Words and pics by Erin and Steve Berard
Ever since the Tour de France 2014 route announcement in Paris, Pez could not wait to check out some of this year’s new stage cities, especially the new HC mountain top finishes. With the weekend weather showing sunny and 75 degrees in the High Alps, we set out from Grenoble early on an autumn Saturday morning to scout out the 2014 Tour’s third mountain top finish at the High Alps ski resort of Risoul 1850m.
Note: The Tour route from Grenoble to the first climb is a national road, not suitable for riding unless you have the luxury of having it closed to cars and a police escort! So skipping the Bourg d’Oisans valley road and the well-known climb of the Col du Lautaret, we started our adventures on the second to last HC climb, the epic Col d’Izoard. Here is our report…
A good start – all the Cols are open!
Stage 14 At-A-Glance
On July 19, 2014’s Stage 14, the peloton will ride 177km from Grenoble to Risoul climbing three HC climbs: the Col du Lautaret (34 km at 3.9 percent average grade), the Col d’Izoard (19km at 6 percent average grade), and up to Risoul (12.6km at 6.9 percent average grade).
What faces the peloton on July 19. Erin and Steve would take on ‘just’ the Col d’Izoard & Risoul on this particular day
Col d’Izoard – Start from Briançon, France
The road to Col d’Izoard leaves the quaint neighborhood of cafés and shops in Briançon then turns right and starts rising abruptly as you rise out of the city proper. You gain elevation fairly quickly and are soon overlooking the city. Hopefully you haven’t just wolfed down too many ‘pains au chocolat’ or espressos before you hit this climb because it’s a far from easy start.
Mercifully, it levels off to an average of 5 percent for the first 10km of the climb and soon you find yourself in a true alpine landscape.
For us the views on this autumn day were spectacular. We were surrounded by Alpine Larches which are amazing conifer trees which turn a beautiful orange and lose their leaves in the fall.
Here is where the climb picks up, time to stand up!
What the first half of this climb spares, you pay for dearly in the second half as it rises to just under 9 percent the rest of the way to the summit.
Not your typical cycling fans.
Trees fall away and you quickly find yourself amidst rock spires and fields of scree. Here you find a different kind of follower except they seem more interested in the meadow grasses than cycling.
The ride climbs spectacularly above the tree line.
Evidently, this area spends most of the year under heavy snow. In fact, we were lucky to be able to climb this as this col is typically closed from October through early June each year.
Almost to the summit.
At about 1 km from the summit, you pass the Refuge de Napoléon, built in 1858. The Col d’Izoard is situated as the transition point between the Northern and Southern Alps and the refuge is one of six such refuges built in the High Alps in 1857–1858 with funds provided by Napoléon’s will to provide shelter for travelers . Napoléon wanted to thank the inhabitants of this region for their hospitality on his return from the Island of Elba in 1815. You are actually able to stay here today. Although I’m confident it will already be booked out this year – There are only 6 rooms.
Refuge de Napoléon (1858)
Closer to the summit, the switchbacks get tighter until you reach the top where your reward is a panoramic view of the High Alps plus a photo opportunity in front of the giant stone monument.
Col d’Izoard – Descent and Ride to Guillestre
Although the October sun was shining, the winds at 2360m were brisk so we did not linger long. From the summit it is a fast, technical descent with numerous, tight, narrow and twisty curves. There is not a lot of room for error here and the consequences are dear. The peloton will need to be alert in this section of the stage.
Starting the descent of the Col d’Izoard.
Once at the bottom of the Izoard, you turn right towards the town of Guillestre, the final town before the climb to the ski resort of Risoul. The ride to Guillestre continues descending at a slight downhill grade through a beautiful high-walled canyon with gorges and tunnels as you follow the river.
Riding from the base of the Izoard to Guillestre.
The stage route takes a southern bypass of the town of Guillestre itself, descending sharply before turning left onto D186 towards Risoul.
Entering the climb to Risoul 1850
Climb to Risoul 1850m
There’s a lot of red on that profile!
The D186 turns up immediately and you find yourself on a tightly tree-lined road winding through several small communes of Risoul: La Rua, Langieu, and Gaudissard. Here it’s quite peaceful with only a few houses and cowbells (attached to real cows and not crazy spectators) to keep you company through these hill-side communities. We expect all this serenity will change dramatically on July 19th.
The quiet commune of La Rua, with vintage Gitanes lying about.
The route is tightly packed with trees so you do not realize that you are switching back and forth as you quickly gain in elevation.
During the Tour, the lower slopes could prove challenging for helicopters to get good television shots due to the thickness of the trees. (Take a shot every time Phil and Paul apologize about the few spots of picture breakup!)
After you pass Gaudissard, the road starts to open up and presents you with several long straight sections at a steady 8 to 9 percent grade. The only breaks you get are in the apex of turns between these long straight sections.
About 2km from the finish, you can finally see just how high you have climbed as you look back over the Alps and the now miniscule town buildings of Guillestre.
View of Guillestre, 2km from the summit.
Go a little further and you finally see the ski area at Risoul and, more importantly, the stage finish.
The final approach to the ski station.
TDF 2014 Analysis From The Saddle
The steadiness of this climb will play well to Sky’s advantage as they can leverage riders like Richie Porte and other domestiques to set a high and hard pace to prevent breakaways. However this stage will most likely see opportunists break away early to gain KOM points on the Col du Lautaret and Col d’Izoard. The peloton will likely stay together on the Col du Lautaret and Col d’Izoard because of the long descents in between that will allow for the peloton to regroup.
As always in the Alps, weather will play big a part in the outcome of this stage. Rain, low temperatures, or even snow may be a factor. It will be essential that the race leaders be well placed descending the Col d’Izoard so that they do not get caught up in potential mishaps on the technical descent.
After a great day out on the bike Erin finally reaches Risoul.
Did You Know? Risoul Cycling Trivia
Risoul, France, population 650 habitants (there might be more cows and sheep than habitants), may be a new stage city in this year’s Tour de France, but it is no stranger to the biggest names in cycling, especially to Christopher Froome and Nairo Quintana. They both enjoyed crowning victories in this small ski resort village. At the Critérium du Dauphiné 2013 although Froome did not win the final stage from Sisteron to Risoul, it was here where he was crowned #1 in the G.C.
Froome’s runner-up at last year’s TDF Nairo Quintana is unfortunately not riding which is a shame as he has his own set of palmares with this climb. He won twice at Risoul during the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir (Tour of the Future, aka “The Champions’ Breeding Ground”), in which he also took the overall victory, in front of Andrew Talansky, his runner-up in the best young rider classification at last year’s TDF. Risoul was featured twice in the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir in Stage 6, Saillans – Risoul 204 km and Stage 7, an individual time trial from Guillestre to Risoul 13.5km. (Quintana’s time: 0:33:36)
With this type of history, I’m predicting this stage finale to be a battle ground between the Sky train and Alberto Contador but I’m pretty sure that Nibali and others will also try to make their marks as well. Stay tuned as Pez will have more TDF 2014 route analysis and race predictions later this week before the big kickoff on Saturday.
Interested in learning more about Risoul? Visit www.risoul.com.
Stage 14 in the heart of the Alps from Grenoble to Risoul will certainly be spectacular – get there if you can!