The Col de Vars is strange. It seems to be both over like a flash but, as you’re climbing its harsh slopes, you can’t wait for it to end. At 9.3km, it’s not the longest climb in the world, but the 7.5% average gradient makes it a tough one.
The 2016 Giro d’Italia started in Guillestre and took in the Col de Vars on the Guillestre to Sant’Anna di Vinadio stage. You will remember the stage before where Steven Kruiswijk crashed and Vicenzo Nibali put himself into the Pink Jersey.
When riding the Barcelonnette side, as you will if taking part in the 2017 Etape du Tour, there is a long drag through the valley leading to the start of the col proper. It’s a bit of an energy-sapping approach and you’ve got to be careful to save your bullets for the ramps of the ascent in front of you. The climb itself isn’t the prettiest, with sparse and scrubby fields surrounding you, and rough grippy roads beneath you. The road surface definitely contributes to the difficulty of the climb, taking the momentum out of your ascent and increasing the discomfort in your legs. It’s quite a barren road with little tree cover, and being south facing, it is typically very hot. There seems to be something about the road’s tarmac that radiates heat.
Unlike some of the climbs in the Alps which are very even in gradient and consistent in pitch, the Col de Vars ramps up and down somewhat. After an easy first few kilometres of around 5%, the gradient ramps up to around 7-8% for a while, before returning back to a more forgiving stretch at 4%. This semi-plateau gives you a good chance to recover a little, and you’ll need it. The top half of the climb is the toughest, with a couple of kilometres at over 10% preceding the final stretches of slightly more reasonable 8% gradient. It’s a fast and technical descent, so keep your wits about you and make sure you re-hydrate and re-fuel on the way, as for Etape riders, the Col d’Izoard awaits you, and that is one epic ascent!
Written with input from Jim Cotton, 2017
Jim is a passionate and experienced cyclist who has ridden with us for various Haute Routes, the Etape du Tour, and La Marmotte. He keeps a blog of his musings and experiences on the bike here: https://mountainmutton.wordpress.com