champion till you crossed the Izoard alone with the yellow jersey on your back.
That’s what Louison Bobet told Bernard Thévenet in Barcelonnette on Bastille Day, 1975. It was the morning of the Tour’s decisive sixteenth stage, over the Izoard and up to Serre-Chevalier, the ski resort near the top of the Galibier.
“He was a master, a model,” Thévenet recalls. “When I started racing at 15, a friend brought me a book called La Course en tête, by Louison Bobet. It was aimed at novices, explaining how to ride, train, follow the diet. I lived and breathed that book.”
Bobet told him that half the job was already done: he had the maillot jaune. The previous day, Thévenet had caught and passed a capitulating Eddy Merckx on Pra-Loup. “It was unimaginable [for Merckx to lose a minute in two kilometres]. But I was always afraid… my 58 seconds over Merckx was nothing. I had to strike hard on the Izoard. It’s a col for a pure climber, to press home the gaps.”
Thévenet had been preparing for the rendezvous all Tour. Though Merckx, ever tough, attacked on the descent of the Vars, the Frenchman caught up and took flight as the Izoard steepened to enter the final kilometres alone.
“The fans were completely crazy in the Casse Déserte. There was a motorcycle gendarme just in front of me, containing the throng, but they just reformed behind it. The road opened up two metres in front of me, that was all. It was a magic moment, a communion with the masses.
“It took five or six minutes to climb through there. It was an intimate exchange: they were carried away by enthusiasm and the crowd lifted me. In all my career as a cyclist, it’s the most moving memory.”
Legs glistening with sweat, Thévenet grabbed a newspaper at the summit for the descent to Briançon and made good his two-minute lead on the final climb. The Eddy Merckx epoch was over.
That drop off the northern side was just as crucial for the protagonist of the Izoard’s modern epic, Andy Schleck. In 2011, needing to gain time on Cadel Evans and Thomas Voeckler ahead of a late time-trial, he attacked. Six kilometres from the top and a full 60 kilometres from the finish at Serre-Chevalier, it smacked of desperation.
Even Schleck’s team-mates doubted. “When [Leopard-Trek team manager] Kim Andersen told me, four days before, ‘we’re gonna go all in’, I didn’t say anything. But in my head, I thought ‘good luck, it’s not PlayStation cycling’,” domestique Maxime Monfort told me in 2011.
Schleck quickly had two minutes by the summit and, with tactics redolent of Bobet and Deledda in 1953, Monfort dropped back from the day’s breakaway to bury himself for Schleck down the Izoard.
His guidance helped Schleck, usually an errant descender, to increase his lead. “Andy’s not really bad [downhill], he’s just afraid sometimes,” Monfort said. “I think he realised he could win the Tour. He didn’t think about crashing, maybe he didn’t care.”
They passed through Cervières, the bucolic village largely burned to the ground by German incendiary bombardments in 1944, and onto the Galibier, where Schleck took victory and donned the maillot jaune. Never mind the fact that the Luxembourger fell narrowly short of victory in Paris: that Izoard coup is the crowning memory of the 2011 Tour and his entire career.
However, the invitation the Izoard offers to ambitious dreamers is rarely taken up now, as the denouements play out on the final climb. Remember the opening quote? Well, it’s not for Prudhomme to bestow greatness on any climb: it’s all down to the cyclists.
“What makes a col are the legends formed by the old battles seen there. Without those, it loses a little bit of its prestige,” Thévenet says. It hardly helps that the climb has only appeared five times in the last 20 Tours. Briançon, the natural partner to the Izoard, now only hosts occasional finishes too.
The Tour will change, but the Izoard can hardly adapt: there’s no room for ski lifts or hoary restaurants. It’s impressive they even built a road up there. So, let the Tour shop around, allow the new climbs, hungry for tourism or heaving with identikit hotels, to come and go. There will always be a place in the Tour for wild, wondrous places like the Izoard.
Coppi and Bobet, Wizards of the Izoard
As Fausto Coppi became a star, he helped lift the Izoard to greater heights. In the 1949 Giro, his legendary daylong solo break to Pinerolo took in the Alp as the second of four peaks. Five weeks later at the Tour, he led up the Izoard again, this time taking rival Gino Bartali with him. The older man took the win on his 35th birthday, but Coppi escaped the next day to set up his first Tour de France victory.
Grieving the death of his brother Serse in 1951, Coppi refound his form over the Izoard to win in Briançon.
Two years later, Coppi was there again for arguably the climb’s greatest exploit, albeit as an onlooker. Camera in hand and “White Lady” lover Giulia Occhini by his side, he cheered as Louison Bobet passed alone in a spray of dust and state of grace. The pair are immortalised in a memorial on this spot at the exit of the Casse Déserte.
Third overall that morning, Bobet asked team-mate Adolphe Deledda to go up the road. Attacking over the Vars, he linked up with his obliging domestique for the valley.
On the way to the Izoard, hearing that Jan Nolten was chasing, he shouted “Empty the tank!” at Deledda.
“I’m dead, carry on alone,” was the pitiful reply. Bobet refused to accept it, coaxing every last pull out of his helper before tackling the Izoard alone.
Turning 46×23, the Breton was in his element. According to his brother Jean, as he passed by on the climb, he asked where his wife Christiane was standing – just up the road – and had the energy to fix his hair before reaching her. Come the finish, nobody was within five minutes and the maillot jaune was his. Bobet remains synonymous with the Izoard, sealing Tour victory over the mountain in 1954 too.
Dempster: Dropping the fear
Many untold stories of suffering go on behind the champions of the Izoard. Take this tale from the 2014 Tour de France, when the Alp was the high point of the Tour.
Instructed to lower the gap to the breakaway for NetApp-Endura leader Leopold König, Zak Dempster had to first draw alongside Astana and ask permission to chase, although “we’d have ridden on the front even if they’d say no,” the Australian asserts.
After chasing down the Lautaret and up five kilometres of the Izoard’s north side, he peeled off, going from warp speed to single-digit figures. The next hour was possibly the longest of his cycling career.
“I was at the end of my tether, I expected to recover much more quickly than I did,” he recalls. “It was so steep, like this wall looking at you, saying ‘climb me’. It never went away, you’ve got no respite. It was a bitch, a constant struggle to put one pedal in front of the other.”
Falling back into the gruppetto, Dempster noticed a change in ambience approaching the col. “It’s a bit eery up there. It doesn’t really feel like Earth. There’s more sand, the trees are less dense and there is crisp mountain air, even on a hot day. There’s no one. That was nice, suffering in isolation,” he says.
The Tour debutant plodded on to the summit and made the time cut in Risoul. It was a crucial lesson learned. “A big part of a domestique’s quality depends on confidence, knowing they can finish a stage, even with the extra work they have to do. I’ll have that memory for next time. It was important to drop the fear.”