Everything about riding in the Alps is big. The roads are wide, the mountains are tall, the climbs are long, and huge bowls of air have been gouged out between them. The Lacets de Montvernier is an Alpine climb, but it’s not big. Among its titanic neighbours in the Maurienne valley it’s a minnow, just 3.4km long and 277m in height from bottom to top.
Within its 3.4 kilometres are 18 hairpins bends, with a 180° switchback every 150m. This year — for the first time in its history — the Tour de France will take the detour from the valley floor and wriggle its way up to Montvernier as the final climb on stage 18 on Thursday July 23.
“You don’t ever stop turning,” is how the Tour’s course director, Thierry Gouvenou, sums it up.
This little road is about to become the visual centrepiece of the cycling summer, and the Tour is about to get another set of mythical hairpins to sit alongside the 21 located in the adjacent Alpine valley on the road up to Alpe d’Huez.
Not only that; the Lacets de Montvernier must rank as one of the most beautiful and most enjoyable roads you can ride anywhere in the world.
The Tour de France hasn’t ever displayed a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, but if it ever did it then the Lacets de Montvernier would make a good starting point. ‘Lacets’ is French for ‘shoelaces’ and looking down on the climb is like looking down on an Alpine Scalextric set, one built over six years from 1928 to 1934 to reach the tiny village of Montvernier at the top.
The best local viewpoint is at the end of a track diving off from the top of the climb. Head past a little allotment whose owner seems to spend his evenings tilling the soil around his potatoes and frowning at outsiders, then head through a copse and out onto the sheer cliff edge. There is not a warning sign, guardrail or piece of hazard tape in sight.
The climb itself scales the same rock shelf; as you ascend away from the trucks and freight trains below you in the busy valley floor, the road you’re on becomes silent, save for the finches fluttering around the rocks and the rustling of small trees and patches of thick grass in the breeze.
Hardly any cars dare to venture up here. That’s why it’s so quiet. The road is barely wide enough for one car, let alone two, and the thought of negotiating your way around another vehicle (do you fancy reversing around one of those hairpins?) keeps most cars to the newer, adjacent road via Le Châtel, which the Tour de France will descend after climbing to Montvernier in order to reach the stage 18 finish in St Jean de Maurienne.
Scenic goat track
The Tour de France organisers have a long rapport with the authorities in the Maurienne valley, home to the cols of the Galibier, Croix de Fer, Madeleine and many more famous Alpine climbs and stage finishes.
For years the race planners had been driving past the Lacets on their way to recce these other big climbs, but the story goes that they always believed it to be a scenic goat track, unsuitable for the Tour. One day they got chatting about it with some officials from the local authorities and were taken for a trip up it. Et voilà, they discovered that this hidden gem had been hiding in plain sight.
It’s a nice bit of legend to go with the climb, if a little unlikely for an organisation that knows the roads of France better than any other. Still, you could understand any reluctance to take the Tour de France onto the Lacets. For starters, the road is too small for the Tour’s publicity caravan.
Even more controversially, spectators will be banned from watching the race on the climb for reasons of safety. Besides the odd motorway bridge or tunnel, it’s a move that has hardly ever happened in the Tour and won’t exactly endear the climb to the public.
No cars will be allowed up the climb during the entire day. Teams will station spares and mechanics at the summit, otherwise it’s neutral service for any rider unfortunate to puncture on the way up.
It won’t provide much of a pure physical challenge to the riders of the Tour — particularly in comparison to the six other categorised climbs they’ll already have scaled that day, including the hors catégorie Col du Glandon.
Positioning will be key
But it is so narrow that a peloton only three or four wide will be able to squeeze up it. By the top the gap between front and back will naturally have lengthened, making it a prime springboard for a GC ambush or opportunist breakaway with any moves aided by a swift and flowing descent into St Jean de Maurienne.
Positioning will be key so expect a sprint for the bottom of the climb, although by that point it will be a whittled down bunch that will contest anything on its slopes.
Could the Tour be won or lost here? Perhaps not, but the road has more than enough beef to offer a mouthwatering opportunity for the peloton’s chancers and demand some serious respect from the overall contenders.
The Lacets de Montvernier is a very special place to pedal up. The Tour de France has another legend in the making.