At 2,361m, the Izoard is one of the highest cols at the Tour de France and has been the scene of many epic rides in the past. Cyclist tackles a true classic.
It is early summer in the French Alps but somewhere along the road from the fortified mountain town of Briançon to the upper flanks of the 2,361m Col d’Izoard we seem to have cycled through a wormhole and ended up at Christmas. Snow-dusted ridges surround us like walls of a winter castle, and in the open bowl beneath them are pine forests, slabs of snow, and a cosy chalet with a sloping roof. Looking down on this solitary mountain refuge – built by Napoleon III in 1858 and miniaturised by its epic surroundings – gives the impression we are cycling inside an enormous snow globe. All it needs is a divine hand to shake us around, and the snow will rise up from the curved slopes of the Izoard into the glass sphere of blue sky above, and sprinkle down in flakes all around us.
The Col d’Izoard probably didn’t feel quite so idyllic for Vincenzo Nibali and co when they battled up it two years ago. When the Tour de France peloton made this same 20km hors categorie climb to the summit during the 177km 14th stage between Grenoble and Risoul, the snow had melted and the tranquil mountain roads from Briançon were flooded with delirious cycling fans armed with neon wigs, cold beer and painted buttocks. It was brutal: the cloud-piercing Col d’Izoard marked the highest point of the 2014 Tour.
‘A new version of hell.’ That’s how Jacques Goddet, director of the Tour de France between 1936 and 1986, described the high-altitude, otherworldly terrain. To him the Izoard was ‘this terrible exigency which establishes the border of the difficult and the terrifying’.
Once an inhospitable landscape known only to French hunters, soldiers and farmers, the Izoard finally became navigable in 1897 when a narrow mountain road was built by French troops under the leadership of General Baron Berge. By then other forbidding mountains such as the Eiger and Mont Blanc had already been conquered by axe-wielding mountain climbers.
The Col d’Izoard has featured in multiple editions of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Criterium du Dauphine. Cycling history is, quite literally, etched into its roads, with the names of climbing legends past and present tattooed across its snaking bends. The climb was first included in the Tour de France in 1922 when Belgian Philippe Thys – an early proponent of marginal gains who shaved off his walrus moustache to improve his aerodynamics – reached the top first.
But the history of the Col d’Izoard is forever entwined with memories of the daring solo breakaways and heroic escapades of Italy’s Fausto Coppi (Tour de France winner in 1949 and 1952) and France’s Louison Bobet (winner in 1953, 1954 and 1955). Coppi crossed the Izoard in the lead in 1949 and 1951 and Bobet did the same in 1950, 1953 and 1954, with their deeds immortalised in grainy photos of riders grinding up gravel tracks with dust-caked caps on their heads and spare tubular tyres draped over their shoulders in the familiar crossed fashion.
Conquering the citadel
The Izoard has traditionally been tackled from the south in a brutal 16km, 1,095m ascent from the town of Guillestre, with an average gradient of 6.9% and cruel kicks of 14%. But today we’re riding it in the opposite direction from Briançon in the north, as the first part of a 98km loop, matching the direction used in this year’s Tour. From this side, the climb is 20km in length, with a 1,141m elevation gain and an average gradient of 5.7% – albeit with prolonged sections at 8-9%.
I’m joined by Pete Muir, who’s here to enjoy a rare trip out of the office and to make sure Juan, our photographer, and I don’t wander off to the pub. We’re also accompanied by Guy Little, owner of King of the Mountains cycling chalet in the Alps. ‘The geography of the Izoard is completely unique and when you look at the strange rock pinnacles at the top there is nowhere like it,’ Guy says. ‘The consensus among my cycling friends is that the Izoard is special because of its geology, its quiet roads, its warm early summer climate, its larch trees and limestone rocks and, of course, its history in the Tour de France.’
Our ride starts in the commune of Briançon, a warren of steep roads, cobbled streets and fortified walls in the Hautes-Alpes department of France. Perched at a lofty altitude of 1,326m, it has been a site of strategic military importance since the Roman era. The town sits at the foot of the 1,854m Col de Montgenèvre, a historic mountain route between Italy and France over which we made our two-hour transfer from Turin airport the day before, with bike boxes rattling in the boot and a cyclist’s beady-eyed suspicion of any clouds.
On the peaks that surround Briançon are the stout remains of fortifications, some of which were strengthened by the French marshal and military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban in the 17th century and then became part of France’s defensive Maginot Line in the 1930s. The architectural message is clear: these are forbidding mountains – with or without a bike.
After a breakfast of muesli, yoghurt, croissants and coffee at the Parc Hotel, we head west along the D902, a single road running up and over the Col. The sky is bright and clear but we pull on arm and knee warmers for the opening stretch of the 20km climb. Juan makes himself popular by disappearing off to buy bananas and cereal bars for us.
There’s little time to warm up our legs with the opening kilometres rising to 7%, but the mountain road is silent except for our early-morning chatter, and the temperature is a perfect 17°C. After grinding past wooden chalets and gurgling streams, we look to our right and see Briançon sitting snugly below at the junction of four valleys.
The road mellows to a 3-4% gradient as we pass more fresh streams and pristine meadows. I spend the first few kilometres looking over my shoulder at the valley scene behind us while trying not to nudge Guy into a ravine as I gawp. Up here even the lanky electricity pylons are dwarfed by the towering pine trees.
Perhaps it’s the sight of so many grand fortresses and hobbit-sized farmhouses, but when I see a signpost for the ‘Col d’Izoard’ it sounds ominously like a location for a blood-soaked battle from Lord of the Rings. I can imagine Aragorn uttering dark warnings about what the heir of Isildur plans to do to his enemies on the Izoard, and I hope the upper slopes are less daunting than I’m now imagining in my head: sizzling lava flows, marauding armies of goblins and orcs, and a cloaked Lance Armstrong hurling rock-hard energy bars from the back of a flame-breathing dragon.
We pick up the pace as we curl around the chalets of the village of Cervières, before swinging south past the Bois de la Ville and Bois Du Sapin. Riding through an open meadow fools me into thinking the road is flattening, but it’s slyly soaring to 7%. Soon all I can see of Cervières are the slanted grey roofs of its chalets, making it look like an over-sized skate park. Steep cliffs – grey, black and brown like the patchy skin of a lizard – loom to our right.
We continue into a forest of pine and larch trees and begin to march up a series of hairpin bends with sustained sections at 8-9%. My habit is to stop counting after the 10th bend to preserve morale, but Google Maps later confirms we tackled 16 hairpins in 3km. A couple of the bends rise above 15% and we’re out of the saddle and inadvertently twerking from side to side for the first time today.
Dense slabs of ice line the road up here, and we pass a clearing filled with forlorn patches of snow, like a graveyard of melted snowmen. Soon we emerge through the trees into a white valley surrounded by stately mountains. We can spy the Refuge Napoleon up ahead, which at 2,108m marks the final 200m dash to the summit.
After a small bridge, we ride past the refuge and the scree slopes tumbling down the upper reaches of the Izoard. On one slope a stubborn summer skier is repeatedly doing zig-zagged intervals down to his car. In places the snow is dyed red by moss and lichen beneath. The gradient dips to 4-5% for the final few yards to the summit and we celebrate with higher-gear efforts that steam up my sunglasses and send jolts of pain pulsing through my quads.
The broken desert
At the top of the Izoard is an obelisk dedicated to the general and his troops who built this road at the end of the 19th century, as well as a small museum half-buried in snow. Only when we round the summit and enter the Parc Naturel Régional Du Queyras does the valley on the mountain’s southern side reveal itself: a stark landscape of wind-blasted scree slopes and craggy cliffs drizzled in snow, with thick forests of Cembran pine and larch wood nestled far below.
‘This natural park is one of the most attractive pockets of all of the Alps – French or otherwise,’ says Guy. ‘The larch trees are a special feature. It’s a tree that loses its needles and turns flame red and keeps its colour deep into winter. In autumn the forest has a wonderful golden glow.’
On the first few hundred metres of the descent, along a road daubed with the graffiti of Tour de France spectators, we find ourselves in an impromptu race with a turbo-heeled marmot that has chosen to scuttle alongside us. We hit the drops and pedal hard, but the marmot wins – then promptly disappears into a hole in the ground.
After around 100 metres of vertical descent we reach the eerie world of the Casse Déserte (literal translation: Broken Desert). Strange pinnacles of rock, which shift colour throughout the day, jut out of the earth like fangs, and loose stones plummet down the ridges, causing me to feather my brakes. A few solitary pine trees erupt out of the rugged earth but in this sepia-tinted land of rocks, stones and dry earth a cactus would seem more fitting.
‘The Casse Déserte is the most unique element of the ride with its strange geology and standing stones,’ Guy says. The unusual mineral content of the land here is what causes the bizarre rock formations, although the striking lunar scenery was lost on Eddy Merckx when he led through the Casse Déserte in 1972. ‘I didn’t see any of that,’ he said, afterwards. ‘I was too busy.’
We stop at a memorial to Coppi and Bobet where commemorative plaques are affixed to one of the rock pinnacles. It now forms a shrine to the cycling legends, and flowers and trinkets have been left behind by visiting cyclists.
The temperature has started to creep up so we clip in to make the most of the refreshingly cool descent. A few glances at the sheer drops to the right of the road cause me to rein in my speed, but Pete and Guy embrace gravity and zip past. Just before the village of La Draye we face a cluster of 12 swirling switchbacks, which make me wish I had a spare set of motorbike tyres and knee pads, before we complete a long, straight dash through the towns of Brunissard, La Chalp and Le Coin at more than 70km/h. We fly past fields of a brighter yellow than the maillot jaune and breathe in the smell of freshly baked bread as we whizz past a cafe in Arvieux.
After riding for 43km, and over 60km still to go, we take a short 2km detour north-east to Chateau Ville-Vieille – a picturesque village beneath the towers, walkways, drawbridge and imposing walls of the 13th century Fort Queyras – in pursuit of food. At La Reserve Du Fort we dive into plates of cold meats and cheese, and bowls of tagliatelle with meatballs, washed down with full-fat Coke and coffee.
We’ve seen only a handful of riders all day but Guy explains that the area is popular with cyclists. ‘The inclusion of the Izoard in the Embrunman Ironman is key – it’s one of the toughest Ironman races out there, with a 186km bike route akin to La Marmotte sportive in the middle of a triathlon. And every August there’s an annual hill climb challenge from Briançon to the Izoard summit.’
With our deflated bodies with food, we fill our bottles at the village fountain and begin the second half of our ride. The sun’s rays now bounce off the tarmac so we slip into short sleeves and enjoy the cooling air of the Queyras Valley by upping the pace. We’ve climbed and descended the upper slopes of the Izoard so far today, so it’s refreshing to sink onto the drops and ride hard through the valley as we whizz past imposing rock faces held back by giant steel nets. At this mild gradient there are no sharp hairpins to slow us down, so the 20km journey from Château Ville-Vieille to the town of Guillestre is soaked with sweat and adrenaline.
It wouldn’t be so much fun if we were climbing the Izoard from this direction. ‘The Izoard is particularly tough from the Guillestre side because it’s often very hot and exposed,’ Guy says. ‘There are really tough sections through Arvieux and Brunissard that looked straightforward because we were descending but they are actually very steep. Although with the heat and the pine trees it always smells great in the summer.’
The road we follow traces the path of the River Guil, its frothing torrents popular with local and international kayakers. I glance up to see towering cliffs lined with trees that cling to the sheer slopes and look like fans in a stadium. We pass jade pools and dip under the shadow of overhanging cliffs. At intervals the valley is long and straight enough to offer a glimpse of white peaks on the horizon.
In this rock-hewn environment it’s no surprise the road features a series of tunnels ranging from 30-300m in length, although their cool shade and damp air provide a welcome break from the hot dust and intense sun of the early afternoon. Where the road passes steep drops, stone barriers line the sides like rows of molar teeth. The terrain is reminiscent of the Spanish mountains with its dry earth, golden tones and pulsing chatter of insects.
The final push
When we arrive at Guillestre, which at 900m in altitude marks the lowest point of our route, we turn right onto the D902A and commence the second half of our loop back to Briançon. As we head north along the deserted D38 we skirt the two runways of the Aerodrome de Mont-Dauphin, where a billionaire’s toy box of gliders, planes and helicopters fills the airfields.
On this western side of our clockwise loop the terrain and the atmosphere are in stark contrast to the sparkling snows of the Izoard and the epic terrain of the Queyras valley. Here the environment feels more bucolic, with narrow roads, quaint villages, old churches and sleepy campsites – the sort of area about which only locals might know.
Now 80km into the ride, and with legs feeling heavy in the late afternoon sunshine, we take a right at Chanteloube and begin a punchy 3km climb from 934m to 1,180m in altitude. I’m trying desperately to cling to a cadence remotely near 90rpm and Pete soars ahead, eager to test his BMC’s potency. The climb averages 7-8%, though there are bends that ramp up to 15%. I realise, with a stab of shame, that I’ve started frothing at the corner of the mouth like a poisoned spy.
As we climb we see the tributaries of La Durance river, which spread like tentacles across the open plain, and the dense chain of mountains that guard the opposite side of the valley. At the top Juan greets us with bags of salty crisps, a perfect treat for my cramping muscles. I resist the temptation to lick the packet.
We enjoy a gentle descent before taking a right turn at Pallon, dropping further along the Champ du Seigneur before joining the D138A just west of La Roche-de-Rame. After a short ride along the west side of La Durance river we face a final 360m climb from L’Argentière-la-Bessée to Villard Meyer. The climb has an average gradient of 4-5%, with a few short sections at 9-12%, but we know this is our final ascent of the day so we unleash a series of efforts in a bid to empty the tank, before joining the N94 for a mad dash home.
Back in Briançon, we drop our bikes at the hotel and celebrate with a cold pint in the late evening sunshine. This beautiful Alpine loop has revealed the iconic history of the Col d’Izoard and the charm of lesser-known local roads; we’ve enjoyed the drama of the mountains and the tranquillity of the valleys; and we’ve journeyed from snow and ice to sunshine and blue skies. What will stick in my mind most was how open and expansive the views were throughout. We wasted little time climbing under the shade of trees or staring forlornly at the empty road ahead. Every burst of energy seemed to be rewarded with striking panoramic views that made the sweat worthwhile.
Having hurtled down the more cruel south side of the Izoard at 70km/h I can understand how the idea of climbing the mountain in the opposite direction inspired Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange to declare: ‘The Izoard is unnerving, like a story that will keep you up all night and which lasts forever.’ But tackled in the opposite direction it will be the memories, not the pain, that are most likely to endure.
BY THE NUMBERS
Because everyone loves stats
Distance pedalled in km
Elevation in metres of Col d’Izoard
Hill-top castles viewed
Fastest speed clocked in km/h
Race with a marmot (we lost)
Different types of cold meat digested at lunch
Total ascent in metres
HOW WE GOT THERE
FLIGHTS AND TRANSFERS
We flew Qantas international to London, then went from London Stansted Airport to Turin with Ryanair, which offers flights from £22.99 (about $42) each way (plus a £50 [$92] fee per flight for bike luggage up to 20kg). Transfers from Turin to Briançon take around two hours. Chair Lift (chairlift.eu, +33 4 76 79 99 27) can arrange bike and rider transfers from major airports in the Alps region.
HOTEL AND FOOD
We stayed at the bike-friendly 3-star Parc Hotel in Briançon (soleilvacances.com), which provides rooms from ₣35 (about $50) per night. Restaurant Le Chalet (6 Rue General Barbot) is recommended by locals for its grilled meat, traditional local dishes and 20 varieties of pizza. Bar Le Central (2 Rue General Rostolland) has outdoor seating so you can enjoy post-ride beers in the fresh air.
SUPPORT AND INFO
The Cyclist team was guided and supported by Guy Little of King of the Mountains cycling chalet (kingofthemountains.co.uk, +33 4 76 79 99 27). The chalet is in a former school on the Col d’Ornon, close to Alpe d’Huez, and serves as an ideal base for Alpine rides. It offers home-cooked meals and cakes, and supported rides, as well as transfers through Guy’s other company Chair Lift (see above). Summer prices start from ₣630 (about $1160) per week, including accommodation and a half-board meal plan.