The col du tourmalet is one of the most iconic climbs in the French Pyrenees and the first to feature in the Tour de France back in 1910. The pass is now a regular on the race and encapsulates everything that is great about cycling. It is one of the best places to experience the magic of the Tour de France and a climb that everyone should try at least once in their cycling career.
It was journalist Alphonse Steines who dreamt of having the Tour de France use this famous mountain pass. On a route recce in 1910 he got lost in deep snow and almost stranded on the rocky slopes but persevered and telegrammed his boss, Tour de France organiser Henri Desgrange, requesting that he provide 3,000 francs to get a road built on the pass as it was “incontournable” (unavoidable). Desgrange did so and the Tour du France soon used the route with Octave Lapize winning on the summit of the mountain and later the overall GC.
Since that time, the Tour has passed over the climb a remarkable 87 times. The Tour is due to return to the pass this year with stage 6 finishing at the summit and the peloton heading westward over it on the following stage.
In fact, the pass has been used more times than any other mountain in the Tour and it is perhaps the most celebrated of all the Tour’s legendary climbs. In the last eight times that the climb has featured in the race a French rider has won. This is a testament to their understanding of the magnitude of this particular monument and perhaps an extra incentive for them to perform well on it.
The Tour is currently on its way to the town of Luz Saint Sauveur where it will pass over the col on Tuesday. The race will
then head north and climb the Pic du Midi before crossing the col again on its return journey to Paris.
For those of us who aren’t riding the Tour this year or next, there is still plenty to see and do at the pass, which sits at an altitude of 2,115m. It can be accessed from the town of Sainte Marie Campan on its eastern side and the ski station at La Mongie two-thirds of the way up its western approach. At the summit is a memorial to Jacques Goddet, who organised the Tour from 1936 to 1987 and a statue of Octave Lapize gasping for breath. It is on this mighty mountain that the Souvenir Jacques Goddet prize for the first rider to reach the summit of the col is awarded each year.
Whether you choose to tackle the climb from the east or west, the ascent is long and difficult. It is a climb of two halves, the first being much easier than the second and for this reason it makes sense to do them in reverse order if you have the opportunity.