The only way is up for the Tour de France as it climbs into the thin air of the Hautes-Alpes, with two pivotal stages centred on the beautiful Alpine citadel of Briancon. This climactic phase of the 2017 race will be played out at high altitude, among the jagged peaks of the Savoie. But these too, are the days that all Tour watchers have been waiting for, the showdowns at the summits, and while the Tour has immense appeal over all of its three weeks, it is on the very highest mountain passes that it’s greatest and most spectacular dramas are enacted.
Briancon is the hub of these two days, with stage 17 finishing in nearby Serre Chevalier and stage 18 marking a first-ever summit finish on the mighty Col d’Izoard, overlooked by the vast scree of the Casse Deserte. As the highest town in France, Briancon is a springboard for mountain activities, as well as a focal point for military and religious history. It’s true that getting there requires an effort but that effort is rewarded by one of Europe’s most scenic journeys.
Arriving from the north — as the Tour convoy will — the road climbs to dizzying heights past the snow-capped peaks of the Ecrins, while from the south the verdant high pastures of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence steadily give way to the staggering vistas of the vast Durance valley. With the Italian border just 20 kilometres away, it’s hardly a surprise that Briancon has a Franco-Italian feel to it. The old town, the Cite Vauban, perched high on the mountainside at well over 1,000 metres, rewards a slow stroll and offers plenty of time to take in the jaw-dropping views from pavement tables.
Overlooking the Cite Vauban is a series of Unesco World Heritage fortifications built by Louis the 14th over 300 years ago. They make an imposing sight, even viewed from a distance. Obviously, given the proximity to Italy, the cuisine of the region is a melting pot of different influences. From the unusual — Franco-Italian-Asian fusion — to the traditional — raclette, fondue, and tartiflette — there is something for everyone.
Best of all though, for the suiveurs du Tour and for those watching from the sofa at home, these two days offer a magnificent spectacle, of Europe’s greatest mountain roads and the Tour de France in its favourite terrain.
Sit back and enjoy the view — it will be breath-taking, especially for the riders!
Words: Jeremy Whittle
Photography: Pete Goding