We are showing you the Australian version of our site: would you prefer a different location?
Tour de Beauté
Words and photos by Phil Deeker
This year a pirate port in Corsica will provide the first backdrop for the 100th edition. L’Ile de Beauté (the isle of beauty), as it is known, promises us three stages of dramatic, never-seen-before Tour TV images. Stage 2, across the mountainous centre of the island and stage 3, along the corniche roads of the rocky west coast, should especially please those who watch the show for the helicopter scenery shots as much as for the close-ups from the motorbike of speed and suffering.
Having driven the entire route in preparation for this year’s Tour de Force, my lasting impression is of the overall beauty of this year’s edition.
To arrive from Corsica in Nice for a TTT along the Promenade des Anglais is hardly a call back to a dull reality. In fact as the first nine stages take us from the hills of Grasse to the mighty Pyrenees, via the Tarn region, it is hard to find anything even remotely ugly. Marseille appears at the very last moment after the Cote de Gineste climb through the wild scrub landscape of the Massif de Puget and similar ‘pastoral’ approaches occur as Montpellier and Albi come into view at the very last moment. If the idea for the 100th edition has been show the French people how beautiful their country is, then race organisers ASO have done pretty well.
Beautiful the stages might be, but easy they certainly are not. Right up to the first rest day, the racing will be hard and nervous, with plenty of time for GC hopes to be lost before anyone can lay claim to winning it outright.
Category 3 and 4 climbs are sprinkled over most of the early stages in a prelude to hitting the Pyrenees with the duo of the Port de Pailheres and Ax-les-Trois Domaines at the end of stage 8. The following stage no. 9 is a potent Pyrenean potion of the Portet d’Aspet, Menté, Peyresourde, Louron-Azet, and the Hourquette d’Ancizan, before a well earnt rest day.
This stage also closes what could almost be a mini-Tour, before the whole circus travels up to The Badger’s set, the distinctive region of Brittany.
First stop here is the tiny village of Saint Gildas des Bois. The saintly Gildas must have appeared in a vision one night to someone at ASO, why else would a Tour stage start here? Its economy is built upon agriculture and luxury bed linen, ASO tells us online, which I guess would make an interesting topic for Paul Sherwen and Phil Ligget. Oh and the Tour de Bretagne went through there once upon a time. So begins the second act of the journey that takes riders and viewers through the woods of southern Brittany before following the region’s emerald coastline to ancient Saint-Malo for a Cavendish-fodder finish and probably a delicious fish supper.
It’s then the first of two undoubtedly crucial individual TT’s heading up and back over the raised causeway that links Mont St Michel to the mainland. After these Breton showpieces that Mr Hinault must have had a say about, the trail south to the top of Mt. Ventoux begins by heading straight and flat across the inevitable French ‘corn belt’, tipping caps to the posh Loire valley on its way.
Over four stages the profile crumples up progressively more, arriving in the beautiful city of Lyon on the eve of Bastille Day, upon which the peloton are tasked with riding 240 plus kilometres into the sky above Bedoin. It makes a fascinating diagonal line from the North to the South of France, with just a few quick-hop transfers cutting the thread. Sprinters pulling first, then climbers taking over on this grand stage 15 which climaxes atop the Giant of Provence.
Following the second rest day the trek to the Alps begins in style on some fabulous roads north of Ventoux. It even manages to fit in the famed Col de Manse before heading back into Gap. One of those towns, like Pau, that ASO can’t keep away from.
Making base camp in Gap, the race shoots up to Embrun for the day for the second individual time trial course that beats them all so far: taking the smallest road out of town, and the one that climbs the harshest, a 32 km bumper ride with views down to the Lac de Serre-Poncon on roads with super-tight corners, testing riders to the absolute limit. A bit of a joker card in the ASO pack, this could be one of the best days of this year’s race.
After that it’s back to Gap and back up the Manse, which makes a pretty intense start for everyone after only a few clicks, but is a fun touch by ASO, I thought. Much better than the haul along the N85 that follows. Soon though, it’s all about Alpe d’Huez. After the steady rise to the Col d’Ornon, it’s heads down to Bourg d’Oisans and The Alpe. As I cycled up there a couple of weeks ago, I could visualise those gravelly hairpin verges swarmed by orange party-goers all the way up as they lubricate themselves ready for the double-Dutch-stage (there will no doubt be other nationalities represented here, certainly a few Brits). An original idea which could provide some exciting racing, but the real treat for viewers will be discovering the wild, remote road that escapes from the Alpe d’Huez ski-hotel town and heads up to the Col de Sarenne. Only a few kilometres, but what a contrast. The descent will call for proper skills, but wait for when ASO get the idea of taking the race up here…
Racing up the Alpe twice at the end of a stage could hurt, but not as much as stage 19. To have to climb the hardest sides of three classic climbs (Glandon, Madeleine and Croix Fry) with some lesser-known cols wedged in before the latter, it’s a Giro-scale demand on anyone’s ability. Well over 5000m of total ascent over 200kms represents value for money in my guidebook. But then I won’t be racing. The Col de Tamié, which comes as the race climbs out of Albertville, is a fine example of how this year’s Tour route is a treat both for the eyes and for the legs (again, I speak as an obsessed climber but a non-racer here). Steady yet sustained, the road meanders up through pastoral perfection, Alpine-style. The Col d’Epine is not a bad little bit of hill either. This stage has it all.
And, as if to almost rub the 'France is beautiful' message in our faces, the penultimate stage is a circular ride round the hills between Annecy and Aix-les-Bains and ending with a vicious climb up to the Semnoz summit overlooking Mont Blanc. Not only do we have another climbing stage with a summit finish to really get pulses racing, but we have another setting that will surely increase the price of its real estate as the whole world watches the peloton snake their way through this green paradise. It could be a finish that will be just the job for the 100th edition. A fitting and beautiful tribute.
Phil Deeker is the creator of the Rapha Cent Cols Challenge and lead guide for the Tour de Force events.
- @CanyonUK Everyone loves a hug, thanks.
- @CanyonUK Do we win a prize?
- @c4shr Hello Kash, we're very sorry about that. We'll be in touch shortly to sort things out.
- RT @Strava: Are you ready for the @rapharacing #Festive500? we're challenging riders to clock 500 km between Christmas and NYE. http://t.co…
- RT @JeanzTweet: Yay! Won a nice wash bag & skincare kit at the @rapharacing #alpedquiz. First time ever i won a prize. You rock #teamrapha …
- @JeanzTweet You’re welcome Jens.
- Congrats to yesterday’s Alpe d'Quiz winner Ben Wooliscroft who won a pair of Rapha GT Shoes. Today's prize draw → http://t.co/h4frOXDYma
- RT @michaeltabtabai: @rapharacing #oneoftheseplease Custom Carter handmade chefs knife made here in Oregon by Mastersmith Murray Carter htt…
- @Johnlovesbikes they are in transit and should be here later this week. Thanks for checking in, sorry for the delay.
- RT @tubbytrotter: Yay! I've just won the stunning @rapharacing Womens softshell in the brilliant #AlpedQuiz bring on the winter weather htt…