Included no less than 31 occasions since 1947, the mighty Col du Galibier, at 2,642 metres the fourth-highest peak in the Tour’s 104-year history, has not been seen since 2011, when it was part of the race’s centenary edition.
There, organisers showcased the Galibier on consecutive stages, and where, for the very first time, it featured as a summit finish, thereby becoming the highest endpoint in race history.
It proved a memorable 48 hours at Le Tour.
The eighteenth stage, a 200.5 kilometre trek from Pinerolo in Italy to the Col du Galibier-Serre Chevalier, Andy Schleck went a-rampaging, taking off solo on the preceding Col d’Izoard and was not seen till the presentation ceremony, turning a 1’18 overnight deficit to Cadel Evans into a 57-second advantage.
Mountain passes & hills
Km 30.0 - Col d'Ornon: 5.1 kilometre-long climb at 6.7% - category 2
Km 78.5 - Col de la Croix de Fer (2 067 m): 24 kilometre-long climb at 5.2% - category H
Km 132.5 - Col du Télégraphe (1 566 m): 11.9 kilometre-long climb at 7.1% - category 1
Km 155.0 - Col du Galibier (2 642 m), Souvenir Henri Desgrange: 17.7 kilometre-long climb at 6.9% - category H
The day following, at 109.5km the shortest stage of the race and ending atop Alpe d’Huez, Schleck the Younger went on the offensive again, the early move initiated by Alberto Contador.
Initially, Evans was with the dynamic climbing duo but a further acceleration by the Spaniard and a series of mechanicals saw him engage in another dogged chase up the Galibier, this time from its north side, leading to a regrouping in the valley before l’Alpe. Contador, true to form, would go again on the hairpinned ascent but faded in the finale, leaving Pierre Rolland to take the stage as Schleck inherited yellow from the plucky Thomas Voeckler, this year riding his final Grande Boucle.
For all the Luxembourger’s heroics his spell in the maillot jaune would last no more than 24 hours. Evans, 57 seconds behind, would turn the tables in the Grenoble time trial and claim the lead on the penultimate day… A lead he would keep till Paris and the rest, as they say, is history. In the race winner’s press conference held the evening after the time trial, he admitted that while the TT earned him the race lead, it was his relentless pursuits on the Galibier that not just saved his Tour, but won him the Tour.
From Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, and the longer northern side incorporating the Col du Télégraphe (the direction the peloton will go today), Le Galibier was on the cards for the twentieth stage of the 2015 Tour.
However a month before the stage, landslides in the Chambon Tunnel, situated towards the bottom of the climb’s descent, precipitated a change of route to remove it, instead replaced by the Col de la Croix de Fer - which will precede the Galibier today. It should be noted though, that today, the road to the Croix de Fer is southwest from Rochetaillée, not Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, as it was on Stage 20 two years ago. An irregular 24km with an average gradient of 5.2% and multiple sections exceeding 10%, the former route is both longer and more challenging. Just what you need before undertaking what is essentially a 34.8km ascent when you add in the Télégraphe...
While we’re being pedants, don’t be confused with the Galibier-Serre-Chevalier finish from six years prior with the Serre-Chevalier endpoint today.
In 2011, the finish was at 2,645 metres’ altitude and was ridden from the south via the Col du Lautaret. Today, the finish is 1,403 metres ASL - a good 1,239m below the top of the Galibier, which will be crossed from the north. The distinction is not just important because the northern route is more than twice as long (from where the climb proper starts in Valloire), but for the reason there is 28km of downhill from the summit to the finish at Serre-Chevalier.
By know, we should all know what Team Sky’s tactics will be. The unknown is the other six men who sit within two minutes of maillot jaune Chris Froome, and how they will play their cards this day and next.
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says:
“Climbers battling it out for le maillot jaune will have two more days to express themselves, to change the outcome or comfort a decent lead and gain precious time. Heading towards Serre-Chevalier, we will give them the most prestigious of what the Alps has to offer: the Col de la Croix de Fer and then the Galibier, back after a six-year absence, via the Télégraphe. It's now up to them.”
Finish line: Route du Bez (La Salle-les-Alpes) at the end of a 450m finishing straight (80m by line of sight). Width: 6m.
Weather: 25°C and thunderstorms at start, 51% precipitation, 35% humidity, wind 9km/h S; 22°C and partly sunny at finish, 34% precipitation, 35% humidity, wind 6km/h S.