Col d’Izoard: Fausto takes a photo

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Coppi turns tourist and race fan on the Izoard

Photographs: Offside/l'Equipe

Used sparingly since the 1970s, the Izoard is not a modern day Tour icon. It is no Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux. To understand the significance of this mountain in the annals of the Tour you need to transport yourself back 63 years to the hot afternoon of July 22, 1953.

Take a look at the picture above, taken on that same day. Look at the amateur race photographer in the pale shorts standing directly behind the rider’s front wheel and peering into the viewfinder of his camera. Do you recognise who he is? You probably should. He is Fausto Coppi.

Sporting lithe legs, his classic wristwatch, the slick jet black hair and the pointed nose peering out from behind the lens, Coppi was at that point defending Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champion.

The rider, number 61, is Louison Bobet. The Frenchman is on his way to winning the 1953 Tour de France with a solo ride on the Col d’Izoard that will launch him into the lead and send him on his way to his first of three consecutive wins.

Behind him is the barren scree of the casse déserte – the unique landscape of the upper slopes of the Izoard. Bleached, bright, otherworldly; it was and still is a lunar cathedral of light and heat.

Casse déserte

Look at the other spectators. Many of them are wearing free hats handed out to supporters by the Tour caravan, and their clothing is a dusty collection of paysan patterned tops, berets and rustic slacks mixed with aviator sunglasses, short shorts and skimpy bikinis.

They are the roadside fans of 1950s France – an optimistic, changing country looking to the future almost a decade on from the carnage of World War II – and this the golden era of cycling.

It is a time of sporting champions and heroic exploits, and all of it regaled in the sepia-tinged print of newspapers and magazines and grainy images beamed into living rooms via the rocketing number of home TV sets.

The rider and team manager of the era, Raphaël Géminiani, used to say that “the Tour is won in Briançon before it is won in Paris”.

The 2360m Izoard pass leads directly down to the alpine town; between the 1920s and 1970s it often acted as the final climb on a classic mountain stage from the French Riviera that ventured over the Col d’Allos and Col de Vars (both over 2000m) on its way.

His point was this: win over the Izoard and the Tour would not be long in coming.

In 1949 it was where Coppi, riding his first Grand Boucle, rode clear with his rival Gino Bartali: il campionissimo would inherit the Tour lead when Bartali later crashed out, taking his first of two yellow jerseys in Paris.

Coppi would watch Bobet stamp his authority on the race the following year, and in 1975 Bobet would watch Bernard Thévenet finally crack Eddy Merckx, with the Belgian still suffering from the previous day’s capitulation on Pra Loup.

When the peloton climbs up through the stones and spires of the Izoard, it will pass memorials to both Bobet and Coppi. The Italian even took a handful of the earth from the casse déserte with him to his grave.

Look again at that picture. Not only is it remarkable that Coppi chose to watch his would be successor in person but, when the Italian could have gone to any number of climbs or towns during that year’s Tour, he chose to visit the Izoard.

And, rather than simply applaud Bobet’s ride, he chose to take his picture.

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