Legendary mountains of the Tour de France: The Massif Central

While the Alps and the Pyrenees get most of the spotlight, the Massif Central boasts some giants.

Photo: Lars Ronbog/FrontzoneSport via Getty Images

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Editor’s note: Stage 13 of the 2020 Tour de France featured six categorized climbs before finishing atop the Puy Mary Pas de Peyrol in the Massif Central. The following is an excerpt from Graham Watson’s book Tour de France Travel Guide.


Of the three regions, the Massif Central is sometimes seen as the poor relation, for at best it will only see a visit from the Tour every few years, whereas the Alps and Pyrenees are traversed each year. This is not without its advantages, however, for the Massif Central therefore remains the mystery it has always been to the outside world, a remote land marked by some of the prettiest scenery in France.

Perhaps the Massif Central is visited less often than the other mountain ranges because of its remoteness and apparent lack of climbing options. In fact, there are many hundreds of challenging climbs in the region, but access to and from them is too limiting for the Tour. Such climbs are to be found amid the volcanic areas, scattered above the dense forests, or hidden among rolling green pastures where burels—stone huts used by shepherds in times gone by—litter the succulent landscape.

The Massif Central is also home to two exceptional regional parks, the Parc Naturel Régional du Livradois-Forez north of Le Puy-en-Velay, and the more rugged Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne just to the west, which embraces such Tour playgrounds as the Puy-de-Dôme and Super-Besse (see below).

The bulk of the Massif Central is inside Auvergne, but also stretches out into Rhône-Alpes, Midi-Pyrénées, Limousin, Languedoc, and Centre; for one’s sanity, it is best to consider the geographical Massif Central and the historical Auvergne as one and the same. From a mountainous point of view, the Massif Central is graced by three different ranges: Monts du Cantal, Monts Dômes, and Monts Dore, and the Tour visits them all once in a while.

Map of the Massif Central area in France
Map by Charles Chamberlin


The best known of the Auvergne mountains, located in the Monts Dômes, is the Puy-de-Dôme, first used by the Tour in 1952, but not included on the route since 1988 because of the unsuitability of the road that winds its way to the top. At just four miles long and a bit too narrow for comfort, the road is considered unsafe to accommodate the bulging audience of the modern Tour. At least that’s what most people assume; after all, we don’t want cycling fans falling off this ancient volcano because there are too many people on the road, now, do we?

Fact is, the nearby city of Clermont-Ferrand holds authority over the mountain and insisted on charging spectators to ascend it back in 1988, a decision that the Tour did not like, for it values its free-to-all attraction. It’s high time the city leaders negotiated again, for the Puy-de-Dôme acts as a most perfect summit finish, be it on the way home to Paris or between the stages of the Alps and Pyrenees.

To get an accurate idea of the might of this 1,464-meter-high mountain (that’s 4,803 feet), one needs to overfly the Massif Central in an airliner, say from Montpellier to Paris. Seen from the air, the Puy-de-Dôme stands out from the other extinct volcanoes of the Massif as dramatically as Mont Ventoux does from the rest of Provence. For those without wings, it is enough to drive or cycle up the four-mile-long road, and then walk higher still into the crater itself. The views of the Chaîne des Puys, the 40-kilometer-long chain of lava domes erupting from the Massif Central, are awesome!

Farther south, one finds the Monts Dore, a collection of volcanic craters with a more alpine geography than those of the Monts Dôme. Two towns in particular, La Bourboule and Mont-Dore, have enjoyed visits from the Tour. Both are reached by majestic ascents, the first by the Col de la Croix-Morand, the second by the more severe Roche-Vendeix. All the roads in this area are potential leg breakers, but at least the best of them, the D996, makes up for its difficulty by providing a roller-coaster tour of the Puys that is exhilarating and challenging at the same time.

Just off this road between Issoire and La Bourboule is the little ski station of Super-Besse, on the mountain road where I first took a shot of Bernard Hinault in 1978 and was so excited by this act that I didn’t notice a fistfight a few minutes later between Jan Raas, the famed sprinter of the TI-Raleigh team, and a spectator who’d apparently insulted the Dutchman.

That was the first time the Tour had gone to Super-Besse, but it went back in 1996 when Rolf Sørensen, who in those days was something of an all-rounder, won the stage from the Portuguese climber Orlando Rodrigues, and again in 2008 when the drugged, and since disgraced, Riccardo Ricco won. Super-Besse must have paid a lot of money to receive these stage finishes; there are not a lot of other reasons to be up there in summer.

Puy Mary

The Monts du Cantal are by far the most enchanting area of the Auvergne. They contain a number of spectacular ascents, in particular the Puy Mary, which was climbed by the Tour in 2004 and 2008. If the Puy-de-Dôme has the fame and La Croix Morand the majesty, then without doubt the Puy Mary has the beauty, especially if you have taken your seat on the vast natural auditorium atop the 1,787-meter summit (5,863 feet), and are looking down on the peloton as it struggles its way through the last kilometer of the climb.

This mountain has four different approach roads with four different degrees of difficulty, the worst (or best, depending on your enthusiasm for such things) of which is via the Col de Neronne, heading east on the D680 from Salers. This was the route taken in 2004 by Richard Virenque, who was already alone and in front on the climb, and he virtually strolled to a remarkable stage win in Saint-Flour. Strolling over the Puy Mary was of course impossible, even for this determined Frenchman, yet Virenque made as good a job of his ascent as anyone had through the years, before plunging down into Dienne and then tackling the remaining two climbs to win by over five minutes. I cannot recall seeing or hearing as vociferous a level of support as when Virenque climbed the Puy Mary that year; he turned Bastille Day into a riotous celebration for all of France, not just his cycling fans. It was Virenque’s last great ride, for the Frenchman retired after the 2004 Tour, probably with the sounds of those Puy Mary fans still ringing in his ears.

Adapted from Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide by Graham Watson with permission of VeloPress.

Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide

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