Iconic Places: Luz Ardiden

The Tour is climbing its first summit finish at Luz Ardiden on Bastille Day. We covered this incredible climb in our Iconic Places series in the Summer edition this year.

Words by Chris Sidwells

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Thursday July 14, 2011. Originally appeared in Cycle Sport Summer 2011

“Luz Ardiden and the Tour stage in 1988 is one of the great moments of my career. For someone who cannot climb but who lives among the mountains, to finish second in such a spectacular setting in my home region was just like winning,” Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle.

The Tour de France is like a play in three acts. Its backdrop ranges from sea to mountains, runs across open plains, through rural lanes, enduring storms, mind-numbing cold and brain-addling heat. The on-stage action extends from crowd-scene bunch sprints to the soliloquy of a lone break. It’s a dramatic race played out in dramatic locations, but some places stand out, and Luz Ardiden is one of them.

It’s not a regular in the Tour. This road up to an unimpressive ski station was only built in 1975 and the Tour didn’t visit until 10 years later, but when it has visited, Luz Ardiden always provides the Tour with high drama. From the conniving plot and sub-plot of Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in 1985, to Lance Armstrong’s crash and Lazarus-like resurrection in 2003, the story of Luz Ardiden is studded with incident, controversy and tales of brave endeavour.

The climb is a toughie, just over 13 kilometres, with an average gradient of 7.6 per cent and a maximum of 12. The road is well engineered with a series of hairpin bends joined by long straight sections. One of these straights, about half way up, contains Luz Ardiden’s steepest section.

One of the characteristics of Luz Ardiden is that the top can be seen almost from the bottom. The road coming out of Luz Saint Sauveur, the town at its foot, tracks clearly up the climb, and that’s oppressive. Luz Ardiden is always the end of a stage, because there’s nowhere else to go, and the effect of seeing their ultimate destination far above saps the morale of anyone who is suffering.

Downhill start
Luz Saint Sauveur is at the bottom of the western side of the Col du Tourmalet, the side the rider will descend on stage 12 of this year’s Tour. They turn left in town and hit some false flat as they race alongside the Gave de Luz for a few hundred metres, then turn sharp right and descend for almost a kilometre. Yes, Luz Ardiden starts with a descent.

Luz Saint Sauveur exists because of the thermal springs below it, and the climbing starts at the Solfarino chapel, which is dedicated to the healing waters. The climb is unrelenting once it starts, hovering between seven and eight per cent almost all the way to the top.

The first section travels up the face of the Gorge de Luz, and provides breathtaking views down the valley towards Lourdes and Hautacam. This part is sheltered by trees, a blessing that lasts almost half way up. In hot weather the trees provide shade from the sun, but they are not as dark and hostile as on other Pyrenean climbs.

The character changes at the village of Sazos, where the hairpin bends begin. These are the prelude to another straight section, this is the one with the 12 per cent gradients. The tough haul ends at Grust, and with it the trees, but they give way to stunning views in all directions.

LeMond takes charge
It was here in 1990 that Greg LeMond took charge of the Tour de France. The race leader, Claudio Chiappucci had been dropped. LeMond was the reigning champion after his incredible comeback of 1989. It was time for him to stamp his authority on the race.

His diesel-like attack had a raw beauty, but it wasn’t elegant, certainly not as elegant as the man who followed him. Miguel Indurain began the 1990 Tour as a super-domestique for the 1988 winner Pedro Delgado, but Delgado wasn’t on form and Indurain had the green light to try something. He was too far behind to win the Tour, but ideally placed, comfortable in LeMond’s shadow, to win the stage.

LeMond knew Indurain had no reason to work, and he didn’t ask. He was content to let the big Spaniard tap along behind in what would soon become his familiar fast spinning style. This was the American’s chance to win his third Tour de France, so it was up to him alone, and he began to pound at the mountain, fighting it for every pedal turn.

Defining moment
This was one of LeMond’s defining moments, and certainly the memory many of us carry of him. His face creased in pain; mouth open, his rainbow jersey unzipped down to his belly, piercing blue eyes fixed upwards and ahead as he willed himself on. He was relentless, more so than at any point of his 1989 win, save for the final time trial. The red, day-glow yellow and blue bike, those weird Scott handlebars, the distinctive Campagnolo Delta brakes, LeMond’s shoulders rolling to help keep on top of a gear that always looked almost too big.

LeMond wasn’t the same racer after his hunting accident. It was all too easy in 1985 and 1986, or at least it looked so. And if he’d continued that way LeMond may not have endeared himself as much to the French as he did. It was never easy after the accident, LeMond won but it always looked like he could lose. It’s one reason French bike fans warmed to him in a way they never did to Lance Armstrong.

LeMond gained enough time by the top of the climb to set himself up for winning the Tour, and once he’d done that, Indurain pedalled by to take the stage, frustratingly for the American. Next year Indurain would be team leader, not Delgado, and LeMond would crack as the Spaniard scored the first of his five successive victories.

Circle of peaks
Higher up Luz Ardiden the highest peaks of the Pyrenees come into view. The Pic du Midi in the east, towering over the Tourmalet, and the 3,000 metre jagged wall of mountains to the south that forms the Cirque de Gavarnie and the Spanish border.

The road still snakes upwards, hairpin after tight hairpin, as the climb reaches its climax. Fans crowd the road here, a fact that provided another story in Luz Ardiden’s spectacular history.

The 2003 Tour was the Tour de France that Lance Armstrong wasn’t ready for. His preparation hadn’t gone wrong, it just hadn’t been exactly right, and exactly right was Armstrong’s default.

He wasn’t at his best physically, and on top of that he couldn’t seem to focus. Jan Ullrich had him in trouble. Armstrong led overall by 15 seconds, but even this slim cushion had been achieved through racing guile rather than physical superiority. Armstrong wasn’t comfortable. Ullrich had taken time from him in the Cap-Découverte time trial and was beginning to get the upper hand in the Pyrenees.

Behind him in the team car Armstrong’s manager and Svengali, Johan Bruyneel was a worried man thinking they might be staring down the barrel of defeat. Then things got worse. The long shoulder loop of a spectator’s bag hooked around Armstrong’s handlebars and brought the American crashing down.

He had been at the front in a group with Ullrich, each looking to find a weakness in the other. Now Ullrich had a gift, but he didn’t take it. Instead he slowed and waited for Armstrong. George had his dragon on the floor, his sword at its throat, but instead of thrusting it in hard, he let him get up. And the dragon ate him.

With defeat staring him in the face, lying on the ground, the reality of the unacceptable stung Armstrong into focus. He and Bruyneel played this game to win, and win by a margin, nothing less would do. Armstrong got up, chased and caught Ullrich, then attacked and gained 40 seconds. He was back in the game, and Bruyneel breathed a sigh of relief. “I said; yes, at last. Thank goodness something had shocked him into action. From that moment I knew Lance would win again,” he recalled years later.

Latest twist
The last hairpins are wild and exposed, as the full impact of mountain splendour hits. The top is desolate out of season but will be full of cheering fans on Thursday July 14, Bastille Day, this year. Luz Ardiden rounds off the first big day in the mountains for the 2011 Tour, but what will be the plot and sub-plot this year?

Will we see a plucky Bastille Day victory for the French, or will the battle to win overall already be too hot? Whatever happens, there will be a twist, Luz Ardiden almost guarantees it. Something quite unusual has happened every time the Tour has been here.

It’s the closest the race comes to Spain, so Spanish riders will want a say. The barmy Basque orange army will be out in force, throwing their passion into the mix. If it hasn’t done already, the 2011 Tour de France will explode into war on Luz Ardiden, if you are undecided where to watch it, there might not be a better place.

Four top men of Luz Ardiden

Laudelino Cubino
Cubino, who nickname is Lale, was a Spanish pro from 1985 until 1996, and he won stages in all three Grand Tours. He runs a hotel in Bejar today, and still rides with guests and friends in the hills that surround his town. He says; “Winning on Luz Ardiden is one of the three proudest moments of my life. The others were winning the Spanish national title in 1990 and winning the stage that finished on to of Monte Sirano in the 1995 Giro.” When he won at Luz Ardiden, Cubino did so in the classic manner, attacking on the Tourmalet and winning alone.

Robert Laiseka
This Basque racer won at Luz Ardiden in 2001, racing for Euskatel, sending his vociferous supporters half mad with delight. Laiseka has a bit of a crazy persona himself, and he could never be described as a stylish bike racer. Tall and angular, his pained knees and elbows style made it look like he was being winched upwards when he raced uphill, but he was fast. He also won stages of the Tour of Spain in 2000 and 2005, but suffered a knee injury during the 2006 Giro that ended his career. Laiseka does a bit of punditry on Basque TV now.

Dag-Otto Lauritzen
He has to be included just for inspiring Phil Liggett’s “Every Dag has its day” comment on TV when the Norwegian won in 1987. Lauritzen came into cycling late, after it was recommended to help rehabilitate a broken leg he’d sustained while parachute training with the military. He was a natural, a tough competitor and generous team rider who turned pro in 1984 and raced for 10 years. As well as the Tour stage on Luz Ardiden, Lauritzen won the Henninger Turm race in 1987. He now works as a television commentator for Norwegian television on the Tour de France.

Pedro Delgado
He still has his youthful good looks, so it’s hard to believe that Delgado was 50 this year. To mark the occasion of his half-century, the sports newspaper he used to deliver as a kid around the street of Sergovia, AS, interviewed him. He remembered winning on Luz Ardiden, when the Tour visited the climb for the first time in 1985, with pride.

Of course Delgado went on to win the 1988 Tour de France and become involved in the probenecid affair, about which he says “I took probenecid just after the Alpe d‘Huez stage. We used it to assist drainage from the kidneys. It was also used to mask anabolic steroids, but if I’d wanted to hide something that way I would have had to use it every day, and it only appeared that once.”

Pro’s eye view
He comes from the Pyrenees, trained in them and lives among them still, we talk about Luz Ardiden to Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle.

With two victories in Paris-Roubaix you wouldn’t describe yourself as a climber…
No, not at all, but the climbs around the Bearn, which include the Col de Marie-Blanque, made me strong. I was good on the flat because I always trained in the mountains.

You also did well on some mountains stages, we’re thinking particularly of when you were second on the stage to Luz Ardiden in 1988.
That is still a vivid memory. Actually, I climbed quite well that year and done well in the Route du Sud [in the Pyrenees]. I had good legs on the stage from Girons to Luz Ardiden and after taking some bottles from the feed at Ste Marie de Campan, I rode to the front to give them to Ronan Pensec, who was our best climber. Then I stayed with him as we began the Tourmalet.

What happened next?
My directeur sportif, Roger Legeay told me to try to take Pensec nearer to the front if I was feeling good. I did, and by La Mongie we were clear with a group of nine. The yellow jersey, Pedro Delgado was there too. But Laudelino Cubino was in front of us, away on his own.

How far ahead was he?
Two minutes at the top of the Tourmalet.

What did you do next?
I might not have been the best climber but I was a very good descender. I thought I could maybe close the gap, so I went flat out down the Tourmalet. I heard later that the TV commentator, Robert Chapatte said that I was missing from the group of nine because I had worked so hard for Pensec. He hadn’t seen me go. Anyway, by the bottom of the Tourmalet I had taken 90 seconds from the yellow jersey group, but Cubino must have gone down that mountain like a rocket because I hadn’t closed much on him at all.

What did you do on Luz Ardiden?
I knew the climb well. I knew how hard it was, so I knew I couldn’t catch Cubino. Instead I paced my effort well and held on to second place. It was only just enough, though. Delgado was only three seconds behind me at the end. It was a great day, and do you know, some guys from my region still think I won.

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