Monday, 18 July 2011

Repos Report: Celebrating 100 years of the Col du Galibier

In 1911 Henri Desgrange and Alphonse Steinès decided to add an even higher, harder and colder challenge for the Tour de France peloton: The Col Du Galibier. At an elevation of 2645 meters above sea level, this mountain pass in the southern region of the French Dauphiné Alps near Grenoble has since featured in 31 separate editions of the Tour and is often the highest altitude the peloton reach in their pursuit for glory.

Lingering between heaven and earth, this colossal Col has instilled a sense of awe and fascination for every rider who has graced her slopes. Those who were told they would endure that inaugural climb on 10th July 1911 expressed anger and hostility at its inclusion. Yet ascend it they did.
“It knocks you for six” the pioneer of pioneers, Émile Georget, uttered to the waiting spectators as he crossed the summit; he hadn’t got off his bike once in the entire 34 km ascent from Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, via the Col du Télégraphe to the peak of the Galibier. The only other riders who completed the climb solely on their bikes were Paul Duboc and Gustave Garrigou were the only riders not to walk.

Struck by the awesome courage and bravery he witnessed that day, Henri Desgrange penned a hymn in L’Auto in their honour:
“Haven’t they got wings, our men who have been able to climb up to heights where even eagles don’t fly? … Oh Sappey, Oh Laffrey, Oh Col Bayard, Oh Tourmalet! I shall not fail in my duty to proclaim to the world that you are like an insignificant and common beer compared to the Galibier: all one can do before this giant is doff one’s hat and bow.”

The original summit was at 2556 m.; while the tunnel was closed from 1976 until 2002, the tour route went only over the pass closer to the mountain peak at 2645 m. In 2011, the Tour de France will for the first time since then go through the tunnel during the 19th stage from Modane Valfréjus to L'Alpe d'Huez. This will be the second time the riders ascend this epic Col having climbed to its summit the day before for stage 18.

At the southern opening of the tunnel, on the edge of the road, there is a monument to Henri Desgrange, instigator and first director of the Tour. The memorial was inaugurated when the
tour passed on 19 July 1949; since then the tour crosses the Col du Galibier, as it will do twice this year, a wreath is laid on the memorial.

The first rider to reach the summit of the highest mountain in each year's tour receives The "Souvenir Henri Desgrange”. In 2006, the prize of 5000 Euros was claimed on the Col du Galibier by Michael Rasmussen.

In 1996 the Galibier was scheduled to be included in the Tour, however race organisers were forced to leave it out at the last minute due to bad weather. As a result of snow on both the Col de l'Iseran and the Col du Galibier, the scheduled 190km stage from Val-d'Isère to Sestriere in Italy was reduced to a 46km sprint from Le-Monetier-les-Bains which was won by Bjarne Riis, and saw him take the yellow jersey which he retained to the finish in Paris.

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