I am a sucker for climbers. To me, they are the true heros of the Tour de France. It also helps that I love to climb on my bike.
There are numerous things to consider if you plan on viewing a mountain stage at the Tour. In this first post, I’ll discuss how to choose the climb you want to view out of the possibilities in that stage. Later I’ll talk about choosing where to stand, and how to time yourself to ride there without getting forced off your bike. Finally, I’ll discuss the exciting mountaintop finishes.
In the profile below of stage 17 of this year’s Tour, notice there are 3 HC (Hors Category) climbs.
Though each mountain is a very difficult climb, your experience will be different for all three. Galibier and Croix de Fer are more remote, more beautiful, and Alpe d’Huez is, well, Alpe d’Huez! Early on in the stage the peleton will be closer together, and later on it will be much more spread out. Though Galibier is one of the more beautiful cols in France, this year they are climbing it from the “relatively” easier direction (from Briancon) and the riders will be still together in a bunch (maybe with an early breakaway). So you’re not likely to see as much. Croix de Fer will be less crowded (but it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere) and in my opinion, far more interesting. The peleton will be more spread out, and there could be some strategic attacks. If you want to view Alpe d’Huez, well, let’s hope you’ve planned a year in advance or are going with a tour company – it requires a lot more logistics and crowd management skills. There are many insider tips to ride it that morning and to finding the perfect viewing point. (Shameless plug – my Vélo Concierge service provides you with everything you need to do it on your own in total confidence! This year is too late…but think about having us create a Tour de France cycling vacation next year designed around your personal goals, abilities and greatest climbing dreams)!
In the photo below, the Discovery Train, with Lance in yellow tucked in neatly at the rear, leads the peleton up the Col de Portet d’Aspet, the first of three monster climbs in the Pyrennées, Stage 16, 2005. There had been a breakaway group 12 minutes prior (including George Hincapie who went on to win his first Tour stage on Pla d’Adet), but aside from that, they were all together, and rode past us in a matter of minutes.
On the final climbs of the longer harder stages, as much as 30 minutes or more will separate the leaders from the autobus (the term given to the group of riders at the back). At the back will be the exhausted domestiques who have worked hard for their team leaders earlier in the stage, as well as the sprinters who struggle to get themselves over the biggest mountains. Viewing a mountain stage in this instance will provide much more melodrama, giving you more of a view of the pain and suffering the riders experience.
In the photo below, Robbie McEwan, top sprinter for Predictor-Lotto, is escorted by teammates up the Col de la Colombiere on Stage 7 of the 2007 Tour de France. These three riders were dead last! It’s no coincidence that his teammates were there – they were no doubt sent back by the team manager to set the pace, motivate and assist the top sprinter and green-jersey candidate in getting his fast-twitch muscle fibers over the top before the cut-off time. (Note: Robbie was later DQ’d in the Pyrenées for not making the cut-off).
In the photo below, you can see the utter exhaustion on the face of Thomas Voekler, his final day in the white jersey on the Col de la Croix Fry on stage of the 2004 Tour. Voekler was a “broken man” to quote Paul Sherwen and Phil Ligget, having valiantly tried to first defend the yellow jersey for a week, then the white jersey. By the time he arrived here, the final climb of the final day in the Alpes, his form on the bike had completely fallen apart – when he stood up, he looked more like a beginner student in a Spinning class! This day was particularly hot, and it was the 5th major climb of the day!
Let me tell you about where we were for this stage – it proved to be the perfect spot. Look at the profile for stage 17, 2004 TDF.
Our hotel had access to the final 3 climbs, and with a short drive, we could have accessed the HC Col de la Madeleine. Col de Tamié was out – too easy! Col de la Forclaz is the steepest, and is a killer climb so this was a possibility. This is one climb that should be an HC clmb, with 8% average, and sections of 15%, but it is “only” 8.5 km long, which downgrades it to a category 1. The final climb, the Croix Fry, risked being very crowded at the top, but also promised to be very exciting, and because of the length and difficulty of this stage, promised a lot of pain on the faces of the riders. (It’s sick how we love to watch them suffer, eh?!)
The ride to the Croix Fry was exquisite from our hotel in Megeve, as we were able to ride over the Col des Aravis with its beautiful view of Mont Blanc. We looped around to access Le Croix Fry from the same side the riders would approach it, stopping for picnic items in Thones. The temperautres were in the mid-90’s making climbing a bit tough, and the search for water a constant effort. Most of our group made it to the top of the Croix Fry, which was our goal, but six of us were asked to dismount by the police about a mile from the top. We could have walked, but we found shade, and that seemed far more important at the time!
As it turned out, we ended up with a prime viewing area and were quite happy not to be at the top. I can’t say enough about the importance of having shade on sweltering days, with 2-3 hours to wait. We were just above a switchback, giving us great views of what was approaching and allowing us to walk down and view the publicity caravan twice. And, there weren’t that many people near us, so there was no fighting for position with fanatic fans. This allowed me to get this incredible photo:
I most likely would not have gotten close enough without elbows or arms in my face to get this photo had we been any closer to the top. I can picture Landis, with his grimace of determination as he pulls Lance to the stage win and eventual record breaking 6th victory in Paris, thinking, “One day this will be me!” Lance has his stereotypical steely-eyed, single-minded focus, with his ever-present golden cross dancing around his neck; Jan has his normal pouty, doofus look on his face; and baby-faced Basso seems to be biding his time, smiling to himself.
[Side note: 3 of the 4 riders in this photo – Floyd Landis, Jan Ulrich, and Ivan Basso – are out of cycling on performance enhancing drug related charges, and one (you know who) retired at the right time.]
The rest of our group had a great time at the top of Croix Fry of course, but in order to find shade, had to stand way back from the road, and then when the riders came through, there was no fighting through the crowds to get to the roadside. And no one wanted to stand next to hot, sweaty drunk bodies (er…at least not people they didn’t know)! One benefit they had over us – they were close to vendors selling cool water and food. There are two restaurants/bars at the top, but getting served can take 30 minute or more. For those who wanted beer, the wait was worth it!
So you see, your choice of where you view can have a huge impact on your experience – what you see, how you see it, how long it lasts, and whether you can get close-up photos of the riders. So analyze the profiles carefully and come prepared. In the next post, I’ll talk about another viewing option – the very tops of Category 1 and HC climbs and how to manage the crowds.