Inside the Tour de France with John Wilcockson: A perfect match – the Pyrénées and the Tour

A perfect match: The Pyrénées and the Tour
Stage 16, 2010 Tour de France

After the Paris journalist Alphonse Steinès hiked through snowdrifts over the Col du Tourmalet in the late winter of 1910 and sent a telegram telling his boss, Tour de France director Henri Desgrange, that the mountain road was suitable to include in the eighth edition of the race, he didn’t know what passion he was about to unleash. One hundred years later that passionate combination of the Pyrénées and the Tour is even stronger.

The Tour’s first venture into this rugged mountain chain was composed of two giant stages: one was from Perpignan on the Mediterranean Sea to Luchon (where this year’s stage 15 ended Monday and stage 16 started Tuesday); the other was from Luchon to Bayonne on the Atlantic Ocean. Both days were more than 300km in length and both were won by Octave Lapize, the Frenchman who went on to win the Tour.

The inclusion of high mountains in the Tour was regarded as a coup by Desgrange, who was the race director and the editor-in-chief of the Paris sports newspaper, L’Auto. The public’s fascination with the adventurous concept of cyclists climbing over mountains helped the publication’s daily circulation double to 300,000 on that Tour.

Among the incidents that received the most ink happened on the second of these stages, which crossed the Peyresourde and Aspin passes before tackling the two highest and longest climbs, the much-feared Col du Tourmalet (6.939 feet above sea level) and the Col d’Aubisque (5,607 feet). Only one rider managed to pedal all the way up the Tourmalet, Frenchman Gustave Garrigou, who was awarded a special prize of 100 French francs for his feat; all the others walked their 28-pound bikes for at least part of the way.

The Aubisque incident has been mis-reported over and over in this centennial celebration of the mountain’s first crossing. It’s been written by even respected publications that when Lapize, pushing his bike again, was close to the top of the pass he yelled at Desgrange: “Assassins.”

In fact, Desgrange wasn’t even on the race that day; he was sick and had returned to Paris to recuperate. It was his deputy Victor Breyer whose official car was where the race leader stopped on the Aubisque and, according to contemporary accounts, Lapize said to him: “You’re all criminals for making us race over these mountains.”

Of course, in the ten decades since, there have been hundreds of incidents in the Pyrénées that have added color to the Tour’s history. Perhaps the most famous is the legend of Eugène Christophe. In the 1913 Tour on the stage from Bayonne to Luchon (the reverse of the one in 1910) , Christophe’s bicycle fork broke just after he crossed the Tourmalet in second place and looked as though he was headed to the overall race lead.

Back then, the Tour competitors had to make their own repairs whether it was changing a tire … or repairing a broken fork. And they were not permitted to change their bikes or get assistance from teammates, or anyone else. Christophe had to walk/run for 14km down the Tourmalet to the village of Ste. Marie-de-Campan (which is at the 55km point on Tuesday’s stage 16), where he found a blacksmith’s forge and took four hours to effect the repair before continuing.

Christophe finished the stage and was penalized because he had been assisted in the repair: a boy had worked the bellows for him. The French rider — known as the Old Gaul — finished that Tour in seventh place. This Monday, Andy Schleck thought he had bad luck when he a dropped his chain. Christophe would not have been impressed.

Modern times

The giant 300km-plus stages were taken out of the Tour after World War II, but the Pyrénées remained. The Tourmalet and Aubisque have been scaled countless times, but there have been far fewer stages taking in all four of the classic climbs: Peyresourde, Aspin. Tourmalet and Aubisque.

Over the past 50 years there have been eight Tour stages starting in Luchon (or Pau) and ending in Pau (or Luchon). They’ve been of varying distances (see the chart below), but all of them have contained the four passes and between 14,000 and 16,000 feet of actual climbing, depending on the stage’s direction. Monday’s has 14,134 feet of elevation gain over a distance of almost 200km.

Most recent editions of this stage

  • 1961 Luchon-Pau: 1. Eddy Pauwels (B), 197km in 6:29:57 (30.311 kph)
  • 1964 Luchon-Pau: 1. Federico Bahamontes (Sp), 197km in 6:18:47 (31.205 kph)
  • 1967 Luchon-Pau: 1. Raymond Mastrotto (F), 250km in 8:00:27 (31.220 kph)
  • 1972 Pau-Luchon: 1. Eddy Merckx (B), 163.5km in 4:54:48 (33.277 kph)
  • 1980 Pau-Luchon: 1. Raymond Martin (F), 200.4km in 6:27:32 (31.027 kph)
  • 1983 Pau-Luchon: 1. Robert Millar (GB), 201km in 6:23:27 (31.451 kph)
  • 1998 Pau-Luchon: 1. Rodolfo Massi (I), 196.5km in 5:49:40 (33.717 kph)
  • 2010 Luchon-Pau: 1. Pierrick Fedrigo (F) 199.5km in 5:31:40 (36.0 kph)

These stages have not always been decisive or even well-raced. After Belgian journeyman Eddy Pauwels won the Luchon-to-Pau stage in 1961, race director Jacques Goddet (who was also the chief editor at L’Équipe, the French sports newspaper) wrote a scathing editorial, describing the Tour’s star riders as “dwarfs” for their passivity.

Three years later, Goddet had no such criticism of the mercurial Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes (the winner of the 1959 Tour), who made a formidable solo breakaway over the Aubisque and held off the chase group to win the stage in Pau by more than two minutes.

By far the most popular winner of a Luchon- Pau stage (in 1957) was Raymond Mastrotto, who the locals called le Taureau (the Bull) from Nay, not only because of his bullish appearance but also for the way he rode a bike. Nay just happens to be a village only 20km from Pau, and is often on the Tour route. He completed that stage over a monster distance of 250km in eight hours.

The most recent editions of this classic stage have all been in the Pau to Luchon direction, when the Tour hits the Pyrénées before the Alps. In 1972, Eddy Merckx was at his imperial best and after winning two time trial stages in the opening week he easily won this first major mountain stage.

In 1980, the big favorite was Bernard Hinault, who had already won his first two Tours. He was in the yellow jersey after a week of this third one, but unknown to anyone except his team the Frenchman had been riding with an injured knee, and he quietly pulled out of the race the night before the Pau-Luchon stage — stealing all the headlines from the stage winner, French climber Raymond Martin.

Three years later, this same stage was the most dramatic and decisive of the whole Tour. The top teams were both French, Renault and Peugeot. Renault didn’t have its leader, Hinault, who was again injured, which gave an opening to his young countryman Laurent Fignon; and Peugeot had Australian Phil Anderson as its GC leader, while British climber Robert Millar and Frenchman Pascal Simon had high hopes of stage wins.

The stage began in dramatic fashion when Millar went into an early break with Colombian climber Luis Herrera, while Anderson was involved in crash on the early slopes of the first climb, the Aubisque. The fall caused the Aussie’s shoe to come off and he had to retrieve it from roadside spectators, while his back went out, forcing him to stop at the summit to do some stretching exercises to ease the pain.

Meanwhile, none of Anderson’s Peugeot teammates stopped to help. Indeed, Simon snuck into a chase group with Fignon that gained several minutes over the race favorites, while Millar went on to win the stage with a solo move over the top of the Peyresourde.

Despite Anderson’s tribulations, Peugeot had a great day, with Millar’s stage win and Simon taking over the yellow jersey; but the story had a bitter ending when Simon crashed the next day and broke his shoulder blade. He continued racing and defended the yellow jersey for six stages before ceding to the pain and pulled out on the stage to L’Alpe d’Huez — where the rival team’s Fignon took over the lead and ran out the overall winner in Paris.

The last time the Pau-Luchon stage was held was in 1998, the year of the Festina doping scandal. The Italian Rodolfo Massi won the stage in a solo attack from an early breakaway, but the big news was the final charge over the Peyresourde by Marco Pantani to drop defending champion Jan Ullrich and take second on the stage — and eventually go on to win the Tour.

This year’s Tour visits the Tourmalet twice: on Tuesday’s Pau-Luchon stage 14 and (after Wednesday’s rest day in Pau) for the finish of stage 16. Two tough days, just like Desgrange put on the Tour agenda 100 years ago.