Etape: Briancon to col d’Izoard

The road to the Broken Desert

On a mountain, we can, at any moment, accede to the forces of weakening strength and buckling morale, and choose not to go on. But we are cyclists: climbing off is an option hard to yield to. Stay in the moment, pedal stroke by pedal stroke. When you get to the col, you do not cast off the frailties you encountered lower down the cruel slopes, you absorb them and carry that weakness into the triumph of attaining the high place. This owes more to patience, to mental steadiness, than to physique. Riding mountains evokes a spectrum of emotions, opens up interesting inner landscapes, draws out strengths in the spirit way beyond the commonplace. We learn a most important lesson: that riding up one, even one so hard as the Izoard, we have not conquered it. What we’ve done is not allowed it to beat us, that day, at least. And know this: mountains are rarely, if ever, finished with you.

Remember, too, there may be moments when you wish you were anywhere else doing anything else. Retain such thoughts. They are that voice of profound, if unexceptional, common sense which says: ‘You’re part of my journey, I listen and you’re right. It’s okay to complain, that’s part of the deal, but…the rest of the deal is more important to me, more urgent, and that is, going on. So, dejected or not, that’s what I shall do.’


Out of Briançon the road follows the valley of the river Durance, known as one of the three curses of Provence, because of its propensity for disastrous flooding. (The others: Parlement and the mistral).

On a short, third category climb, near Pontis, where the road swings left into the lesser valley of the Ubaye, you’ll see Les Demoiselles Coiffées, ‘Girls with Hair-dos’.

These curious geological formations consist of tall stacks of softish sedimentary rock which taper upwards to a flat capping of much harder stone. They might be women in shapeless floor-length shifts wearing pancake berets or with flat-top, grunge haircuts. The technical term is hoodoo, a variant of voodoo…witchcraft. Since the French also call them ‘fairy chimneys’, the connection with spooking seems to brood there. I tell you this by way of breaking the spell. No spooking. Take in the sight and press on, to Barcelonnette and a short way on, the turning left towards the Col de Vars. (Feed station in Barcelonnette: remember to ‘eat before you’re hungry, drink plenty’.) Above the junction, you’ll see the forbidding bulk of the Fort de Tournoux, built to watch the route in from Italy.


Despite the statistics of gradient and a back story of some ferocious tussles in the Tour, the road up to the Col de Vars, as difficult as any ascent, has a friendly, ambling feel to it and the drop on the other side, through a succession of ski stations, is swift and relatively easy.

And now, the Izoard.

The first six kilometres run calm through a clutter of ski stuff, to La Chalp, where the slope bites, and then tightens its jaw. Within a kilometre, you’re aware: the climb proper is on. Breathe deep, marshal your forces, relax. You think this contradictory? So what? Where does it say this business has to be reasonable?

The meadows recede, the hairpins latch on, then a long straight up to a viewing platform and there: La Casse Déserte…The Broken Desert, the infamous lunar landscape, the teetering slopes of the mountains to the right, deep in scree, like a petrified lava cascade, pumice shingle, and the huge rock stacks which shoulder up out of that stony wash like weathered statues of the implacable juges de paix, arbiters of mortal frailty who preside over the inner battles of the cyclists who pass, overseeing with a cold eye the grappling between willpower and fatigue.


A short drop down into the bowl of the mountain’s curvature and the final 1.8km of 10%. Brace: not far, you can, you will, do it.

Louison Bobet rode up in yellow, in 1953 (his third overall victory), watched, approvingly, by Fausto Coppi, ‘an artist admiring his work’ it was said – there’s a memorial to the two great riders just below the summit to your left. In 1975, having taken yellow from Eddy Merckx the day before, Bernard Thévenet rode up on his way to final victory in Paris. One of the fans brandished a sign: ‘Merckx: the Bastille has fallen’. There’s history here, for sure, but you don’t need – or, by this stage in the ride want – to be bothered with that kind of clutter. The summit’s almost in sight.

At the souvenir shop on the summit, you may buy a postcard featuring uplifting sundial mottoes. One reads:

Lumière est vie, vis dans la lumière

Light is life…live in the light.

Take on, also, the dark. ‘To all who ride the Vars and Izoard, I say: Hold fast and…courage.’