Col d’Izoard: A mountain in the shadows of Tour giants

Rouleur reflects on the tales of the Col d'Izoard, the alps fifth highest mountain pass

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Rouleur magazine, edition 51 (2014).

Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme has always wanted to pay homage to the race’s historical kingmakers and heartbreakers, while seeking out fresh challenges. 

Mission impossible. It can’t be done. Certain places will be sieved out, because something’s got to give when new clashes with old. “The Tour always evolves. Today, the great summits of the Tour are Mont Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, the Tourmalet and the Galibier. But it is no longer the Izoard, for example. That was the great climb of the 1950s and ‘60s.” Prudhomme told Bicycling in 2011. 

Didn’t anyone tell Monsieur Prudhomme to respect his elders? Greatness is a subjective thing. Besides, the Tour’s treatment of its dearest, oldest mountain varies. The Galibier and Tourmalet remain staples, helped by the attention-grabbing Botox of modern racing: hosting recent summit finishes, honouring 100 years since their first inclusions. 

On the other hand, there are practically forgotten climbs of yesteryear, like the Ballon d’Alsace or Col d’Allos, left proverbially cradling petrol station-bought flowers and blowing out lonely candles on muffins to celebrate their centennial passages. 

The Col d’Izoard, a nonagenarian whippersnapper by comparison, sits somewhere in the middle: it has all the right ingredients to still delight, tempered with caveats. It is high and gruelling, yet its venom is often neutralised by being placed far from the finish. It has an overpowering weight of history, yet the burden of limited infrastructure on top; it is less regular on the parcours, but still seen every five years or so. The contemporary Tour has a growing habit of whistling over it, even committing the cardinal sin of descending through the Casse Déserte in the 2014 Tour, which is a bit like visiting the Sistine Chapel and spending all your time in the gift shop. 

The Izoard has only ever hosted a stage finish on one occasion in 2017, where Warren Barguil crowned himself the one and only King of Izoard in the Tour’s history. Since then, the Tour has never returned to finish there. The sweet vendor and modest car park on top are no match for the Tour circus. It’s a shame given the over-attention attached to summit finishes by riders and fans. But then, we’re in a wake-me-up-for-the-final-climb, quicker-gratification generation of TikToks and 15-minute Jamie Oliver recipes. Whereas the Izoard – and the Tour itself – is something of a simmering risotto milanese, demanding careful attention to get its full taste. 

Warren Barguil atop Izoard during the 2017 Tour de France (Image by

Back in 1922, the race had no such impatience or infrastructural insistences. The Izoard was one more craggy criminal being introduced to the roguish band of original murderous mountains that included the Galibier, Tourmalet and Aubisque. It had only been 25 years since a tiny berger path up from Guillestre was widened into a goat-track by the French army, on the orders of General Henry Berge. Its proximity to the Italian border – the Izoard has featured several times in the Giro d’Italia – made it a strategic necessity. 

That summer’s maiden passage was a damp squib. So anxious were the riders about this mysterious new mountain that five men rode up in close quarters, with Philippe Thys first over the top.

The 1923 edition was more like it, as yellow jersey holder, Ottavio Bottecchia, resorted to walking and nearly abandoned. “At the moment you’re about to let out a sigh of relief, the Izoard hits you in the legs with a ramp that would make a mule whimper,” Tour founder Henri Desgrange wrote, probably in between rubbing his hands with sadomasochistic fervour. 

The Allos-Vars-Izoard combination and finish in Briançon quickly became a showpiece stage, starting the legend of the climb’s south side. The foot of the climb is unexpectedly arresting: rising gently out of Guillestre, the road twists through tunnels blasted into the corniche rock high above the rushing river Guil. The wind often gusts down the valley, another slap in the face for the climbers. 

The left turn for the final 14 kilometres is where gentle uphill fare turns to hors-catêgorie horror. A long, straight road leads to Arvieux, all green pasture and chalet roofs, before bulging hairpins like over-stuffed sausages. It tricks the time, making the road look even steeper than it is. The seven kilometres from the hamlet of Brunissard – the last outpost of civilisation before the summit – to the col is one of the most difficult regular stretches in Grand Tour climbing, rarely dropping below eight per cent. Antoine Blondin called it “the climb which slowly kills,” and many riders have been caught out. 

The verdure soon falls away to moon-like rockery and two kilometres from the top, you come upon the Izoard’s indelible visual stamp, the Casse Déserte. Beige rocks rear up like hunchbacks with frowning faces, scattered among the soaring slopes of dark scree. This natural amphitheatre is another world, “a new version of Hell,” according to Jacques Goddet, Tour director from 1937 to ‘86. 

Cold, hard numbers – kilometres, average gradient, and steepness – are all well and good for a climb’s classification, but what really counts is its atmosphere – how it makes you feel. 

Surveying the natural grandeur, another sensation accompanies awe: loneliness. Civilisation is seven kilometres back the other way. “It is unending desolation, ruin, the agony of the mountain,” Ferrand writes in La Route des Grande Alpes

Col d'Izoard (Image by Daniel Hughes)

In contrast to the anguished scenery, the road through the Casse Déserte slackens off, providing a breather before a two-kilometre haul to the summit at 2,360 metres. It has sweeping views over the north side’s beard of larch trees and Massif des Cerces. Whereas many other Alps are visually functional, sustained more by the strength of their Tour legend, the Izoard overpowers, bike race or no bike race. There’s no other place in the Alps like it. 

The Izoard’s Tour consecration came after the Second World War, as Coppi and Bobet rode themselves and the climb further into folklore. A generation of riders grew up wanting to emulate the pair. As new climbs like Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux gained favour into the 1970s, the Izoard’s reputation peaked. Other Tour winners – Federico Bahamontes (1958) and Eddy Merckx (1972) – crested it first, and so its legend was sustained: you weren’t a great Tour champion till you crossed the Izoard alone with the yellow jersey on your back. 

That’s what Louison Bobet told Bernard Thévenet in Barcelonnette on Bastille Day, 1975. It was the morning of the Tour’s decisive sixteenth stage, over the Izoard and up to Serre-Chevalier, the ski resort near the top of the Galibier. “He was a master, a model,” Thévenet recalls. “When I started racing at 15, a friend brought me a book called La Course en tête, by Louison Bobet. It was aimed at novices, explaining how to ride, train, follow the diet. I lived and breathed that book.” 

Bobet told him that half the job was already done: he had the maillot jaune. The previous day, Thévenet had caught and passed a capitulating Eddy Merckx on Pra-Loup. “It was unimaginable [for Merckx to lose a minute in two kilometres]. But I was always afraid… my 58 seconds over Merckx was nothing. I had to strike hard on the Izoard. It’s a col for a pure climber, to press home the gaps.” 

 Thévenet during the 1975 Tour de France (Image by Getty)

Thévenet had been preparing for the rendezvous all Tour. Though Merckx, ever tough, attacked on the descent of the Vars, the Frenchman caught up and took flight as the Izoard steepened to enter the final kilometres alone. 

“The fans were completely crazy in the Casse Déserte. There was a motorcycle gendarme just in front of me, containing the throng, but they just reformed behind it. The road opened up two metres in front of me, that was all. It was a magic moment, a communion with the masses. It took me five or six minutes to climb through there. It was an intimate exchange: they were carried away by enthusiasm and the crowd lifted me. In all my career as a cyclist, it’s the most moving memory.”

Legs glistening with sweat, Thévenet grabbed a newspaper at the summit for the descent to Briançon and made good his two-minute lead on the final climb. The Eddy Merckx epoch was over. 

That drop off the northern side was just as crucial for the protagonist of the Izoard’s modern epic, Andy Schleck. In 2011, needing to gain time on Cadel Evans and Thomas Voeckler ahead of a late time trial, he attacked. Six kilometres from the top and a full 60 kilometres from the finish at Serre-Chevalier, it smacked desperation. Even Schleck’s teammates doubted. 

“When [Leopard-Trek team manager] Kim Andersen told me, four days before, ‘we’re gonna go all in’, I didn’t say anything. But in my head, I thought ‘good luck, it’s not PlayStation cycling’,” domestique Maxime Monfort told me in 2011. 

Schleck quickly had two minutes by the summit and, with tactics redolent of Bobet and Deledda in 1953, Montfort dropped back from the day’s breakaway to bury himself for Schleck down the Izoard. His guidance helped Schleck, usually an arrant descender, to increase his leads. “Andy’s not really bad [downhill], he’s just afraid sometimes,” Montfort said. “I think he realised he could win the Tour. He didn’t think about crashing, maybe he didn’t care.” 

They passed through Cervières, the bucolic village largely burned to the ground by German incendiary bombardments in 1944, and onto the Galibier, where Schleck took victory and donned the maillot jaune. Never mind the fact the Luxembourger fell narrowly short of victory in Paris: that Izoard coup is the crowning memory of the 2011 Tour and his entire career. 

However, the invitation the Izoard offers to ambitious dreams is rarely taken up now, as the denouements play out on the final climb. Remember the opening quote? Well, it’s not for Prudhomme to bestow greatness on any climb: it’s all down to the cyclists. 

“What makes a col are the legends formed by the old battles seen there. Without those, it loses a little bit of its prestige,” Thévenet says. It hardly helps that the climb has only appeared five times in the last 20 Tours. Briançon, the natural partner to the Izoard, now only hosts occasional finishes too. 

The Tour will change, but the Izoard can hardly adapt: there’s no room for ski lifts or hoary restaurants. It’s impressive they even built a road up there. So, let the Tour shop around, allow the new climbs, hungry for tourism or heaving with identikit hotels, to come and go. There will always be a place in the Tour for wild wondrous places like the Izoard. 

Experience the Col d'Izoard on our Rouleur Travel trip that takes in this legendary climb, as well as the Col de la Croix de Fer, Col de Telegraph, Col du Galibier, Col de Vars, and Col de La Bonette. Register your interest today.

*Cover image by Daniel Hughes 

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