Iconic Places: Col du Galibier

The Tour de France celebrates the centenary of this historic climb by crossing it twice in 2011. It was our very first Iconic Places feature, in the April 2008 edition of the magazine.

Words by Chris Sidwells

Thursday July 21, 2011. Originally appeared in April 2008

“Oh Laffrey! Oh Bayard! Oh Tourmalet! I would be failing in my duty not to proclaim that next to the Galibier you are pale cheap wine. In front of this giant I can do nothing more than raise my hat and salute.” Henri Desgrange – Founder of the Tour de France.

The summit is a bleak, windswept spot, a remote world of silence. At 2,646 metres above sea level, the only sound is a thin and freezing wind grabbing at the jackets of struggling cyclo-tourists, and the only colour is the sun-bleached and washed-out grey of the rocky scree between the hairpins.

In the distance, massive jagged peaks in a 360-degree Alpine panorama. Down the mountain, a film of thin grass gives the lower slopes a veneer of life. This is the Col du Galibier.

Few Tour de France climbs are harder. For many years, until the rarely-used Iseran, Bonette and Agnel climbs made occasional appearances, it was the highest climb of the race, taking the Tour up to the very edges of the summer glacier line, a climb that tests endurance, strength and will to their limits.

Both sides of the climb are steep, with uneven gradients. And this is without taking into account the fact that before a cyclist can ride the Galibier, he or she must sit a tough entrance exam, in the form of the Col du Lautaret on the south side, and the Col du Télégraphe on the north. These two climbs stand guard on the Galibier, adding to its feeling of isolation.

The Tour de France has climbed from both sides, but it is the north side, from the Col du Télégraphe, that is the hardest, and where most of the Galibier’s Tour de France story has been told.

In 1911, Emile Georget became the first Tour rider to cross the Galibier. His laborious ascent on the rutted road, past fields of edelweiss, through ice walls five foot high on either side, was achieved without putting his feet down, save for one occasion when he threw himself into a mountain stream to immerse himself in its waters. His bike weighed in at an industrial 12 kilograms, and had two gears, but at the end of this 366-kilometre stage, he would be almost nine hours clear of the rider in last place, Raymond Harquet.

Witnessing the heroic struggles that day caused Tour founder, Henri Desgrange to fall for the Galibier. Every year he positioned himself on its summit to time his riders through, and what he witnessed inspired his famous eulogy to the climb: “Oh Laffrey! Oh Bayard! Oh Tourmalet! I would be failing in my duty not to proclaim that next to the Galibier you are pale cheap wine. In front of this giant I can do nothing more than raise my hat and salute.”

Desgrange now keeps permanent vigil near the summit of the Galibier, with a memorial just below the summit on the southern side.

The Galibier’s northern side starts in St-Michel-de-Maurienne, and the gradient kicks in where the D902, which goes all the way to the top of the Galibier, passes under the A43 autoroute, level with a small church. This is the Col du Télégraphe, the stepping-stone to the Galibier.

The Télégraphe was named because of the TV and radio masts that have been on its summit almost since TV and radio were invented. The pass also had huge military importance. Old concrete gun emplacements sit overgrown and brooding among its wooded slopes, and a there is a huge fort close to the summit of the climb.

The gradient of the Télégraphe varies between six and 10 per cent, giving an average of seven per cent for 12 kilometres. The steepest part of the climb comes just after a group of chalets about one quarter of the way up.

The Télégraphe is neither very long nor very steep, but it’s got enough of both to ensure that any rider hoping to top the Galibier won’t even start doing so with fresh legs. After the summit, there’s a three-kilometre descent into the ski town of Valloire, but this five-minute respite is too short to provide recovery. And then, before the last few houses and hotels of Valloire, the Galibier rears straight up.

Another world
There’s a steep upwards ramp coming out of town, then about four kilometres of false flat, giving time to consider the huge change of scenery. This is another world. Gone are the tree-lined hairpins of the Télégraphe, its pleasant summit café with its twee little garden. You are in a huge open valley, bare of trees and edged with high peaks and enormous avalanche-scarred slopes. The road ahead barely twists, but it slowly racks up in gradient towards an impenetrable wall of snow capped mountains.

Even Eddy Merckx described this part of the Galibier as daunting. “The long straight section through the valley is difficult to deal with tactically,” he says. “Attacks have to be timed either well before it or after it. Because if you attack on that section it is impossible to get out of sight like you can on most climbs. You just hang out in front of the chasers and act as a target.”

Continuing up this section there still doesn’t look to be any way out of the valley but suddenly, at a non-descript bridge over a rushing mountain stream, the road veers sharply right at Plan Lachat and the final, and even more fierce, phase of the Galibier begins. Hairpin follows hairpin for seven kilometres of relentlessly steep climbing.

It is still difficult to get out of sight here, as the hairpins and straights are piled one on top of the other. It’s easy to look up and check the progress of riders in front, and it’s a morale-sapping temptation to look down and see where the chasers are.

Gerben Karstens, a Dutch sprinter who competed in the Tour 11 times during the 1960s and 1970s, crossing the Galibier five times, remembers the special characteristics of the climb, and the neck-ricking glances up and down the hill.

“You could shout to the riders on the straights above or below you. And when you finished a stage you neck was stiff from looking upwards.”

New road
Until 1978, all traffic, including the Tour de France, passed through the oak-doored dankness of the summit tunnel, at 2,556 metres altitude. Georget, the first conqueror of the Galibier, asked why the engineers could not have tunnelled through at a lower altitude.

But following 1978 the tunnel was closed for repairs, and an extra piece of road was built over the top to the natural Galibier pass, over a rocky track used by local muleteers to get from the Maurienne valley to the town of Briançon.

The tunnel really opened up this area. According to local folklore, before the tunnel no one from the north side of the Galibier ever married anyone from the south. The people of each side were different and full of mistrust for each other. The isolation of the north side was compounded by its climate, which is still much harsher than the south. Growing crops is impossible at anything but the lowest levels of the Télégraphe, and totally impossible in Valloire and above. Even now, the stifling Maurienne valley is a claustrophobic place, with silent factories the only sign of life.

From the summit, the descent to the Lautaret is very steep with many hairpin bends. It was here in 1935 that the Tour had its first fatality, when Spain’s Francesco Cepeda plunged off the road down a steep slope and fractured his skull. The descent commands respect now, but it was treacherous in years gone by, when the snow line was much lower in summer and meltwater torrents ran across it.

If ever you need evidence of global warming, it can to be found on high Alpine passes like the Galibier. The climb today is a stark contrast to what it was even as recently as the late 1970s. Then the Tour de France often raced through remnants of winter snowfields on the upper slopes. Today, although there is still snow higher up, the pass and its surroundings are aridly clear.

The Galibier is one of the Tour’s most iconic climbs, but nobody likes it, even the most gifted climbers. Britain’s Robert Millar, who was the 1984 Tour King of the Mountains, said that the Col d’Aravis was his favourite climb, with no mention for the Galibier. Lucien Van Impe, the 1976 Tour winner and the man considered by many as the greatest climber of all, says that he enjoyed the twists and turns of the super-steep Joux-Plane, further north. But no bike racer has ever said that they liked the uncompromising Galibier.

“I suffered like a martyr on the Galibier. It was my bogey climb” says Raymond Poulidor.

Johan Bruyneel, the man who engineered Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories, says, “The Galibier is awkward. It’s so long, and therefore so far from the finish of a stage that it is difficult to use it to advantage, especially as it comes on stages where there are mountain top finishes, which are much better for gaining time. But the team always had to ride hard on it to control the others. The Galibier exacts a toll.”

It is a hard mountain and legendary because it is so uncomfortable to ride on. If great climbers find it hard to get the measure of the Galibier, what chance for anybody else? The Télégraphe softens up the legs of the cautious, and beats those of the ambitious to jelly. The Galibier’s valley section is wide and open but oppresses ambition. The top part? An unrelenting slog. And the weather is rarely pleasant, ranging from hot, humid and oppressive on the Télégraphe, to an angry freezing wind blowing unrelentingly at the top, even during high summer.

The Galibier is one of the most intimidating obstacles of the Tour de France, which is why Henri Desgrange, a man who once said that his ideal Tour would see only one heroic rider survive to Paris, loved it so much.

The Galibier’s top 10 Tour de France moments

1) The Pirate‘s finest hour
Marco Pantani attacked on the first slopes of the Col du Télégraphe on the rain soaked 15th stage of the 1998 Tour. The race leader was Jan Ullrich, and until this moment he looked set to take his second successive Tour de France, but Pantani gained on him all the way to the top of the Galibier, overhauling the early stage leader Rodolfo Massi by the summit. Pantani stopped there for a moment to put on a rain top, but Ullrich didn’t and froze on the descent. Witnesses described him in a trance, riding for kilometres with a bidon gripped between his teeth. Pantani continued on to win at Les Deux-Alpes, while his German rival lost nearly nine minutes and the Tour de France.

2) Anquetil and Poulidor’s last battle
Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor had both lost the Tour by the time they hit the Galibier in 1966. Anquetil had taken the last of his five victories in 1964, but by then he suspected that Poulidor had the legs to beat him. Poulidor should have attacked from the off in 1966, but instead he fixed his race on his old rival and Anquetil suckered him into letting his team mate, Lucien Aimar, get away in the Pyrenees and tie up the race.

Anquetil’s job was done, one of his team would win the Tour, but when Poulidor attacked on the Galibier, Anquetil couldn’t resist one last dig at him. He had nothing to gain by doing it – another team-mate Julio Jimenez was long gone and would win the stage – but Anquetil rode at Poulidor’s side. Poulidor piled on the pressure but couldn’t shift his nemesis. It was the last act of a rivalry that had split a nation, but which only ever had one winner. Poulidor may have had the legs, but he never had the head to beat Anquetil.

3) Coppi’s answer
In 1952 Fausto Coppi was firmly in the yellow jersey at the start of the Galibier stage, but soon after the start he came under intense pressure from the French riders. On the Croix de Fer and on the Télégraphe, attack followed attack, but Coppi answered them all. Then they reached the Galibier, and Coppi slipped into overdrive. He flew up the mountain, distancing his rivals with every pedal turn. He crossed the summit with a big lead, swooped down the Lautaret to Briançon, then climbed the Col de Montgenèvre and proceeded on up to the Sestriere ski resort in Italy. He won the stage by nearly seven minutes.

4) Julio Jimenez, climbing legend
First over the Galibier in 1966 and 1967, Spanish climbing legend Julio Jimenez was never a threat to win the Tour because of his time-trialling weakness. However, Jimenez had the credentials to be judged as one of the best climbers in history. Stick thin, he danced up climbs where others looked like they were pushing a barrel. Jimenez was King of the Mountains three times in a row between 1965 and 1967

5) Going Dutch
No one who witnessed it will ever forget the sight of the tall slim Dutchman, Gert-Jan Theunisse his long hair falling about the shoulders of his polka-dot jersey, on the day in 1989 when he won at Alpe d’Huez. The stage climbed the easier south side of the Galibier, but Theunisse’s effort deserves inclusion because he attacked almost from the start of the stage and stayed away over the Galibier, then the Croix de Fer and finally Alpe d’Huez. What made his attack even more spectacular was that he was a favourite for the GC, yet still attacked at the very start of a major mountain stage.

6) Ocana v Thevenet
This was a battle, but a one-sided one. Luis Ocana was on fire in the 1973 Tour, thrashing his rivals at will. The Spaniard already had the race lead when he attacked on the Télégraphe, with Jose-Manuel Fuente hanging on. Everyone gave up and were content to let him get on with it, except for Bernard Thévenet. He gave his all on the Galibier, riding alone behind Ocana, but he still lost a massive seven minutes by the end of the stage. Thévenet took a beating, but not as bad as most – Joop Zoetemelk, who had finished second in the 1971 Tour, lost over 20 minutes to Ocana that day.

7) The Angel wings
Charly Gaul, known as the Angel of the Mountains, led over the Galibier twice and he won the 1958 Tour de France, but Gaul’s big day on the Galibier is more than a statistic. He took off in early on the stage from Thonon-les-Bains to Briançon in the 1955 Tour de France, and climbed the Aravis, Télégraphe and Galibier alone to win by over 13 minutes.

8 ) Christophe’s record
Eugene Christophe is better known for not winning the Tour on many occasions, but he was still one of the best riders in the early years of the race. In the 1912 stage from Chamonix to Grenoble, Christophe pedalled up the Alpine giant in 2 hour 33 minutes 15 seconds. Behind him, the next two riders, 1909 Tour winner Francois Faber and the man who would win in 1912, Odile Defraye, had to walk up the final kilometre.

9) Team work
Lance Armstrong won seven Tours de France by picking off the opposition one by one. He would use his team to wear them down, and then when none of them were left Big Tex would roll up his sleeves and go for a very one-sided ‘mano a mano’ with whoever was left, which was nobody, more often than not. However, in 2003, the tactic backfired. The Galibier was too early for Armstrong to attack, so his US Postal team set a killing pace all the way to the top. Unfortunately for him, in 2003 Armstrong was suffering from a lack of form and he was feeling the effects of his own pacemakers on Alpe d’Huez later that day. He had to watch Iban Mayo go up the road, and struggled to stay with the other contenders, even if he still finished the day in yellow.

10) Neil Stephens, climber?
The 1992 Tour climbed the Galibier from the Lautaret side, and it gave Australian workhorse Neil Stephens a rare moment of mountain glory. The Galibier was the first climb of the day, and Stephens got in an early move that included Robert Millar, Franco Chioccioli, Gianni Bugno and Laurent Fignon. Hostilities held off until near the top where Chioccioli attacked to lead over the summit. In the confusion behind, Bugno veered too close to a flag waving spectator and was knocked off his bike, which delayed the others but left Stephens unaffected. Stephens attacked and took second place on the Galibier. “I couldn’t believe the fuss the Australian press made at the finish. No Aussie had been in such a high place over one of the Tour’s great climbs and everyone wanted an interview,” he said.

Pro’s eye view

Six times King of the Mountains Lucien Van Impe on climbing the Galibier.

What gear ratios did you use to climb the Galibier?
Like many of the best climbers I liked to spin my legs quickly when I was climbing, so I often used lower gears than others. If the others were in the 21 I would ride in the 23, but we were restricted because 42 was the smallest chainring we had. Charly Gaul was the first climber to use lower gears than the rest. He used a 26 sprocket when nobody else did, but he only had a 44 chainring in his day. His rivals, like Bobet and Anquetil, used much higher gears and climbed out of the saddle a lot more.

Why do climbers use lower gears?
Because real climbers have the pedalling style to spin lower gears. Pedalling a lower gear on a climb means you can control your breathing. I always concentrated on getting on top of my breathing at the start of a climb. Then I looked at the possibilities for making an attack. A bigger rider has to use his strength on the climbs and probably goes slower when he tries a lower gear.

Did you shift to a higher gear to attack?
Yes, but once I had a gap I would shift down again and spin to get my breathing and pedalling rhythm matched. I trained for hours in the mountains to do that.

Did you train on the Galibier?
Rarely. I rode the pre-Tour races sometimes, like the Dauphine, but I preferred to train in the Pyrenees for the Tour de France. The weather is warmer and the climbs are lower, so you can fit more climbs into one ride.

You have said you liked the Pyrenean climbs and the Joux-Plane in the Alps. Is that because they suited your style?
Yes. Those climbs have variations in their gradient and I could use those variations to break away from the others. The Galibier probably suits and all rounder like Merckx more than a climber. It is a constant climb, and someone like Merckx or Indurain can use their strength and set a constant pace on it. It’s the changes in gradient that can cause difficulties for riders like that.

What tips would you give to someone on climbing the Galibier?
Start the climb in a lower gear than you think you need to get up it. Establish a good pedalling and breathing rhythm, then shift to a gear that suits your climbing style.

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