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Part 2 - Col d'Izoard
The road sign at Guillestre announces the start of the Col d’Izoard. This is a mistake. There are 17km of valley roads to go before the climb really starts. You should make good time here. The valley actually starts with a short descent as the Guil river cuts through a sharp ravine.
The 2km descent includes four arches cut through the rock face. The road surface here is poor, with plenty of debris from rock falls so take care. The sun will be directly ahead as you descend in and out of shade.
After the small barrage there is a lovely 10km of flat and gradual climbing through the beautiful Guil valley. Relax and enjoy the scenery before the climb proper. You should be able to manage 25kmh here.
Just before you reach the Queyras valley, the gradient picks up and the road climbs to the left as the river cuts through a gorge. Two hairpins and you’re over this bluff and will see the ancient fortress of Chateau Queyras up ahead. Soon after that there is a sharp left turn and the climb of the Col d’Izoard rears up.
The Col d’Izoard is Hors Categorie – one of the true giants of the Tour. It’s a legendary climb, made famous by the exploits of Coppi, Thevenet and Bobet. 14km with an average gradient of 7%, it has sections of over 10%. It’s also very beautiful.
The first 2km are quite steep as the road snakes through mountain pastures to Arvieux, the high peaks of Mouriare, Roche Brune and Beaudouis up ahead.
The gradient is uneven through the villages of La Chalp and Brunissard until a steep ramp of 9% signals the start of the tough climbing, just after Brunissard.
The next 6km is 7-8% as the road winds up the face of a pine-forested mountain at the head of the valley. The tarmac has been relaid here and it’s a great climb, following the slick black-top through endless hairpins, gaining height quickly. There are magnificent views of the surrounding peaks as you make each turn.
The sun will be on your back now and, even though you’re at 1800m it is bound to be a hot climb.
10km into the climb the trees start to thin and you catch the first glimpse of the weird rock formations of the Casse Déserte. Here the wind and snow have ground the rocks into twisted spires rising out of a sea of scree. You’ll hear Marmottes calling to each other from their rocky homes.
You’re riding through history. So many images of the great champions have been captured here – single, frail riders struggling through the dramatic moonscape to become legends of the sport. Take time to take in the scenery. Soft pedal and savour the next km.
The Casse Déserte is at 2220m and includes a short descent before the memorial to Coppi and Bobet, donated by the readers of L’Equipe.
From the Casse Déserte there are 7 more switchbacks to the summit. In late May there were still banks of snow here. Dust and loose scree is scattered across the road.
The Coppi memorial at the summit marks the highest point of this year’s Etape. Sadly it's not all down hill from here.