Col de Joux Plane – Col-hunting in the French Alps

October 24, 2012

Cycling, Sports, Travel

I am writing today’s post with very mixed feelings. I want tell you how excited I was to complete an ascent to the historic Col de Joux Plane on my road bike last week, a climb that has been featured 11 times in the Tour de France and that is known as one of the toughest on the Tour.

I want to tell you how thrilling it was to ride in the slipstream, so to speak, of the Tour de France heroes I’ve been following for decades, to ride the same switchback roads that still bear their names in faded paint, and to share in some small way in the agony and triumph of the professional Tour rider.

The top of the Col de Joux Plane

But the news of the last few weeks coming out of the world of professional cycling makes it very difficult to be a fan of the sport. Now is not the time for romantic odes to the heroism of the professional peloton. I am as disgusted and disenchanted with these professional cheats and liars as anyone, and have grown profoundly ambivalent about pro cycling over the last few years.

So instead, let me just tell you about this fantastic bike ride I did last week that took me up this tough climb, one that has been done by thousands of uncelebrated duffers just like me, powered by nothing but oxygen and energy drinks! I’ll save the stuff about the Tour de France for the end, for those who are still interested.

One of my aspirations while living in Switzerland is to ride many of the famous mountain passes from the history of the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, such as the Alpe d’Huez and the Passo dello Stelvio. With winter on its way, I have been hoping to get into the mountains to test my legs on some climbs before the roads over the high mountain passes are closed. The weather in Lausanne has been pretty cloudy and wet this fall, so there haven’t been many opportunities to head up into the high mountains. But the weather began improving last week and I seized the opportunity.

The lower half of the climb passes through small farming villages and pastures.

Looking for ideas and inspiration, I consulted Fife and Drinkwell’s new book, The Great Road Climbs of the Northern Alps, and decided to head for the Col de Joux Plane. The Col de Joux Plane is an historic and physically challenging climb that is just a little easier than the famous Alpe d’Huez, so it seemed like a good place to test myself. It is also just close enough to Lausanne (1:45 by car) that as long as I didn’t take too long to finish the climb (and didn’t have any hassles at the border!), I could drop the kids at school and then be back in time to fetch them at the end of the day.

The Col de Joux Plane lies between the towns of Morzine and Samoens in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps, due south of Lake Geneva. The Col itself sits at an elevation of 1700 metres (5577ft). One can approach the Col from either side via narrow, switchbacking roads that are usually closed in winter. The approach from Samoens is the more difficult of the two. The road from Samoens climbs for 11.6 kilometres at an average gradient of 8.5%, with a few stretches that kick up to 10%. Riders have to negotiate 22 switchbacks and gain 989 metres (3200ft) of elevation on the way to the top. It is a steep and unrelenting climb with virtually no flat or downhill sections. From the Morzine side the climb is somewhat easier, ascending 711 metres (2332ft) over 10.9kms at an average gradient of 6.5%, although there are a couple of steep pitches up to 11%. You can see profiles of the climbs HERE and HERE.

Upper section of the climb.

After arriving in Morzine I elected to drive the 24kms to Samoens, passing over the Col on the way, in order to have a closer look at the climbs and the condition of the road, and to then decide which side to approach from on my bike. On these big mountains I find myself more intimidated by the descents than the ascents (having already suffered one spinal fracture due to a crash), and being without a support vehicle, I have to descend back down anything I climb. For this reason I elected to climb to the Col from the Samoens side, as the descent looked a bit more manageable.

I parked my car in a square in the town of Samoens, just a couple of hundred metres from the start of the climb. My plan was to start out at a moderate pace and to gradually ratchet up the intensity as I got closer to the top. The record time for the climb was established by the Italian pro rider Marco Pantani, who made it to the top in 33 minutes during the 1997 Tour de France. Given its reputation as one of the tougher climbs on the Tour, I really wasn’t sure what to expect of myself, but I was hoping to make it up in under an hour.

As it turned out, the climb wasn’t too bad. It is definitely long, steep and unrelenting, but I was able to establish a good rhythym most of the way without redlining it until the final few kilometres. Once again I was thankful for the compact front ring and 11-28 rear cassette I had put on my Colnago before moving. The climb to the Col de Joux Plane was reasonable enough that I was also able to enjoy the scenery along the way, which included charming chalets and farmhouses on the lower slopes and expansive views of the valley and surrounding peaks higher up. The first half of the climb passes through fairly open slopes and pastures before entering mixed forest for the upper half.  It’s also worth noting that I was virtually alone on the climb (with the exception of the cows!). I was passed by two cars on the whole way up.

Looking across the valley at the final stretch of road to the top of the Col.

It was only in the last 10-15 minutes of the climb that I began to really suffer, and only because I was pushing hard to break the 1 hour mark. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite manage that – I reached the top in 1:01:50. I was happy enough with that time, however. Afterall, unlike certain pros, I was powered by nothing but oxygen and energy drink!

The top of the Col de Joux Plane is a mostly treeless, windswept ski station with a small lake nearby. From the top of the col I enjoyed a spectacular view of the surrounding peaks and the fall colours of the trees which, while not as varied and intense as Ontario’s, were still beautiful. Further in the distance was the Mt Blanc massif. I stayed on top long enough for a few photos and a short video (which you can watch below), before putting on my arm warmers for the chilly descent. The descent itself was uneventful, although I was on the brakes a lot. I was back at the car in about 20 minutes!

Now, for those of you interested in the role played by the Col de Joux Plane in the history of the Tour de France, here are a few highlights, or … uh … lowlights rather.

First of all, as I mentioned above, the Col de Joux Plane has been part of the Tour de France 11 times, the first being back in 1978, and the most recent in 2006. No stage has finished at the top of the Col, rather, riders have climbed from the Samoens side and descended to the finish in Morzine, after starting the day in places like Courchevel and La Plagne.

Some riders have had really good days on this climb (maybe TOO good), while others have really suffered. The Italian great Marco Pantani, for example, launched a blistering attack up to the Col in the 1997 Tour de France and won the stage in Morzine, establishing the record of 33 minutes for the climb from Samoens. Pantani, who is the last rider to win both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year (1998), had a controversial career that was dogged by allegations of doping. When Pantani  died of a cocaine overdose in 2004, 20,000 mourners attended his funeral.

Marco Pantani in better days

The Col de Joux Plane was not so kind to Lance Armstrong. In the 2000 Tour, Armstrong, who was in the yellow jersey at the time, started the climb with Ullrich, Virenque and Heras, who were chasing a small breakaway group. Part way up the climb Armstrong suffered a serious “bonk” and was unable to respond to attacks by Heras and Ullrich. While Armstrong maintained his overall lead, he lost 2 minutes to eventual stage winner Virenque and 1:30 to Ullrich that day. Armstrong described it as one of his worst days ever on a bike. Pantani, meanwhile, had a disastrous day, not even contesting the climb he had set the record on and losing over 13 minutes on the day. You can watch highlights from Armstrong’s bonk below.

The last time the Col de Joux Plane was featured in the Tour was in 2006, near the end of Stage 17. On that day, the American Floyd Landis completed an incredible comeback ride that, at the time, was described as one of the most impressive solo rides in the history of the Tour. Just the day before, during Stage 16, Landis, who was in the yellow jersey, suffered a complete meltdown on the final climb of the day and lost 8 minutes to 2nd place Oscar Pereiro, who took over the yellow jersey. The following day, Landis launched an early solo attack as the yellow jersey group was chasing a small group farther up the road. Over the course of the stage Landis rode at another level altogether as he reeled in and then dropped rider after rider.  Landis rocketed up the Col de Joux Plane and reached the top over 5 minutes clear of the field and went on to win the stage in Morzine, reducing Peirero’s lead to a mere 30 seconds on the day and eventually winning the Tour. Journalists called Landis’ comeback ride on Stage 17 a miracle, and hailed him as the successor to Lance Armstrong. You can watch highlights of Stage 17 below.

Four days after the end of the Tour, however, it was announced that a urine sample taken from Landis at the end of Stage 17 had tested positive for synthetic testosterone. Landis’s B sample confirmed the positive doping test and he was stripped of his Tour victory (the first victor to be DQ’d since 1904). Landis maintained his innocence until finally admitting to doping in 2010. The journalists got it wrong, Landis wasn’t the successor but, rather, the sad precursor to Armstrong.

Sigh.

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