Its barren scree slopes with protruding pinnacles of weathered rock on its upper southern side make it not dissimilar in appearance to Mont Ventoux, some 200 kilometres southwest. However the Izoard, first introduced in the 1922 Tour de France, has a much longer history than Le Géant de Provence, which made its debut in 1951.
The dashing exploits of Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet and Bernard Thévenet on the climb, in the case of the former two immortalised in iconic black-and-white photographs from the 1950s and for which there is a small memorial to both at the summit, have propelled the Izoard to legendary status; its decidedly more difficult latter half feared by professionals and amateurs alike.
Mountain passes & hills
Km 60.0 - Côte des Demoiselles Coiffées: 3.9 kilometre-long climb at 5.2% - category 3
Km 129.5 - Col de Vars (2 109 m): 9.3 kilometre-long climb at 7.5% - category 1
Km 179.5 - Col d'Izoard (2 360 m): 14.1 kilometre-long climb at 7.3% - category H
Of course, we should mention that in today’s path, before this lies the not insignificant 2,109 metre Col de Vars, situated between the départements of Hautes-Alpes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. The toil of the previous stage and the past two-and-a-half weeks, though, is likely to make things on the Vars uneventful for all bar the early break. “Everybody’s tired 17 days into the race, so this is turning more into a mental battle,” Quick Step Floors’ Daniel Martin said Wednesday in Serre-Chevalier, who, at sixth overall and 2’37 behind the so-far-unflappable maillot jaune incumbent Chris Froome, will need to do something very special to make the podium come Sunday.
Today is really all about the Izoard, and so it should be. While the climb proper starts at the junction with the D947, near Chateau Queyras from where the ascent is 14.1km long, the upwards trajectory begins as far back as Guillestre, 31.5km from the 2,360 metre-high finish. “It is going to be an exciting day and there’s a lot to be won or lost on the stage,” Matthew White, Orica-Scott’s head sports director, said, whose man Simon Yates lost ground on GC after the sixteenth stage but nevertheless retained the lead in the young riders’ classification.
Realistically, from what we’ve witnessed the past 17 stages, the race for yellow has come down to a battle between the three men who occupy the first three places on the classement général and are separated by just 27 seconds. Though in Rigoberto Uran and Romain Bardet, second and third on GC, are they prepared to lose to win? The Colombian would likely be delighted to finish second in Paris, but having already finished runner-up last year, one would suggest the latter will go for broke. The faltering of current fourth overall and erstwhile maillot jaune Fabio Aru yesterday on the Galibier is indicative of a chook half-cooked.
Since the race has never finished atop the Izoard, however, it makes the scenario somewhat difficult to predict.
The last time the mountain made an appearance was in 2014 when Froome and Alberto Contador crashed out and Nairo Quintana didn’t ride the Tour. That day, the fourteenth leg from Grenoble to Risoul, the hors catégorie Col d'Izoard was the penultimate ascent, and, as will be the case today, was tackled from Cervières in the south. Vincenzo Nibali already enjoyed a three-and-a-half minute lead over his closest rival; with Froome and Contador out, the latter’s Polish team-mate Rafal Majka was given carte blanche, winning the first of two mountain stages en route to securing the polka dot maillot. Meanwhile, the Shark of Messina increased his advantage a further minute and by Paris was cavernous 7’37 ahead of runner-up, Jean-Christophe Péraud.
The time before that was 2011, the eighteenth stage to Galibier/Serre-Chevalier, and the final climb of yesterday. Escapee Maxim Iglinsky was the leader at the summit but with the finish 55km later atop the Galibier, things were always going to change... Andy Schleck attacked the groupe maillot jaune on the Izoard and surpassed all and sundry to victory, catapulting himself from fourth to second overall, 15 seconds from yellow. That year it was the first time a Tour stage ended atop the Galibier; this year it’s the turn of L’Izoard.
Even with a history as storied as the Tour, there’s a first time for everything.
But will the first to the Izoard be the first man in Paris?
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says:
“It'll be the final battle between the climbers at the heart of one of the most spectacular and surprising sports theatres there is to offer. A real inspiration for attackers with temperament. From Barcelonnette to the Col de Vars, spirits and legs will be on fire. The last 10 kilomeres before the summit of the Izoard are at an average gradient of nine percent. The ‘rendezvous’ of the Casse Déserte will add solemnity to the hardness of the gradient.”
Finish line: D902, at the end of a 130m finishing straight (70m by line of sight) and after climbing for 14.1km at 7.3%. Width: 5.50m.
Weather: 21°C and partly cloudy at start, 43% precipitation, 37% humidity, wind 7km/h SSW; 15°C and mostly cloudy at finish, 6% precipitation, 47% humidity, wind 16km/h SW.