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“Have they not wings, our men who have been able to climb up to heights where even eagles don’t fly? … Oh Sappey, Oh Laffrey, Oh Col Bayard, Oh Tourmalet! I shall not shirk from my duty in proclaiming that beside the Galibier you are nothing…”
– Henri Desgrange
The Col du Galibier was first scaled by cyclists at the Tour de France in 1911. Henri Desgrange, the Father of the Tour, heralded it as a great victory for mankind to defy the laws of gravity and climb this giant. Referred to by some as the “Roof of the Tour”, the centenary of its presence in the world’s most famous race is something to be celebrated, particularly for those who have managed to conquer it. This year’s Tour de France pays tribute not once but twice, scaling the 2556m over consecutive stages as the climax to this year’s race.
Great Road Climbs of the Northern Alps
In the forthcoming Rapha book, Great Road Climbs of the Northern Alps, Graeme Fife describes the character and history of this monumental mountain. Here is an extract from that chapter:
The sign on the edge of town reads ‘17km’ to the col, but this marks the distance to the tunnel originally cut through the uppermost boss of the mountain in the early twentieth century. The mountain’s altitude was, accordingly, given as 2556m. When one of the tunnel’s big supporting archways collapsed in 1976, it was closed and the road extended upwards over the shoulder of the massif, an added kilometre of around 10%. Lucien Van Impe was first over the new, super Galibier in the ’79 Tour de France. The tunnel was reopened in 2002.
On the eve of the Tour’s first crossing of the Galibier in 1911, Gustave Garrigou led François Faber, the 1909 winner, by one point in the old system of General Classification (GC). However it was Emile Georget, recovered from a nasty prang, who had the legendary honour of crossing the mighty Col du Galibier for the first time in the history of the Tour. (On the descent of the Ballon d’Alsace, stage 3, Georget, a prospective winner, had collided head-on with a German motorcyclist roaring up from the opposite direction, but miraculously had stayed in the race. History does not relate what state the German motorcyclist was in.) Octave Lapize, the reigning champion, exhausted, crashed heavily into a ditch and could not continue.
Henri Desgrange, the Tour’s founder, was up there, so too a large gathering of other officials and spectators. Suddenly along the road towards them came Georget on his own, hunched over his preferred cow-horn handlebars, goggles up on his brow, white neckerchief tucked into his cap to protect his neck. Although the sun was shining, it was bitterly cold at that gasping altitude. From the base of the climb, the road was scored and pitted, horribly uneven, no better than a cart track, a far worse trial to ride than the smooth surface of any of today’s alpine roads. ‘When Georget stopped and put his victorious foot to the ground on the head of this monster,’ wrote Desgrange, ‘he was filthy dirty, his moustache clogged with snot and bits of the food he’d collected from the previous control, his jersey stained with mud from the last stream into which he’d pitched headlong. ‘Looking a complete fright, but with the pallid face of a clown, he came across and snapped: “That’s made you sit up.” ’
Georget gave his own wry take on the fearsome experience: ‘The men who dug the tunnel at the top of the col might have driven it through at the bottom. It would have been a little bit longer, no doubt, but it would have spared us a martyrdom. Between the tunnel of the Métro and the summit of the Galibier, well, I still prefer the Métro.’
The gallery of peaks across the entire horizon, the bare emptiness of the landscape on which they look down, are what makes [the Galibier] so daunting. The Galibier is an ogre, slow to be provoked but awful in its brooding power. Its very bulk seems to grunt to the mortal who dares its crossing: ‘You want some?’
The first of two Étape du Tour stages tackles stage 19 of the Tour from Modane Valfréjus to Alpe-d’Huez, taking in the Col du Galibier.
Read our write up of the route here »