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  • Writer's pictureTom Thewlis

The climbs where the Tour may be won or lost

Around the world, the Tour has always been well known for the Maillot Jaune and famous French landmarks, like the traditional final day run into Paris finishing on the Champs-Élysées. Throughout cycling history, it’s also been a race that has also been known for punishing climbs that have undone many of those who had hoped to contest the overall victory. As ever, the route for this year features some horrendous looking stages in the Alps and Pyrenees and here are some of the climbs where the race may well be won and lost.

Col du Portet on stage 17

Last time the Tour de France visited the Col du Portet in the Pyrenees, Nairo Quintana took a memorable stage win. © Getty Images Sport

Deep within the Pyrenees, the Col du Portet was first brought into the Tour de France in 2018. Sitting near the skiing area, above the town of Saint-Lary-Soulan, the Portet is a monster of a climb at more than 16 kilometres in length with a horrendous 8.6% average gradient.

Nairo Quintana won the stage when the Tour visited in 2018 and this sort of terrain will suit fellow climbers from South America, like Richard Carapaz, to a tee. The finale on the Portet is preceded by the iconic Pyrenean climb, the Col du Peyresourde, and the Col d’Azet so by the time the riders reach the base of the Col du Portet, they will have already tackled more than 20km of climbing at an average of up to 7%.

The day Quintana won there were gaps of more than six minutes separating the first twenty finishers and, as if that wasn’t enough, the Col du Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden feature the following day. At this point in the race, the Maillot Jaune will need to be on their guard should they wish to hold onto it once the race leaves the mountains behind and builds towards its conclusion.

Col du Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden on stage 18

Unlike the 2021 edition, the 2019 Tour de France included a summit finish atop the Tourmalet which was won by Thibaut Pinot. © Gruber Images

Stage 18, the second of two huge days in the Pyrenees, will see the peloton tackle two monster climbs of the Col du Tourmalet and the summit finish at Luz Ardiden ski-station. The most iconic climb in the Pyrenees, the race has visited the Tourmalet on 14 different occasions since 2000. The mountain is a brutal climb to feature in a bike race with the summit at more than 2,000 metres above sea level. The ascent itself is a steady 7% gradient with occasional steeper pitches, meaning the peloton will have no chance to recover until they’re over the top and on the descent. It’s not often stages finish on the summit, the last time being in 2019 when Thibaut Pinot took a memorable stage win before capitulating in the final week.

The climb of Luz Ardiden is most famous for the incident involving Lance Armstrong and Iban Mayo. In 2003, on stage 15 of the Tour, Armstrong was under serious pressure from his rivals on the final climb to Luz Ardiden. Suddenly, Mayo and Armstrong were on the floor in a crash seemingly caused by a spectator’s bag catching on the American’s handlebars. Armstrong was able to remount and memorably attacked with such power that he was able to re-join the lead group and on to win the stage. It was a typical display of resilience and determination from the American to win at all costs. The true depths to which Armstrong was prepared to go were, of course, revealed in the years to come, destroying his reputation in the process. Nevertheless, it was a stunning stage and one of the most dramatic days in Tour de France history.

Lance Armstrong faced many challenges at the 2003 Tour de France, including regular attacks from Iban Mayo in the mountains. © Getty Images

Mont Ventoux- Stage 11

There are few mountains in France that are as synonymous with Tour de France history as the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux.

Sadly, the infamous mountain famously claimed the life of British rider Tom Simpson at the Tour de France in 1967. Simpson tragically died whilst climbing Mont Ventoux and a memorial to him lies near the summit. However, others have met much happier fates at the summit of the climb and the list of winners on Ventoux is littered with prestigious names. Some of those riders are undoubtedly the most famous climbers in the sports history. Marco Pantani, Chris Froome and Richard Virenque have won here and to win on Mont Ventoux means you will be remembered forever.

Chris Froome was forced to run up Mont Ventoux after a crash in 2016. © Graham Watson

Chris Froome has been involved in two recent and memorable stages on Mont Ventoux in his career. On the way to his first overall victory in 2013, Froome annihilated his rivals on the ascent of Mont Ventoux with Nairo Quintana the only rider able to get near to him. The stage win he took that day also increased his overall lead to more than four minutes, almost confirming the overall win would be his. Later in his career, Froome was involved in more drama on Mont Ventoux at the 2016 Tour de France. After a crash on stage 12 involving Richie Porte, Froome was forced to run up the climb whilst he waited for a spare bike from the neutral service car.

On his way to overall victory in 2013, Froome took a memorable stage win on Mont Ventoux and put huge amounts of time into his rivals. © Bettini Photo

The summit of the mountain reaches an altitude of 1,900 metres, and the climb is long and extremely steep at 15.8km with an average gradient of 8.5%. There are two possible ascents of the mountain. Normally the Tour de France has typically favoured the 15.8km route. However, for the first time in the race’s history the stage won’t finish on the summit. Instead, Mont Ventoux will be ascended twice on stage 11. The first ascent will be the slightly longer option at 24.6km but with an average gradient of less than 5%. The riders will then tackle the long descent before returning to the base of the climb at the shorter, but steeper side. Once the riders have tackled both ascents another long descent will follow into the stage’s finish in Malaucène.

The weather may also play a significant part here. In French the term 'venteux' means 'windy' and due to the openness of the landscape, the mountain’s summit can be susceptible to very high and strong winds. In July the weather will no doubt be extremely hot, so the vegetation and tree line further down the mountain will provide much needed shelter from the sun and any wind they may encounter en route to the summit.

Montee de Tignes

Julian Alaphilippe lost the yellow jersey to Egan Bernal on the road to Tignes in 2019. © Bettini Photo

In 2019, it was on the road to Tignes when Egan Bernal lit up the race for the yellow jersey and finally snatched it from the grasp of Julian Alaphilippe. Due to the stage being affected by horrendous weather that day, no stage winner was declared. However, with the way he was riding, Egan Bernal would almost certainly have won atop the Montee des Tignes.

At the Tour this year, the first potential battle between the contenders comes before the first rest day on stage 9. The Montee des Tignes is a mountain that has typically been known for it’s gruelling length rather that vicious gradients. The climb is over 20 kilometres in length, and the top of the climb peaks out at just over 2,100 metres above sea level. Due to this, the winner will need to be adept at riding at high altitude and comfortable at that level. With that being considered, a glance at the Strava profile of the likes of Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss shows that Primož Roglič’s key mountain domestiques have certainly been getting their training in ahead of the challenge on stage 9.

© La Flamme Rouge

The last time the race managed to make it to the top of Montee des Tignes was in 2007. Rabobank’s Michael Rasmussen won that day. Stage 9 may be too early for an overall contender to make significant gains, however with a defending champion as lively as Tadej Pogačar we should expect the unexpected.

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