Briançon is the hub for a lot of rides over great climbs. With our time ended in the town, we packed up the bags and loaded them on the bus and then began to ride out into the bright morning sunshine. The plan for today was to do the longest ride of the Tour d’Enfer, around 100 kms, and include two more famous climbs.
Our first climb was the Col de l’Izoard. A part of the Tour de France since 1922, it has appeared in the itinerary more than 30 times, and the first men over the top are legends of the Tour: in 1923, it was the mercurial Henri Pélissier, whose stormy life eventually came to an end when his girlfriend shot him, apparently with some justification. Sylvère Maes, Gino Bartali, Jean Robic, Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet crossed first multiple times, and other great names included Bahamontes, Merckx, Thévenet, van Impe and Chiappucci. The last man to cross the Izoard first was Stefano Garzelli in 2006.
The ascent begins right in Briançon proper, as you pass by a big sign for the col and then start climbing almost immediately up a steep little grade. This was a bit of a nasty surprise but the road levelled off somewhat and we began a steady climb up from the town, with a view of the valley to the left. The route was wooded and green and the road was marked with milestones indicating the distance covered and the grade.
The climb is considered a Hors Categorie (HC) and is 20 km (12.43 miles) in length, with an average grade of 5.7 percent. From Briançon’s altitude of 1220 m you climb to 2361 m (7746 feet) ASL , a vertical gain of 1141 m (3743 feet).
The first six kilometers or so were actually fairly easy. Today would be special in that the road over the Izoard was going to be closed to vehicular traffic and we saw a considerable number of cyclists on the road, although the majority of them would be leaving Briançon en masse after us. I was feeling very refreshed in the coolish morning air and we made good progress. We passed a number of local cyclists but looking back down the valley we could see the fast guys on their way.
We came up to the fork in the D902, with the left turn taking you to the village of Cervieres (1636 m). Off to the right we saw a bicycle propped up next to a sleeping bag. This was a lazy cyclist who was still asleep but obviously wanted to start partway up the climb. We left him to his dozing and soon came to a small rustic hotel, compromised of a number of rural buildings. It was just beyond this that we came to the “Route Barée” sign, with a barrier blocking the road to cars, no that there had been many cars up to this point anyway.
It was now starting to get pretty warm and the climbing was beginning to get more serious, with the next 7 kms (4.3 miles) averaging more than 8 percent. The horseflies now made their appearance, which was most unwelcome. It ruins your rhythm to try and speed up and drop them but they are not only irritating when they fly around you, they inflict nasty bites. The fast guys were now catching up to us, and I discovered the simple expedient of riding close to them as they passed and the flies all went over to them!
A number of serpentines took us above the tree line and past the Refuge Napoleon, a small inn not far from the top of the pass. We soon arrived in front of the impressive monument at the top of the col and our first pass of the day was accomplished. Of course, this called for the usual variation of col sign photos. Greg took a nice picture of me, and then one with me and Heike and Frank and our Specialized bicycles. This was the first day when I saw a number of French riders with Specialized bikes as well; the brand is not nearly as visible as a supplier to two pro teams would be expected to be in Europe.
Local riders congregate in front of the museum
The cyclotouristique riders had assembled in large numbers and were consuming rather odd and unlikely food, such as cold cuts. It did not look much like the kind of food you get on a ride in Germany or the US but everyone looked pretty fit so I guess it works.
Making my way through the hordes of eating cyclists, I was able to get into the little cycling museum at the top of the Izoard. With an 86 year long presence at the Tour de France, the Izoard features in many legendary battles. The museum, which was staffed by one very bored looking man (presumably from the local tourism office), had some interesting bicycles. The best was a velocipede, the kind of iron bike with the pedals attached to the front wheel and which nobody would have ever been able to ride up the pass. There were a lot of posters (“The History of Brakes,” “The Role of Clermont-Ferrand in the Bicycle Industry,” and so forth) but it seemed that nothing had been added since the pass was crossed by Pascal Richard of Switzerland in the 1989 Tour de France. Since the museum looked like a volunteer effort by a regional cycling club they will probably get around to it someday.
The descent was quite entertaining, with an average gradient of 6.9 percent all the way down to Guillestre, 16 km (10 miles) away, but the first half of the drop must be closer to 9-10 percent. The D902 took us through the Casse Déserte, “the Broken Desert,” which is a region of steep, barren eroded sandstone, familiar as a backdrop in old photos of the Tour de France. Just below the summit there is a small monument to Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet that I looked for but I ended up riding right past it, to my immense irritation. I saw some cyclists turning off the road but did not see a reason for it, but at least some of group had the chance to visit it. Bobet had the measure of the Izoard, being the first across it on three occasions, while il Campionissimo did it twice.
The road plunged downwards, with nice steady curves that I could really open up the speed on, and we tore past the village of Brunissard, entering the Queyras Valley, and travelling through dramatic narrow rock canyons that make up the Guil River gorge. This region of the Alps was one of the last to be opened to tourism and is not very built-up.
We rolled into Guillestre, a small town that had once been the scene of many border conflicts between the French and the Italians. We turned into the town proper, which required a brief descent, and came to the central square where we stopped for a coffee. Several of the other Tour d’Enfer participants joined us and then we started up the road for the second climb of the day, the Col de Vars.
The first climb of the day, completed
(profile from climbbybike.com)