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How mountains create Tour de France legends

The Tour de France’s high mountains are perfect set pieces for the race’s greatest moments.

The Tour de France can be won or lost in a variety of ways, but mountain stages define almost every edition of the race. From the moment Octave Lapize, en route to victory in the 1910 Tour de France, screamed “assassins” at race director Henri Desgrange at the summit of the Col d’Aubisque, fans and riders have associated greatness at the Tour with success in the highest mountain passes.

But what makes for a great mountain stage of the Tour? Let’s rewind a bit.

Greatness is a slippery subject, but if a mountain stage battle is fixed in our memories after many years, it’s in the conversation. That tradition started with Lapize on the Col d’Aubisque.

The Tour began climbing mountains in its second edition in 1904, when the race ascended the Col de la République. But on July 21, 1910, the Tour upped the ante and ascended the Pyrénean giant Col du Tourmalet, a climb twice as high as the République. Reporters waiting at the third and final climb, the Aubisque, shouted a question to Lapize as he passed by, and he replied Vous êtes assassins! (“You are assassins!”).

Octave Lapize
Octave Lapize
Photo by Maurice Branger/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

That day, the Tour posed a challenge well beyond what the sport had ever known, but the riders’ response to that challenge married mountains to the Tour from then on. Lapize was on a mission, chasing down Francois Lafourçade on the descent from the top of the Aubisque to win and put 10 minutes into his competitors by day’s end. Lapize won the Tour in large part thanks to that heroic (and temperamental*) effort.

(*In fairness to Lapize, if someone made you ride up and down the Pyrénées on a 1910 bike, with one gear, and next to nothing in the way of real brakes, you’d probably come up with something worse than “assassins.”)

Coppi In The Alps
Fausto Coppi in the Alps
Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lapize’s win showed us all the key ingredients of a great mountain stage: ultra-challenging terrain, an unbelievable effort, and a pinch of myth-making. The great climbing battles can happen anywhere, but have been most likely to occur on the Tour’s iconic climbs, like the Tourmalet, Galibier, Alpe d’Huez, the Joux-Plane, Mont Ventoux, and of course the stadium of suffering known as Alpe d’Huez. History is dotted with rides like this:

  • In 1952, Alpe d’Huez was introduced to the Tour, and summited first by Fausto Coppi, the great Italian Il Campionissimo. That put him in yellow by a slim margin, but the next day he embarked on a rampage for the ages, putting 20 minutes into all of the competition on a race over several Alpine passes before finishing over the Italian border at Sestriere.
  • In 1969, Eddy Merckx salted away his first Tour de France victory with a solo attack of 140 kilometers on the race’s 17th stage, a Pyrénean beast featuring Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, and Aubisque. Merckx, in his first Tour, was in the process of winning the yellow, green, polka-dot, and combativity jerseys, and doubled his commanding lead that day from eight to 16 minutes. At the finish line he told waiting journalists, “I hope I have done enough now for you to consider me a worthy winner.” I’m going with “yes” here.
  • No long-time Tour fans will forget the day in 1986 when Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, who would finish with eight combined Tour wins, rolled over the finish line on Alpe d’Huez together, hand-in-hand, after putting a two-man beating on the rest of the peloton to pad their hold on the top two overall spots by more than five minutes. It was all smiles between the two, like the calm in the eye of the hurricane that was their rivalry before and after that moment. Their feud would resume the next day and rage all the way to Paris.
Hinault and LeMond at Alpe d’Huez, 1986
Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images

The list of all-time greats doing memorable things in the mountains is long, but lately, such heroic exploits have been a bit harder to come by. Innovative 21st Century tactics, from the US Postal days to Sky/Ineos’ current reign, have come to grind down the competition, making long-range attacks either suicidal or impossible. It has become a downer to see riders winning the Tour with just a handful of attacks in the final few kilometers of the biggest stages, pocketing 30 seconds here and there. That’s why some of us still have mixed, or even fond feelings about Floyd Landis’ all-day assault on stage 17 of the 2006 Tour, when the American rebounded from a disastrous stage with a 120-kilometer attack and solo victory that put him back in yellow all the way to Paris.

A couple days later, he was disqualified for doping. But after the suffocating tactics of the Armstrong years, and the conservative riding that had marked the ‘06 race until that point, Landis’ performance felt like a throwback to days that seemed lost forever, a ride that (if not so horribly tainted) would have put smiles on the faces of Hinault, Merckx, and the other dominant champions of Tour history.

The relatively meager gains on mountain stages in recent Tours suggest not just a shift tactics, but also tighter competition (and arguably, a cleaner peloton as well). At least in that context, there’s still plenty of charm to find in the Tour’s mountain stages, and in the last decade riders have found unique ways to make memories. They still feature classic courses, soaring finishes on iconic peaks like Alpe d’Huez. And they still feature athletes waging fierce and fearless battles into thin air. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • In the 2008, Carlos Sastre, the Schleck brothers, and pre-race favorite Cadel Evans, riding with minimal support in the mountains from his Lotto squad, waged a nip-and-tuck battle. Evans was mere seconds out of yellow at the start of Stage 17, and secure in his knowledge that he could paste his CSC rivals in a Stage 20 time trial if he could hang onto their wheels on Alpe d’Huez. Frank Schleck was in yellow, and young Andy was riding brilliantly, so the pair took turns softening up Evans as the race hit the base of the Alpe. From there, Sastre, who was 41 seconds behind Evans in the standings, launched a pair of vicious attacks, the second sending him clear, and he soloed to the top of the Alpe, gaining two minutes — enough cushion to hold on to the yellow jersey for good.
  • Three years later, Evans and the Schlecks waged another memorable battle across the Alps, joined by Alberto Contador, who had emptied his tank at the Giro d’Italia and lost too much time in the Pyrénées to compete for yellow. Evans skillfully marked his rivals and seemed destined to seal his only Tour de France victory during the stage 20 time trial, but not before Andy Schleck went for broke, attacking on the forbidding desert slopes of the Col d’Izoard, 60 kilometers from the finish. He carried his advantage, which reached more than four minutes, up to the finish on the Col du Galibier. Evans would eventually lose a manageable two minutes, but Schleck’s effort seemed to reawaken the sport to its heroic past.
Le Tour de France 2011 - Stage Eighteen
As good as it gets: Schleck solos on the Galibier
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
  • And as much as Chris Froome has been criticized for plying his team’s financial might en route to four Tour wins, he has proven his champion’s mettle on all of the race’s most forbidding slopes. At the 2013 Tour, Froome was the heir apparent to the yellow jersey when Bradley Wiggins didn’t return to defend his 2012 title. Having secured yellow in the Pyrénées, he silenced any critics by outdueling Contador and upstart Nairo Quintana on the windswept Mont Ventoux. Froome and Contador aggressively dropped everyone, but then Froome slipped away from the Spanish champion, catching Quintana. The pair, destined to be rivals for a few years, rode away from the competition, until Froome cracked the Colombian to win the stage.

Noble mountain victories aren’t the sole providence of great champions; greatness can come from watching anyone dig beyond a reasonable limit to win a stage or hang on to the yellow jersey, against all odds. Julian Alaphilippe, who is known as a Very Good but not Elite climber, turned the 2019 Tour on its head in its first two weeks with a string of unforgettable efforts. We have seen memorable stage wins by riders who are far out of contention but still want to show fans what a world-class climbing looks like. The last decade has seen the King of the Mountains competition turn back into a war of pure climbers, as it had been through much (though not all) of the Tour’s history. In 2017, Frenchman Warren Barguil cemented his place in national cycling lore with a successful polka-dot campaign that he topped off with a solo win on the Col d’Izoard. The man known as “Wawa” had been part of the day-long breakaway, got caught on the final climb, but the mustered a last reserve of energy to attack with three kilometers remaining.

Similarly, in 2013 Quintana put himself in dots with a long-range attack on the Col du Semnoz, the final mountain climb of the Tour, where he and longtime Tour hopeful Joaquim Rodriguez of Spain dueled to the summit. That effort, days after Froome had swatted him on Mont Ventoux, landed the young Colombian the KOM title, second overall at the Tour, and hero’s welcome when half of Bogota turned out to celebrate him and his future. That promise has since gone unfulfilled, but a lot of fans can remember back to when Quintana was the only rider who could put a dent in Froome’s invincibility.

You get the point by now. Great riders digging deep make for memorable stages. But I’ll throw in one more ingredient that can make for a great climb: polemics.

Ask any cycling fan about the 2010 race, and you are sure to get an earful about whether Contador knew that Schleck had thrown his chain on the Port de Balès as the Spaniard attacked over the summit. Contador gained 39 seconds that day against a backdrop of howling protests over Tour etiquette, which generally says you should avoid attacking your rival during a mechanical problem or crash. Contador would go on to win the Tour by ... 39 seconds, only to be stripped of his title in a spasm of karma and litigation.

Then ask around about 2016, a fairly unmemorable competition, and the talk will turn to Froome running up Mont Ventoux without a bike, following a crash caused by fans crowding the road to the point where the leading trio of Froome, Bauke Mollema, and Richie Porte ran into a stopped motorbike. Ask about 1975 and you’ll hear about a fan punching Merckx in the kidney on the Puy-de-Dome. Bring up 2003, or any of the Armstrong wins, and you’ll hear pretty quickly about the time he caught his bars on a spectator’s musette, crashing to the deck before getting up and coming back to win at Luz Ardiden. I’m not sure how great any of these moments are, but if there’s one thing cycling fans love as much as heroic riding, it’s a good controversy.

Every October when the Tour de France releases its next route to the public, cycling fans begin to dream, conjuring visions of heroic climbers dancing across the mountainscapes of France. Whether the riders and the circumstances of the race combine to deliver true greatness is only for the Cycling Gods to answer, but when they do, there are few things in sports that can match the spectacle.