Page Contributor(s): Lynn Sugden, Sherwood Park, AB; Bruce Hamilton, Palm Desert, CA, USA; Carl Hansen, Gurnsey, UK
Cycling the incomparable Col du Tourmalet.
Luz Saint Sauveur, France
This is one of the greatest, most epic, and famous bike climbs in the world. We have ridden this wonderful route four times and it is always packed with cyclists - from our observation, there is more cycling than vehicle traffic up the climb.
TdF marker at 1 kilometer up from the start.
The average grade for the entire climb is 7.1%. Our gradient profile has the steepest kilometer at 10.8% from km 11.6 to 12.6. The steepest kilometer sign is kilometer 1 (1 km to the top) at 10%, and the official TdF sign has the steepest km at 16 km up the hill (3 km from the top) at 10.9%. Note that none of the actual km signs from 5 km to 1 km read that high.
Climb summary by PJAMM Cycling’s John Johnson.
Photos at the col.
Our website is founded on objectivity -- we use a formula to rank climbs. While one can argue that the formula could be different, there is no disputing that our formula is independent of subjectivity and personal bias. Thus, when we offer an opinion regarding “The Most Famous Climbs in the World,” we stray from our core value. However, there are four climbs in the world where we voluntarily ignore our dispassionate approach. So, in our opinion:
COL DU TOURMALET IS ONE OF WORLD’S FOUR MOST FAMOUS BIKE CLIMBS
The world’s four most famous bike climbs (in our opinion) are:
Top World Climbing Area: Argeles Gazost/Luz-Saint-Sauveur:
The Tourmalet bike climb is at the crossroads of greatness: the starting point for this, one of the greatest bike climbs in the world, can also be used to climb Luz Ardiden and/or Col de Tentes (Cirque de Gavarnie). The Argeles-Gazost/Luz-Saint Sauveur area is one of the greatest climbing zones in the world, home to Ardiden, Hautacam, Soulor, Aubisque, and several more.
The Tourmalet cycling climb is in the Pyrenees mountain range of southwest Europe and forms the natural border between France and Spain. Along with the French Alps, the Pyrenees are annually host to the mountain stages of the Tour de France. The climb begins in Luz-Saint-Sauveur, a commune in France’s Hautes-Pyrenees department. The town has a population of 1,098 (1999) and is known by locals as “Luz;” its inhabitants are “Luzeans.” The incomparable Napoleon Bridge, completed in 1861 as a compliment to Napoleon Bonaparte who cherished the Pyrenees, is located at the southern edge of Luz-Saint-Sauveur over the Gave de Gavarnie Ou de Pau.
Napoléon Bridge -- Pont Napoléon Saut à l'élastique.
(from Luz Saint-Sauveur)
The climb from Luz-Saint-Sauveur (western approach) is considered the more scenic of the two climbs. Both routes to the col have roughly the same gradient average, but the western ascent is more difficult as it covers three more kilometers with a greater elevation gain of 110 meters. Luz-Saint-Sauveur is considered somewhat center-of-the-road bike climbing as it is the start point for not only the incomparable Col du Tourmalet, but also Luz Ardiden and Col de Tentes, and is within easy riding distance to Hautacam, Aubisque, and several other magnificent cols in the area.
Photos of the first half of the climb.
The first kilometer of the climb is through the eastern residential section of Luz-Saint-Sauveur. Then, for the next 9.5 kilometers we ride up two-lane D918 with river Le Bastan to our left and frequently in sight. At kilometer 10.5 we bend left (right to Lauren Fignon alternate route to the top) and begin the really epic part of this unbelievable climb. Every time a ride the Tourmalet I feel so blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to experience this unparalleled cycling climb.
There are kilometer markers along the route.
Photos of the second half of the climb.
The final eight kilometers average 7.7% (10% for the final kilometer) and offer exceptional views back down the valley from which we just climbed. There are a few giant switchbacks that are fun to climb through and stunning to look back on.
Livestock are present along this, and most, Pyrenees, climbs.
Final kilometer of the Col du Tourmalet.
KM MARKERS 16 - 1
Photos clockwise from top left: km 13 = 9%; km 14 = 7%
km 15 = 7.5%; km 16 = 6.2%
Note: “km” means how many kilometers to the finish.
Photos clockwise from top left: km 9 = 6.5%; km 10 = 6%
km 11 = 9%; km 12 = 8%
Photos clockwise from top left: km 5 = 6%; km 6 = 8.5%
km 7 = 8.5%; km 8 = 7.5%
Photos clockwise from top left: km 1 = 10%; km 2 = 8%
km 3 = 7.5%; km 4 = 8.5%
FINISH - COL DU TOURMALET
Aerial view of Col du Tourmalet with points of interest identified.
Along with Passo dello Stelvio, this is the most fun and most cycling-congested finish in all the world.
Photos: Top left - TdF sign; Top right - restaurant at the Col du Tourmalet;
Bottom right - Col sign; bottom left - Géant au Col du Tourmalet
TOUR DE FRANCE HISTORY
TOP 10 MOST FREQUENT CLIMBS OF THE TOUR DE FRANCE
AND 10 FAMOUS ONES AFTER THAT
Times Featured in Tour de France
As of 2022 Col du Tourmalet has been featured in more TdF’s than any other climb.
With Alpe d’Huez, Col du Tourmalet is a tour and world legend. This is the highest pass in the Pyrenees and, as of 2022, has been included in the Tour de France a record 89 times between its first appearance in 1910 and 2023. From 1919 to 1939, Tourmalet was included in the TdF every year except 1922, and then only because the tour rerouted due to heavy snow.
2019 TdF stage 14 profile.
2019 featured comments on the official website for the Tour de France
“It’ll be the third time that a finish is set at the top of the Pyrenean mountain after 1974 (victory of Jean-Pierre Danguillaume) and 2010 (victory of Andy Schleck). The Tourmalet is also to date the mountain that has been climbed the most in the history of the Tour: 82 times” (LeTour.fr 2019).
Although no other climb has appeared more times in the Tour, Tourmalet has only been the finish three times (most recently at stage 14 on July 20, 2019).
Jean-Pierre Danguillaume won the first stage to finish on Col du Tourmalet (1974).
Tourmalet has a rich TdF history that began with its very first appearance in The Tour. The legendary TdF organizer, Henri Desgrance had decided to include Tourmalet in the 1910 tour. The first rider over Col du Tourmalet on July 21, 1910 was eventual 1910 tour winner frenchman Octave Lapize. Lapize was overtaken on the next climb (Col d’Aubisque). At this time Lapize unleashed on tour organizers as he reached the pass - this is not disputed. What he said, however, is variously reported as either some or all of the following: “murderers,” “assassins,” and/or “criminals.” Sadly, Lapize was to die seven years later from injuries sustained when his fighter plane was shot down during WWI.
Octave Lapize -- the first rider (hiker?) over Tourmalet, 1910.
Photo: Cycling Passion, Octave Lapize walks over the Col du Tourmalet.
The tour was not held from 1940-46 due to WWII. When The Grand Tour reappeared in 1947, so to did Tourmalet. From 1947 to 1955 Tourmalet was featured in the TdF. It wasn’t until 1956 that Tourmalet was left off the Tour’s agenda without excuse; from 1919 to 1957 Tourmalet was included in the Tour every year that it occurred.
One of the most famous stories of Col du Tourmalet and the Tour de France is from 1913. Descending Tourmalet towards Campan, French cyclist Eugène Christophe crashed and broke his front fork. Showing the resilience and spirit of those times (and, lacking any support staff), Christophe walked down the east side of Tourmalet to Campan where he found a forge and amazingly repaired his bike sufficiently to ride to the stage finish in Bagnères-de-Luchon. To add insult to injury, on top of already having lost three hours due to the crash, the race organizers penalized him for the “assistance” he was given by a seven year old boy who had pumped the bellows for him while he repaired his bike a blacksmith’s shop in Campan.
Eugène Christophe repairing his bike in Campan, 1913 (Image from Jean Durry).
YouTube summary of Christophe’s 1913 bad luck.
In 1919, Eugène Christophe became the first man to wear the yellow jersey.
Eugène Christophe poster at kilometer 10 (Campan side)
In 2010 Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck battled up the Col du Tourmalet from Luz-Saint-Sauveur for a mountain top finish (the second straight day Tourmalet was featured in the tour and only its second mountain top finish ever). With ten kilometers to go, Schleck and Contador broke from the group and were alone on a fog shrouded ascent to the Col du Tourmalet. With two kilometers to go, the two raced up the mountain side by side in heavy fog and light rain, having tried to break each other multiple times over the past eight kilometers. Schleck led the entire final kilometer and there was no sprint at the finish, Contador conceding the stage to Schleck, but keeping the yellow jersey, both riders finishing with the same 5:03:29.
Andy Schleck edged Alberto Contador TdF 2010 stage 17.
Photo by filip bossuyt.
YouTube segment of Schleck and Contador on Tourmalet.
WHAT’S ON TOP?
“Géant au Col du Tourmalet” -- Paying homage to the “Giants” of the road.
Velopeloton.com writes of the Géant:
“Géant au Col du Tourmalet is an iron sculpture first erected in 2000. It was created by the artist Jean-Bernard Métais, as part of the Tour de France sculpture on the A64 autoroute between Tarbes and Pau. This sculpture features 8 cyclists, Le Géant is the 9th person of the work. Le Géant is installed at the summit on the first Saturday of June each summer. It is a great occasion known as “Montée du Géant” – “Rise of the Giant” and attracts approx 1000 cyclists, who ride up the mountain with Le Géant. Le Géant travels on the back of a truck, accompanied by a brass band. There is a celebrity cyclist each year, with Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain among those who have honoured the Giant with their effort. Le Geant is removed at the beginning of October each year for safekeeping from the harsh winter. It is mostly on display in Bagneres de Bigorre, but has spent a couple of winters in Tarbes.
Géant au Col du Tourmale
There is a misconception doing the rounds in the last few years that it is a statue to honor Octave Lapize, who was the first Tour de France rider to cross Col du Tourmalet in 1910. It’s not. This seems to have arisen after a plaque commemorating the first crossing by Le Tour and Lapize was erected on the wall under Le Géant in 2010. The real purpose is . . . “the homage of Hautes Pyrenees to the Giants of the road.” Interpret that as you wish. The giants of the road could be the riders of Le Tour de France or it could be all the riders who cycle up Col du Tourmalet each year. I prefer the latter. An honor for every cyclist who makes it to the top” (read more here).
One of the most famous cycling summits in the world.
Bill, Marco, and John (2013).
Restaurant du Col du Tourmalet at the summit:
Two other exceptional bicycle climbs begin near the start of Luz Ardiden.
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