The Casse Déserte is one of the most iconic roads in the world of cycling and home to the modern-day sporting hero.
It can be found on the southern ascent towards the top of the Col d'Izoard. Following a series of steep uphill sections interspersed with tight hairpins, you enter a prehistoric landscape of crumbling rock, unstable life-threatening terrain, and severe heat. The mountain looks like it has been split down the middle with a great axe. Its innards spilling out like an open wound for all to see.
The Tour de France was established in 1903 by Henri Desgrange, editor of the L'Auto newspaper, in an attempt to boost its flagging sales. It was an instant hit with the French public.
The first mountain stage was introduced in 1920 in the Pyrenees, featuring the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d'Aubisque. In 1936 annual paid holidays were introduced in France, and trips into the mountains to watch tour stages became popular.
This significantly increased the newspaper's audience numbers and established Le Tour as an annual sporting and cultural event.
L'Auto needed a constant supply of cycling heroes to keep the sales figures high. Heroes sell newspapers. The mountains provided the almost impossible obstacles for our cycling heroes to overcome and the ideal backdrop to their heroic struggle.
Enter the photographers.
These are the days when "A picture is worth a thousand words" Before TV and mainstream media, pictures were gold dust. No stone was left unturned to get dramatic pictures onto the front page of the first editions.
Unlike many remote mountains climbs, the Col d'Izoard is accessible from the nearby town of Briançon. This meant being able to roll out of your hotel bed, head up the mountain, and set up ready to photograph our heroes emerging as if from the bowels of the prehistoric earth. Covered in the dust conveniently kicked up by the tour's entourage, their spare tyres strapped across both shoulders like machine-gun belts, struggling upwards to glory and hopefully a hot bath. The modern-day sporting heroes were created here, for public consumption, on the prehistoric slopes of the Casse Déserte. A tradition that continues today.
Fausto Coppo, Gino Bartali, Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Thévenet, Eddy Merckx. All followed in the footsteps of early sporting heroes and made their reputations on the slopes of the Casse Déserte.
The roads got better. The crowds grew bigger. Television hit the screens, and photography went colour. The equipment improved, as did the times, but the Col d'Izoard remains a formidable climb.
© davidt 2023