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Stage 19 of the 2024 Tour de France is a 144.6km epic through the mountains, from Embrun to Isola 2000.  Along the route, the riders will climb the mighty Col de la Bonette, reaching the peak, the Cime de la Bonette. 

The Cime de la Bonette (‘the peak of the Bonette’) rises above the Col de la Bonette and reaches an altitude of 2,860 meters above sea level.  The Col de la Bonette refers to the pass that is at an altitude of 2,715 meters and is considered one of the highest asphalted passes in Europe.  It links the Ubaye Valley in the Alpes de Haute Provence to the Tinée Valley in the Alpes-Maritimes.  The Cime de la Bonette is actually a loop, taking the altitude of the climb to 2,802m, and you can hike to the very peak at 2,860m.  So, the Col de Bonette, with the Cime de la Bonette loop makes it France’s highest paved road.

This is one spectacular climb but interestingly, has only featured in the Tour de France four times (1962, 1964, 1993 and 2008).   

 About the climb

The approach to the summit from Jausiers is long, 23.3km with an average gradient of 6.8%.  It is one of the most spectacular ascents where the landscape evolves as you climb, until eventually you find yourself surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks and a lunar landscape. 

This route was raced in 1964 and in 1993 was led over the summit by Robert Millar.  The other times, 1962 and 2008, the approach was from the south.  2008 was dramatic as John-Lee Augustyn led over the summit before crashing on the descent to Jausiers.

The start 

Situated close to the start of the climb is Villa Morelia, in Jausiers.   This grand villa was built in 1900 and is an ideal point to stay at if tackling the climb.  It is located on the edge of Mercantour National Park and provides perfect mountain views from your balcony.  The start of the climb is only a short distance away.

The initial five kilometers of the climb take you out of Jausiers before you encounter your first set of hairpins that is flanked by towering pine trees, before the road then meanders up at a steady gradient.  The early kilometers allow you to ease into the climb and is a steady 6.4% incline.  It’s not long before you will be able to cast a glance at the valley below as the road again kicks up.

Middle section

Shortly after the second hairpin section, you will find yourself riding alongside a rock wall with spectacular views, with a sheer drop to the valley floor to your right. 

The road continues to meander gently upwards, passing mountain meadows and after roughly 13 kilometres of climbing you will encounter a scenic bridge, complete with a picturesque stream running below.  This marks a change in the landscape.  From this point the alpine tundra has  the pine trees gradually thinning out and you are left pedalling the scenic road that parallels a fast-flowing mountain stream.   

A couple of kilometres further, the road rises up to 9% as you navigate several steep and tight turns where if you look behind, you will be rewarded with a magnificent view down the valley.

In the Tour de France, this may be a potential place for riders to attack, but there still is an awful long way to go to the peak so this would certainly require a heroic effort to ensure success.

After 15 kilometres, and not far from that steeper section, you will be amazed to encounter a small lake, Lac des Eissaupres, which sits at 2,335 meters above sea level and contains fish.

From this point there is around 6km to the top,  with these last few kilometres being very special.   

Final kilometres

The last section of the climb is challenging, at 2,335 meters above sea level, the air is noticeably thinner and it certainly feels like you need an extra breath.  At around 17km you will be passing snowbanks where even in June, snowboarders were enjoying the last bit of snow.  After two more kilometres you will negotiate the final switchbacks before riding the most incredible remaining road.

The last few kilometers will find yourself  cycling surrounded by mountain peaks.  The final remaining distance  is gentle, allowing you to take in the full scale of the scenery and contemplate what, for many, will be the highest elevation  they have ascended.  If you pay attention you may be lucky to see a marmot or two. 

To finish off the route, if the road is open, you can tackle the loop of Cime de la Bonette,  and either descend the way you came, or take the road to Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée. 

Summing up

This is a long and scenic climb and it’s not overly difficult in terms of steepness of gradient.  The 2km ride on relatively flat roads at the summit, before the Cime de la Bonette, allows you to soak up the views and reflect on the magnitude of your achievement. 

Given the fact that this climb has only been used on four occasions in the Tour de France, I was never inclined to ride hard to see how fast I could reach the summit, a contrast to others climbs like Mont Ventoux or Alpe d’Heuz, which tempt you to push the pace.  In fact, this climb is one to be savoured, with my recommendation being to leave early in the morning, when it’s cooler and allow yourself enough time to reach the summit without feeling rushed.  In addition, descending the way you came will allow you to stop and take a photo or two of what could be one of the most scenic rides you may do.

So, what can we expect when the Tour de France tackles this mighty climb?  Personally speaking, due to the length and perhaps only one point for an attack, I can see one team sitting on the front of the peloton, setting the tempo and whittling the bunch down, until only the strongest remain.  With a little under 60kms to the finish from the peak, of which 16.1km is a climb to the finish, this climb will merely help shape the race.  But who really knows, perhaps an early breakaway will form and we will see a small group desperately trying to keep in front of the pursuing peloton.  The only guarantee is that the it is going to be a spectacle to watch!