What's Cool In Road Cycling

TdF’09 St.15 Preview: Up, Up, Up To Verbier

It is officially not too early to sing the praises of the coming Tour de France. With one week to go, we’re all over our post-Giro hangover and getting excited for Monaco. Let’s take a look a little further down the road to Stage 15. The penultimate mountaintop finish at this year’s Tour de France will take the riders up to the small Swiss alpine town of Verbier. PEZ recently took some time to check out the unknown climb.

I love to say that the Giro is my favorite stage race. I’m a constant lambaster of Le Tour, but when the opportunity finally presented itself for me to get at least a little piece of the Tour de France, I jumped on it, savored it, and now, for once, I’m looking forward to the upcoming Tour de France. This complete change of heart is due to riding only one single climb of the Tour de France. Imagine if I rode two. It’s the Tour de France. It’s the greatest biking show on earth. If you can’t get excited about it, this could be the wrong sport for you. I know those are strong words. It’s ok, I only found this out last weekend, excuse the newfound enthusiasm.

It’s not just me either. Ashley is insisting on a visit during the Tour. The Tour towns themselves? Signs are everywhere for the upcoming Tour visit.

Ashley and I drove down to Switzerland to cover the Tour de Suisse. Stage 8 finished above the medieval Swiss town of Sion in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and Stage 9 finished it all up with a time trial around Bern. In between? Well, about 30 kilometers to the west of Sion and on the way back to Bern, our path collided with the Tour de France’s. I’ve never crossed paths with the Tour de France before. It was a special moment, and a moment that we were not going to pass up. A detour from the main highway was taken – we were going to spend some time with Le Tour.

Stage 15 of the Tour de France starts in the French border town of Pontarlier, spends about 15k in France, then the next 180 or so kilometers traipsing through Switzerland before arriving in Villete-Le Chable – from there it’s 8.5k up to the small winter sports mecca of Verbier.

It’s not as simple as that though – the stage is typical Swiss lumpy throughout: four Cat 3 climbs, one Cat 2, and the final Category 1 climb to Verbier. On paper, the final climb doesn’t look to be the stuff of legend.

It’s all uphill from here.

It’s only 8.8 kilometers long, averages 7.5%, and only gains 630 meters. Compared to some of the legendary climbs, this isn’t an epic finale. Paper only tells part of the tale though.

We actually spent the night in Verbier. We stayed at the quiet Hotel Garbo. We checked it out for Saxo Bank: they will be staying there come Tour time.

The 20 kilometers from the final sprint in Martigny to the base of the climb in Villete-Le Chable is almost entirely uphill, and considering the fact that this is the second to last mountaintop finish (Ventoux being the final), you can be assured that there is going to be a full-on steamroller at the front of the field ahead of the start of the climb. I’m not saying that 300m of elevation gain over 20 kilometers is a lot, but I will say that it’s not going to be easy, and it’s certainly not going to be easy once they hit the traffic circle in Villete-Le Chable that steers the race up to Verbier.

Get ready for some climbing!

The climb itself? It’s quintessential Tour de France: always within that 6-9% range, perfectly graded, fairly wide (Well, for a mountain road), and finishing at a town big enough to accommodate the world’s biggest bike racing circus.

The first of 13 switchbacks.

The town of Verbier? I had never heard of it before last week. I guess that’s my loss though. The town didn’t come to pull in the Tour de France for no reason. It’s an outdoor paradise, of course in the winter, but also in the summer months. The resort is nestled in a bowl with enormous views to the southwest toward the Massif des Combins and a certain large mountain called Mont Blanc. Verbier forms part of Switzerland’s largest ski area, the 4 Vallйes.

The early going is typical for any great climb: a bit dull compared to what’s to come.

Enough about Verbier, what about the road leading up to it? Starting in Villette-Le Chable, the road climbs up through the remnants of the town, right on by a Subaru dealership complete with the new WRX, and on to the first of 13 switchbacks.

Switchbacks obviously mean curvaceous, but this climb has a lovely curve to it over most every bit of the road.

I’m not normally a switchback counter, but I found out that Ashley is. Ashley puts great stock in knowing exactly where she is on a climb at any given moment. If I can’t tell her that, she gets peevish and unruly. It’s hard work.

Think this view looks good now? It just gets better as you climb.

After the first few switchbacks, you get an idea of what’s to come for the rest of the climb. The town of Verbier sits directly above Villette-Le Chable – the switchbacks follow, more or less, uniformly all the way up to Verbier, which means that with nearly every switchback, you get the same, but higher up.

Even the straight on into the mountain view is appealing.

You get the continual view to the southwest, but also views to the north and south depending on which direction you’re headed across the mountainside. There’s a creek that tumbles from above Verbier, all the way down to the valley below, so the road crosses the creek on many occasions. I like this type of climb. Even after one ascent, you start to feel familiar with certain parts of it – the switchbacks, the curves, the views, the creek, the towns.

Ash found her name on the wall. Seemed like a good enough reason for a picture, no?

Don’t even for a second think that that might get a bit dull. It doesn’t. It’s like anything worth looking at – if you take the chance to look at it from every conceivable angle, it seems to just get even more beautiful. Different shades of beautiful, high, low, left, right, behind, in front, there’s always a different view that makes every look that little bit different and that much more fulfilling.

Ok, I’m getting a little bit too emotional about the climb. The views are exceptional, but the ride itself is just right. Over the past year, we’ve grown accustomed to lurching up climbs that average over 10%. Every single climb we ride is hard. There’s just no getting around it. It gets old sometimes. It really does.

This creek will greet you consistently throughout the climb. It provides a nice bit of air conditioning.

I’m not going to say that this climb was easy, but compared to a climb like say, Haimingerberg (which climbs almost 1000m in about 8k), I’m going to say that Verbier’s 600m in almost 9k was positively refreshing. So long as you have the right gearing, climbing can be an absolute joy. The climb to Verbier proved that over and over again.

Oh that’s nice.

As a road engineered to accommodate hordes of winter enthusiasts, the climb eschews steep grades and tight turns. It’s a well thought out piece of pavement, and you can always be assured that there will never be a 15+% wall waiting around the next bend.

Sheep are a good addition to any climb.

The day we rode the climb was definitely a cool one. The temperatures definitely never rose over the 15C mark. If summer ever does arrive though, this could be a toasty stretch. Most of the road is completely exposed. There are trees around, but you’re never really riding in the shade. So if it gets hot, this climb will be especially hot. Not like I can imagine it though. The night we spent in Verbier was frosty – we were walking around in jacket, hat, and gloves.

Due to the fact that this climb literally climbs on top of itself in pursuit of Verbier, you also get that lovely phenomenon of seeing exactly where you just were as you climb. I love being able to look down to the twisting road below to appreciate my physical handiwork. Ha.

I can’t imagine the chaos of the Tour climbing this road though. I keep trying, but it’s hard. I know that every available piece of open land will be filled with fan upon fan. I know that the walls I climbed to take pictures will be filled with fans. I know that the quiet road we climbed will be turned into a gauntlet of spectator frenzy. In short, it will be amazing.

Flowers are always nice. I wonder if these will survive the Mongol hordes, I mean fans.

Just a little bit more time in isolation before the first fringes of Verbier are encountered.

The last few kilometers take you back into civilization, and make it very clear why this road exists at all: Verbier. It won’t be as unfortunately clear for a little while yet, but the ski hamlet sprawl is noticeable even down here, though if I had to guess, this looks like the oldest part of the town to me, but I’m just guessing.

Right above Ashley is Verbier Station. The race will be finishing somewhere up there.

At this point, it probably makes some kind of sense to do a little speculating as to who will find success here. As it is a latter stage event, Stage 15, I would not be surprised if a break is somehow successful. Of course there will be an early break, especially over a course like this, but if it holds true to those end of the Tour breaks, this escape could actually have a chance of making it to the line, well, probably just one of the riders, most likely a talented climber out of the GC running. My pick? Cofidis’ Estonian talent, Rein Taaramae. Not that there’s any way conceivable to know if he’ll even be in the race at this point, but I saw him at the Tour de Suisse, and he was riding really well. So basically, I’m meaning to say: watch for this guy.

I’ve always wanted to take a road mirror picture. I can check that off the list now.

BUT, the breakaway will have a certain fact to deal with, which will most likely put paid to their chances: this will be the first day in the Alps…and there are only three. One more nail in the coffin of the future break: this is the final stage before the final rest day, so it would be foolish of anyone hoping to win the Tour de France to dilly dally through the opportunity that will be Verbier.

I never thought blue and white would camouflage so well with rock.

As for who this climb will favor? In typical Tour style, it’s not all that steep, so the bigger riders won’t be at such a disadvantage, and that’s about all I can say at this moment. When we repost this the day before the stage to Verbier, I’ll guarantee I’ll have a lot more to predict. So we’ll just leave the rest to the imagination for the moment.

The finish line is near at hand.

We aren’t quite sure where the race ends exactly, but it’s somewhere in Verbier Station. We rode all the way through town to the main ski lift area and found a large parking lot there – that could be possible, but methinks not. The Tour’s profile shows the finishing altitude as 1468 meters. The ski lift altitude, or so it says on the ski lift itself, is 1530, so that’s probably not it, but at least we can deduce that the finish is somewhere below that upper parking lot, and probably very close to the final picture.

Thanks for reading!

Questions? Comments? Happy? Sad? Send me an email!

Looking for lots more pictures from Verbier and elsewhere? Head on over to Flickr for much more.

There’s always the trusty JeredGruber.com if you ever get really bored.

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.