The fourth instalment of my mountains showcase, and this week we take a look at a giant of the French Alps, the Col du Galibier, a climb inextricably linked to the Tour de France and its founder Henri Desgrande. It’s the most frequented climb in the Tour with 59 visits and honours the “father of the Tour de France” with a memorial statue on its southern flanks. You cannot talk about great climbs of the Le Tour without mentioning this name.
Prints and books from the Mountains series available here.
Some climbs featured in the Mountains Blog series have a history and life outside cycling. The Furka Pass is probably more famous for the James Bond film, Goldfinger, the Ventoux dates back to ship building in Toulon when they felled its trees on the upper slopes for timber and the Stelvio for its importance during the bitter fighting between Italy and Austria-Hungary Empire. Although the Galibier has importance outside of cycling (it was an important smuggling route for Salt during the 18th C) most people find significance with this great climb through the history that has been bestowed upon it by the Tour de France.
The visionary of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrande introduced many climbs into the race during his reign between 1903 to 1937, but the Col du Galibier was undoubtedly his jewel in the crown.
The first TDF mountain stage featuring the Col du Tourmalet had only made an appearance a year earlier in 1910 as a publicity stunt to boost readership of his newspaper L’Auto. The climb had captured the imagination of the public, so the quest was on to repeat or even better the experience the following year. The Col du Galibier provided the perfect answer and laid the foundations for a perfect loop of France which took in both the Alps and Pyrenees. Desgrandes excitement at its inclusion could not be contained and was announced to L’Auto’s readers:
“Oh ! Sappey ! Oh ! Laffrey ! Oh ! Col Bayard ! Oh ! Tourmalet ! I will not fail in my duty in proclaiming that next to the Galibier you are as weak as dishwater: before this giant there’s nothing one can do but doff one’s hat and bow down low.”
These words sent fear into the heart of the riders who’s experience on the Tourmalet the previous year was still very raw. Back then, the road was little more than a dirt track which had to be tackled on single speed bicycles weighing 14kg+ with rudimentary brakes. In addition, riders had inadequate wool clothing to keep themselves warm for the summit and descent that followed.
To make matters worse, Desgrandes placed the Col du Galibier in the middle of an epic 366km stage from Chamonix to Grenoble. The stage lived up to expectations: only three men made it to the top without walking. Emile Georget had the honour of being first over, followed by Paul Duboc and Gustave Garrigou.
The original report filed that day testifies to the feelings felt by Emile Georget as he passed the summit.
“When he passed by close to us, filthy, his moustache full of snot and leftovers of his last meal, and his jersey muddied by the ooze from the last stream where he had wallowed, he spat at us, dreadful and lofty: “I am speechless!” – Henri Desgrange
The first passable road over the Galibier was completed by the military in 1879 and named “Routes des Grands Communication #14” but faced with the constant challenge of clearing snow from the last few kilometres, a 370m long tunnel was blasted through the rock some 86m below the summit making the passage less unpredictable. This was completed in 1891 and was used during the 1911 Tour de France but did little to appease the riders’ feelings of being forced to climb the Galibier. Emile Georget sarcastically commented:
“The tunnel should have been built much lower down. That would have saved us a terrible ordeal.”
The tunnel remained open for 85 years until 1976 when it was closed due to its deteriorating condition. Giant oak doors sealed the entrance whilst a new road was built over the pass adding an additional 2kms to the climb. After extensive repairs the tunnel was re-opened in 2002 and is now manned by traffic lights due to its single lane carriageway.
At 2638m it is some 500m higher than the Col du Tourmalet, but that single statistic only tells half the story as to why it is so feared. Linking the Maurienne Valley to the north, you must first conquer the Col du Télégraphe before even turning a pedal stroke on the Col du Galibier and likewise to the south, the Col du Lautaret has to be overcome.
Make no mistake, the Télégraphe may be easier than what’s coming, but at 12kms long it’s more than just a warm-up. Riders that fail to give it the respect it deserves soon pay the price on the Galibier.
Starting from the town of St Michel-de-Maurienne, the Télégraphe winds its way up through the trees until it breaks cover and the gradients ease at the Relais du Télégraphe where a giant statue of a cyclist made of straw signals the summit (1566m).
The Télégraphe gets its name from the fort at the top built by Napoleon which itself takes its name from a telegraph post that stood on the site. The telegraph post was part of a communications network stretching from Paris to Milan and beyond where an operator created semaphore signals using a mast with mechanical arms which would move to different positions to signal different letters. An operator would signal whilst the next operator, perhaps 25km away, would use binoculars to note down the signal and then pass the it down the line. The system started in 1790 and by 1810 was in operation in the Alps and able to pass messages from Amsterdam to Paris and on to Turin and then Mantova but only if the weather was good.
As the road curves round the Relais du Télégraphe, the ski town of Valloire which marks the official start of the Galibier comes into view. After a brief 5km descent, the road begins its 18km grind to the top. A few steep ramps past the pine-clad chalets lead you out the town to a wide-open valley section where the gradients ease. The slopes either side of the road are littered by boulders and there’s little to aim for along this straight section until the road approaches Plan Lachat, a collection of buildings and a bridge where the road bends sharply right and heads skywards.
Now begins the hardest part of the climb and the mood seems to change. This is the place where Marco Pantani launched his audacious attack over Jan Ullrich in the 1988 Tour de France…
It was a cold, rain-soaked day between Grenoble and Les Deux Alps. Three minutes separated Pantani from Ullrich in yellow. Sensing the German to be in trouble, Pantani attacked some 48km from the finish and powered away on the hardest section of the climb past Les Granges (a series of metal huts where local cheese is sold). The Italian gave it everything climbing in his typical style on the drops, cutting steadily into the German’s lead. In contrast Ullrich laboured up the climb. Cold and numb, he struggled to put his rain jacket on at the summit for the freezing descent and ultimately paid the price, losing more time to Pantani who had caught the breakaway and ridden off to win the stage on top of Les Deux Alps. Ullrich rolled in nine minutes later, his lead and overall victory gone.
There now stands a memorial to Pantani at the point of his attack at Le Granges, 2,301m. It’s inscribed “Pantani Forever” it was created by Massimo Salvagno from stone from the Piedmonte region.
Once past the monument the summit comes clearly into the view. It’s still a long way off and there’s a long lead into the final assault through an open section of pasture. Here it starts to get tough again and the road turns and twists until you reach the turn off for the summit and the approach road to the Tunnel du Galibier.
Riders must turn left here as the tunnel is only open to cars. This is where the steepest gradients are to be found with the last kilometre reaching 11%. Invariably the road is blocked by snowfall in early season and the general appearance gives way to dark shale rock. Le Grand Galibier, the mountain peak at 3228m, towers over you which gives the pass its name.
The summit is always a welcome sight. To put it into perspective and the reason why the Galibier is so hard is not summoned up by the final altitude of 2,642m. Although this is still the 4th highest pass in France, it’s the sheer length and altitude gain that makes it so difficult.
From the valley in St Jean de Maurienne the road climbs for 34.5km with a brief 5km respite from the top of the Télégraphe to Valloire. It gains over 2,100m in elevation which supersedes France’s other great passes – The Col de la Madeleine (24km with 1,533m altitude gain) or the Col de la Bonette (26km with 1,650m altitude gain). Only the Col d’Iseran comes close with 2,045m gained over 47km.
It’s the reason why there is a statue honouring Henri Desgrande next to the tunnel entrance on the southern side. Invariably the Col du Galibier is awarded the “Souvenir Henri Desgrande” given to the first rider over the highest point in the Tour de France that year. It’s also the most frequented climb in the Tour de France having been visited no less than 59 times.
For any amateurs wanting to experience the climb, France’s oldest and hardest one day cyclo-sportive, la Marmotte (named after the furry ground squirrel which inhabit the slopes) passes over the Col du Glandon, Col du Télégraphe and the Col du Galibier before the final climb to Alpe d’Huez. With over 5,000m of climbing along its 175km route, it’s a chance to experience some of the pain Emile Georget experienced on the first ascent back in 1911.
Given its history within the sport, it’s a climb I’ve visited on numerous occasions to both photograph and climb. I’ve felt my share of pain attempting to reach the top on a bike during La Marmotte which has probably informed my relationship to the climb both on the bike and through the lens. This climb has a rawness and menace which is expressed through the lines of exposed strata and boulders that litter the route and the freezing temperatures that normally await at the summit. This rawness is also its beauty and the reason why I am drawn to photograph this mountain. I’m sure the Tour de France will visit again soon and no doubt I will be there to witness and document.
Prints and books from the Mountains series available here.