When Jimmy Buffet sings, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know where I’ma gonna go when the volcano blows,” you can reply, “Well, I know where I’m going to be…on top of the Puy de Dôme in the middle of France!”
The Puy de Dôme is a legendary and storied climb in the Massif Centrale mountains in the middle of France. It’s a dormant volcano, known in the local dialect as a puy, that has not erupted in 6,040 years…in geological terms, that is. In cycling lore, it’s been 35 years since a volcanic battle on two wheels played out on its slopes.
The Cycling News website said of the Puy de Dôme, “Its presence in the race will provoke a twinkle in the eye of those who can recall the great battles of yesteryear. This climb from a bygone era of toe clips and wool jerseys is back for a showdown.”
Many famous battles took place on these revered slopes, but none is more famous than the one in 1964 between Jacques Anquetil in yellow and his chief rival, Raymond Poulidor, only two days before the finale in Paris. They struggled side by side the whole way, and only in the final kilometer where the grade neared 18% did Anquetil drop back, unable to hold the pace. He lost the stage but retained the yellow jersey. Poulidor, known as the “Eternal Second” because he never won the Tour but came in second and third many times, to this day is one of the most beloved cyclists in France. (Make sure to download my exciting profile of stage 2 from the 2021 Tour, when Poulidor’s grandson Mattieu van der Poels won the stage in his debut Tour and pointed up to the sky as he crossed the finish line.) In homage to Poulidor, today’s stage begins in Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, Poulidor’s hometown.
In 1975, Eddy Merckx was punched in the kidneys near the finish on the Puy, which a few days later was attributed to him losing the yellow jersey. In 1986, Greg Lemond beat out his number one rival, his own teammate, on La Vie Clair on the steep slopes of the Puy. (Greg didn’t win the stage here but he did major damage on his rival nonetheless.)
The last time this conical volcanic hill in central France appeared in the Tour was in 1988. The organization, the size of the peloton, and the number of vehicles in the publicity caravan and support crew had all grown too big for the tiny road to the summit. In 2012, a panoramic tourist train was built to carry visitors to the top, narrowing the small roadway even more, making it even less likely that the Tour de France could return. The only vehicles allowed past the parking area 4 km from the top since then are emergency and maintenance vehicles.
And yet, here we are, and the TDF has returned in 2023! In order to protect the flora and fauna of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, no spectators were allowed in the final 4 km and TDF vehicles were strictly limited. In order to make sure no one tried to camp out near the top, the organizers used heat-seeking drones to flush them out.
Stage 9 is 182 km long and has several categoried climbs. While it isn’t too hilly prior to that monster of a mountain at the end, there also isn’t much flat terrain; this will take a toll on the riders.
Most roads snaking their way up a steep mountainside switch back and forth, known as hairpin turns or lacets (laces) in French, but the road up the Puy circles the conical mountain, always turning to the right. Because of this, the cyclists don’t have a good view of the finish line until the final 50 steep meters or so, making it hard to judge how much effort to put out at the end. This fact may have contributed to the disappointing result for one rider in this stage.
With the long history of the cycling battles on the Puy de Dôme, how revered it is among cyclists, and how long fans and riders have been waiting to return to its slopes, one would expect this stage to be ripe for an explosive battle—a volcanic eruption, if you will—to take place in the final 13 kilometers. Who will it be? Will it play out like the epic clash of titans in 1964? Will it be a favored climbing specialist, or will it be an opportunist who steals the show? Could a breakaway succeed? There are many riders whose strengths lend themselves well for this stage, so it’s possible to see a twist in the predictions that have been trumpeted from all corners of the cycling world.
I assure you, what happened on stage 9 was not on anyone’s radar. The script was completely rewritten as the road rolled out before the lead rider(s).
When I was preparing for this stage, I gathered some songs I thought would work well for my profile. I had several possible stories in mind—most of which involved an “eruption” happening among the peloton on the final climb. After watching the stage, I had to change almost everything I had preconceived.
My dilemma was this: should I describe the finish with the Canadian Woods flying by the young American Jorgenson with 450 m to go, and then return to the peloton 12 minutes back and focus on the team leaders, Pogacar and Vingegaard? As cycling battles go, their fight up the Puy was also exciting and worthy of notice—Pogacar almost dropped Vingegaard but Vingo managed to find some reserves deep inside himself and held his loss of time to only 8 seconds (make sure to watch it on YouTube).
My other option was to make Jorgenson my protagonist and focus mostly on him and his determination, and ultimately his shattered dreams. I opted for the latter. So many Tour de France profiles, many of mine included, focus on the “heads of state,” the leaders, as they fight for their place in the GC (the general classification). Instead, this profile highlights the old adage that cycling is a cruel mistress; she takes you to the highest highs and sometimes, the lowest of lows. This stage finish is laced with both agony and ecstasy.
There are a lot of cues and descriptions in the profile. Depending on your style of teaching, you can use all or very little of them. What I recommend is that you take the Express Profile of this stage below (either in Excel or Google Sheets) and add the cues that you feel comfortable with.
When I taught this ride and was describing the battle playing out in the final kilometer, I told my riders, “Pick your protagonist. Are you the young American in front, holding out hope that he can maintain his lead to the finish line, so close he can taste it, or are you the Canadian rider chasing him, envisioning his first Tour de France stage win after so many years of riding in the Tour?”
This is one of the more emotional Tour stages I’ve done in a long while and the playlist definitely helps build that fervor and passion. To play on the volcano concept of the Puy de Dôme, half of the songs in this playlist are on the theme of volcanoes. A few French songs are thrown in (including a French song about volcanoes!) and some rock and roll. The final climb is made up of songs that drive you to reach inside yourself for more, including several symphonic and powerful epic scores that were specifically selected to paint the pain, suffering, and melodrama that take place in the final kilometers. I had one rider in my class whooping it up during the second-to-last, powerful song leading them up the Puy. Another rider told me afterward that that amazing song helped her get through the challenge.
The powerful music and inspirational coaching in this profile will help make you look like a hero to your riders. If you teach this ride, I would love to hear about it! Please share in the comments below.