I went to France in July for two weeks of thrills in the Alps. It was a recon trip for future guided tours and a chance to ride some of those most historic of roads as well. Lots of Cols were ridden, espressos were drank, and delicious local food was eaten. Here are some highlights! It’s more of a note to myself than a real blog post since it’s so long…
I caught the TGV from Paris to Grenoble on Tuesday July 17th, grabbed the rental car and headed to my AirBnB near Bourg d’Oisans, right at the base of Alpe d’Huez. After settling in I headed out to explore a bit. My first ride was a little exploration of some small roads around the valley. It was short and sweet including the twisty, steep, and superbly quiet climb to the small town of Oulles (6Km at 10% gaining 1,963 feet). From here you can see much of the valley and the road to Alp d’Huez directly across the way. I then rode up the D526, a fairly easy road, to my first pass the Col Ornon (6Km at 5%), and then back to Bourg d’Oisans for some dinner after looking at the first couple of switchbacks on Alp d’Huez. Tiring, especially given the travel, but a nice first ride and a great dinner!
Colle delle Finestre – 2178m (7,146ft)
62 miles – 8,337 feet of climbing in 5:10
The next morning I got up early to drive to Susa, Italy and the infamous Colle delle Finestre climb that played such a huge role in this years Giro d’Italia. I parked up valley in the little town of Sauze d’Oulx, 20Km or so from Susa for a leisurely downhill warm up, grabbed an espresso and croissant in town and then hit the climb itself.
It’s only 19Km (11.1mi) or so to the top, but it is an impressive 19Km! The first 10Km are an unrelenting 9% average as you twist and turn your way thru 15-20 switchbacks hidden amongst trees. From time to time you get a great view back down to Susa for a reality check of just how far you’ve already come. There is a great little church about 1/2 way up that has a much needed water spout for a refill. Shortly after the church the road turns to dirt for the remaining 9Km. The grade remains in the 9% range all the way up and my 36×30 was probably enough gear for a well rested rider. Given my hectic travel schedule I was anything but well rested and prepared. A week of not riding (the ultimate taper!) and 30 hours of travel and awkward sleeping arrangements had left me a little more tired than I expected so I was pretty slow (224Wavg @5mph)! Still, the thrill of reaching the top and snapping some photos was immense. Then I dropped down the other side and headed for the “easy” 8Km climb to Sestriere. My greatest piece of advice on this ride is to be well rested and don’t forget to EAT, a lot! I didn’t and suffered mightily on the Sestriere climb, ultimately having to stop for 10 minutes when the cramps set in. Once they subsided I was back at it for the last 2Km to the top. I was so cooked that I had to walk back uphill a few hundred meters, stopping along the way to hurl a time or two, in order to get some food. A delicious looking hamburger simply did not sit well after one bite, so I made do with a simple coke and set out for the return drop to the car, which was picturesque and fun.
41 miles – 5,057 feet of climbing in 4:07
Shelled, sore and fatigued I awoke to race day at the Tour de France, hauled myself our of bed and headed for our collective cycling mecca. The climb itself is tough, throw in a couple hundred thousand fans, a slew of team support vehicles, and an overly sore athlete and it makes for a bit of a challenge. I rode up about 4Km to La Garde where a sweet little road wanders off to the right and quickly becomes a narrow jaunt along a cliff wall, stunning! A couple of short tunnels and an easy grade make this a worthwhile option if you have the time. From there I returned to the main climb and made my way to the top. Lots of photo stops, lots of people, and barriers starting 4Km from the finish meant that I ended up watching the race go buy at turn 4, about 3Km from the finish. I have to say that the race itself was a bit anticlimactic for me. It is just another bike race after all. We were delayed 30 minutes or so in starting the descent so team vehicles could get riders down first, but were rewarded with a pretty fun descent amongst thinner crowds.
Col du Sabot and Col de la Confession
35.2 miles – 5,161 feet of climbing in 2:43
After a bit of rest I was ready for the next challenge. A rental car disaster kept me off the bike until nearly 6pm, but one really great part of riding in July in France is that it doesn’t get dark until after 9pm every night! The air was cool, the sky was gorgeous and I was feeling nearly normal again so I set off to climb the Col du Sabot. Rolling along the start of the Croix de Fer I could see rain clouds forming farther up the pass. Fortunately my route took me to the next valley over and I had a dry ride throughout! The climb itself is perhaps the most beautiful climb in the World! Ok, that may be a stretch but nice pavement, a consistently hard grade, and a series of small villages perched on the mountain side, made for a truly memorable experience. I rode about 8Km up to the village of La Collette, which is about 1/2 way up the Sabot. The weather higher up looked a little dicey so I decided to descend and ride another nearby route, the Col de la Confession. This great little road winds up the mountain to Villard Reculas, another of the story book villages dotting the mountains in the area. The road narrows above the town and continue to the top of the pass before a great little descent to the village of Huez just above the infamous “Dutch Corner.” By this time it was after 8pm and I was rewarded with a nearly empty road for the descent back to Bourg d’Oisans. It is amazing to me that on a Saturday night, a mere two days after the Tour de France has passed, I had the whole of the road as my private playground for a few minutes, awesome!
Mont du Chat
17.3 miles – 4,114 feet of climbing in 1:43
I first saw this amazing road while watching the 2017 Criterium du Dauphine and knew I wanted to ride it. Further research noted that it is one several lists of France’s “best climbs” and my mind was set. I have to say that I was a bit intimidated by the climbs and abandoned my previously built Strava ride that was some 80 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing, opting instead to head straight to the main course. What a course it is! 8 kilometers at 10% average grade is exactly as hard as it sounds. The road is a heavier pavement, but generally smooth and predictable both up and down. There was an excess of traffic going up and down so you had to keep your wits about you lest you end up on the front of a fast moving moto or car! The climb took just over an hour and includes 10 switchbacks and about a thousand other little turns that make the descent fun, and sometimes nerve wracking. It was easy to spot the turn where Richie Porte flipped himself out of the race about 2Km into the 15min descent (I might have stopped a time or two for pictures). Difficult and great! From there I drove to Annecy to pick up my riding buddy Yuwen who would spend the rest of the trip exploring with me.
Col du Forclaz and Col des Aravais
Forclaz – 5 miles – 2,055 feet of climbing in 1:20
Aravais – 9 miles – 1,400 feet of climbing in 0:47
We awoke the next day for a quick breakfast before heading out to find a rental bike for Yuwen so we could ride around the lake. Once we hit the bottom of the lake we couldn’t help but tackle the nearby Col de Forclaz – I mean why not, right? The climb was the easiest so far, although in fairness I did it on my 16lb Neil Pryde race bike while Yuwen tackled it on a 35+ pound hybrid, so we know who the real champion of the day is! From the top the views of the lake were stupendous, punctuated by the overhead flights of dozens of people parapenting their way off the mountain.
The next day we headed up to La Clusaz to tackle a small version of the Col des Aravais, a classic little climb up to a gorgeous summit, peaked by a small church and stunning mountains all around.
Lacets de Montvernier and Col du Chaussey
24.4 Miles – 3,894 feet of climbing in 2:30
You’ve seen the pictures and wanted to ride it. Iconic and gorgeous the “laces” of Montvernier were part of this years Tour and simply look amazing! The secret benefit is that they are merely the starting point to a really great climb called the Col du Chaussey, which continues up another 10Km at 8% for 2,438 feet of elevation. Some killer views and cute little villages along the way led to the summit where we had a well earned Coke and conversation with a couple of Belgian guys before descending back to our base in Saint Jean du Maruienne. Good day.
Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier
39 miles – 7,750 feet of climbing in 3:55
The second really big ride of the trip. 34Km to the top if you include the Col du Telegraphe. Pretty cool climbing, though not much to see on Telegraphe. After a 5Km descent, you then roll along up the valley as you leave Valoire for about 10Km before a right turn over a small bridge and the real action starts. The final 8Km or so are quite a bit tougher, the more so as altitude gets mixed in, but so gorgeous to just stop and take in the views. Tons of cyclists on the route both ways along with a host of cars, campers and motos, each looking for the thrill of the summit. The final kilometer up from the tunnel is just grand! Felt good and strong finally. I rode back down to the tunnel so I could come up the last kilometer with my riding buddy Yuwen, who did awesome! The descent is a blast with good predictable and fun corners on the upper section and fast, mostly straight roads back into Valoire. An epic day!
Col du Mollard and Col de la Croix de Fer with a special bonus of the Col du Glandon
46.8 miles – 7,250 feet of climbing in 3:52
The Croix de Fer has been my self-described “favorite” climb in the Tour de France for quite some time. The images of the field crossing the summit, the massive crowds, the narrow roads, it just seemed like heaven to me, the quintessential Alpine Col. Then I heard about the Col du Mollard option from the awesome Cycling-Challenge website and knew that was my path to the Iron Cross! I started from the downtown apartment we had, rolling easily to the base of the climb in Villargondran and immediately started going up! Col du Mollard has about 40 switchbacks in the first 10Km and runs up just over 3,300 feet in 11 miles to arrive at the gorgeous ski town of Albiez Montrond. I stopped for a much needed espresso and Nutella Crepe before the quick drop to Belleville and the last 15 kilometers of the Croix de Fer. I knew it was 15Km, and I knew I wanted to hit it pretty hard. We’d driven down the pass a couple of days earlier in a gorgeous rain storm while driving back from a recon of Bourg d’Oisans/Alpe d’Huez. It was treacherous and thrilling to drive down the narrow roads trying to take in the epic nature of what was to come. The left turn onto the D926 started out blissfully modest and I stepped on the gas, aiming to average 250W for the remainder. Like many Alpine climbs the Croix de Fer rolls up a long valley before starting a final, brutal, ascent to the summit. In this case it was 7.5Km of 4% before I hit the village of Saint-Sorlin d’Arves and the final 7Km averaging 9%. I felt great and only made one quick stop to grab some water in town before heading up. It was everything I’d hoped. Narrow and pock marked pavement winding skyward to the next switchback it was a dream climb.
From the top it is a mere 2.5 kilometers over to the summit of the Col du Glandon, another infamous climb in the region. Yuwen rode up the Glandon and with the luck of lovers we met at the summit within a few minutes of each other, then headed back to the top of the Croix de Fer before descending the Glandon back to the car. The descent was the best one of the whole trip. It starts off steep and then softens slightly making for fast and fun turn upon turn upon turn. All variety of turn strung together on perfect pavement in glorious sun as we dropped 20 kilometers and 4,600 feet to the valley below, enjoying ever moment.
Col d’Iseran and Col de la Madeline
40 miles – 5,312 feet of climbing in 3:00
The Galibier/Telegraphe and Croix de Fer/Mollard climbs really served to whet the appetite so we made a spur of the moment decision and bagged our return train to Paris the next day, instead heading to Lanslebourg so we could climb the Col d’Iseran, the highest paved pass in Europe, and it was a really great decision! From the accommodations (a little one room ski chalet) to probably the best dinner of the whole trip, we enjoyed the experience immensely. That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult. At over 9,000 feet in elevation it was a solid challenge to climb. The ride started with an ascent of the petite Col de la Madeline, 2 miles at 8% to get the sweat rolling. Then it was a leisurely ride to the base of the real climb, the final 14Km to the summit. It was a challenging ride, despite the relatively short distance and modest altitude gain. The descent, however, was the real thrill. Shortly after leaving the summit we could see the rain clouds rolling into the valley below and knew that it was going to get to us shortly. Sure enough about 5Km from the bottom we got hit with a driving wind and rain that immediately chilled thru my light rain jacket. The wind tried several times to blow me off the bike and Yuwen, several kilometers behind me and moving cautiously on wet roads, was forced to seek refuge in one of the high alpine huts used by ranchers tending herds in years gone by. She was rescued by a great Italian family while I raced ahead to get the car! It was a truly huge end to the day and a warm lunch in Bonneval Sur-Arc at the base of the main climb helped get our body temperatures back to normal for the drive to Grenoble and our waiting train.
In total I managed to ride 18 or 20 Cols, climb some 55,000 feet and ride about 385 miles of some of the most famous and inspiring roads I’ve ever been on! What else can I say about the trip except that I really hope to return again soon and explore more of the glorious Alps with clients and friends…