Just part of the magic of the Tour de France is the diversity of riding.
The course changes every year but invariably includes a mixture of mountain stages, hill stages, flats and time trials (although note this year only has one individual time trial at the very end). What does this mean? In short – cyclists need to be proficient (to put it mildly) in all these types of riding.
Just remember – sprint stars tend to be powerhouses of muscle and strength. That’s great for blistering down the straight of a pancake-flat finish, but what about climbing up massive mountains for 20, 30km? Ideally that’s when you need to be stripped of all weight, so the body is as light as possible but strong to push itself up those monsters.
But it’s physically impossible to be both, which is partly why the Tour de France remains just so exciting – we as spectators are kept constantly transfixed as the race moves from flats to hills to mountains, a new leaders emerge and then regress.
Why do we love monster mountains?
So what is it about the mountain stages? As Greg Lemond once said, they’re where the raw talent comes out. There is no hiding in a bunch when it comes to those vicious gradients, and the race becomes a show of mental courage under extreme physical duress.
The fastest climber (or ‘grimpeur’ in French) with the most points amassed whilst climbing is rewarded with the polka dot King of the Mountain jersey. It might not be the coveted yellow General Classification jersey, but there is no doubting the prestige and celebrity that goes hand-in-hand with the polka dots.
Bring on the mountains – we just can’t get enough!
What makes a mountain?
The Tour de France’s mountain stages are segmented into sections. Each section is graded as per its degree of difficulty, and points are respectively awarded. Category 1 indicates the most difficult stages of climbing, whilst category 4 represents the least difficult (let’s not forget however, that even on category fours we’re still talking mountains!). There are also climbs that are so tough they’re classified ‘uncategorised’ or, as the French say hors catégorie.
So what’s in store for the 2014 Tour de France mountain stages?
There are six mountain stages, five of which are altitude finishes. Things start to rev up this year around stage eight however, it’s really not until stage 10 that the true mountain climbing begins.
Stage 10, Mulhouse - La Planche des Belles Filles (161.5km), Monday 14th July
This is where the Tour winds into the Vosges area, a mountain range in the east of the country that is considered a cycling paradise. Medium size mountains abound here. When the Tour is not in town, roads are quiet and cycling is a pleasure. Whilst the Tour is in the area, though, locals can of course expect beautiful bedlam! The Tour returns to La Planche des Belles Filles (plank of beautiful girls). About the last 6kms of climbing is at 8.5% although there are some sections with more pinch.
Stage 13, St Etienne - Chamrousse (197.5km), Friday 18th July
This mountain stage is right in the Alps and although the first half isn’t a grind, by the time the bunch gets to Chartreuse Alps via Col de Palaquit they’ll have plenty of climbing on their hands. Col de Palaquit is some 14.1 km long with an average gradient of 6.1 %, and the final 18.2km up to Chamrousse has an average gradient of 7.3 % (with many sections beyond 10%).
Stage 14, Grenoble - Risoul (177km), Saturday 19th July
2,360m. That’s where Col d’Izoard sits on the altitude chart, and that’s where the peloton has to go - some 19km at an average of 6%, with the final 9km more like 7.5% - 9%. Also on the itinerary for today is the Col du Lautaret - 34km at 3.9%. There’s something like ten uphill tunnels here, through which riders must pass. But aside from those dark, long spells the route is spectacular and will be a delight for us spectators. This day is an altitude finish at Risoul.
Stage 16, Carcassone - Bagneres-de-Luchon (237.5km), Tuesday 22nd July
Here’s where we come to the superb Pyrenées, but not before a rest day in the impressive town of Carcassone (a medieval town that makes Game of Thrones sets look a little lacking). There’s a nice flat start that riders will appreciate, but the short and steep Col de Portet d’Aspet (5.4km at 6.9%) puts an end to that, as does Col des Ares (6km at 5.2%) and the final summit of Port de Balès (11.7km at 7.7%). This stage however, is the only mountain stage without a summit finish. Instead, there’s a 20km descent that is sure to shake things up a bit. This is the longest day for the Tour at 237.5km.
Stage 17, St-Gaudens - St-Lary Pla-d'Adet (124.5km), Wednesday 23rd July
The riding today starts in Spain and the French/Spanish border provides the first ascent for the day – Col du Portillon, before the peloton returns to the Pyrenées proper and finishes in Pla d’Adet (pronounced Plah-dah-day – very cool). This is one tough day, with all category 1 climbs but for the last, which is hors categorie. So what's on the menu?
Col du Portillon - 8.3km at 7.1%
Col de Peyresourde - 13.2km at 7%
Col de Val Louron-Azet - 7.4km at 8.3%
Montée de Saint-Lary Pla d'Adet - 10.2km at 8.3%
Stage 18, Pau - Hautacam (145.5km), Thursday 24th July
Are Tour de France organisers saving the most scenic for last? This is the final day of the mountain stages and let’s just say they’re going out with a bang both in terms of landscape as well as a super tough day in the office (category 3 climbs and two hors categories).
Côte de Bénéjacq - 2.6km at 6.7%
Côte de Loucrup - 2km at 7%
Col du Tourmalet (2,115m) - 17.1km 7.3%
Montée du Hautacam - 13.6km at 7.8%
Mountains, mountains everywhere! These particular days we’re sure are going to make for sensational viewing, so get some early nights before hand, bank up the sleep before staying up to make the most of the action live.
Vive le Tour!