Riding the hardest stages of the 2021 Tour de France
When the hardest set of final stages for years lands on the doorstep of a cycling writer, there’s only one thing to do
The climax of the 2021 Tour de France is arguably harder than any in the last decade, with five tough Pyrenean mountain stages, including two enormous back-to-back, hors categorie summit finishes on the Col du Portet and Luz Ardiden, plus the daunting Andorran stage 15 with 4,500m of ascent. It’s a mouth-watering prospect.
It could be said that this year’s finale is recompense for the badly weather-affected 2019 race. Then, the stages up to Tignes (stage 19) and Val Thorens (stage 20) were neutered by necessary re-routing, denying us the explosive final act we’d been so anticipating. This year, the Tour makes good, having already returned to Tignes for the first summit finish and assembling an army of mountains into a crescendo that out-points even 2019’s denouement.
Related – Why the Col du Tourmalet is the most important climb of the Tour de France
You have to look back to 2014 and 2011 to find Tour routes that climax with back-to-back summit finishes bracketed by further mountains and a time trial. The more recent of the two also took place in the Pyrenees, and on similar routes, with finishes on Pla d’Adet, the main ski station road from which the Col du Portet spurs off to climb higher, and then Hautacam. Those stages used the same approaches as await the peloton this July: the Col de Peyresourde and Col de Val Louron-Azet preceding Pla d’Adet, and the mighty Col du Tourmalet to soften the peloton before they hit Hautacam. The winners of those stages were Rafal Majka, in the KOM jersey, and Vincenzo Nibali, dominant in yellow.
In 2011, the Alps provided the theatre. Andy Schleck won atop the Col du Galibier and Pierre Rolland took Alpe d’Huez, with Cadel Evans in close attendance on each occasion to set up his yellow jersey coup in the time trial that followed.
Happily for me – and the guests I’ll be hosting at my holiday business, Escape to the Pyrenees – the Tour’s finale is set to take place practically on my doorstep. As a journalist, I’ve written many stage previews sat at a desk looking at profiles, maps and Wikipedia. This, at last, was the perfect opportunity to actually ride the race routes in advance, provide the sort of insights only possible with a recon, and share the experience of riding a pair of stages that even have the pros worried. I grabbed my GoPros, filled my pockets with food and headed out for my own double Étapes du Tour.
STAGE 17, MURET – SAINT-LARY-SOULAN, COL DE PORTET
The peloton rolls out from Muret, close to Toulouse, and has 100km of preamble before reaching Bagnères-de-Luchon and the start of the climbing. I drove out to the stage to ride solo and wasn’t keen to end up 178km from my car, so I parked at La Barthe-de-Neste, just off the A64 autoroute, and enjoyed 45 minutes of rolling, quiet, pretty foothills heading east to join the race route in the village of Loures-Barousse. I wouldn’t have swapped for the flat and unremarkable schlep of the route proper, and by the time my loop would be complete I’d have covered the same distance.
Col du Portet by Daniel Hughes, buy the print at Rouleur.cc
Rolling south towards Bagnères-de-Luchon, the changing surroundings create compelling anticipation. While the road stays flat and fast, the terrain rises around me, as if I’m sat on the floor and people around me are slowly standing up from their chairs to leave me feeling very small, neck craned to the sky.
As if in harmony, the weather is brightening all the way, too, and the skies are blue when I pass what will be an intermediate sprint on the outskirts of Bagnères-de-Luchon. This flat run deep into the mountains is a gift to the pure sprinters and to anyone else glad to save some energy, me included. I follow the exact race route on what feels like a parade through the town centre and its attractive pavement cafés (the mayors all want their money’s worth) then swing hard left to begin the Col de Peyresourde.
Image credit: Paolo Martelli
A cat 1 climb, the Peyresourde is very significant, but no monster (14.4km, 6.5%, 944m gain). It winds its way patiently out of town, flowing with the topography of the rising valley rather than forcing its will upon it, the bulk of its ascent bookended by triplets of switchbacks. Pyrenean climbs free from double-digit gradients is an exclusive club indeed, one to which the Peyresourde is denied membership on account of a few ramps that hover around 10-11%, such as the approach to the village of Garin. It is, otherwise, an entirely civilised way to gain altitude – a big climb, softly spoken – which I’m sure the peloton will appreciate as they contemplate what awaits them on the other side.
Garin is notable for more than its steep approach and manicured charm; it marks a watershed in the character of the climb. Having ascended to this point hemmed in tight by stone walls and trees, the mountain to my right, suddenly the view opens right up as I emerge into a vast, high valley and continue along its left flank. It’s hot now, 32˚C. Three kilometres further on, a left-hand bend reveals the summit and the final reinforced switchbacks faintly visible like old scars. The view from them is spectacular so, even if you insist on racing to the summit to set your best possible time, it’s worth rolling back down to take photos. I’m in no such hurry so I scrabble around the hillside in cleats trying to balance my GoPro on a puzzle of rocks.
On a perfectly clear day, and especially in winter or spring when there’s still plenty of snow on the peaks, the summit of Peyresourde is my favourite in the Pyrenees. The road passes over the top in a straight line, creating an incredible reveal of the mountains in the distance, two of which must be climbed today. The descent, on the other hand, is mild. It isn’t steep enough for the speed to go much past 70kph, even tickling my Wahoo with my beard, and few of the corners require brakes. At least it’s wide and well sighted to make it safe and easy to overtake slow-moving cars.
Photos: Jamie Wilkins | EscapeToThePyrenees.com
A sharp left takes the route towards the Col de Val Louron-Azet via a gratuitous lap of the beautiful Lac de Génos-Loudenvielle, where there will no doubt be several people showing off to the TV helicopters on waterskis or some such come race day. The riders won’t notice; they’ll be too busy fighting for position ahead of the climb, which starts abruptly within seconds of turning away from the lake. The Azet’s stats are flatter to deceive: 7.4km, 8.3%, rising 620m. However, it’s much more killer than filler from this side, at 9% for the first 4km, with closely stacked switchbacks through trees helping any attackers to get out of sight quickly. The super-domestiques will have to bring their A-game.
There isn’t much to look at besides your power meter, anyway, until you emerge from the trees. At the summit, you can look back at the entirety of the Col de Peyresourde, then turn west and see the giant Col du Portet towering over Saint-Lary-Soulan, the iconic first two ramps of Pla d’Adet clearly visible, but the reminder not. Probably just as well.
Tour de France Stage 17 Preview
The descent is rough, narrow, unprotected, and surfaced in chip seal that makes loose gravel near invisible, so I dial in a little more caution and use my Wahoo’s screen to warn me of the handful of corners which tighten nefariously. It isn’t very steep, so the speeds aren’t huge, but we know that the pros always manage to find an extra 20kph through skill and commitment. Any team chasing a threat, or one defending a jersey while trying to manage the risks, will feel the stress.
I take a break in Saint-Lary-Soulan for a Coke, a Bounty (ok, two), and to top up my bottles and change the batteries and memory cards in my GoPros. Like Bagnères-de-Luchon, it’s a bustling, sporty place and the cafés are full of cyclists, trail runners, climbers and hikers. Downhill mountain bikers roll through town from trails that end so close they’re still breathing hard.
Image credit: Daniel Hughes, available as a print here
The 16km climb of Pla d’Adet-Col du Portet begins on the edge of town and is, very much like football, a game of two halves. The first eight kilometres are on very well surfaced, wide roads that are unrelentingly steep. The second eight kilometres are on terribly surfaced, narrow roads that are unrelentingly steep. It’s a brute, immediately setting out its stall at 10% and staying there for 7km, only easing briefly for an open hairpin, directly after which you turn off for the Portet instead of continuing up the easier gradient to the Pla d’Adet ski station, itself 10 times a Tour stage finish. Much of the south-facing lower half is devoid of trees, so mid-afternoon on a hot day it’s a furnace.
The Col du Portet was only surfaced for its Tour debut in 2018; before that it was gravel. Plenty seems to have been left behind for posterity. It’s ok to ride up but not currently Tour-worthy, so I’m relieved to find some resurfacing machinery further up and a few new patches of asphalt. Most of it is barely one car wide and that will inevitably be reduced further by the crowds – it will be Bastille Day, after all – but it’s hard to imagine more than a handful of riders remaining in any group that’s competing rather than completing.
On this beautiful evening, I have the mountain to myself. With fully 6km remaining, the views are already spectacular, both back into the valley far below and up to the peak. The sun is closing on the summit, and may get there before me, its light toying with the contours of the mountainside. Always up for a race, I keep the power output firm to earn my slice of Golden Hour.
Darkness arrives prematurely, briefly and emphatically in the tunnel a kilometre from the finish. Peering above my glasses, I can just make out the walls but have no idea what I’m riding on. The Tour might – should – rig up some temporary lighting for race day, but hasn’t often done so in the past, even on descents.
Emerging into the light creates an ‘almost there’ feeling that is, for once, justified. A final hairpin swings me into the last ramp of 500 metres at 9.5%, with an extra kick in the bend left to the line on pristine new asphalt. There’s no one here and the cows don’t look impressed but no external validation is required for the joy felt within at completing a ride this magnificent.
The professionals will have to switch their attention immediately to recovery, Luz Ardiden on their minds before they even descend Col du Portet. My attention is dedicated to staying upright on the very sketchy descent and then using the last of my energies to blast north down the valley. I reach my car with 170km and 3500m ridden, the sun bisected by the horizon, my legs empty and my heart full. I hope the pros enjoy their day even half as much.
Ride the 2021 Tour's queen stages in the catered luxury of the Escape to the Pyrenees guest house, which is ideally located to reach all of the region’s most famous climbs.
STAGE 18, PAU – LUZ ARDIDEN, 130km
The final mountain stage of this year’s Tour de France is spectacular and iconic. It is in equal measure an essential experience for amateurs and the sternest of tests for the GC riders. It may be only 130km and two climbs, but both are hors categorie and it’s another summit finish, right after one at 2200m. It’s a test of recovery as much as outright watts-per-kilo, the very definition of a Grand Tour specialist.
Tour de France Stage 18 Preview
Much of this route will be familiar to riders, staff and fans. This is the Tour’s 73rd visit to Pau – only Bordeaux (80) and Paris (144) have hosted more stage starts and finishes – and the 88th tackling of the Col du Tourmalet. On the other hand, Luz Ardiden has only featured on eight previous occasions and not since 2011. Geraint Thomas was in the break that day as Team Sky went stage hunting after Bradley Wiggins crashed out on stage 7. Tadej Pogacar, on the other hand, was 12 years old and only just discovering his cycling potential.
Luz Ardiden by Daniel Hughes, buy the print at Rouleur.cc
This stage is so close that I can ride it from my house, cruising 20km up the Vallée du Lavedan to meet the route in Lourdes, by which point the race will have covered just 40km of mostly straightforward roads out of Pau, legs perhaps nudged awake by the cat 4 Côte de Notre-Dame de Piétat.
The Côte de Loucrup comes just after Lourdes and I stomp up it too fast with excited, fresh legs. It’s also cat 4 (2km, 7%) and of little consequence to the day other than helping the breakaway to carve their dreams in ice ready to throw them on the fire of the race’s final climb. The summit briefly provides a fantastic view of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre and its observatory perched some 600m above the Col du Tourmalet and two vertical kilometres up from Loucrup, but the peloton won’t notice.
The run to Bagnères-de-Bigorre is easy and fast, with the intermediate sprint generously placed before any meaningful climbing begins. That happens on the other side of town, the gradient arriving as imperceptibly as dawn, a gradual increase that will erode the peloton’s pace. Then, well before the official start of the Col du Tourmalet in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, various small ramps open the questioning of weary legs. Some riders won’t like the answers.
This side of the Tourmalet (17.1km, 7.3%) begins with five rolling kilometres at 4% until the aptly named village of Gripp, from which point things do indeed become grippy, the remaining 12km hauling up at 8.5%. The tough climbing is shorter in this direction, though I still prefer riding the Tourmalet the opposite way, climbing from Luz Saint Sauveur, because the smooth, flowing descent is that much more enjoyable.
Unlike the Luz side, you can’t see the top, or even much of what’s to come, as you climb, but a big hint comes at the next village, Artigues. Now less fenced in by trees, the view opens up and the instantly recognisable ‘semi-tunnel’ can be seen way above. It takes 4km of stiff climbing to get there; when you do, remember to look back over your shoulder to enjoy the opposite view.
Image credit: Paolo Martelli
The next left-hand bend reveals the – rather ugly – ski station of La Mongie. The peloton will know better, and the ‘6km to go’ sign spells it out anyway, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that you’re almost at the top and to dig in against the rising gradient. The section into and through La Mongie is the steepest of all, and it barely eases all the way to the real summit. While still too early for the top GC riders to draw their swords, it’s an ideal place to attack for a stage hunter or anyone going for a long-range effort in search of several minutes. With the way this Tour is shaping up, that might actually be everyone but Pogacar.
Beyond La Mongie the scenery is stunning – wild and dramatic. Golden eagles and griffin vultures can often be seen soaring the thermals in search of prey and carrion. I’m told that if you crash off the road and knock yourself unconscious, you have around three hours before they start pecking and then tearing at you. If rival teams can collaborate on these upper slopes to isolate Pogacar and repeat the glimmer of vulnerability he showed on Mont Ventoux, they won’t wait three seconds before going in for the kill.
Image credit: Michael Blann, available as a print here
Even if Pogacar remains indefatigable, two factors mean there will still be a fierce race to the top of the Tourmalet. First is the descent, which is in poor condition for the first 4km, so teams will want to be at or near the front to exert either control or pressure according to their agenda. Local officials confirmed to me that it is not going to be resurfaced ahead of the race. Oddly, the top 4km on the Campan side was resurfaced ahead of the passage of the low-key Route d’Occitanie race in June, though this was apparently in line with scheduled work and nothing to do with the (charming and tragically overlooked) Route d’Occitanie.
The second reason some teams will be keen to make the race hard to the Tourmalet’s 2115m zenith is to shed rival domestiques, who will still have a big role to play on Luz Ardiden until it becomes a free-for-all at the end. A number of key lieutenants will likely be emulating the gasping Géant du Tourmalet statue as they pass beneath it at the crest. Having chased down a friend of mine who had gone ahead while I swapped a GoPro battery with 2km to go, I can empathise. I saw 187bpm but got him 10 metres from the line. We’re calling it ‘Batterygate’.
Image credit: Michael Blann, available as a print here
The upper descent of the Tourmalet towards Luz is no place for heroics when the roads are open. It’s bumpy, narrow and occasionally impeded by livestock. There’s a key change as you pass the restaurant at Super Barèges, the roads from this point smoother, wider and only punctuated by the town of Barèges and four small sets of switchbacks. Everything in between is easily flat out. As is often the case here, a headwind caps my speed to around 70kph. No doubt the UCI will have an itchy finger on the trigger ready to disqualify anyone whose posterior approaches their toptube.
While the race route flies through Luz Saint Sauveur, I stop to refill my bottles from the blissfully cold drinking water fountain tucked behind the La Terrace café (grumpy owner and sub-par gateau basque, but perfectly located and therefore always busy). With my computer showing 35˚C, I splash some over my neck and legs, too.
The gratuitous beauty shot detour of the day is to the Pont Napoléon, ordered by Napoléon III in 1859. It offers exceptional views in every direction, including down to the river 65m below. Expect someone to bungee-jump from it as the race passes. Approaching Luz Ardiden from this direction means a short but narrow and twisting descent to the start instead of a simple climb, something the pros are unlikely to appreciate at a moment of maximum stress.
Outshone by the Col du Tourmalet on this stage, and by other more famous climbs such as Mont Ventoux in the race, there was a sense before the start that Luz Ardiden perhaps wasn’t getting the respect it deserves. Anyone thinking that 13.3km at 7.4% sounds moderate will get a shock while riding the easy opening 2km if they can do the maths and work out that there must be far steeper ramps further up.
Image credit: Daniel Hughes, available as a print here
Impeccably resurfaced in May thanks to the ‘Infrastructure Fairy’ that is the Tour, sprinkling upgrades around France ahead of its arrival, Luz Ardiden is better to ride than ever, though you can no longer see the dent made by Lance Armstrong where he hit the deck 3km into the climb in 2003. Maybe I’ll go paint it in.
The ramps get serious seconds later, especially through the village of Grust, which is much prettier than it sounds. My Wahoo shows 10 or 11% frequently through this middle section of the climb and the effort is starting to really pinch. It’s very humid as well as hot, and the sweat is pouring off me. A small plateau just after the ‘6km to go’ sign provides some respite and then it kicks up again.
It’s soon after this that Luz Ardiden becomes really special. The road bends left revealing a vast natural amphitheatre, framed by jagged peaks, impossibly green, and with four kilometres of road coiled within it. You could hardly design a more fitting or evocative way to cap the Tour’s time in the mountains and I can’t wait to be there with tens of thousands of other fans.
Image credit: Daniel Hughes, available as a print here
It’s hard, too. One flat hairpin breaks up the grind for a moment, then it’s back into the 28t sprocket for the final two kilometres. If the finish line is set in the same place as 2011, well into the car park, the pros will be sprinting for bonus seconds through an extra hairpin, making 29 in total for the climb.
In the coach park, by the aerial masts visible from far below, there’s a viewing spot where the grass is worn away by so many people taking that photo of the road coiled into the bowl of the mountain. Usually, it’s deserted. I’ve no doubt there’ll be a queue of accredited photographers there to capture the crowds below, but what I really hope is that at least some of the riders get to stand there and drink it in, a Champs-Élysées party vibe at 1800m.
For me and the pros alike, our climbing is done. But whereas they face one more test in the final TT, and no little stress when the action kicks off in Paris, I get to descend and roll 10km home, never more in love with the place I’m fortunate to call home.
Jamie Wilkins is a cycling writer and owner of Escape to the Pyrenees.