Col d’Izoard vs Sognefjellet: a tale of two climbs

by Matt de Neef


There are certain climbs in the world of cycling that capture the imagination, not just because of their difficulty and/or beauty, but because of their place in the annals of cycling history. The Col d’Izoard is one such climb, having featured in the Tour de France 34 times since 1922 and having played host to some of the race’s most memorable battles.
Earlier this year Norwegian cycling blogger Geir Stian Ulstein embarked on a journey to connect with the Izoard’s rich history; a journey that began with a visit to the Sognefjellet climb in his homeland. As Geir writes, Sognefjellet might be a similar climb on paper, but that’s where the similarities end. The question is: how much does a climb’s history add to the experience of climbing it?

Sognefjellet, Norway

At the foot of Sognefjellet we cast our eyes over a green fjord, watching as sunbeams dance on the water’s glossy surface. In the cool air we get on our bikes, buckle our shoes, turn our backs to the fjord and start pedalling. We barely exchange a word. My two companions seem to be filled with expectation and curiosity, as am I.

At 16.5km in length and with an average gradient of 8%, Sognefjellet is every bit a hors catégorie climb. A considerable challenge awaits us; a long and sustained attack on muscles and lungs, and on our psyche.

The most obvious difference from Izoard is Sognefjellet’s lack of cycling history. While climbing the Izoard I expect visions of past Tours de France to pop into my head; I expect cycling history to unfold around me while I pedal. The Izoard, I imagine, will be filled with the ghosts of infamous men, those who, in my youth, rode the mountain like gods, but today might be considered criminals.

Sognefjellet has no cycling history to speak of, a fact I had expected to take away from the experience of climbing it. But at the same time, this lack of history gives Sognefjellet another quality: it feels like we are cycling through an unexplored landscape, despite the asphalt beneath our wheels.

The road takes us away from the sea, up through forested hairpins and through steep, grassy plains.

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We know the hard facts about this hill, but not how the climb will unfold. We do not know if the gradient is consistent, or if there are ramps that are far steeper. I have no television images in my head, nothing to help me determine what is around the next bend.

My thighs hurt constantly. For some reason I like this feeling — my body is struggling, yet I still have some power left. And so far, the feeling of exhaustion has been kept at bay by the question of what lies around the next corner. I find myself thinking that if pedalling hurts here, a thousand meters above sea level, then a true test awaits on the 2,360m-high Izoard.

Snowdrifts surround the road. A line of chalk drawn across the road marks the top, but further ahead is another incline, a part of the hilly Sognefjellet plateau.

An unannounced yet habitual competition starts between us at this moment, but it hurts to sprint after 1,300 meters of climbing. All I can think while my force wanes, is that these legs, this bike, will soon climb to the top of the famous Col d’Izoard, among the ghosts of hope and dreams.

Col d’Izoard, France

A road marker signals 13 kilometres to the top as the forest rapidly drowns out the fields. It is early morning and the air is cool, but sun rays are already stinging our exposed skin. We round a bend and mountain tops appear. The Col d’Izoard is among them.

Our wheels roll over a section of asphalt that was repaved especially for stage 14 of the 2014 Tour de France. But the Tour’s association with this climb extends well beyond this year.

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s the Col d’Izoard was a part of the Tour as often as not and it soon earned a reputation for being a kingmaker.

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Even though the Izoard and Sognefjellet share a similar average gradient, I quickly have to shift to a lower gear than I ever used on Sognefjellet. I suspect it is due to the altitude.

One rider who could not get to a lower gear was Rene Vietto, while riding in the 1939 edition of the Tour. He had chosen gears too tough for the Izoard, and this broke him, his confidence and his ambitions: overall victory slipped from under his wheels.

We roll through a village, La Chalp. Children on a school trip line the street accompanied by their teacher. They stop to cheer us on. “Allez, allez, allez!” We immediately increase our speed to give them something in return.

Gino Bartali was one that did not need roadside encouragement to accelerate here in 1948. On the rest day in Cannes the old Italian hero’s GC prospects were looking grim. Ten years after his overall victory, he was now 21 minutes behind soon-to-be Izoard legend, Louison Bobet.

But on the rest day a phone call reached Bartali. At the other end was Italian Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi with a serious voice.

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“Palmiro Togliatti is shot, it has been an assassination!” (Togliatti was a communist party leader.)

“Killed?”

“No, but he is between life and death. Our country is on the brink of civil war!”

“Why are you telling me this, Mr. Prime Minister? What can I do?”

“You can do a lot! You can win the stage, win the Tour, give our countrymen something else to think about than rebellion!”

Bartali shone for the rest of the Tour, motivated by the chance to do something for his country. In the stage over the Col d’Izoard to Briancon, Bartali took time from Bobet, and suddenly he was only 51 seconds behind in the general classification. On the following stage, Italians gathered around their radios to witness the epic duel between Bartali and Bobet.

Finally, Bobet cracked. That day, legend has it, Italy stood still, distracted from thoughts of rebellion by Bartali’s exploits. He took the yellow jersey and carried it all the way to Paris.

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We ride through a quiet pine forest as the road climbs through a series of hairpins. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves immersed in a desolate, tree-less landscape, unlike anything I’ve ever ridden through. “A new version of hell”, a former Tour-director called it. It’s known as the Casse Déserte: a bare-stone landscape, littered with high-rising conical rocks which tower over us like cathedral spires.

Col d’Izoard got its Tour debut in 1922 with race director Henri Desgrange describing the climb thus: “The hill is so hard that no one can think about attacking before the top is in sight. They will want to stick with the others as they climb upwards to have someone with whom they can share the suffering.”

Passing through this mythical landscape the road’s gradient drops, and we even descend for a brief moment. It gives us reason to hope for an easier journey to the top. But at this moment Izoard kicks us in the lungs and serves up its final two kilometres. With the energy we have left, we try to float on a wave of momentum through the last hairpins.

Arriving at the top, we argue about who came first. That competitive urge might have been the same as on the Sognefjellet but there the similarity ends.

The wind here atop the Izoard has touched the hair of Fausto Coppi. Here we have joined the likes of Jean Robic, Louison Bobet and Gino Bartali in conquering this timeless mountain.

Geir Stian Ulstein writes Rouleur.no, a Cycling blog from Norway. He and
photographer Tor Simen Ulstein are set to publish their book ‘Drømmenes Fjell’, (Dream mountains), about the legendary climbs of the Tour de France, in March 2015. Click through to follow Rouleur.no on Instagram and on Twitter.