Fear and loathing in the Pyrenees: How the Tourmalet came to epitomise the pain, suffering, triumph and despair at the Tour de France

The Col du Tourmalet is one of THE iconic climbs of the Tour de France.

Ever since the summit was first crested – to varying degrees of success it has to be said – in 1910, the climb has provided some of the most dramatic action the La Grand Boucle has witnessed.

Riders may have tackled the Tourmalet more than 80 times over the last century and a bit but today is only the third time in Tour history that a stage will finish on its summit.

But more on that later…

Let’s head back to the very start of the Tour’s love affair with this most demanding of Pyrenean mountains.

The story goes that Tour organiser Henri Desgrange was badgered by his colleague Alphonse Steinès, editor of L’Auto, to include the high mountains in the race to add to the excitement for his readers.

Desgrange wasn’t initially convinced that it would be within the riders’ capabilities but sent Steinès – who had drawn the route of the Tour since its inception in 1903 – to recce the course.

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That trip should have been enough to end any fascination the journalist had with the Pyrenees.

On arrival, there was snow on the top of the mountain…. despite being early summer.

Halfway up the Tourmalet, Steinès was forced to abandon his car due to a snowdrift. He continued on foot, got lost as night fell, fell into a ravine and wasn’t rescued until 3 a.m.

Not to be deterred in his dreams, Steinès sent the now-famous telegram to Desgrange: “No trouble crossing Tourmalet. Roads satisfactory. No problem for cyclists. Steinès.”

So that was that. The 1910 Tour, as Desgrange announced in the pages of L’Auto, would include the Col du Tourmalet, as well its Pyrenean neighbours Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Col du Soulor and Col d’Aubisque.

The man with the dubious honour of being first over the top of the Tourmalet, albeit having walked his bike up most of the climb, was the Frenchman Octave Lapize.

Octave Lapize pushes his bike up the Col du Tourmalet during the 1910 Tour de France

Not that he was in any mood to celebrate. Once he reached race officials on the final climb of the day – the Aubisque – he screamed “Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!” For those without basic GCSE French, it translates as “You are murderers! Yes, murderers!”

Despite threatening to abandon on the descent, Lapize went on to catch regional rider

He would go on and win the 1910 Tour ahead of his Alcyon teammate Francois Faber, who’d won the GC the previous year.

As an aside, only one rider, Gustave Garrigou, had actually been able conquer Col du Tourmalet without dismounting his bike, a feat which earned him a price of 100 francs.

Despite the protestations from riders – 26 of them had pulled out of the race before it had even begun after the announcement of the Tourmalet’s inclusion – Desgrange included the Pyrenees in the 1911 edition… and added in the Alps just for good measure.

Since then, it has become a very regular feature and rarely fails to serve up excitement and drama.

Here’s some more tales from the Tourmalet:

In 1913, the odds were stacked in favour of Eugéne Christophe winning the Tour… until an untimely incident on the descent of the Tourmalet.

Leading the race by around 18 minutes, he broke his fork on the ride back down. Rules at the time dictated that riders had to fix any mechanical issues themselves, so the Frenchman lost several hours walking back down the slope to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan.

Those early trips up the Tourmalet were characterised by riders pushing rather than cycling their bikes. Here’s Eugene Christophe in his ill-fated 1913 Tour visit.

He lost more time fixing the fork at a forge and with that any chance of winning. He’d eventually finish seventh.

There is a slightly happier Tour tale for Christophe and one, given the anniversary we’re celebrating this year, that’s rather fitting to mention.

He was the first man to wear the now-famous yellow jersey after Desgrange decided to introduce a special race leader’s jersey to make him easy to identify for race officials and spectators.

Christophe initially complained, claiming that those on the roadside were laughing at him and calling him a canary.

But, whatever his sartorial grievances, the maillot jaune has endured, unlike his 1919 challenge which was again undone by a broken fork.

As well as 100 years of the yellow jersey, the Tour is also celebrating 50 years since Eddy Merckx took his first victory.

And it was in the Pyrenees that the Cannibal did the most damage to his rivals.

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He set off on a solo mission just before the top of the Tourmalet and then kept going for the final 140km of the stage. As we looked at here, Merckx went on to win the 1969 Tour by 20 minutes.

Merckx’s final Tour win in 1974 was also the first time the summit was used as a stage finish.

The winner that day was Jean-Pierre Danguillaume who came through the mist to finish more than two minutes clear of Raymond Poulidor and three minutes up on Merckx.

Merckx’s win that year may not ben as emphatic as his maiden victory in 1969 but he still finished more than eight minutes ahead of his rivals by the time he rolled over the finish line in Paris.

The only Brit to get over the Tourmalet first in a stage is Philippa Yorke. The Scot, riding as David Millar, claimed his third and final Tour victory on stage 10 of the 1989 edition, outsprinting Pedro Delgado.

The final sprint was a repeat of the 10th stage of the 1983 edition when Millar also got the better of Delgado to claim his first stage win. On that occasion, Millar wasn’t the first over the Tourmalet; that honour went to the Colombian Patrocino Jiminez.

And the last time the Tour finished atop the Tourmalet we saw Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador slugging it out up the slopes.

The pair had marked each other closely over the day’s previous two climbs and there was very little to separate them in the final 10km as the murk and mist rolled in.

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Schleck took the win – and a hug from Contador on the finish line – but it was the Spaniard who would stand on the top step of the podium in Paris.

Contador would later be stripped of his third Tour de France victory, after a positive test for clenbuterol.

Whether today’s visit to the Tourmalet proves as decisive remains to be seen but it’s a climb the current yellow jersey wearer Julian Alaphilippe knows well – he was the first over the top last year.

It would be a big ask for his to repeat that feat this time around but given the form he’s in, anything is possible…

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