The Tour road book relates that the first crossing by anyone other than shepherds and pilgrims was in 1675 when Madame de Maintenon went over the summit in her Sedan chair – and today’s domestiques think they have it hard?
Today’s ascent of the Tourmalet will be the 76th, but if stages which finished at La Mongie village – some four km shy of the summit – are included, it’s the 79th.
That makes it the most traversed col in Tour history. The last and hitherto only summit finish was in 1974 when French road man sprinter Jean-Pierre Danguillaume won for Peugeot.
The summit sits at 2,115 metres; the highest point of the Tour and comes after 18.6 kilometres at an average gradient of 7.5% but four of those kilometres – including the 18th – have average grades of 9%.
Since Eddy Merckx in 1969, no rider has lead at the summit and went on to win in Paris; but 18 riders, including Pellizotti in 2009 have topped the pass first and gone on to win the ‘montagne’ prize.
‘Record man’ for being first over the top, is Federico Bahamontes of Spain who crested the pass ‘en tete’ on four occasions. The ‘Eagle of Toledo’ also holds the record for having crossed the most Tour passes at the head of affairs with 21; Richard Virenque is second on 18 and Scot Robert Millar makes the rankings on nine.
Today’s stage crosses two cols before the Tourmalet, the Marie-Blanque and the Soulor, but because the roads off these climbs favour organised chases it’s almost certain that the big show down will come on the Tourmalet.
PEZ awoke at 07:30 to the flash of lightning reflecting from the white linen bed sheets and deafening thunder rolling round the valley.
The weather and mountain Gods have conspired that this will not be a day for truces, excruciating You Tube apologies or feeble schoolgirl reconciliation – this will be a day for men.
The col is closed to all traffic except the race caravan, ASO vehicles and team cars – the PEZ SEAT is taking us around the base of the mountain so as we can climb the ‘other’ side of the monster to La Mongie.
Since that’s four kilometres short of the summit, we’re hoping for a shuttle bus.
The rain teems, the lightning flashes and the thunder crashes as the lumpy tar begins to lift away from us, 14:00 – the race will be on the Marie Blanque.
A miracle – a couple of kilometres short of La Mongie we clear the clouds, there’s sunshine and we can see high into the rock citadels.
But we should know that being a Tour journo is short on miracles – the clouds reappear, chasing us up the valley and there’s no shuttle bus.
As Beau Geste would say; ‘march or die!’
The cable cars tease us as they float past and disappear into the mist en route the summit.
Four kilometres of pain later, just as we come into the finish area, we practically walk into Miguel Indurain – respect!
The visibility at the top is zero and the mist is cold, but sometimes the sun nearly breaks through, turns things horribly clammy for a minute, disappears and leaves us to the freezing mist, again.
It’s such a tight area that photo opportunities are limited, but the famous cafe is open, there are Arashiro fans about, Santa has arrived early and Andy’s barber is in on the act.
We’ve sorted out race watching – there’s a monitor in the back of one of the technical services vans.
Johan Museeuw wanders past, the frames are selling well and he’s happy with how the business is going; ‘and flax is a natural material.’
Johan has no sooner gone that we spot the man mentioned earlier in the piece; Jean-Pierre Danguillaume, a noted road man sprinter cum rouleur who contrived to win here in 1974. He doesn’t speak English but is happy for us to snap his picture in company with one of his contemporaries. A man who Greg Lemond said is one of the best coaches, ever – Cyrille Guimard.
Back at the van the monitor shows the break disintegrating on the lower reaches of the col with super-cool Russian champion, Alexandr Kolobnev going solo for the stage win for Katyusha.
Behind, the Saxo generals deploy; Cancellara makes it look easy until he explodes in a blink, then it’s Chris Sorensen’s turn to go over the top and finally there’s only Jakob Fuglsang – he rides until all the ammo is gone.
Schleck must attack, Alberto Contador is an outstanding time triallist and in the Bordeaux time trial on Saturday the Saxo man needs a buffer of around two minutes on the streamlined, fast pedalling Spaniard.
The tall, slim climber doesn’t attack, he moves to the front and raises the tempo; riders like Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Denis Menchov, who were looking comfortable a minute ago, are gone.
Just one man can match Schleck’s tempo – and Alberto does so with ease.
It’s mano a mano, past Kolobnev and up through the mist and the hyper fans.
Time to take up station – it’s hard to get good shots due to the crush, only photogs with bibs get outside the barriers.
The finish is a little bit of an anti-climax, Contador doesn’t really contest – Schleck has lost the Tour, and they both know it.
But there’s all manner of drama behind.
Rodriguez takes third to go with his win at Mende; a good ride by the little Spaniard, usually it’s the shorter, sharper ascents he excels on.
Big surprise of the race, Ryder Hesjedal rides a super stage to fourth.
Menchov loses time, his dreams of second fading with the additional time he’s lost to Schleck.
Nico Roche rides well.
The young Irish man is on the up, but it’s the last Tour for Lance and Moureau.
Charteau clinched the polka dot jersey, Kolbnev toils in after his day out front and Levi loses big.
The guys PEZ interviewed on the rest day all get home safely – Matt Lloyd, Michael Barry and Brian Vandborg.
Cadel gives a team mate a push, Carlos is empty, so is Flecha.
The GC dream is finished for Rogers but Tommy smiles and so does Yukiya.
The sprinters grovel in, Oscar, Thor, Robbie, Cav and Ale.
David Millar loses even more time, but we like his shoes.
Eventually, they’re all home and it’s time to leave the Tourmalet – but still there are pictures to take; Pedro Delgado smiles, Bjarne rings the sponsor, Andy chats to Scott McGrory, Charteau gets an escort and some folk resort to any transport they can to get off the hill.
Four K later, we’re back at the car – it all seems to have passed in a flash.
Status quo; Bert in yellow, Andy in white – and Thor in green, for tomorrow, at least.
No walking for PEZ, tomorrow,