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The Tour de France: A Cross Country Skier's Perspective

Tue, Jul  17, 2007 - By Hugh Pritchard

A few pointers for skiers watching the Tour de France and wondering what the country is like for a skier.

Stage 7 from Le Grand Bornand to Tignes passed very close to La Clusaz, which was a XC World Cup venue last winter, went through Albertville, the 1992 Winter Olympic venue, and headed up into the Beaufortain, passing the 1992 Olympic tracks at les Saisies - wonderful skiing, and a very snow-sure venue (the final race of the French ski-marathon series, the Etoile des Saisies, is here). After descending again to the Isere valley at Bourg St Maurice (several times the venue for the canoe/kayak slalom world championships), the route followed the river up the long, long climb to Tignes. We used to roller-ski the last few miles of that climb (from the dam to the top) sometimes as an afternoon session when on glacier-training camps at Tignes (which is every bit as good as the Dachstein glacier at Ramsau).

Stage 7: "We used to roller-ski the last few miles of that climb to Tignes (from the dam to the top)"

 

Stage 8 runs from Val d'Isere to Briancon. Val d'Isere is a short ride from Tignes, and our more common afternoon roller-ski when at Tignes was to ski from Val d'Isere up to the Col de l'Iseran, which is the start of today's stage: a magnificent and spectacular climb, and there was often snow by the road at the top, even in summer.

Stage 8: "Our more common afternoon roller-ski when at Tignes was to ski from Val d'Isere up to the Col de l'Iseran"

 

The route descends on the south side of the Col de l'Iseran into the Haute Maurienne valley: a high valley, with very extensive XC skiing at Bessans. I have raced biathlon at Bessans, but did not ski much other than the race track, which has been much developed since then. The dairy in Termignon makes a very fine blue cheese.

I suppose the route must pass more skiing, but I do not know it until it reaches the Col du Lauteret and descends into the Serre Chevalier valley, where I have raced at about a dozen British Territorial Army Championships. The XC is not particularly extensive in Serre Chevalier, but is nice enough - it is mainly a downhill resort. The first village is Monetier, where I recommend the Auberge du Choucas as a very fine restaurant. Monetier was a farming village, and when I first went there many of the old buildings were crumbling, and walking along the streets at night one could hear the cattle confined in the ground floors of some of the big old farmhouses; now it has all been restored and is quite chic.

The finish is at the fine old fortified town of Briancon; the town dates back to Roman times, but the principal fortification was built in the 17th century by Vauban who designed town fortifications all over France, and remains spectacular. The cobbled main street in the old town is so steep that one can barely walk up it, and an open drain (a small stream) runs down the middle of it. The buildings are all of stone, and there are good restaurants everywhere you look.

Around Briancon is a lesson in military architectural history: the town has been by the border for centuries, and as military technology changed, they had to build new fortifications that are visible all around the valley, and quite a few that are not, dating from after the development of 'indirect fire' in the late nineteenth century. I stayed in a couple of these when we did a military exercise with the French Mountain Infantry in Briancon a few years ago. The Briancon area is also a wonderful playground for white-water kayaking in the spring and summer, with many great rivers.

If you take a left turn at Briancon, you go up to another pass and into Italy; within an hour you are back in the plains at Torino. The only major ski race in the area that I know of is the Marcia Gran Paradiso classic race in Italy; I did a nice little marathon (the Traversee du Queyras) on the French side a few years ago that seems not to exist now. The high valleys around there are full of great skiing country, particularly the Queyras area (over the col de l'Izoard - not in the Tour route this year) and the Nevache/Claree area. And of course, since it is France, every village has somewhere good to eat.

Stage 14 in the Pyrenees finishes at the Plateau de Beille; I have only skied once in the Pyrenees, and it was at Beille, the venue for the Transpyreneenne marathon. High and sunny, my skis were sucking so hard, I got beaten by three gurls...

Rollerskiing route up Alpe d'Huez
The rollerski route up Alpe d'Huez.
Bikers climb it, too.
The route there passes Carcassonne, a stunning town with fortifications dating from mediaeval times, well worth a visit if you are nearby.

This year's tour does not include the ascent of Alpe d'Huez, but that has been the venue for a roller-ski races in the World Cup and the French national series a few times. There are cross-country tracks at the top, but only in winter - and only worth a visit if there is no snow elsewhere, as they are very high, and very short.

There are plenty of great ski areas in France, many of them close to where the Tour runs. France is an easy country to visit, with a very extensive public transport system and a tradition of good restaurants and less good, but cheap, hotels. There are also plenty of big ski-races one can do, besides the Worldloppet Transjurassienne. The French marathon series was all skating last time I looked, and I was once told by a French ski shop 'everyone skates these days' when I asked about buying classic skis, but a couple of the races are now putting on classic events too - even the Transjurassienne for 2008. France also has a big roller-ski race series, with top names from XC and biathlon regularly featuring in the results.

If you are hoping to roller-ski one of those big climbs and do not have a shuttle bunny to take the car up or a parachute to roller-ski down, then check the public transport: many will have a bus stop at the top. And a nice restaurant. And probably a bakery too.