La Plagne climb in the Tour de France

I was in La Plagne last week. I had a great time thank you very much. I even enjoyed the airport transfer.

Not many skiers enjoy sitting in a bus, grinding up a mountain, but I couldn’t help but try and imagine what the road must have been like for Stephen Roche on his memorable ride in the 1987 Tour de France.

I’m not sure exactly where they finished that day, but it was certainly an hors catégorie climb. I always find it pretty funny that one of the Tour’s climb classifications is ‘beyond classification’ but you can see why the term is used when you go up one of these roads. There’s simply no point establishing degrees of misery. It’s just ball-achingly painful and that’s really all you need to know.

Gradients and thresholds

If you want numbers, the climb up to La Plagne is somewhere between 15km and 18km at an average gradient of 7 per cent. However, numbers are a little cold. You need to appreciate what that means.

I always think that there are three gradient thresholds for cyclists. The steepest of those is the point at which you can’t physically cycle further than a couple of yards. There are very few roads which even approach this. The next steepest threshold is the point at which you have to get out of the saddle in order to keep moving. You’ll actually encounter this more in the UK than in France, because we like to build our roads straight over the top of hills, whereas on the continent, they tend to favour a meandering, gentler gradient. The third threshold is one that I reckon comes into play on the La Plagne climb.

Pushing the granny gear

Depending on your gearing, there is a certain gradient at which you can no longer maintain your favoured cadence (pedalling speed) in your lowest gear. I always think of this as being the point at which a hill becomes officially unpleasant, because it’s forcing you to do something you don’t want to do. For me, I reckon this normally happens at around seven or eight per cent.

The La Plagne climb averages seven per cent, which is probably tolerable, but the nature of averages indicates that it is often steeper than this. This is what seemed so threatening as I travelled along this road.

It’s not like you gain strength on the shallower bits. You don’t. You tolerate them in the knowledge that you are building up a debt. You then round a corner and survey that debt stretching out ahead and above you. It’s not impossible, but it’s nasty and it’s nasty for a bloody long time. If you’re already struggling to cope and know you’ve got many miles to go, this is when the pscyhological torture becomes most acute.

I can assure you that even a bus groans as it climbs towards La Plagne. I can therefore totally understand why Stephen Roche lost consciousness at the end of the stage. For the same reason, I also very much doubt that he really did say: “Oui, mais pas de femme toute de suite” when asked if he was okay shortly afterwards. It’s not just the notion that he’d make a witticism about not being ready for a woman right away. It’s also the ‘yes’.