Col du Galibier - Giant of the Tour de France
Words Cycling Legends.
Photos Chris Sidwells.
“Oh Laffrey! Oh Bayard! Oh Tourmalet! I would be failing in my duty not to proclaim that next to the Galibier you are pale cheap wine. In front of this giant I can do nothing more than raise my hat and salute.” Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange writing about his favourite mountain climb in 1934.
The Laffrey and Bayard are passes on the western edges of the Alps that made their bike racing debut in the 1905 Tour de France. Along with the Ballon d’Alsace in the Vosges, also new that year, they were the highest climbs the race had crossed since its inception in 1903.
The Col du Tourmalet is another order of magnitude bigger than those climbs, and it made its Tour de France debut in 1910. But the Galibier is bigger still, another level of higher longer and harder than the Tourmalet, it entered cycling in 1911, when the Tour de France ventured into the high Alps for the very first time.
Desgrange was there, watching Emile Georget approach the rocky summit, the first Tour de France cyclist to climb the Galibier. The Tour founder was fascinated, and stood close to the summit every year the climb was in the race, timing his riders through. Their heroism, the majesty of the pass and the beauty of its surroundings fueled his 1934 eulogy.
Now there’s a huge memorial to Henri Desgrange on the south side of the Galibier, and whenever the Tour climbs it the first rider to the top is awarded the ‘Souvenir Henri Desgrange’ prize.
Whichever way you tackle the Galibier it’s a long hard ride into a mountain wilderness. For years it was the highest climb in the Tour de France, a climb to the very edge of the glacier line, a climb that tests endurance, strength and character to their limit. And whichever side there’s another pass, a step before the big one. The Lautaret in the south and Col du Télégraphe in the north guard the Galibier, and in doing so add to its isolation.
The Tour de France has climbed both sides, but it’s the north, the Télégraphe side, that’s harder and where the bones of the Galibier’s cycling story lie. Taking the Télégraphe and Galibier together, which they should be because there’s only four kilometres of descent between them, gives nearly 30 kilometres of climbing.
It starts in St-Michel-de-Maurienne where the road over the Galibier, the D 902, goes under the A43 autoroute. This is the beginning of the Télégraphe, which was named after an old fort at the top of the pass that was part of an old semaphore based messaging system across the Alps.
Like many passes in the French Alps the Col du Télégraphe had great military significance. Evidence of the last conflict, the Second World War is seen in the overgrown gun emplacements all up its lush woodland slopes, and there’s a huge fort near the summit. The gradient varies between six and 8.5 percent, with an average of around seven for the 12- kilometre climb.
The steepest part comes just after the chalets at Seignieres, about one quarter the way up. It’s a peach of a climb really, a road winding through bird-song and leafy coolness, its summit café festooned with vivid pot plants and hanging baskets. A stark contrast to what’s next.
A 4.7 kilometre descent ends in Valloire, where the Col du Galibier proper starts. A steep upward ramp leads to four kilometres of false flat, time and place to consider the huge change of scenery.
A massive ice-sculpted valley, almost bare of trees and edged with enormous scree slopes. The road weaves only slightly, but slowly racks up in gradient towards a row of snow-capped mountains. It’s lonely, stark and daunting, a place that puts people in perspective.
The long slog gets closer and closer to a rock wall with no obvious way out, until suddenly at a place called Plan Lachat, the road veers sharp right and the final and fiercest phase of the Galibier begins. Hairpin follows hairpin, one piled on top of the other, for seven kilometres of eight per cent climbing to the summit tunnel.
It’s said that before the tunnel people from the north side of the Galibier never mixed with people from the south. They mistrusted each other, told tales about each other, and there was fear on both sides; the isolation of the north compounded by its climate, which is much harsher than the south.
The tunnel opened in 1891, and all traffic passed through its oak-doored dankness until 1978, when it was closed for extensive repairs. An extra piece of road was built to take traffic above the tunnel, over the old Galibier pass; the natural pass used by adventurous muleteers to transport goods between the valleys before 1891
When it re-opened this extra road was given to cyclists, increasing the height of the climb from the 2,566 metres in old Tours de France to the 2,646 metres it is today. Only motor vehicles go through the tunnel, cyclists have the top part to themselves.
Take in the view from the top, and it is incredible, because the Galibier’s south-side descent to the Lautaret pass is very steep with some very tight hairpin bends. There’s little room for error, but plenty for respect and attention.
The road surface is quite good now though, much better than it was in 1935 when the Tour de France suffered its first racing fatality here. Spain’s Francesco Cepeda came to grief on one of the hairpins, plunged down a steep slope and fractured his skull. He died in hospital a few days later.
One of things that made Alpine passes treacherous in Cepada’s time was the snow-line. It was much lower in summer then than it is now, and in some places melt-water ran in torrents across the road.
If ever evidence of global warming was needed it can be found in the photographs of racing on high Alpine passes like the Galibier. The climb is more often bare of snow in summer now, but even as late as the 1970s Tour de France riders often raced past remnants of winter snow piled by the road after Plan Lachat.
The Galibier is a hard mountain, a legendary mountain, and an uncomfortable one. Even great climbers find its measure illusive. The Télégraphe whispers false security, encouraging reckless attacks, but the wide-open valley section strangles ambition.
And the top part, the coil of hairpins and straights; well that’s pure torture. The Galibier takes no prisoners, which is why Henri Desgrange, a man reputed to have said his ideal Tour de France was one where only one rider finished in Paris, loved it so much.
Galibier stats- the north side, including the Col de Télégraphe)
Length: 34.8 kilometres
Summit height: 2,646 metres
Height gain: 2,096 metres
Average gradient: 7.0%
Maximum gradient: 10%