With the Col de Joux Plane set to play a decisive role in both this year’s Tour and the Etape, we take an in depth look at Morzine’s most iconic climb…
The Joux Plane is not high; it’s not a long climb; it’s just steep
Cycling’s Iconic Places
The Col de Joux Plane holds a peculiar place in the pantheon of great Alpine climbs. It’s not the highest – it’s 1691m is dwarfed by the giants of the Stelvio, the Galibier and the Iseran. It’s not particularly long: at just 11.6km it’s at the lower end of the HC climbs. It’s not even the longest of the climbs locally – the Joux Verte, Ramaz and the Col de la Colombiere are all longer. Nor is it excessively steep – the 8.5% average gradient matches or exceeds most of the great mountain passes, but doesn’t come close to the Angliru. Punishing, but no monster.
Is the Col de Joux Plane the hardest climb ever to feature in the Tour de France?
Yet, according to Daniel Friebe, author of Mountain High, the suggestion that the Joux Plane is the toughest climb ever to grace the Tour is one that has become ‘increasingly fashionable with those who have ridden into Morzine via this steep and sinuous pass’. It’s certainly no respecter of reputations: the aptly named Peter Winnen, winner of the stage into Morzine in 1982 labelled it ‘the nastiest climb in the Alps’; Vuelta winner Chris Horner described the climb as ‘epic…with a gradient of like 20% all the way up’; even the great Laurent Fignon ‘hated the blasted Joux Plane’. In 2000 the climb claimed it’s most famous scalp, as a medicated Armstrong suffered a memorable collapse on its wooded slopes. Afterwards, a wounded Armstrong admitted ‘that was without doubt my worst day on a bike’.
It would appear, then, that the Joux Plane is a climb that is significantly harder on the road than it is on paper. It’s perceived difficulty may stem – at least in part – from its traditional position within a stage: the final climb, a brutal end to a gruelling day. It may also be the nature of the road itself: unlike Alpe d’Huez, the Joux Plane does not constantly hairpin, with only the middle third of the climb conforming to expectation. Instead, large swathes of the Joux Plane are angled upwards, toward the sky.
The start of the climb is no exception. The classic Tour route begins in the middle of Samoens, the road rearing up to gradients in excess of 12% for the first kilometre. A brief respite where the road meets the alternative – and significantly easier – start from the eastern edge of the town, gives way to a sweeping climb to the hamlet of Vigny, two kilometres of climbing at 8%. After Vigny the road straightens and slackens once more, passing through open pasture for a kilometre at a gradient of just under 6%. It’s worth admiring the views west along the Giffre Valley, for it’s the last time the road will dip below 7% before the descent into Morzine. A series of tight, twisting hairpins lead you through the hamlet of Cessonex, and onward on another stretch of straight road.
The appearance of Mont Blanc on the horizon signals the half-way point; the view gets more impressive with every metre you climb. From here, though, the road gets tougher, ramping up to a gruelling 10% and rarely dipping below 9% for the remainder of the climb. At seven kilometres, rolling farmland and open meadow give way to wooded slopes – a welcome respite from the sun in the height of the summer, with occasional glimpses of snow capped peaks an apt reminder of how far you’ve climbed.
But there is still a way to go. At eight kilometres the road rises again to 10% – it won’t drop below 9% before the summit. With three kilometres to go the road straightens again; the rest of the climb will be ridden with the top almost permanently in sight. The summit itself, with it’s stunning views of Mont Blanc and tantalising Alpine lake, provides only the briefest of respites, the gradual descent along the ridge leading into the short, sharp climb to the Col du Ranfolly – a testing 300m at 9%.
The Col du Ranfolly sits between the winter resorts of Morzine and Les Gets, the heart of the enormous Portes du Soleil; from here, the road plunges 600m for some 10km, through woodland and meadow, before arriving in the centre of Morzine itself. A breathtaking descent, and the perfect end to one of the toughest climbs in the French Alps.