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The col du Galibier

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When cyclists get to talking about the hardest climbs in the Tour de France, it is never long before someone mentions the Galibier. Right up there with the Tourmalet and Mont Ventoux, the col du Galibier has a well-deserved reputation.

The 4th highest paved pass in France at 2,642m, the Galibier is the Alpine pass most often used by the Tour and certainly one of the most feared by cyclists. The altitude, the majesty of the scenery, the length of the climb and the emotion all conspire to make this a tough test for any cyclist.

We can argue for hours about which is really the toughest. Consider first the Galibier’s vital statistics: starting from Valloire, the climb is 18km long and takes you from 1,397m to 2,642m, for an altitude gain of 1,245m.

Ppppffff, I hear you say? What about the 24km and 1,533m of the col de la Madeleine, or the 26km and 1,650m of the col de la Bonnette? Do not forget, dear friend, that before you can begin your first pedal strokes on the Galibier you must first overcome the col du Télégraphe, and this is anything but a cakewalk!

Measured from Saint-Michel de Maurienne, at the bottom of the valley, you must ride a total distance of 34.5km and climb 2,100m to reach the summit of the Galibier. True, there is a 5km descent between the col du Télégraphe and Valloire, but as anyone who has ridden the Marmotte will tell you, this is over so quickly you barely notice it.

The Galibier passed into legend from the very first time it was used by the Tour de France, in 1911. This is how Henri Desgrange, creator of the Tour de France, introduced it to his readers:

“Oh ! Sappey ! Oh ! Laffrey ! Oh ! Col Bayard ! Oh ! Tourmalet ! I will not fail in my duty in proclaiming that next to the Galibier you are as weak as dishwater: before this giant there’s nothing one can do but doff one’s hat and bow down low.”   –    Henri Desgrange (translation Marvin Faure)

One can indeed doff one’s hat, not only to the mountain but also to those legendary men who rode it first. Needless to say, conditions were nothing like today. In those days the road was little better than a mule track, the men’s bicycles weighed more than 14kg, and for the first few years the bicycles were single-speed only. In 1911 the Galibier was in the middle of an epic stage of 366km from Chamonix to Grenoble, and only three men made it to the top without walking. These were Emile Georget, who had the honour of being first over, Paul Duboc and Gustave Garrigou.

Here is more from the original report:

“When he passed by close to us, filthy, his moustache full of snot and leftovers of his last meal, and his jersey muddied by the ooze from the last stream where he had wallowed, he spat at us, dreadful and lofty: “I am speechless!”     –    Henri Desgrange (translation Marvin Faure)

The first road to be passable with a carriage was finished in 1879. Seven years later, faced with the enormous challenge of clearing the snow from the last few kilometres, the army built a tunnel at 2,556m, 86m below the actual summit. The tunnel was used by the Tour de France for the first 90 years, thus avoiding the toughest part of the climb, the last kilometre at 11%.

Somewhat ungratefully, Emile Georget was recorded as saying,

“The tunnel should have been built much lower down. That would have saved us a terrible ordeal”
–    Emile Georget, July 10th, 1911 (translation Marvin Faure)

The greatest climbers in the history of cycling have made it a point of honour to lead over the col. After Emile Georget in 1911, Bartali (the Man of Iron), Coppi (the Campionnissimo), Bahamontes (the Eagle of Toledo), Gaul (the Angel of the mountain), Merckz (the Cannibal) , Zoetemelk (the Dutchman from France), Ocaña, van Impe (the Marmoset of the peaks) and of course, Pantani the Pirate have all crossed the Galibier in the lead.

There is a memorial to Marco Pantani 5.5km from the summit on the northern side of the col. It was here, in awful weather on July 27th 1998 that he made a devastating attack to leave his rivals far behind. The race leader Jan Ulrich could do nothing. Pantani flew up the last few kilometres, overtaking the breakaway, and then threw himself down the descent to the Lautaret. Joined by three other riders, Christophe Rinero, Rodolfo Massi and Fernando Escartín, they rode hard to the foot of Les Deux Alpes where Pantani once again turned up the power. At the finish that day he beat Bobby Julich by 5 min 43 sec and Jan Ulrich by 8 min 57 sec, taking the yellow jersey and sealing his victory in the Tour and place in the history books.

THE GALIBIER & THE HAUTE ROUTE 2016

So what could the 2016 Haute Route riders expect during Stage 3 and 4 in the Alps? We climbed the Galibier twice in two days, once from the (easier) southern side on Stage 3, and again the next day during the time trial from Valloire. Ouf, no need to climb the Télégraphe first!

STAGE THREE TUESDAY 30TH AUGUST

RISOUL – VALLOIRE 118KM | 2900m ∗∗∗∗

Two “Giants of the Alps” are on the agenda for August 30th, the col d’Izoard and the Galibier. Neither needs much introduction, this will be a tough day on the bike.

A cool (or cold?) early morning descent from Risoul will set us up nicely for the 20km ride up the valley to Arvieux, where the hard work begins. Take it easy up the valley and save your energy for later. The col d’Izoard is famous for the amazing scenery of the Casse Déserte, a lunar landscape of broken rocks and scree just before the summit, but before you get there you’ll have to climb another 700m and deal with a couple of 10% ramps.

There was a mega-storm on the Izoard during the Haute Route 2015, let’s hope for perfect summer weather this year…

Enjoy the long descent to Briançon, it is the last respite for the next 1h15 (if you are riding with Peter Pouly) or 2h30 (if you are just in front of the broom wagon). The 28km to the col du Lautaret rarely figures on lists of “favourite rides in the Alps”, but this is the only way to link the Izoard and the Galibier. The road is wide and there is often a headwind. It is crucial to get in a good group. Distract yourself by thinking of Andy Schleck’s impressive ride in 2011, but don’t try to emulate him!

The climb to the Galibier starts at the turn-off on the col du Lautaret, at 2057m. The summit is 8.5km and 588m higher up, at an average slope of 6.9%. This is the easier side, although it probably won’t feel like it, especially the last few hundred metres above the tunnel. The Race Director has saved the hard side as a treat for tomorrow…
After crossing the col, you can free-wheel all the way down to Valloire. Take the time to look around and enjoy the magnificent scenery.

STAGE FOUR WEDNESDAY 31ST AUGUST

VALLOIRE – COL DU GALIBIER 18KM | 1245m

Time Trial day, and what a time trial! After the previous three days, the emphasis is definitely more on the “trial” than on the “time”. As far as we know the Galibier has never been used for an official time trial so this is your chance to be part of history!

As always in the high mountains, the severity of the challenge is highly affected by the weather, but even in ideal conditions the Galibier is a serious climb. Respect.

The first couple of kilometres out of Valloire are surprisingly steep, before the village of Les Verneys. The climb then levels off to a false flat heading straight up the side of the valley, the slope increasing almost imperceptibly to 7% for the last few km to the famous bend and bridge at Plan Lachat (photo). You’ll know you are there: the road crosses a bridge and hits a wall… Welcome, you are about to find out where the legend comes from.

The next 8km encompass multiple switchbacks as the road ramps up higher and higher, never less than 7.5%, often closer to 9%, opening up ever-wider views over the barren slopes. You will start to feel the lack of oxygen as you climb well above 2000m. The final section above the tunnel is the toughest at 11%, make sure you keep something in reserve.

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