The 2018 Tour de France is just three days old, yet it has already thrown a few surprises, making life difficult for a few top contenders. Chris Froome, Porte and Quintana are among the big names to have lost more than a minute right on the first day. That's surely encouraging for the challengers, who can further unsettle the big names when the tour reaches the mountains.
Scenic mountain stages with their picture-perfect backdrops are part of what makes the Tour stand apart from the other races in the world. But don't let the looks deceive you, because the race's founder Henri Desgrange was (in)famous for using these scenic slopes to devise brutal stages, that were near inhuman to surmount. However, it is these difficulty levels, which also give certain mountains legendary status among the riders and fans alike.
Here we preview five of the most scenic, difficult and famous climbs that are an integral part of the Tour lore and have attained legendary status. While the regular fans will obviously have memories of epic stages that have played out on these slopes, the newcomers can also witness the magic of three of these climbs in this year's race. A note of caution though, that due to the limitations of space we have chosen just five summits, having left out more than a few mountains which are equally pious in Tour mythology.
The L'Alpe d'Huez. Flickr: Robbie Shade
Despite its immense popularity, the Alpe d'Huez is a relatively recent entrant in the Tour, making its first appearance in 1952. Not many were impressed that year, which resulted in the climb reappearing on the route only 14 years later, but since then it has etched itself firmly such that it appears in almost every consecutive year. The visual theatre of its 21 hairpin bends, lends it an unparalleled appeal. Adding to the mystique is the fact that each hairpin has been named after a previous winner. Also, the thousands of orange-clad Dutch fans at the famous "Dutch Corner" on hairpin seven, always make a raucous appearance, creating an atmosphere of revelry. L'Alpe d'Huez also holds the distinction of hosting the first summit finish of the Tour, which was among the first to be televised, thereby capturing a wide audience. You can enjoy the craziness of its hairpins this year as the mountain appears as a summit finish on stage 12.
Distance: 13.2 km; >Average Gradient: 8.1%
Col du Tourmalet
The Col du Tourmalet. Flickr: Greenwich Photography
The Tourmalet was first introduced in 1910 and has since been amongst the most visited mountains in the Tour. This climb, along with the Peyresourde, Aspin and Aubisque, forms the dreaded "Circle of Death" in the Pyrenees. As a stark reminder of its difficulty, the climb is marked by a large statue of the first winner, Octave Lapize, gasping for air as he cycles up its slopes. The Col also has a memorial to the previous race director, Jacques Goddet and the first rider to cross this summit (whenever included in the route) is awarded the Souvenier Jacques Goddet. The most popular story surrounding this climb is from 1913, when race favourite Eugene Christophe's bike snapped near the top. Not to be outdone, he shouldered the bike down to a village and mended it in a local forge. Despite the above hardships, he finished the stage in time, only to be penalised for accepting the help of a boy to work the bellows! Though such action is not common in today's age, but we can expect some intense racing on the slopes of the Tourmalet during stage 19 this year.
Distance: 17.1 km; >Average Gradient: 7.3%
The Col d'Aubisque. Wikimedia Commons: Serge Ottaviani
The Aubisque, part of the Pyrenean circle of death, was also first introduced in 1910 and has the near-mythical status as the Tourmalet. Once again Mr Lapize is associated with this climb, as while riding up the slopes of the Aubisque in 1910, he famously branded the Tour organisers as "assassins" for including such brutal climbs in the route. But the mountain's most captivating story comes from 1951, when the Dutch rider Wim Van Est slipped off the mountain's slopes and fell into a ravine. His team mounted an emergency rescue by making a rope out of spare tyres to pull him up. Sadly Mr Est was not very appreciative of the gesture, when he realised that all spare tyres had been used to make the rope and the team didn't have any left for him to continue to race further! But he more than made up for the fall by advertising for the watch brand Pontiac, which he was wearing during the accident. The tagline read, "My heart stopped, but not my Pontiac". We can witness heart-stopping action on these slopes again on stage 19 this year (immediately after the Tourmalet).
Distance: 16.6 km; >Average Gradient: 7.2%
Col du Galibier
The Col du Galibier. Flickr: Robbie Shade
The Galibier is among the highest peaks in the region, boasting probably the longest climb, which truly makes it a giant of the Tour. The Col was introduced in 1911, and considering its importance in Tour history, riders summited the Galibier twice (on two separate days) in 2011, to mark the centenary of its appearance. One of the two stages that year finished on the summit of the Galibier, which incidentally was also the highest summit finish in the history of the Tour. True to the occasion, it turned out to be a classic, as Andy Schleck won on the day making an audacious attack 60 km from the finish. I have already mentioned the Tour founder Mr Desgrange's penchant for putting riders through brutal climbs, and Galibier was his favourite. On that fateful day in 1911, Desgrange wrote, "Are these men not winged, who today climbed to heights where even eagles don't go¦they rose so high they seemed to dominate the world!" To honour the founder, a monument dedicated to him stands on the southern side of the mountain.
Distance: 31.4 km; >Average Gradient: 5.5%
Mont Ventoux is nicknamed the "Beast of Provence", owing to its majestic height and the barren surface at the top. It gets its name from the French word venteux, which means windy. True to its name, the summit can witness winds as high as 320 kmph and can cause panic among riders even on a normal day. Additionally, the barren landscape makes the peak extremely hot, adding to the fatigue of the riders who have trudged up its brutal slopes. Again, a relatively recent entrant as the Alpe d'Huez, Mont Ventoux first appeared in the 1951 edition of the race. Compared to the other picture perfect climbs, Mont Ventoux appears as their bad-tempered and abrasive brother, due to the ragged appearance of its peak. The climb also has a tragic history, as the mercurial Tony Simpson breathed his last on its slopes on 13 July 1967. The Brit rider was delirious from exhaustion and fell off his bike during the climb on the fateful day. But he famously told the spectators, "put me back on my bike" and resumed the ascent. Sadly he collapsed less than a mile from the top, still clipped on to his bike, but his body having succumbed to heat exhaustion. There is a monument in memory of Simpson near the summit, close to the spot where he collapsed, which has become a shrine for all cycling fans.
Distance: 21.4 km; >Average Gradient: 7.6%
Hope the above mountains and the legends associated with them have whipped your appetite for the upcoming mountain stages. As I said at the beginning, there are many more climbs, each with its own peculiarities and challenges, capable of being the difference between victory and defeat at the Tour de France. However, for a true fan, their majesty has to be experienced in person, as thousands of amateur cyclists do by riding over them every year. That may be a future goal for some of you, but for now, we can surely enjoy the spectacle from the comfort of our homes.