'I’m not necessarily looking for a place on the GC but I’m going to try and test myself on the Col de Joux-Plane.' The words of the Radioshack-Nissan rider Andy Schleck prior to the start of the Critérium du Dauphiné last week.
This Saturday, the Dauphiné will scale this iconic climb in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps. Schleck, currently languishing well down the GC standings in the race, may now view his performance on this HC category climb as a critical moment in his preparations for the Tour de France in July. Should he fail on the Joux-Plane, then any claim he may foster for the maillot jaune in Paris could be regarded by his nearest rivals as tenuous.
The final stretch of the climb to the Col de Joux Plane is exposed and unrelenting
Totalling 7.3 miles (11.8 km) at an altitude of 1700 metres, the Col de Joux-Plane, approached from the town of Samoens, has an average gradient of 8.5%, with a maximum of 14%. Statistics that may not immediately strike one as particularly intimidating, but it is the unrelenting nature of the climb that makes the ascent to the Col so merciless and unyielding
The Joux-Plane may not be as famous as some of its cousins to the South, like Alpe’d’Huez or the Galibier, but it is undeniably one of the toughest climbs in the Northern Alps. It has featured a total of eleven times in the Tour de France since its debut in 1978, and like the Critérium this Saturday, has always been approached from the Samoens side, followed by a fast, technical descent into Morzine. Lance Armstrong showed a momentary glimpse of weakness on the Joux-Plane in the 2000 Tour: 'That was, without a doubt, the worst day I've ever had on a bike' he commented after the stage. By comparison, Marco Pantani has been clocked at reaching the summit in 33 minutes, which is quite staggering.
The descent into Morzine from the Col de Joux Plane is steep, fast and technical. © Carl and Sian/Flickr.com
I stayed in the town of Samoens last summer, with views across the valley towards the Joux-Plane. Ascending the Col was one of my main objectives during my stay, but only having built up my confidence on some minor Alpine climbs. The Joux-Plane was beckoning, but psychologically at least, I was not overly confident having never attempted an HC climb before. A state of mind that was perhaps not helped by my holiday reading of choice, Chris Sidwells' compendium of the iconic TdF ascents, TOUR CLIMBS – The Complete Guide to every Tour de France Mountain Climb. Sidwells eloquently describes the Joux-Plane thus:
'They don’t come much harder than the Joux-Plane. The first two kilometres do nothing but lull you into a false sense of security as you leave the town of Samoens. At the first hairpin the climb gets tough with you, and by the top you will feel brutalised by the savagery of its slopes. The compensation though is the view. The top of the Joux-Plane is an open, grassy place dominated by Mount Blanc and its image reflected eerily in a summit lake.
The climb is more difficult than Alpe d’Huez The great Tour climber Lucien van Impe rates it as one of the hardest he’s seen, and you can’t get a better recommendation than that. The road travels upwards by twisting and turning to seek out the natural lines of least resistance up it’s fearsome slope, but cannot avoid a terrible stretch of 13.5% at just over six kilometres.
After that comes a short stretch of 8%, but don’t get carried away here because it is not time to celebrate. Save something for the final three kilometres of 9 and 10%, the last two of which is dead end straight and a little bit soul destroying.
Now, to be honest, that sounds a hell of a lot worse than it actually was! I basically dropped to my lowest gear as soon as I made the right turn that takes you abruptly upwards out of the quiet, early morning hum of Samoens. If memory serves me right, I think I went up one gear at some point for about 50 metres or so. It was just a case of finding a rhythm and taking it slow. In fact . . . very . . . very slow. At times averaging an impressive 4.2 miles per hour! Pantani’s record was safe, but I managed it in a commendable 1 hour 22 minutes so I was happy with that. I was probably helped by the fact I punctured half way up so had a 10 minute breather whilst I breathlessly dealt with that.
As Sidwells alludes to his commentary above, the scenery that unfolds as you grind out another hairpin is spectacular and absorbs a little of the sting in the legs. The summit of Mont Blanc comes into view about half way up the climb and from the Col itself the views towards the highest mountain in Europe are uninterrupted - a fair trade off for the unforgiving ride you have just endured!
The view towards Mont Blanc from the Col de Joux-Plane
As I admired this view from the top, nursing a coffee in the perfectly orientated café, a Frenchman cycled up to me, wearing a conspirational look of anguish on his features and said 'C’est pas facile, n’est pas?!'. Now, this guy was probably about 75 years old, so with his experience of cycling if he is saying its hard then I surmised that it bloody well must be!! Or maybe his comment was not a huge revelation, given the fact that he was, well, almost an octogenarian! Whichever the reason, I shared his pain, and his elation, as we sat and drank another coffee together.
I rode it again twice during my stay. Once at dawn, knocking 10 minutes off my previous time, though I chatted to a young French guy at the top who had scaled it in 47 minutes. Very impressive, but I took some comfort in the fact that he lived in Grenoble so had the Alps on his doorstep and he was riding a phenomenally beautiful Wilier that he could lift with his little finger. My antique Peugeot, with gear ratios more suited to Oxfordshire, appealed to his Gallic humour and he took much delight in pointing this out to his friends when they too arrived at the summit.
The third time, foolishly, I set out in the full heat of an August afternoon, with the tarmac sizzling beneath my tyres. Now that really was 'brutal' and made me appreciate what the Criterium riders will have to endure on Saturday. They will have to tackle the Joux-Plane having already scaled 5 categorised climbs within 89 miles (140km) from the start in Saint-Alban-Leysse! It also goes some way to explaining why the Joux-Plane was Lance Armstrong's very own Brokeback Mountain!
Anyway, 7.3 miles up means 7.3 miles down and the descent back into Samoens does not disappoint. Fast and exhilarating, chasing down cars and whipping past them on the hairpins was as close as I have come to emulating the pros! And for that brief moment in time - little more than 10 fleeting minutes - I was leading the Tour de France, having broken the collective will of the chasing pack. Magnifique!
All of this, of course, completely lost on my assembled family on my return to the chalet. As I recounted my heroics, the usual blank expressions of weary indifference clouded their respective faces. I sat down alone and read, for the umpteenth time, Sidwells' account of the Joux-Plane. 'Been there, done that' I muttered to myself, as I scribbled the date at the foot of the page.
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