When Tour de France mastermind Henri Desgrange announced that the 1910 edition of the Tour would venture into the Pyrénées and take on the Col du Tourmalet, 26 of the 136 riders who had signed up for the race removed themselves from the start list. The mountain pass was already widely feared.
First opened in 1864 by Napoleon III, the Tourmalet lay along the Route Thermale, a road that the emperor had built in the mountains that rise along the Spanish border in France’s southwest corner in order to connect his favorite spa towns. At 2,115 meters above sea level, it was one of the highest passes in the country, and, almost as soon as bicycles were invented, people had set out to climb it on their new machines. There had even been a race up it in 1902 for the top French bicycle manufacturers to test their equipment. But it had never before been included in the Tour de France, and Desgrange and his henchmen had designed a fearsome route for it, a stage that remains one of the hardest that has ever been raced in the Tour.
Two days after they entered the Pyrénées, the riders faced a 326-km slog over the Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Tourmalet, and the Col d’Aubisque. On dirt roads, riding single-speed bikes, they would have to suffer through more than 6000 meters of climbing.
It was all Adolphe Steinès’ idea. Desgrange’s route-maker from the very first years of the Tour, Steinès wanted to create an even greater spectacle, one that would stretch the limits of the public’s imagination. Desgrange was hesitant at first, but decided to let Steinès go to the Pyrénées in January to scout it out. Having set out in a car, he got stuck in a snowdrift close to the top, and decided to continue on by foot. It was already late in the afternoon. In the middle of the night, he fell down a ravine and had to be rescued hours later by a search party. Still, he was determined to see the Tourmalet included in the race. In the morning, he sent Desgrange a telegram:
“Have crossed the Tourmalet on foot
Road passable to vehicles
Desgrange agreed to let him have his way. At first, people were outraged. In the newspapers, commentators said that what they were asking the riders to do was almost inhuman. That was the point.
To assuage the public’s concerns, Desgrange invented ‘the broomwagon’—a van that would follow the race and pick up any riders who wanted to abandon. And, as an extra incentive for the riders, he introduced a 100 Franc prize for anyone who could get up the Tourmalet without putting a foot down.
On the day of the Tour’s tenth stage, Gustave Garrigou, the next year’s winner, was the only one who could manage it.
Ahead of him, Octave Lapize had crossed the summit on foot. Later in the stage, Lapize passed the organizers’ car. “Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!” he shouted, before declaring that he was going to quit. He kept going though, however, and won the stage that evening in Bayonne and went on to win the Tour.
Today, the Col du Tourmalet has become the most used climb in the Tour de France, having been featured in 82 editions of the race. This year’s stage 14 is the first mountaintop finish of the race and finishes atop the Tourmalet, where riders and fans will see Octave Lapize memorialized with a statue at the summit of the fabled climb.