The highest climb of the 2021 Tour de France is a monster
In the back half of this year’s Tour de France, the world’s biggest bike race will hop over the border for a brief visit to the principality of Andorra. Headlining that Andorran sojourn will be the stage 15 visit to the Port d’Envalira, the highest paved road in the Pyrenees at just over 2,400 metres.
Peter English is an Australian journalist, journalism academic, author, and VeloClub member. In the article below he writes about venturing to the Port d’Envalira by bike and what awaits the riders of the Tour when they get there.
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Above the hill across the valley there is a kettle of what look likes vultures. The house binoculars and guide suggest some doubt – they might be buzzards – but these birds of prey cause a twitter as we plan routes through the quieter but still spectacular eastern end of the high Pyrenees. Today’s ride tackles the monster Port d’Envalira into Andorra and it’s only a few pedal strokes in that I wonder when the carcass of my tired legs will be picked apart.
It’s day four of a five-stage trip and we cheat by driving into Ax-les-Thermes, a spa town with more hyphens than commuters in the railway carpark. Cracked deep within an intersection of sharp peaks, it has a ski resort on one lookout, a spa and casino at the base, and Andorra further up, up, up the road. Despite its postcard setting, this area is really only an hors d’oeurvres in the Pyrenees and compared with the profile of the Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque, this is an Australian holiday on the snoozy Sunshine Coast instead of the high-flying Gold Coast.
But in 2021 the Tour includes two stages on these roads less travelled, starting with the hilly trek from Carcassone to Quillan. Stage 15 is then a climb-heavy ordeal that must conquer the Port d’Envalira, finishing in the principality of Andorra for only the sixth time in the race’s history. It really should visit more often, for the pleasure and the pain.
Back in 1997, Henk Vogels was on the front trying to defend the yellow of GAN teammate Cedric Vasseur on a profile which, similar to 2021, had the Port d’Envalira before the finish on a mountain-goat type of stage. “One of the hardest days of my life on the bike,” he says. “At the bottom I saw a sign that said ‘feed zone 35 km’ – and ‘KOM 35 km’. Usually you see a sign like ‘KOM 1 km’, not 35 km.”
Vogels, who went on to third on the Champs-Élysées that year, finished in a grupetto containing climbers when the 252 km stage eventually ended. Jan Ulrich won in 7 hours 46 mins, taking the GC lead – and effectively sealing yellow – by riding in ahead of Marco Pantani, Richard Virenque, Francesco Casagrande, and Bjarne Riis. After a slog like that it’s no wonder some riders of that era would retire to an in-room cocktail.
At a tourist pace, our ride is much safer, both short and long term. With passports packed, two Andorra explorers set off, leaving Ax-les-Thermes and starting an ascent that over the next 34.7 km averages 4.8%. It includes only one metre of descent – I missed it – against 1,660 m of climbing, according to my definitely functioning Wahoo.
In the beginning, the road is flanked by thick forest and the Ariège, but as it gently tips up, the scenery opens up with seemingly never-ending alpine meadows below craggy mountain tops. It’s the middle of summer and the wild flowers sway in the breeze, streams can’t help but fight gravity, and the echo of cow bells can help adjust a flagging cadence.
As the elevation increases, there are no longer trees offering protection, leaving the path ahead in full view as it snakes towards the horizon. This would be no fun with any wind.
There is the occasional switchback requiring a burst of standing, but mostly it’s a sustained seated effort over long, long stretches. A couple of towns add to the variety, including L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre, which means “the hospital near Andorra”. If an aid station was still here it would be quite a luxury for a town of around 100 people. Instead there’s a quaint railway station and basic shops if a stop is desperately needed around the climb’s halfway mark. This time it wasn’t.
A few kilometres later is the junction for the Col du Puymorens. From here the riders will have a short descent, leaving them 10.7 km at 6.7% to the peak.
It will be only the ninth time the Tour will salute the Port d’Envalira. This is the highest pass in the Pyrenees, connecting France to Spain, but many motorists avoid the top through a tunnel bypass. They miss out.
Despite its relative busyness, the road has room on the side and any momentary discomfort is quickly erased by the views. The experience couldn’t be further from riding in south-east Queensland, but there is some familiarity from the shouting of the occasional car passengers. One of the benefits of being monolingual is I have no idea what they are saying. They’re definitely not shouting “wanker” with a bogan accent, but it isn’t “chapeau” or “allez” either.
Later we wonder whether we were allowed to ride this road, but it came with the recommendation of a local guide. The border guards weren’t bothered either, not looking up either time we passed through the booths, so the passport stayed in the pocket and there is no proof of entry except for a much-examined Strava post.
By the border crossing, shortly before the village of Pas de la Casa, the bulk of the climb is done and the legs are tired and aching; not due to any steep sections, just from accumulated fatigue. The sight of the ski resort offers something to aim for. Now much more than its name, “The Pass of the One House” is a thriving village that finally arrives just after 2,000 m of elevation, the height where my adventure-aligned travel insurance becomes void. There is no stopping. My super-domestique promises to drag me below that limit before calling any emergency service. I think he’s being helpful.
The final 300 m of climbing in the thinning air is the slowest and most gaspy of my recreational career. The almost 5 km takes half an hour, despite the pitches maxing out at only 8%. In both directions there is spotted vision of chairlifts in a majestic arena of mountaintops that is much easier to appreciate on the way down. In bird-predator paradise, I don’t spy any danger, and know I will make it safely to the peak.
At the top, 2,408 m above sea level, I ignore Velominati rule #95 and raise my bike high above my head, elation overtaking any sense of shame. That pic is still my Souvenir Henri Desgrange. Pro tip if you’re going to do similar: make sure you shoot away from the visual pollution of the BP service station camped right on the summit.
In total, it’s taken 2 hours 33 minutes from Ax-les-Thermes, an hour slower than Lucas Hamilton three years earlier. He was probably on holiday too.