A lighthouse: The history and meaning of the Puy de Dôme

The Tour de France returns to the iconic Puy de Dôme for the first time in 35 years in 2023. From Issue 120 Rouleur takes a trip to the top to enjoy the view

This article was originally published in Issue 120 of Rouleur. Support our journalism by subscribing here.

The French writer, critic and man of letters Alexandre Vialatte, who made his home in Clermont-Ferrand for several years between the two World Wars, was enamoured with the Puy de Dôme, the asymmetric green lava dome that towers over the city from the west. Vialatte, who wrote a regular and occasionally absurdist column in the city’s most prominent newspaper, La Montagne, compared the Puy to a beautiful bride, but apparently once also attributed it the wrong altitude, overestimating by some distance its true height. Vialatte was indignant in responding to the complaints.

“I have been criticised a lot for having exaggerated the altitude of the Puy de Dôme,” he wrote in April 1967. “There is some ingratitude there. The Puy de Dôme was too small for a long time.”

He then went on to explain how best to get an appreciation of its true size: “I suspect my critics of never having climbed the Puy de Dôme. If they had done it on a bicycle, as I did, for two years, three or four times a week, they would have quickly realised that it is much higher than you think.”

Vialatte understood something that cycling fans and anybody who spends time in the mountains also well know, that there is something of the transcendent in being up there in the sharp air and thin breeze of a mountaintop. The writer Robert Macfarlane, in his book Mountains of the Mind, compared it with religion: “Mountain worship is a given to millions of people. The vertical, the ferocious, the icy – all these are now automatically venerated forms of landscape, images of which permeate an urbanised Western culture increasingly hungry for even second-hand experiences of wildness and wilderness.” But he also recognised in the urge to visit high places a more scientific urge, to see further and more deeply into things: “Time and again one encounters the successful mountain-climber comparing himself to what the Greeks called the kataskapos – the looker-down, the heavenly observer, suddenly and marvellously blessed with a cartographer’s perspective on the world.”

* * *

I have come to the Puy de Dôme in search of that cartographer’s perspective, and also to maybe experience a little of the transcendence. It is a return for me: I have not stood atop this mountain since a misty day in the summer of 1995. It will also be a return for the Tour de France, after an even longer period – the riders of the Tour have not raced up the Puy de Dôme since the 1988 event.

Transcendence hits in unpredictable ways and in the mountains, it often has something to do with the weather. The first time I ever came up here, in 1994, it was a sunny chilly autumn day. The view stretched with glass clarity for 50 or 100 kilometres in all directions, while a couple of dozen paragliders floated on benign thermals rising up the mountain from below, sitting comfortably and meditatively with a kilometre of empty space below them.

That misty day in 1995, on the other hand, was quite eerie – all around was summer and heat, yet the top of the Puy was enshrouded in soundless, chilly fog with hardly any visibility at all. This time around, for Rouleur’s visit, the weather is stormy: huge scudding clouds are blowing up fast from below and over the summit, and the wind is freezing - four degrees in mid-May. The huge mast of the weather station at the top appears and disappears. Sometimes there is nothing to see but thick wet gloom, then the clouds blow past and there’s a glorious sunlit view of Clermont-Ferrand and the surrounding Chaîne des Puys.

But there’s far more to the atmosphere and meaning of the Puy de Dôme than its weather and even its view. It has presence, character and an idiosyncratic bit of road engineering, of which more later, but what pervades the air around it, like a constant plume of smoke from a volcano, is the nostalgia.

The Puy de Dôme was a regular fixture on the Tour between its first appearance in 1952 and its most recent in 1988. Until L’Alpe d’Huez equalled it in 1987 and then surpassed it in 1989, it was the most often used summit finish in the Tour, with 13 appearances. Why wouldn’t it be? It sits in the centre of France, a convenient waypoint between north and south, and east and west. It’s only 350km south of Paris as the crow flies, so the organisers could use it as a final sting in the tail en route back to the capital; or if you wanted to make the bit in between the Alps and Pyrenees more interesting, send the riders into the Massif Central and up the Puy.

The Tour didn’t go back after 1988 for a mix of reasons. The gigantisme of the modern race outgrew the narrow corkscrew road to the cramped summit, and then the local authorities laid a funicular railway which halved the width of the road and it was assumed that was that. Nevertheless, a few years ago, Tour boss Christian Prudhomme started making noises about wanting to return. Successful experiments with scaled-back summit finish operations on the Cols du Tourmalet and Galibier, La Super Planche des Belles Filles and Finhaut-Emosson showed what was possible, and Prudhomme even dropped mischievous false flags into interviews, speculating that perhaps the Tour could return for 2022, the 70th anniversary of its first appearance. The rumours were confirmed when the Puy de Dôme was announced for the 2023 Tour route, and though there’ll be no spectators allowed on the climb on the day (there were an estimated 300,000 for a time trial on the Puy in 1983), it’s likely to be a visually spectacular stage.

The Tour de France exists, for better and worse, in a strange tension between its history and its future. It’s a modern, international, forward-looking sporting event with massive brand recognition which makes a lot of money, and the organisation that makes it all work is slick as hell. It is also, at the same time, as close to a physical manifestation of pure nostalgia as you can get. It is the summer of all French people’s youth, packed into a moving carnival that, all the way through its present, constantly refers to its own past. Of course, the stories of each new Tour are written over those that already exist, like painted names on a mountain road, but the Tour is overtly conscious of its history. Nostalgia and folk memory are the foundations upon which it is built. Prudhomme himself is fluent in the language of bike racing’s past and he talks easily about Tour history. I sense that taking the race back to the Puy is scratching the same itch for Prudhomme that old rockers feel when they buy tickets to see the Eagles.

In the case of the Puy de Dôme, that nostalgia mainly manifests through the medium of the famous photograph of Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor taken during the 1964 Tour, elbows clashing as they rode up to the summit. It’s on the front of the special edition magazine La Montagne published to celebrate the Tour’s return, and it may be the most famous cycling photograph of all time. The photo represents halcyon days (and also a whole range of tensions in cycling fandom and society between tradition and modernity, town and country and ego and id). The Tour idealises it, but really, any cycling fan who can actually remember the summer of 1964 will be in their mid-70s by now. However, nostalgia also moves with the times. I’ve seen that photo of Anquetil and Poulidor so many times now that I can almost hear the words, “an exhausted, glassy-eyed Anquetil defended the yellow jersey by 14 seconds” in my head when I look at it. But my own nostalgia for the Puy de Dôme is more tied up in the Tours of the late 1980s. I wasn’t around for Anquetil and Poulidor, or for Eddy Merckx getting punched in the kidneys by a spectator (1975), and the last few visits the Tour made to the Puy were relatively straightforward affairs. But the mountain itself struck me as a young cycling fan, as did the bright colours of the team kits. The photographer Graham Watson took a brilliant series of photographs on the Puy in 1986 – Bernard Hinault in the polka-dot jersey, Joop Zoetemelk in the world champion’s jersey – which are as evocative to me as the Anquetil-Poulidor photo was to the next generation down. And so when I stand on the summit of the Puy, fingers numb, shivering in the unseasonal cold, I can feel the nostalgia being carried in on the winds. That’s close enough to transcendence for me.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together the happier for the other.”

I feel the same way about what human beings have done with the Puy de Dôme. In my opinion, the observatory and antenna on the summit of the Puy are an improvement, giving the whole picture a focal point and aesthetic balance, and emphasising the asymmetry of the mountain. The same is true of the road/railway which spirals around the mountain, turning more than 360 degrees from bottom to top. There are not many climbs in cycling like this.

At the visitor centre of the Panoramique des Dômes, which is the name of the funicular railway, I had spoken with Anne-Sophie Chabanne, the marketing executive for the site, who rattled off the numbers. Train running since 2012. Summit accessible 12 months a year. 1,465m altitude. Unesco site since 2018. Half a million visitors a year. 80 volcanoes in total in the Chaîne des Puys. Chabanne is from Clermont-Ferrand, however, and therefore has spent most of her life with the Puy de Dôme looming in the background. Now she works literally on the mountain. That has an effect on a person.

“The Puy de Dôme is an emblem,” she said. “It is the motif of our département and it has given its name to our département. It is this region’s Eiffel Tower. “The view from the summit is fantastic. Majestic. You have the impression of being above everything. As Clermontois, the Puy de Dôme is our lighthouse and you can see it from a very long way away. When we people from Clermont-Ferrand are returning from our holidays, when we see the Puy in the distance, we can say, we’ll soon be home.”

The Puy is the kind of place people like to come back to, and the Tour is no differ- ent. Cycling has its holy sites, which are an indefinable combination of landscape, road engineering, racing history, aesthetics and most of all, feeling. The Muur van Geraardsbergen, Mont Ventoux, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Mur de Huy and Piazza del Campo are examples. The Puy de Dôme is another. But this is a cycling magazine, and we should therefore talk about the actual road up the Puy and what it will give to the Tour de France. Unlike most of the mountain roads we know from cycling, the road was first designed as a railway, which explains the spiral path to the summit. (Hairpin bends do not work well for trains.) The rail- way was replaced by a road in 1926, and it was much easier to lay the road over the path that already existed. In 2012, the new railway was laid on the inside half of the existing road, which now exists as a narrow path, wide enough for one vehicle, with passing points. What cycling fans need to know about it, other than that it’s going to look stunning in the helicopter television shots, is that it’s steep and relentless. It’s around 12 per cent from bottom to top, in one single pitch, with nary a bend to relieve the gradient over four-and-a-bit kilometres. The final 200 metres or so pitch up towards 17 or 18 per cent.

As it comes off the back of a hilly, but not necessarily very selective stage, it’s likely to be a bunfight going into the final climb – there’ll be nine kilometres of easy-to-steady ascent from Clermont-Ferrand to winnow out the peloton a little, but somehow, around 150 riders are suddenly going to get squeezed into a road that is wide enough for definitely two and maybe three riders. Then it’s a 12 or 13-minute ramp test to the summit, every rider for themselves. The Puy de Dôme road’s shape recalls the description of hell in Dante’s Inferno. The levels of hell are always described as circles, but Dante actually described his journey through the underworld as following a spiral path. The tired cyclists of the Tour de France may relate.

* * *

It’s apt that Rouleur’s trip to the summit of the Puy de Dôme unwittingly takes place just a few days before Mercuralia, the ancient Roman celebration of the god Mercury on May 15. The observatory and antenna may dominate the modern skyline of the Puy, but the first major piece of architecture on the summit was the Temple of Mercury, built in the second century. Mercury was the god of, among other things, financial gain, commerce, eloquence, communication, travellers, trickery and thieves, which you could argue might also make him a perfect Roman god for the Tour de France. The temple lay undiscovered for centuries, before it was unearthed during the building of the first observatory in the 1870s. The first times I came up here, it was an atmospheric and photogenic ruin; these days it has been partially restored, but not necessarily improved. The aim of the restoration was to protect the remaining walls from the extreme winter weather and to show tourists how the temple would have looked in its heyday, but it’s an ersatz and incongruous imitation. If ASO need a warning about the perils of misplaced nostalgia, there is one here, in the form of granite breeze blocks thoughtlessly stacked in the shape of a Roman temple, years out of time.

But the temple is also evidence that the Puy de Dôme has always drawn travellers. In Roman times, they came to pray to their gods; in the 19th century they came to do scientific research; in the 20th century it became a centre of pilgrimage for cycling fans; these days tourists take a train up for selfie opportunities. And this summer, the Tour de France returns, two old friends reunited, reflecting on the memories.

Shop now