The Tour and The Pyrenees: A century-long affair
The Pyrenees has played host to the Tour De France for more than 100 years. In 1903, Tour de France organisers decided to include the Pyrenees in the route and in 1910 the imposing Col de Tourmalet featured for the very first time.
This was a pretty audacious (if not crazy) decision, given the state of the roads at the time. Riders were irate as they negotiated the pot-holed tracks on the first Pyrenean etape from Bagneres de Luchon to Bayonne.
Octave Lapize, winner of the first ever stage in the Pyrenees, famously labelled the organisers “criminals” for the feat they had asked of their riders.
No less than seven great climbs over a distance of 326km: including the cols de Peyresourde, Aspin, Aubisque as well as the Tourmalet. It took Lapize 14 hours to complete the stage after a 3.30am start on a bike weighing 15 kilos (compared to less than half that today) and certainly not set up to take the speed of the descents.
Nevertheless, the drama, excitement and theatre of the stages in the Pyrenees proved a success for the Tour de France and 2010 marked the centenary of Tour riders facing the legendary Col de Tourmalet.
The Pyrenees is often where the Tour victory is played out. Riders can literally win or lose the Tour based on their performance in the Pyrenees. This track record makes these latter stages some of the most gripping of the competition and has given The Pyrenees almost mythical status in the Tour de France consciousness.
The Col de Tourmalet, in particular, is revered by Tour riders, other pro riders and amateur road cyclists. At 2,214 metres, it is the highest road route in the Pyrenees and provides some of the most exciting Tour moments as the Tour leaders dig deeper than ever to battle it out against their competitors to gain the advantage.
The Tourmalet can make or break riders. In the 1960s, Anquetil took his fourth yellow jersey thanks to his success on the Tourmalet. Eddy Merckx, Bernard Herault, Richard Virenque all showed how performing well in the Pyrenees could steal enough time to take home the title.
For some riders, winning the mountain stages is their only focus: as with Thomas Voekler who in 2012 finished the Pau to Luchon stage with an eight-minute lead over his competitors. He took home the prestigious King of the Mountains Polka Jersey that day.
It’s no coincidence that many Tour de France King of the Mountains winners go on to win the Tour in subsequent years. Succeeding in the mountain stages is a demonstration of all-round ability. If you can hold your own on the climbs as well as the sprints, you’re on course for Tour success.
”God did not create the Pyrenees to separate France and Spain, but to set the border between non-climbers and climbers” Writer & Poet Christian Laborde