Cote de la Croix Neuve, Massif Central, France
Nestled deep in the heartland of France’s stunning Massif Central, there exists a climb so steeped in folklore that the very mention of it strikes a combination of fear and excitement in the hearts of those who know it, and even more so into those who have raced up it; the Cote de la Croix Neuve (1091m).
On Bastille Day in 1995, the Tour de France Stage 12 ran from Saint Etienne to Mende, and the towns, streets and interconnecting roadsides, up hill and down dale, were all at bursting point with hoards of people out celebrating the national holiday. There were traditional parades, rounds of fireworks, dances and food. From the camping cars on the mountains to the front gardens in the towns and villages – it was a true festival of cycling. It is on such a day that all French cycling pros dream of winning THE race. Aside from attaining the coveted Maillot Jaune, there is simply no greater accomplishment for a French rider, riding in France on this particular date. Vive le Tour and Vive La France!
That day was destined to be Laurent Jalabert’s day.
‘Jaja’ rose from sixth place over all, 9 minutes and 16 seconds behind Miguel Indurain that morning, to third, 3 minutes and 35 seconds behind his Spanish rival; attacking at the base of the Croix Neuve. For a few hours, Jaja threatened even to carry the Maillot Jaune.
“I thought of the yellow jersey, yes I did,” he said at the finish. “For a while I thought of the yellow jersey.”
It was his winning on this day that gave the climb it’s legendary status from there on in; a Frenchman had won a stage, on Bastille day, for the first time in six years.
Tucked away on the roadside at the base of the climb stands a small timing monument dedicated to Jalabert’s heroic victory, showing the official start point for the original 3.1km long ramp, however most locals and visiting riders start their stopwatches immediately as they turn onto the climb from the busy tree lined road that circles Mende, just beside the bus station. It is from here that the pain begins, with the famous footage of Jaja’s attack playing back in the minds of those who remember.
For now, and for the next 3km, I am Jalabert, and I’m off the front! Allez, allez, allez!
Fast forward almost 20 years to the day, to July 15th 2015 and Stage 14 of Le Tour. This time it was Britain’s very own Merseyside boy, Steve Cummings, who attacked late on to pass France’s two young climbing stars, Romain Bardet and Thibault Pinot, both going on to finish 2nd and 4th in the Best Young Riders classification respectively, and Pinot 9th overall.
“Coming into the final climb, the second-category Cote de la Croix Neuve, I wasn’t really thinking about winning. All that ran through my mind was to unleash the best effort I could. For me, that meant two things: time-trialling up the climb, and letting the French riders go at the bottom. I could see them attacking each other, which left them in the red early. I just went at my own tempo, hitting red as I arrived at the crest of the climb. How did I know I hit red? It’s a combination of looking at the power meter – which I’ve trained and raced with for years – and feel. It’s always a balance of wattage and feel. Anyway, that gave me momentum. I also gained confidence because I knew I could beat Pinot and Bardet in a sprint every time.”
Tackling the Croix-Neuve on a Marmot Raid Massif Central is a whole different story. With another two days of riding ahead of them and just over 30kms into the fourth day in the saddle, most riders ‘nurse themselves’ over in a conservative gear, having just replenished their energy supplies at the bottom of the hill from our strategically placed support van.
With another van at the summit ready to hand out fresh fruit and snacks, cold bidons of water and words of congratulation and encouragement, it really is just a case of gritting the teeth for 3km, and getting over. What a sense of achievement it is though!
Whilst only short, many riders take away fond memories of the climb. As with other ascents too, it is after all, not just about the elevation gained, the views from the top or the gradients tackled – it is about the journey that got you there and the reserves drawn upon to fuel pedal stroke, after pedal stroke.
With that, i’ll leave the final word to the famous grimpeur, Frenchman Richard Virenque:
“You can say that climbers suffer the same as the other riders, but they suffer in a different way. You feel the pain, but you’re glad to be there.”
Words: Gavin Savage (Marmot guide)