Whether you’re looking to add a few rides to your bucket list or just want to learn more about what makes the Tour de France the best bicycle race in the world, these five legendary climbs are true icons.
1. L’ALPE D’HUEZ
Average gradient: 8.1%
Number of times used: 29
Notable winners: Fausto Coppi, Lance Armstrong, Bernard Hinault, Andy Hampsten, Marco Pantani
First included in the Tour in 1952, Alpe d’Huez is most known for its 21 switchbacks. It tops out at 10,930 feet, and the first to the top usually conquers the climb in 40–45 minutes. Hundreds of thousands of fans line the streets to cheer on the competition, which makes for one of the rowdiest atmospheres you’ll experience in any cycling race. One of the most famous scenes on the mountain occurred in 1986, when eventual winner Greg LeMond crossed the finish line with teammate and rival Bernard Hinault holding hands in a passing-of-the-torch moment.
2. MONT VENTOUX
Distance: 21.4 km
Average gradient: 7.6%
Number of times used: 15
Notable winners: Raymond Poulidor, Eddy Merckx, Marco Pantani, Chris Froome
Mont Ventoux is nicknamed the “Giant of Provence” for good reason. At more than 6,200 feet, it’s one of the highest peaks in the region, and the barren moon-like landscape near the summit has recorded wind gusts as high as 200 mph. Conditions on the climb are so extreme that British cyclist Tom Simpson died during the ascent in 1967 from dehydration, heat exhaustion and consumption of amphetamines. In 2016, eventual winner Chris Froome crashed on the climb and was forced to run 100 meters up the mountain to reach neutral service, creating one of the most memorable scenes on the mountain to date.
3. COL DU TOURMALET
Average gradient: 7.3%
Number of times used: 83
Notable winners (leader at the summit): Richard Virenque, Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali
When the Col du Tourmalet was introduced to the race way back in 1910, cyclists were challenged to climb higher than they ever had before. Today, the 6,500-foot ascent is the most used climb in Tour history along the highest paved road in the Pyrenees. The first rider to crest the climb was Octave Lapize, who later went on the win the yellow jersey. The Tourmalet has been used in the Tour from the eastern and western side, with the former being slightly tougher at a maximum gradient of 12%. Though the climb is used frequently, the stage rarely finishes there, having done so only in 1974 and 2010 when it was won by Jean-Pierre Danguillaume and Andy Schleck.
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4. COL DU GALIBIER
Average gradient: 5.5%
Number of times used: 31
Notable winners (leaders at the summit): Marco Pantani, Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi
Part of what makes the Col du Galibier one of the all-time toughest climbs in the Tour de France is it can’t be reached before cresting either the Col du Lautaret from the south or the Col du Telegraphe from the north. It’s also 8,678 feet above sea level, which usually marks the highest point in the tour (when the L’Alpe d’Huez isn’t included). The route is known for sections of long, straight road, where it’s hard to attack because riders stay in view from the peloton behind. Because it’s incredibly long at 31.4km, it can be hard to judge your efforts. Marco Pantani’s historic attack on the Col du Telegraphe and then onto the Galibier solo in the rain to take control of the 1998 Tour is perhaps the climb’s most historic moment.
5. COL D’AUBISQUE
Average gradient: 7.2%
Number of times used: 45
Notable winners: Stephen Roche, Laurent Jalabert, Miguel Indurain, Eddy Merckx
First ridden in 1910, the Col d’Aubisque is the second-most ridden climb in Tour de France history. Though not the first to crest, the climb gained notoriety when Octave Lapize called Tour organizers “assassins” for including it in the event. When approaching from the east, the Col du Soulor must be conquered first, which is a 12-mile climb at 5.2% gradient. The climb’s most infamous moment occurred in 1951 when Wim Van Est rode off the side of the mountain wearing the yellow jersey while descending. He was rescued with a rope made from tires in a ravine 70 feet below. Though his dreams of Tour victory quickly vanished, the images created are one for the history books.
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