At 8677 feet in elevation, the Col du Galibier is the ceiling of the 2005 Tour de France. This formidable mountain pass, which has been climbed more often than any other in Tour history, gives the race some grandiose Alpine scenery, and at times it takes a merciless toll.
The Galibier is often the Tour’s summit — only the rare climb up the Col de l’Iseran (9087 feet) and the three trips up the Col de la Bonette-Restefond (9193 feet) have taken Tour competitors higher. The fabled Galibier’s indisputable reign was heightened in 1979 — quite literally — when the climb grew an impressive 292 feet. Until then, traffic had cut under the true pass in a one-lane tunnel. But when a key archway in the tunnel collapsed, engineers sealed the passage and built a sinuous new route over the mountain that roughly retraced the original smugglers’ path. Belgian climber Lucien Van Impe won the inaugural trip over this new stretch, which added just under a kilometer of climbing at an average grade of 10 percent to make this the steepest section of the climb. Though repair work made it possible to reopen the tunnel in the spring of 2003, the Tour de France has stuck to the summit road for its sheer majesty and challenge.
Many great riders have left their mark on these steep slopes. In 1969, Herman Van Springel flew down the descent to win at Briançon by two minutes after race leader Eddy Merckx, in his Tour debut, beat out Italian Felice Gimondi in a sprint under the banner of the Galibier. Just three years later, the Cannibal dominated a short, but demanding half-stage (51km) from Briançon to Valloire that shocked the racers by starting cold at the foot of the 33km Galibier’s southern approach and finishing at the end of its 17km northern descent. Merckx further bolstered his gritty reputation on the Galibier in 1975, when he fractured his jaw in a tangle with Dane Ole Ritter near the day’s start at Valloire, but insisted on finishing (in third place!) the arduous alpine stage to Morzine-Avoriaz so as not to diminish the triumph of Bernard Thévenet, who had dominated Merckx in the previous stages at Pra-Loup and over the Col d’Izoard to Briançon.
Despite his imposing size, five-time Tour champion Miguel Induráin was able to tame this magic mountain. In 1993, the French sports newspaper l’Équipe referred to the Spaniard as “the master of the cols” after he demonstrated his quiet panache by reining in the climbers on the Galibier ascent. But he proved his true mastery that day by allowing Swiss rider Tony Rominger to win the stage in Serre-Chevalier.
The Galibier inspired journalists again in 1998, when they described Marco Pantani riding “in the uppermost heavens” after his victory at Les Deux-Alpes on a gloomy summer day — it was as if the slight Italian had been sent by providence to save that scandal-addled tour. After descending the Télégraphe through a fog so thick that riders had to focus on the dotted centerline to stay on the road, the Pirate launched himself with abandon up the most grueling ramps of the Galibier. In the first curve after the summit, Pantani stopped just long enough to put on a rain jacket before plunging down the freezing descent. Overcome by the cold and unable to pedal, the chasing Jan Ullrich never recovered. By the end of the day, on the Deux-Alpes summit, Ullrich had conceded 8:57 to Pantani, who crossed himself in a sign of the crucifixion as he slipped across the line into his first-ever maillot jaune. The symbolic image resurfaced in the media all too soon — just six years later — when Pantani died a tragic and untimely death. The Galibier is intimately tied to such legends, but none more significant than that of Henri Desgrange. Near the summit of the pass, 150 meters after the tunnel’s exit where the road plunges down toward the Col du Lautaret, stands a proud and solitary stone monument, with a plaque that reads, “Dedicated to the glory of Henri Desgrange (1865-1940), former director of L’Auto newspaper, creator of the Tour de France.” It was here that Desgrange, the patron of the Tour, would wait for “his” racers, recording their times as they finished the massive climb. The spirit of the Tour is now immortalized in this place, which has become something of a shrine for cyclists of all levels. Many of these pilgrims claw their way up the mountain in the tiniest gears, as if in the shadow of cycling’s giants.
Did “H.D.” regret making the Tour de France racers climb up there by the glint of headlights in 1939, the year he “invented” a three-part stage from Briançon to Bonneval? “I’m guilty of making our men get up this morning around three o’clock. I’m also guilty of creating a situation in which our racers, whom I really do care about, froze atop the Galibier at four degrees below zero [25 degrees Fahrenheit].”
We should forgive him this transgression. We should even be grateful that he dared to send those pathetic souls up the Galibier that day, because all who make the journey benefit immensely.
The Galibier text is an excerpt from the book, “Cols Mythiques du Tour de France” (“Legendary Climbs of the Tour de France”), by Philippe Brunel, published by Éditions L’Équipe in March 2005 (distributed in Europe by Calmann-Lévy, 35 Euros). English translation of this extract by Mark Deterline.