Col du Tourmalet
The Col du Tourmalet (‘col’ means ‘collar’ or ‘pass’ in French) is the highest paved mountain road in the Fench Pyrenees, famous for its association with the Tour de France.
Up until 1910, it was just another rocky mountain pass. Shortly before that, Alphonse Steinès, a colleague of Tour de France organiser Henri Desgrange, set out to evaluate if the Col could be employed for the Tour. Alphonse was abandoned by his driver at 600 metres, on account of the very real risk of wild bears. Unabashed he proceeded on foot, before becoming lost in the dark, falling into a river and almost freezing to death. On being rescued by a search party he telegraphed Desgrange to say that the route was ‘perfectly feasible’ and the Tour duly paid 3,000 francs to turn the goat track into a road passable by vehicles. The famous Col du Tourmalet was born.
In 1910, the first Tour rider to win the stage was Frenchman Octave Lapize. He was close to collapse at the summit finish and is rumoured to have called the Tour organisers ‘Assassins!’ for concocting such a difficult route. There is a large statue of Octave, gasping for breath, at the summit today.
The climb naturally proved to be a major attraction for spectators, and has since been included in the Tour more times than any other pass. It is one of the three great climbs of the Tour, along with Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’huez.
Its fame means that thousands of amateur cyclists tackle the Col every year. Most riders choose to approach the climb from the west, starting at Luz-Saint Sauveur. Its a 19km climb, with an average gradient of 7.4%. What makes the climb so difficult is that there are very few flat spots on the climb to let the rider recover. After the village of Bareges, almost at the half-way point, the scenery becomes spectacular, although the weather is unpredictable and you may find yourself riding through icy fog, even in summertime. The last few hundred metres are, of course, the steepest ones!
Once at the top, you can bask in the knowledge that you have climbed a piece of cycling history, and claim your stamp from the little summit shop.
The Col du Tourmalet is celebrated in our Tourmalet t-shirt, available in cobalt blue or race-leading yellow – take a closer look here.