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Part 4 - Col du Lautaret
The long drag to the Col du Lautaret looks easy. 27km on a wide road, with a gradual gradient of 4%. It’s only a second category climb on the Tour and the pros will ride it on a 53 X 18.
Naturally, most commentators will dismiss this climb as a ‘transition’, more of a false flat than a real challenge. A chance to make up some time. For Etape riders that would be a mistake. It may not be steep, but the Lautaret is long and gruelling.
The first part of the climb is very gentle, a main road driving straight through a series of ski stations (Serre Chevalier 1200 to 1500), gradually rising. You can make good time here and spin along. The Tour stage has a feed station just past Briançon.
After 12km the gradient increases and you leave the ski stations behind. You’re now in a high glaciated valley. Steep rocky sides and towering peaks. The Galibier is up ahead (you can see the descent from this ‘sacred monster’ winding down the face ahead of you to join the Col du Lautaret).
The terrain is seriously intimidating. Doubts may surface as your mind brings new challenges. ‘This was supposed to be easy’, ‘I’m only half way and I’m cooked’. ‘We haven’t even got over the Lautaret and there’s still Alpe d’Huez to come!’ No doubt silence will descend on the groups of Etapistes pushing up the long straight road to the col.
When riding the Col de Lautaret you need to focus. The climb will be psychologically crushing if you’re not prepared for it. Keep your legs spinning and your heart rate steady. You need to make it over here in good shape. Save something for the final climb to Alpe d’Huez.
The surroundings are intimidating and the gentle gradient is made much harder by a new enemy: the wind. Locals say there is almost always a strong headwind here. You don’t want to toil up the next 15km in the wind on your own. Get into a good group here and share your pulls at the front, making maximum use of the shelter for the rest of the time.
Just before the Col there is a 500m snow tunnel and a couple of turns. The wind will be stronger still, hitting you like a slap as you emerge from the tunnel. The summit itself is a disappointment – a rag bag of boarded up grey buildings and ski hotels. But the high peaks and hanging glaciers of the Ecrins are truly spectacular. Take in the view and then put on a gilet for the descent.