Road cycling in the French Alps
For a road cyclist, the French Alps can be the pinnacle of cycling achievement, writes locally-based tour leader and bike coach Rob Hawkins.
Part of one the largest mountain ranges in the world, the French Alps boast countless incredible peaks with the symbolic Mont Blanc as its centrepiece. These stunning landscapes provide the setting for year-round activities for outdoor adventurers, most notably skiing, mountaineering and of course; cycling!
The French Alps are home to world-famous Tour de France cols that offer some of the most challenging terrain to be found anywhere in the world. From the twists and turns of the iconic Alpe d’Huez to reaching the peak of the Col Du Galibier, there’s no shortage of incredible rides in this road cyclist’s paradise. To top it off, each year many of the area’s most famous cols are closed off to motorised vehicles, leaving you to enjoy the climbs and descents traffic free!
Strangely this provides a way for us cyclists to discover our inner selves and capabilities both mentally and physically. It’s a true voyage of self-discovery that’s open to all, mind over legs! It's easy to talk about the Alps in relation to cycling, but until you've experienced the challenge of a 20km climb at an altitude that can make you ask yourself where the next breath is coming from, it's hard to comprehend.
Yes, you can train for the Alps, but you really must visit to fully understand it's allure.
GUIDE TO ROAD CYCLING IN THE FRENCH ALPS
The French Alps cover a large area - and it is this that is most often overlooked when planning rides during a trip. You’d think from taking a quick glance at a two-dimensional map that you can ride an attractive looking circular route from, say, St Michel de Maurienne to Alpe d’Huez and back, after all, it’s only 150km. But hold on a second, there’s the small matter of four mountain passes to be covered in this journey with a combined climb under your own steam of over 4,500 metres. Putting this into perspective, that’s more than half the height of Mount Everest from sea level in one day on your bike! The mountains are accessible to everyone, but to get the most out of them, you need to be realistic with your goals.
I could write a book on the different cols, their gradients, scenery and Tour de France history. Some of my personal favourites are highlighted in the notes section below, but this article is about sharing an insight into how some of these monsters actually feel to ride, and how you can best prepare for the challenge. Some of the climbs will be familiar but others may not. The Alps is full of famous HC (out of category) climbs but there are plenty of others that offer a different, more personal feel to the mountains.
FAMOUS FRENCH ALPS CLIMBS
Col du Galibier
The route up from the Maurienne valley is the most travelled route as this first tackles the Col du Telegraphe, a pleasant climb once the first 5 out of 12km have been covered. You always seem to be able to sustain a steady rhythm from this point on - it’s as if someone has custom-built this climb for the main event that’s to follow. Try hard to ignore the road signs stating there’s a mere 34km to the Col du Galibier: this information can play havoc with your head!
Once over the Telegraphe and its pleasingly consistent gradient, you’ve time to hone your descending skills that will be in much needed later in the day during the short downhill to Valloire from where the remaining 17km of the climb to the summit commences.
The first kilometre after Valloire can feel like hell, a road that goes seemingly straight up with a gradient of around 10% is the first of the three-part challenge that we’re now faced with. Select an easy gear and keep things easy on yourself. In stark contrast to the last kilometre, this next section of road looks flat, and you’re tempted to push on past the Hameau de Bon Nuit - but do so at your peril! It’s a cruel trick of the eye; the gradient is actually around 7-8% in places. Resist the temptation to push too hard as you soon arrive at over 2,000 metres in altitude, and your legs and breathing pattern will be telling you that this is a very different experience now.
During the final 8km of the climb, legs continue to feel heavy, and it’s now apparent that the heart rate is not going to come down too much, so it’s all about managing pace: you’ll not be alone on the mountain suffering with these feelings. As you pass the 2km-to-go roadside marker, you realise that you are now only minutes from the top. 1km to go and you look up, the legs immediately say no but this is where your head kicks in, and determination alone will take you past the steepest section of the entire climb to the summit at 2,645 metres.
Col du Mollard
If the Galibier is a touch on the painful side, the Col du Mollard is a tranquil and infrequently visited climb. You actually feel like you’re riding it rather than being punished with every stroke of the pedal. From St Jean de Maurienne, head through the forest past Villargondran and 10 km of climbing that really pleases the legs and strokes the ego.
At times you can imagine that this is what it must feel like for a pro, gliding upwards! It’s not all plain sailing, though: there are steep sections of over 10% in the last 5km before the summit, but overall your body will thank you for choosing this col after a harder day!
Col du Glandon
Where to start? Well, at the bottom in the Maurienne valley is as good a place as any to begin a 20km climb - especially one where the final 3km are dauntingly referred to as 'The Wall': I’ll leave that to your imagination!
It's a game of two halves, this climb. Starting in the forest before popping out above the tree line, you’ll not suffer too much early on, but you certainly will later if you’ve gone too hard. After 10km you’re presented with a relentless 3km of the narrow, twisting roads of 10% or more gradient which saps all the strength from your legs and, come to think of it, just about everywhere else too. Finally, the road gives in (well I like to think it does) for a couple of kilometres before the final 3km ‘Wall’ lets you know who’s in charge. From here technique can go out of the window, I’ve seen many a rider zig-zagging their way up here cursing as they go!
Col du Chaussy
Col du where? Big is not always best, and that’s certainly the case with the Chaussy, although the summit stands nearly 1km in altitude above St Jean de Maurienne. I always like to treat myself to the Lacets de Montvernier rather than the official start to the climb, a series of tightly packed bends cut into the rock face that would look more at home on the south coast overlooking the Mediterranean rather than the Alps. Legs feel good early on, but as you climb the difficulty increases and this culminates as you approach the balcony. The road here is cut into the rock face for a couple of hundred meters and plunges all the way down to the right. It's strewn with freshly fallen small sharp rocks that must be negotiated and at times they are a welcome distraction from the drop to the right: I rarely descend in this direction even when alone - need I say more?!
This one speaks for itself, but talk to anyone that has ridden it, and you’ll get 100 different versions of how it felt on the day. Any one of those 21 bends can be a challenge; such is the severity of the gradient between them - especially earlier in the climb. If you’re a first-time visitor to the Alps, this is a must and you’ll sit back at the end knowing you’ve put your body through something special, asking yourself how you find yourself at 1,800 metres in altitude with a cold beverage on a sunny terrace, surely that’s not possible on a bike?
The first 4km alone is enough to make you want to turn around; I suffered silently for years desperate to get past Dutch corner and a more sedate experience. It never really gets easier either, but I never complain after seeing it ridden by people with one leg and others on a unicycle! I guess that sums up the variety that this ‘legend’ has to offer.
There are so many other fantastic rides: the list would just go on, so I’ll close with this; the riding is challenging, epic, fun and awe-inspiring.
Up here in the mountains, there are not as many bike shops as in the UK, and the stock is often limited. Bring a reasonable amount of spares with you: always take two tubes each day, plus gas canisters. I always take a cut-out section of an old tyre to use in case tyres get slashed by shale, which has saved many a day from being ruined over the years.
Be sure to bring a variety of cycling kit with you whichever month you visit, as the mountain weather can be unpredictable even in the height of summer.
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. Rounding the final bend of the Col du Galibier
A huge sense of achievement hits you as you look around at the glaciers and down at mountain tops you’ve passed on the way up. You never get bored with this route, no matter how many times you climb it.
2. Completing La Marmotte Sportive
Training hard for months and surviving the 5,000 metres of climbing doesn’t prepare you for the upwelling of emotion you feel when you first glimpse the finish line. A truly inexplicable sensation and a remarkable day.
3. Climbing Alpe d’Huez
It doesn’t have the greatest scenery nor is it the hardest climb by a long shot, but when ridden with a group of friends it just brings out the best in people.
4. Climbing one of the lesser known climbs
Do something different: there are plenty of small climbs like the Col du Chaussy, Col de Beau Plan and alternative routes to Alpe d’Huez via the Col de Sarenne and the like most of which offer an altogether more remote experience.
5. Descend 38km from the summit of the Col du Mont Cenis
A great climb but an even greater descent. The road surface on the Italian side was resurfaced for the 2013 Giro d’Italia and it feels like you’re descending on a billiard table - even the 10% sections on the way back up after lunch feel like 7% due to the lack of rolling resistance! Indulge in the essential ‘Chocolate Italiano’ when reaching Susa. There are stunning views across the lake at the summit.
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
Typically, you can ride in the Alps from the middle of May through until mid-October, but there are some key considerations. The snow after a regular winter usually is disappearing fast by mid-May and the passes around 2,000 metres in altitude - such as the Col du Glandon and the Col de la Madeleine - start to open around this time. Others like the Telegraphe and Mollard are accessible on a road bike from April, conditions permitting. The high passes such as the Galibier, Iseran and Izoard are frequently not open all the way to the summit until early June.
The roads in the Alps are never as busy as those in the UK, but if you want to benefit from a tranquil time then May, June and September are ideal, outside of the holiday season in France with May and September offering cooler temperatures that many of us might find more suitable for such strenuous activity! The contrast of colours in September is absolutely stunning and is a personal favourite for this reason - with generally great riding conditions.
The Tour de France takes up three weeks in July and usually is burning around the Alpine passes during the 2nd to 3rd week of the month, along with the Etape du Tour & La Marmotte Cycle Sportives. It goes without saying that the Tour is one of the best free sports events in the world, with an unrivalled atmosphere. August is a hectic time with French school holidays and can be uncomfortably hot for cycling up mountains.
Don’t get caught out by the weather. The temperature can decrease 1 degree for every 100 meters climbed, so if it’s a balmy 22 degrees in the valley, it could well be only 2 degrees at the summit of the Galibier 2,000 meters up. Always have a lightweight wind vest and long fingered gloves for long descents.
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