Despite lacking a secure place in Tour de France mythology, the Col de la Croix de Fer is one of the most scenic climbs in the region as well as a worthy riding challenge.
Given its proximity to other epic climbs, and the absence a nearby town, the Croix de Fer will never be a stage finish in the Tour. Its only hope for a prominent place in the Tour archives is to perhaps feature a stage-deciding epic battle.
So far, though, the Col has been one of the transition mountains on the routes of stages toward more traditional battlegrounds, often nearby Alpe d’Huez. In 1986, a rambunctious Bernard Hinault and teammate Greg LeMond rode clear of the bunch with 70km to go, over the Col, before a historic ride up l’Alpe where Hinault took the stage but passed the mantle of team leadership to LeMond for his first Tour win.
Six years later, in 1992, the Croix de Fer was again the final climb before the long run into the valley to the foot of Alpe d’Huez where Andy Hampsten shook off the remnants of the breakaway to grab summit victory. Ironically, LeMond abandoned the Tour on the same day, before climbing the Col.
In 1999, on a similar route, Stéphane Heulot and Thierry Bourgignon got a sizable gap over the peloton on the climb and held off several other breakaways and the main bunch all the way to the lower slopes. Heulot’s bold dash for Bastille Day glory for France was shut down only 3 km from the finish and 10 riders got past him, led by Giuseppe Guerini in a memorable brush with an over-eager fan.
Last year, it was climbed from the other side, starting at St. Etienne de Cuines and up the Col du Glandon before turning onto the Croix de Fer for the final few kilometres. With a total of 22.7 kilometres of climbing at 7% to 2,067 metres at the summit, it was enough to be given hors categorie status.
The road to the summit, 2006
Another option for the amateur rider following in the Tour’s pedal strokes is to ride the Col from Bourg d’Oisans at the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez, the exact opposite direction of the stage routes in 86, 92 and 99 but the same orientation as stage 17 of the 2004 Tour – from Bourg d’Oisans to Le Grand-Bornard – where Floyd Landis’ climbing strength helped the peloton reel in Richard Virenque and Gilberto Simoni to set up a Postal/T-Mobile showdown for the Lance Armstrong ‘no gifts’ sprint win.
This direction for climbing the Col also follows the route of stage 15 in the 1998 when it was the first of three climbs from Grenoble to Les Deux Alpes. The Croix de Fer played little role in the stage, except for marking the beginning of torrential rain and increasingly inclement weather. Marco Pantani attacked later on the Galibier, 11 km from the summit and over 40 km from the finish, with an epic breakaway that put 9 minutes into a flagging Jan Ullrich and secured Pantani his Tour win.
This approach is definitely the scenic route, but it is far from gentle. Official statistics say that the northern slopes are the more difficult, with 30kms of climbing at an average of 5.1%, pitching over 6-7% for the last 7km. The scenic route from the south is, in comparison, around 27km at 4.7% on average. There are, however, plenty of sections close to 10% and even a kilometre of 12% to negotiate halfway through the climb.
It can be a lonely climb…
The run up the valley from Bourg d’Oisans offers the chance to warm up the legs, as well as to grab supplies from Allemont where the local boulangerie/patisserie offers an excellent selection (the pain au chocolat are recommended). As the gradient starts to climb, views over the Lac de Verney reservoir can be had before the road disappears into the tree line.
It is long, steady climbing where a good rhythm will suffice – but something higher than a typical pro’s 39×23 is recommended for most. The only surprises are the short hairpin descent after the village of le Rivier de Allemont, which pitches up at 12% (there are warning signs!) on the other side for around a kilometre. There are also some steeper sections close to the Lac de Grand Maison, which is actually a good place to admire the spectacular alpine scenery now that the road has left the forest behind and is winding up the craggy pasture mountainsides.
With 1km to go, there’s the turn off to the left for the Col du Glandon, but the looming summit of the Croix de Fer beckons. Now is the time to muster one’s final reserves, perhaps bolstered by that last chocolate bakery treat, for the dash to the top.
Choose your route
If your timing is right, such as mine was on July 19, 2006, Tour supporters will be lining the roads to cheer you on (but obscuring the rather diminutive Cross of Iron near the summit, for which the climb is named after). Later on in the day, stage leader Michael Rasmussen was impassive when he went under the summit banner. In my case, after outsprinting a final bunch of climbers, I couldn’t resist a little Virenque-style pointing to the sky. After nearly 30kms of climbing, it’s hard not to feel like a real grimpeur.
The crowd waits!