The finale of Wednesday’s stage of the Tour de France is nothing short of brutal. I rode the last 30km with Michael Hutchinson yesterday and the former British time trial champion is still fretting about our measly average speed this morning.
Stringing together two climbs divided by a short descent, the end of stage 17 takes the race deep into the high Alps with a finish offering spectacular views over the Emosson Dam and Mont Blanc. But it’s the ever sharpening gradient on the final ascent that really left an impression.
“Quite a toughie,” was how CW columnist Hutch chose to describe it. But only after he’d sat down and recovered over a £4 bottle of the coke at the top. This being Switzerland, it’s not just the roads that are steep.
With just two third category climbs earlier on, the bulk of this 184.5km stage from Berne is relatively tame.
But then it hits the town of Martigny, site of both the intermediate sprint and our chance plumping of a parking spot that served all three of our needs within a 30 metre radius. There was a garage for water, a bike shop for a track pump and restaurant for refuelling afterwards.
From this neat little town nestled in the Rhône valley, the final onslaught gets underway with the Col de la Forclaz rising straight from a perimeter roundabout.
Clocking a whole kilometre of altitude gain in 13km, it carves up the mountainside at such a consistent gradient, I had wondered if the climb profile illustrator in the Tour de France roadbook was simply being lazy with this one.
Comprising long wide straights interspersed by occasional hairpins (that made for a high speed descent coming back), the climb cuts first through the lush vineyards that hang above the town, then through higher woodland.
Here we sought whatever shadows the trees were throwing on the road. But this was late afternoon yesterday; the Tour will be on the climb when the sun’s a little higher in the sky.
“And it’s going to be four degrees hotter,” noted a waitress in the restaurant last night.
The seven kilometre descent that follows this first category climb’s summit offers only a blip of respite, and plunges the road deep into a gorge which you’re only going to have to climb out of again.
After dropping off the main road with an acute right hander, the road soon swings back up and, marked by an arch decorated with bikes, embarks on the 10.4km hors cat ascent that will surely decide the day’s action.
“I don’t think this seems as steep as the last one,” noted Hutch as we climbed out of the perched village of Finhaut after four kilometres of steady climbing.
With that, we rounded a sweeping left-hander to see the road funnel and the gradient kick up past a line of parked spectator’s campervans. “Me and my mouth,” he cursed.
For the final six kilometres the screw just tightens, narrowing and steepening into a final two kilometres of 10 and 12.3% gradient respectively.
While that may not sound any steeper than a little kick on your local training loop, we weren’t inclined to entertain such parallels after 20-odd kilometres of smallest-gear slog – itself a pitiful comparison against the cumulated two and half weeks of Tour de France the racers have in their legs.
Momentary relief comes in the flattened out exits from the handful of hairpins that take the road ever higher up this vertiginous mountainside above the gorge, but it doesn’t last for long. Those put under pressure or who make an ill-judged move in the race, will – like customers at the summit bar – pay hard for it up here.
The Tour’s visit will not be the first time a big race has come up to this 1,960m summit. The Critérium du Dauphiné visited in 2014 and, behind a Lieuwe Westra stage win, finished in absolute pieces.