The Col du Tourmalet is the single most iconic climb in the history of bicycle racing.
Nestled high in the thinning air of the French Pyrenees lies a thin ribbon of tarmac straddling two of its greatest peaks, a jagged grey scar carved into a sea of green.
Countless champions have been made on the Tourmalet. Just as many have been broken.
In this profile of Le Tour‘s most legendary climb, we’ll be covering:
- History Of The Col Du Tourmalet
- Guide To Cycling The Col Du Tourmalet
Ready for the lowdown on a true cycling legend?
Let’s get started.
History of the Col du Tourmalet
The Col du Tourmalet was – quite literally – built for the Tour de France.
In its earliest years, the Tour de France steered well clear of the fearsome peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees. The Tour’s first major climb – the Ballon d’Alsace (1178m) in the relatively gentle Vosges mountains – came in the race’s third edition in 1905.
In 1910, the Tour’s organizers decided to get serious.
At the time, the Col du Tourmalet was little more than a goat track. Nonetheless, it obsessed journalist Alphonse Steinès, who was a colleague of Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange at L’Auto.
Desgrange had already agreed to include the formidable Col d’Aubisque nearby, but Steinès refused to surrender the Tourmalet.
In a bid to convince Desgrange, he attempted to scale the Col himself. Through deep snow, he made it halfway up by car, then continued on foot once the road became impassable. His guide turned back shortly after, warning of the likelihood of bears coming over from Spain in the snow.
As night fell on the icy mountain, Steinès was stranded on the Tourmalet, unsure of the route to safety. He was eventually found by a search party at 3am, having slipped from the road into a freezing stream. Undeterred, he sent Desgrange a telegram from his refuge in the village of Barèges:
“Crossed Tourmalet [stop]. Very good road [stop]. Perfectly feasible”.Alphonse Steinès
Desgrange obliged, and the Col du Tourmalet’s place in cycling history was secured.
The fact that Steinès requested an additional 3000 francs for the local government to rebuild this “very good road” apparently did little to put Desgrange off. With the inclusion of France’s major mountain ranges, the character of Le Tour was set to change forever.
When the 1910 Tour’s route was published, many competitors were horrified.
One-fifth of the field of cyclists who were registered for the race withdrew immediately, while L’Auto‘s rival newspapers slammed the Tour as “bizarre” and “dangerous”.
On woefully inadequate bikes and with food, water, tools, and spare tires hanging from their handlebars and strapped to their bodies, the peloton was ill-prepared for mountain climbing. As they entered the Pyrenees for the first time on Stage 10 of the 1910 Tour de France, they rode into the unknown.
“Assasins!”, shouted eventual Tour champion Octave Lapize at Tour officials as he ground his way up the inaugural climb of the Tourmalet. “You are all assassins!”
Despite this savage assessment, the Col du Tourmalet has become one of Le Tour‘s greatest icons and provided countless decisive moments. As of 2022, the Tourmalet has featured 90 times – more than any other climb in the Tour’s history.
For cycling lovers, the Col du Tourmalet will always hold a legendary importance, above and beyond any other climb.
“When you’re a climber, all wins at the Tour de France are beautiful,” gasped a tearful Thibaut Pinot after claiming victory over the Tourmalet at the 2019 Tour. “But to win on a monument like this, the Tourmalet, that’s what I love.”
Guide to Cycling the Col du Tourmalet
There are two routes up to the Col du Tourmalet: from Luz-Saint-Sauveur to the west, or Sainte-Marie de Campan to the east.
Both ascents have massive Tour de France pedigree. The original 1910 Tour route climbed from Sainte-Marie de Campan (and then descended to Luz-Saint-Sauveur), but the reverse route has more than its fair share of Tour history too – including Eugène Christophe‘s infamous snapped fork at the 1913 edition (more on that later).
Though either side is a bucket-list climb for cycling fanatics, if you’ve only got time for one we’d recommend the route from the west, starting in Luz-Saint-Sauveur. It’s slightly longer, but is a little more picturesque as you avoid the concrete megaliths of La Mongie, the local ski resort.
From the West: Luz-Saint-Sauveur
The route from Luz-Saint-Sauveur runs for 19 km at an average gradient of 7.5%. The incline is fairly consistent all the way to the top – though as is often the case in the Pyrenees, the final kilometres are the steepest. Make sure your legs still have something left in the tank!
Starting from the Office de Tourisme in Luz-Saint-Sauveur, take a left out of the town square onto the main road (Rue de Barèges/D918).
Follow the road west as it heads out of Luz, where you’ll spot the first kilometer marker signs for the climb. These tell you the distance to the top and the average gradient for the next kilometer – something of a double-edged sword if your legs are already feeling the burn!
As you leave Luz, the gradient almost immediately hits 7%, where it sits consistently for around 6.5 km as you weave up to the village of Barèges. This is a good place to fill up bidons or take a rest if you need to.
Voie Laurent Fignon
Named for one of French cycling’s greatest sons, the Voie Laurent Fignon is a 4 km cyclists-only offshoot that splits off to the right of the main road around 2 km after you leave Barèges.
The Voie follows the original route of the road up the Tourmalet built for the 1910 Tour, so is a great piece of cycling history. It’s not as well maintained as the new road which replaced it, so we’d recommend taking the Voie Laurent Fignon for the climb and sticking to the main road for the descent.
The Voie Laurent Fignon rejoins the main road around 4 km from the summit. This final assault features some of the most stunning views in the Pyrenees as the valley opens up – though you’re unlikely to enjoy them much as you enter the toughest section of the climb!
The final kilometre is the steepest of the lot, ramping up to a punishing 10% gradient. The last hairpin bend feels near-vertical – but after one more 200m push, you’ve made it to the top and can officially tick off the Col du Tourmalet from your cycling bucket list!
The Eastern Approach: Sainte-Marie de Campan
At 17 km, the eastern approach to the Col du Tourmalet is 2 km shorter than the route from Luz-Saint-Sauveur. Despite this, it can actually be a little more difficult as the approach to reach the start point at Sainte-Marie de Campan is steeper.
Sainte-Marie itself is a site of Tour de France folklore. Having taken the overall lead of the 1913 Tour on the climb of the Tourmalet, Eugène Christophe was clipped by a race official’s car on the descent, snapping his bike’s fork.
Because the rules at the time banned outside assistance, Christophe had no choice but to walk the 10 km to a forge in Sainte-Marie de Campan and repair the bike himself, losing four hours – and his shot at the Tour de France – in the process.
To add insult to injury, he was penalised an additional ten minutes for asking a local boy to work the bellows at the forge while he made his repairs.
Barring any Christophe-esque misfortune, the climb from Sainte-Marie up the Col du Tourmalet is an epic experience. From the tiny village’s church, turn off the D935 onto the D918 to start the officially marked route.
The first few kilometers are very gentle, which is a welcome respite if you started your ride further afield and have already had to climb to Sainte-Marie de Campan.
After 3 km or so you pass the town of Gripp, where the real climbing begins.
The gradient starts off at around 6% but soon builds up to an average of 9% for the rest of the climb, with several kilometres in the double-digits. Watch out for the tunnels as you get higher on the mountain – they’re often followed by the steepest sections of the whole route.
After a section of rapid-fire hairpins, you reach the eyesore ski resort of La Mongie. Once the concrete breezeblocks are behind you, you’re rewarded with stunning views – but the gradient is unrelenting.
After tapering back down to 8% for a while, the final kilometer features a brutal hairpin at 15%. You’re rewarded with a relatively gentle gradient for the final 100 meter push – and with that, you’ve climbed the Col du Tourmalet!
Whichever side of the mountain you’ve climbed, summiting the Col du Tourmalet is a massive achievement!
Enjoy the view, take a much-needed break – then get back in the saddle for an epic descent.
Though the route down is steep, with the Tour de France coming through almost every year the road is very well maintained. The main hazard is from the goats, sheep, and cows that occasionally wander onto the road, so make sure you’re covering the brakes around any blind corners.
Enjoy the adrenaline rush as you zip down the Tourmalet – you’ve certainly earned it!