Pic de Nore: The Unknown Tour’18 Climb
TDF ’18 Preview: The Tour de France will venture into the unknown on Sunday’s stage 15 as the race will take on the all new Pic de Nore – a never before seen climb in all the last 104 editions of the great race. That Pic de Nore a 12.5km long, tough climb that is dubbed the ‘mini Ventoux’ by local cyclists. We sent our man in France, Chris Selden to check out the climb and ride it himself.
France is one of those countries that seems to have it all, great food, wine, beaches, historic monuments and more but as a bike rider what I love most of all is the varied terrain and amazing mountains that the different regions can offer. Living in the South of France myself and having just opened a cycling gite called Hidden House there I was excited to see that the Tour in 2018 would be coming down south again and more importantly taking on one of the unknown climbs from my part of the country.
Sure, the Pic de Nore isn’t exactly just next to Hidden House in the Herault valley but it was in the neighbouring department and just a matter of a very picturesque drive to go and check it out.
The scenery on the drive out was spectacular making the miles pass by very quickly
Taking advantage of the Christmas holidays I travelled to the Pic de Nore just this past week for a final ride of the year on December 31. Certainly not the best season to go and check out a mountain and if the Pic de Nore was in the Pyrenees or the Alps the climb would have been snow covered and unrideable. The Pic de Nore however has an altitude of just 1211m and with good weather predicted I was confident of getting a good ride in – even in winter.
Stage 15 of the 2018 Tour leaves Millau to travel down to the Pic which they climb from the Mazamet side and they then reach the summit after 140km before descending and finishing in the medieval city of Carcassonne 41km later. Armchair pundits have already stated that this stage is tailor-made for Peter Sagan or Michael Matthews who can climb well and lose minimal time before catching back up to the GC big boys on the descent and flat run in. Those armchair pundits have never seen the climb though – time to hit the tarmac and check it out for myself!
First up was the approach to the climb itself – 3.5km of steady uphill riding from the large town of Mazamet which will already have the legs burning before the climb has even started.
No mention of the 3.5km of uphill already done before getting to the base of the climb on the Tour’s official graph
These 3.5km were already hurting and although the average gradient would have been only around the 4% mark if a team decided to turn on the pace here many sprinters could be dropped before the climb even started.
After the official sign is where the climb really starts to get tough and you’re quickly into the forest on very small roads and the legs begin to feel it.
The Tour rates the first kilometer as having a gradient of 7.6% whereas the local signs have it at 8.4% and this type of discrepancy continues all the way up the climb. Sometimes it’s the Tour that says it’s steeper, sometimes it’s the local signs but the percentage is never further than 1.5% difference.
7.6 or 8.4 – no matter, they both hurt and with the very narrow roads plus the big crowds that will be out that day it will be crucial to be in the first 20 riders or so as there are no possibilities to move up. The only exceptions are the occasional switchbacks where the road widens out before quickly narrowing again.
The first 4.5kms are all completed on very small, forest roads with an unforgiving surface and it’s clear that this is not a climb where it’s easy to just sit in. The advantage of the forest though is that it protects you from the wind – a point that I quickly noticed as I approached the 2 house town of Le Yèz at the 5km mark where the road opened up slightly and I started feeling the first wind of the day. I’d had perfect conditions in the valleys but suddenly the wind appeared and I felt this already tough climb becoming tougher.
Always thinking positively I tried to appreciate leaving the forest to admire the view but the truth was that the wind was making this climb even tougher and I was still not yet at the halfway point as I came into the 2nd ‘town’ on the hill (maybe 3 houses this time) of La Métarie Haute.
Leaving La Métarie Haute behind I was next greeted with the steepest km of the climb – 9.4% according to Le Tour and 9.2% according to this sign.
Whatever the case – it hurt!
I was now back in the forest but it was far from protected with the wind whipping through fast and constantly changing direction. The reputation of being a ‘Mini Ventoux’ was starting to feel accurate for me with the wind and the climbing on steep slopes through a forest but I was yet to see the summit with its ugly telecom towers and zero vegetation on the upper slopes. In fact at this point the road had levelled out and I was starting to feel a little better until the wind turned into a headwind again and cut any thoughts of increasing the pace that I may have been having.
The snow on the ground was evidence of a snowstorm that had hit the mountain three days earlier and the ever increasing wind had a biting chill that I wasn’t used to from my lower altitude homebase in the Herault Valley which is known for its great weather year round – it was time to stop and get some more clothes on!
Passing by this well placed cross was the sign that the climb was about to open up and it was probably time to start praying for a tailwind as the wind really started to pick up even further here. The road levelled out a bit but with the increased (unfortunately cross/head) wind it didn’t get any easier but the fact that I could now see the summit and its tower gave me something to aim for.
Those sturdy looking metal security fences around one of the telecom installations were not vandalised or broken – they were blown over by the wind!
The various antennas and towers don’t make for the prettiest of summits but fortunately when you do finally make it to the top just opposite the towers is a magnificent view of the valleys of the Aude and the Tarn departments with the Pyrenees in the background which were of course snow covered for my winter visit of the Pic.
So having ridden the whole climb what’s my verdict on the climb and possible outcomes of the stage?
First up the climb – it’s tough, no doubt about it. On paper it looks easier than it actually is and it’s nickname of the Mini Ventoux by the local riders is well warranted. The wind could well be a deciding factor on this climb as I climbed it when there was no wind at the bottom, yet the wind was really whipping through on the climb itself and I could only imagine how tough this climb could be on a truly windy day. The surface of the road is also unforgiving and not an easy rolling surface at all.
For the stage I see this being an important one for GC riders as they’ve just come out of the Alps and riders in form and willing to attack could well take time here before the Pyrenees. Yes, it’s 40km to the finish from the summit but dropped GC men will have minimal teammates to help them back on as most sprinters and rouleurs will be dropped very early, on the steep slopes at the start or even before on the run in to the climb. The likes of Peter Sagan and Michael Matthews are amazing riders that could technically win this stage but if the GC boys put the hammer down they will have a very difficult chase on their hands. Whatever the case the stage should be a great one and certainly one not to miss.
The stage will finish in the medieval city of Carcassonne famous for its old castle and historic buildings.
Chris Selden has been riding and racing his bike around the world for the last 25 years and writing for PEZ for the last 15. If you want to catch the stage in person with Chris or check out the rest of the region on bike at another time come and stay at Hidden House for a perfect cycling holiday by yourself or with some mates. You can also follow Chris and his adventures in France on his instagram page.