With the pro cycling season finally under way again and the Tour de France almost here, it definitely is a case of ‘better late than never’ for cycling fans. While many of the most iconic climbs – including the Tourmalet, Galibier, Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux – may be absent from the 2020 itinerary, there are still many thousands of feet to be ascended, and each col has a tale to tell of heroic ascents or inglorious upsets.
It’s sure to be an exciting Tour – the inclusion of some lesser-known climbs will bring surprises – and, who knows, with so many of the peloton on Strava, perhaps some new legendary feats will be recorded for posterity. Read on for a deep dive into the decades of stories and stats this historic race offers.
1. Col d’Èze (Stage 2)
Though the Col d’Èze is the smallest categorised climb of the Tour’s second stage on the Côte d’Azur, it’s the most famous for cyclists. Starting almost in the middle of Nice, the full ‘Grande Corniche’ road to the Col d’Èze rises around 500m (1650ft) almost from sea level in 10km (6.2mi), with stunning views over the Mediterranean at almost every turn and the Maritime Alps on the horizon once you get higher.
The road is actually more celebrated for being the iconic closing stage of Paris-Nice, the ‘Race to the Sun’ that takes place in March. Between 1969 and 1995, Paris-Nice finished every year with an uphill time trial to the col, except when landslides had blocked the way in 1977. The TT was famously won by Irish legend Sean Kelly five times, in his record seven wins of the week-long race.
Bradley Wiggins now holds the Paris-Nice record of 19’12”, having beaten Kelly’s long-standing 19’45” in 2012. If you ask the experts about the climb, they’ll all tell you the steep bit comes in the first kilometre!
Ag2R-La Mondiale pro rider Romain Bardet, who has a house in the area, currently holds the Strava KOM on this very competitive segment.
2. Orcières-Merlette (Stage 4)
The Tour’s first summit finish comes early in the 2020 edition, and takes place at 1,825m (5,988ft) altitude in the ski resort of Orcières-Merlette. It’s the first time the climb has featured since 1989. That year was a time trial up the 7.1km (4.4mi) climb at 6.7%, won by Dutchman Stephen Rooks. The American Greg Lemond – in his recovery year after a shooting accident – rolled in wearing the yellow jersey, en route to his second Tour win.
However, the climb is most famous for the 1971 edition. Earlier in that Tour, the Spaniard Luis Ocaña had fired a warning shot across the bows of the almighty Eddy Merckx, beating him by 15 seconds on the climb up the Puy de Dôme. And Merckx was tired, having suffered bike failure, a bike change, a small crash and a long chase back into the race the day before. When Ocaña attacked, 177km (110mi) from the stage end, he rode away from Merckx. Then he rode away from his breakaway companions and reached the summit finish at Orcières-Merlette more than eight minutes before the Belgian, taking the yellow jersey in the process.
3. Mont Aigoual (Stage 6)
The road to Mont Aigoual, at 1,567m (5,141ft), is the second highest in the Cévennes, a region of densely wooded hills and mountains in south-central France. The summit – which is the actual summit of the mountain – doesn’t feature often in the Tour, but in the 1960 race one of the brightest hopes of French cycling, the national champion Roger Rivière, crashed on the descent via the Col du Perjuret. Gravely injured, he was nursed in his hospital bed by another French star, his friend Raphaël Géminiani, but Rivière never walked again.
Mont Aigoual is also celebrated by some cycling fans as it features in the Dutch writer Tim Krabbé’s novel The Rider. This recounts the story of the ‘Tour du Mont Aigoual’, a fictional race up the mountain and down into the surrounding river gorges. It’s one of the most intense and true representations of bike racing in book form, and the route is so challenging and picturesque that many have mapped it out and ridden the figure-of-eight loop.
Many approaches to Mont Aigoual are almost 30km (19mi) in length, generally on easy gradients. This year’s race comes from the Col de la Lusette, so although the official Aigoual race segment is only 8.3km (5.1mi) long, the riders will have been climbing for all but a couple of the 35km (22mi) before the summit.
4. Col de Menté (Stage 8)
If it wasn’t for bad luck, Luis Ocaña would have won the 1971 Tour (see Orcières-Merlette, above, for more on Ocaña and his rival Eddy Merckx in 1971). That bad luck came on the Col de Menté, a 1,349m (4,425ft) mountain pass in the Central Pyrenees that in 2020 comes halfway through Stage 8. Over 11km (7mi) it ascends 709m (2325ft) and, after a short downhill around a third of the way in, is a nice smooth uphill gradient to the top.
In 1971, Eddy Merckx, despite being so far behind in the General Classification (GC), was refusing to give up and was clawing back time. On a rainy day in the Pyrenees he chose the Menté to attack – but downhill. On a slicked-wet switchback, Merckx washed out. Ocaña, who was following him, did too. But whereas Merckx was able to remount, Ocaña was struck from behind by several chasers while getting back on his bike.
He was airlifted to hospital and would live to fight another day, but his Tour was over.
In 1973, when Ocaña finally won the Tour, Merckx wasn’t riding – which would have disappointed the Spaniard: “It was all panache and how he won,” commented fellow Tour-winner Bernard Thévenet. “He was a real torero. And until he’d killed the bull and it was good and dead, he wasn’t happy.”
5. Col de Peyresourde (Stage 8)
Later in this year’s short, sharp Stage 8 comes the Col de Peyresourde: according to the Tour’s official stats, it’s 9.7km (6.1mi) long and has an average gradient of 7.8%, so size-wise it’s no more than middleweight; but in terms of its history it is second to none.
The 1,569m (5,148ft) Peyresourde was the first col in the first-ever high mountain stage in the Tour de France, in 1910, from Luchon to Bayonne.
That day, the Peyresourde came before the Col d’Aspin, the mighty Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque, as well as the relatively small Col d’Osquich. With a 3:30 A.M. start time for the 326km (204mi) étape, the riders would have climbed the Peyresourde in the dark. First man over was Octave Lapize, the eventual stage winner who, at the top of the Tourmalet would shout “Vous êtes des assassins!” (You are murderers!) at the race organisers.
The Peyresourde passes through beautiful Pyrenean pastures, and has featured 50 times since the Second World War. Every single Tour hero and villain will have climbed towards glory or defeat on its slopes. It’s also a good place for a party – in normal years, the slopes are covered with the orange flags of Basque cycling fans, who have crossed from nearby Spain to cheer on their favourite riders.
Romain Bardet of AG2R again holds this Strava KOM.
6. Col de Marie-Blanque (Stage 9)
The Col de Marie-Blanque is a narrow, twisting road that is unexpectedly steep in places, belying its 8% average gradient. It’s not a favorite of pro riders: it’s a tough climb, but never one that finishes a stage, and they know that if it’s programmed in then it’s going to be a long, hard day in the saddle. It’s the perfect place to wear down your opponents in preparation for a big attack later on.
Since its introduction to the Tour in 1978, it’s been climbed 15 times, and legendary climbers including Pedro Delgado, Luis Herrara and Richard Virenque have been first over the top. It last featured in 2010, when Andy Schleck won the stage, beating Alberto Contador atop the Col du Tourmalet.
The Strava KOM for the Col de Marie-Blanque is currently held by Australian pro rider Jack Haig, who took the title when riding for Orica-Scott in the Vuelta a España in 2016.
7. Col de Ceyssat (Stage 13)
The Col de Ceyssat climbs some 600m (2,000ft) to a height of 1,078m (3,536ft) from the town of Clermont-Ferrand (the home of Michelin tires), winding through quiet forests on smooth-surfaced tarmac. The lower slopes are steep but then it eases off and becomes more pleasant, for a 6.1% average gradient overall.
It’s not the marquee climb of this stage – the tough finishing combo of the Col de Néronne and the stunning Pas de Peyrol take that accolade – but it used to be significant. Almost at the top, there’s a side road, which leads to the top of the Puy de Dôme, the region’s most famous summit. It’s one of the area’s numerous extinct volcanoes, with a ruined Roman temple and a communications tower on top, dominating the town below.
The upper slopes of the Puy spiral at 12% for 4km (2.5mi), and have been the scene of some of history’s most legendary Tour battles. In 1964, there was an almighty duel between Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor (who, incidentally, was Mathieu Van der Poel’s grandfather). The former, an aristocratic-looking, imperious northerner; the latter, a hardy, rustic type. Anquetil would be the first to win the Tour five times; Poulidor would come to be known as the ‘Eternal Second’ – he came close, but did not win it once.
Here, though, they fought elbow-to-elbow, not letting on how much they were suffering, until finally Anquetil cracked, with less than a kilometre to go.
These days, the Puy is closed to cyclists, except for a special event one day a year.
Who else but Romain Bardet – who is from this region, and is also a champion climber and KOM-hunter – could hold the Col de Ceyssat Strava KOM?
8. Col de la Madeleine (Stage 17)
The Col de la Madeleine in the Alps is one of the true Big Dogs of Tour cols, both in size and reputation – perhaps the only one that features this year. The classic route up from the village of La Chambre is 19.2km (11.9) miles and rises 1,522m – almost a mile – up to 2,000m (6,561ft) altitude. Some of the signs say 2,0001m, and this is indeed the only stage that breaches that mythical height barrier – a rarity for the Tour, but probably for the best since the weather at 2,000m in the Alps can get cold and unpredictable in mid-September. The final climb on this stage, the steep Col de la Loze, reaches 2,304m (7,559ft), but that has never been climbed by the race – it was paved especially for this edition!
This year, the Tour climbs the Madeleine on a quiet and scenic (and steeper!) side road most of the way. However, in 2010, on the classic route, the Madeleine saw two of the best climbers of recent times, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, duke it out. Contador was in yellow, Schleck wanted it; and both wanted to eliminate Cadel Evans from the GC contest. Evans, who was suffering from a broken elbow, cracked on the Madeleine, and ended the day in tears.
Evans came back stronger and won the 2011 Tour. Curiously, both Contador and Schleck ‘won’ the 2010 edition. Contador rode the yellow jersey into Paris, but later that year was found to have a banned substance in his blood. He was eventually stripped of the Tour title, which was retroactively awarded to Schleck.
9. Montée du Plateau des Glières (Stage 18)
This climb only featured in the Tour for the first time in 2018, but it became an instant classic. During World War II, the Plateau de Glières was a vital supply line for local Resistance groups. Because it was so high and inaccessible (to the enemy) it was the site of parachute drops from Allied aircraft – one included 45 tonnes of weapons.
These days the road up there is still punishingly steep: 6km (3.7 mi) at 11.2%. And when it levels off, the route across the plateau to the col, past a monument to the Resistance, is gravel.
If you want to ride the beautiful roads and high gravel tracks showcased throughout this stage, the La Resistance Sportive ride will take you and your gravel bike over some of the best.
10. La Planche des Belles Filles (Stage 20)
Has the Tour saved the best till last? Until 2012, the Planche des Belles Filles was just a road – 5.9km (3.7mi) at 8.5%, with ramps of 15% and more – up to a ski station in the Vosges mountains north-east of the Alps.
But in 2012, the relatively unknown Chris Froome rode away from his team-mate Bradley Wiggins, leaving Wiggins with Cadel Evans on the final 23% slopes while Froome took stage victory. Was he neglecting his job, or was it his right to take the win after working loyally throughout the stage? Froome and Wiggins had a difficult relationship, so the answer is not simple!
In 2017 Froome did not win on La Planche – that went to the Italian Fabio Aru – but he did take the yellow jersey. Last year Dylan Teuns of Belgium won, on an extended version of the climb that finished on gravel.
In this year’s Tour, there could still be all to fight for on the penultimate stage, a 36km (22.5mi) time trial that finishes atop La Planche.