The Tour’s Legendary First “Climb”
The Ballon d’Alsace may no longer be among the Tour’s high-altitude highlights, but at 1,247 meters (4,091 feet) high, it is considered the Tour de France’s first “mountain climb” way back in 1905. Located in the Vosges Mountains, the Ballon is more typically featured these days on route to the Planche des Belle Filles. True historians of the Tour will tell you, however, that the Col de la Republique in the Massif Central was included earlier in the Tour. But this defeats the purpose and historical importance of the Ballon. For one, the Ballon d’Alsace is no joke. It is 11 kilometers long with an average gradient of 6.3% (maximum gradient is 13.2%). The statistics for both climbs are generally the same, but the revolutionary aspect of the 1905 Tour de France was the inclusion of mountains – plural. The main difference between the Ballon d’Alsace and the Col de la Republique, was that the latter essentially was an anomaly along the route from Lyon to Marseilles. The Ballon on the other hand occurred on a 299-kilometer stage from Nancy to Besancon embedded amongst a myriad of other spikes in the topography. These may not have been as imposing as the Ballon d’Alsace at the time, but collectively they worked to make Stage 2, and the 1905 Tour overall, an obstacle worth fearing. Of course, there were ulterior motives for race Director Henri Desgrange. He was interested in increasing the marketing value of his Tour while also diverting public and media attention from cheating scandals of the year before. Evidently it worked – and the Ballon d’Alsace lives on in Tour legend. Where the 1905 peloton was allowed to change bikes in order to climb its slope, the 2019 peloton will have little difficulty. For modern spectators and lovers of the Tour de France, it still offers a slice of a bygone era.