It doesn’t matter if it’s done by an amateur or a professional, every summit finish has its own story. But few famous climbs have a story quite as extraordinary as the Col du Tourmalet.
Words: Haute Route Staff
Mention the Col du Tourmalet to any cyclist and it is sure to spark a reaction. Some may shift uncomfortably in their seat, a pained grimace washing over their face remembering the time this legendary climb nearly ruined them; they’ve got unfinished business to settle. Others become more animated, their face coming alive with the realisation of this bucket-list climb and the satisfaction of tackling one of the highest paved mountain passes in the French Pyrenees.
Amateur and professional alike all agree that this climb has a unique status and level of respect amongst cyclists. The tough ascent has witnessed its share of broken bodies and broken minds, alongside superhuman efforts and the type of elation only possible from life-changing personal accomplishment.
"Lost and alone in the sub-zero temperatures for hours, the mission almost cost Steinès his life, but did not deter him from immediately sending his iconic telegram"
But how did this climb, situated in Midi-Pyrenees become so famous and end up at the top of the hit list for so many cyclists? We take a look back at some of our favourite facts that has helped make Tourmalet the legendary climb it is today.
Tour de France founder, Henri Desgrange, believed the Tourmalet pass too difficult to be raced over, but colleague Alphonse Steinès was determined to prove him wrong. In June 1910, Steinès set out on a reconnaissance mission to the Pyrenees to find new ways to spice up the race, but his expedition took a turn for the worst on the Tourmalet when he was forced to abandon his car and continue on foot through the snow-covered abyss. Lost and alone in the sub-zero temperatures for hours, the mission almost cost Steinès his life, but did not deter him from immediately sending his iconic telegram to Desgrange that read: “Cross Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly feasible.”
"Pushing his steel, single-speed steed up the unsealed final stretch of the climb, Lapize famously met eyes with race organisers..."
And so, it began. In that year’s Tour de France, riders faced a 326 kilometre course that included the Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Col d’Osquich and the newly vetted Col du Tourmalet – a course journalists dubbed ‘the circle of death.’
Octave Lapize was the first rider to reach the Tourmalet’s summit in the race, eventually winning the stage and the overall classification. Pushing his steel, single-speed steed up the unsealed final stretch of the climb, Lapize famously met eyes with race organisers and shouted “You are assassins!”.
BLACKSMITHS, SOLO ATTACKS AND BROKEN DREAMS
The Tourmalet went on to live up to its name and reputation after first being featured in the race. It has since featured in the Tour de France 87 times and has hosted some of the most iconic battles of the great race.
In 1913, Eugène Christophe was leading by 18 minutes when he suffered a broken fork on the Tourmalet. The rules stated any repairs had to be done by the rider, so Christophe carried his bike down the mountain to a blacksmith shop in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and made the repairs himself. Spending hours in the shop, Christophe earned his place in the history books, but sadly put an end to his dreams of glory that year.
Later in 1969, Eddy Merckx’s blitz in Stage 17 of the Tour de France was a total game-changer. Already in the lead by eight minutes, all the Belgian champion had to do was stay with his rivals. Instead, he attacked. Riding solo over the Peyresourde, Aspin, Touramlet and the Aubisuqe, Meryckx gained another eight minutes to win the stage and cement his domination over the entire field.
In 1991 the Tourmalet was the setting for a huge upset. Defending Tour de France champion from 1989 to 1990, Greg Le Mond looked to be on his way to his fourth victory in 1991, but the Giant of the Pyrenees proved to be his undoing. In the final kilometre of the Tourmalet, Miguel Indurain surged ahead, building a lead of more than 5 minutes over Le Mond, which the American was not able to claw back to complete his three-peat.
"Contador managed to stay on his wheel and the two crossed the line together in an all-time finish"
Later in 2010, the Col du Tourmalet was the scene of a thrilling stage finish. In fact, this year the Tour climbed the Tourmalet twice. But it was the battle for Stage 17 that was one for the history books. For Andy Schleck, it was the last real chance he had to take back time from Alberto Contador. The pair were locked in a breathtaking battle for the final 15km. Schleck attacked Contador several times and managed to win the stage, but Contador managed to stay on his wheel and the two crossed the line together in an all-time finish.
There is no climb quite like the Col du Tourmalet and everyone’s story to the summit is unique. Most of the riders battling Tourmalet aren’t professional cyclists racing to the finish line of the Tour de France. They are ordinary people doing extraordinary things to accomplish the same feats as the super-humans who came before them. Their monumental passage is driven by the same grit, pain, and determination. So, however long it takes to zig-zag up that mountain pass, inching towards the summit, make sure you embrace your moment of glory. Because anyone that makes it to the top deserves their moment as the King or Queen of the Tourmalet.
Col du Tourmalet From Sainte Marie de Campan, France Distance: 17km Elevation: 1265m+ Highest point: 2115 Average gradient: 7.3% Max gradient: 11.7%
The Tourmalet is one of the highlights of the 2021 Haute Route Pyreneesevent, a five-day expedition across this legendary mountain range. Find out more about the race in the event guide.