The Tour de France is well into its final week of running. We’re almost at the finish line (relatively speaking) and, now, the going gets tough. When the going gets tough, as the saying goes, the tough get going. You’ve got to be really tough to attempt the Plateau des Glières. It is widely regarded as one of the toughest climbs in cycling, at a gradient of 11.2 degrees for 6 whole kilometres, finishing at nearly 1400 metres above sea level. It has broken many riders, amateur and professional alike. It is not for the faint of heart.
With faintness of heart in mind, I want to look back at a story from the Second World War, in 1944. The Plateau des Glières played home to a small band of valiant French resistance fighters, called the Maquis, made up of rural farm boys from the surrounding mountains and woods. The Plateau was also used as a base of operations for the French, in anticipation of the Allied beach landings and as a drop-off point for British weaponry. This is what gave rise to the resistance movement. Armed with regular shipments of British machine guns (sometimes with as much as 45 tonnes of gear arriving at once), ammunition and their intimate knowledge of the rocky, mountainous area around them, this small band of only a few hundred fighters were able to defend themselves against an army, 5000 strong, of soldiers from the Wermacht. If you think Primoz Roglic would have a hard time making his way to the summit, imagine trying it under machine gun fire!
This noble effort by the band of Frenchmen was not in vain, either. They were able to hold the mountain for some time. Even with 5000 troops at their disposal, the German soldiers could not advance under the relentless pressure from this plucky and well-armed resistance movement (If they’d have had Veloflow in their ration packs, it might have been a different story) and, eventually, had to resort to a bombing run to try and clear passage. This resistance movement held on so long, but the story does, unfortunately, end in tragedy. The Marquis were promised reinforcements by Captain “Cantinier” Jean Rosenthal, but they never arrived and, eventually, the guerrilla group was overwhelmed. 121 were killed by the oncoming German forces as, after the bombings, they eventually made their way through.
As the riders get this final mountain stage underway and climb through these beautiful surroundings, it’s important to remember what has come before. A war that put a stop to the Tour de France as a whole, featuring bravery and dedication that far outstrips what we’ve seen throughout this race, no matter how impressive it has been. The beauty of the land and the freedom afforded to us to ride and enjoy it may not be possible without the sacrifice of soldiers like the Maquis. This freedom and that sacrifice are inextricably linked and make that beauty so much sweeter. Let’s remember as they ride.