RoadCyclingUK’s essential guide to road cycling in the French Alps
Everything you need to know when planning a trip to the French Alps - from where to stay, to the climbs to ride
There are few places which compare to the French Alps when it comes to the mystique, challenge and pure joy of riding a bicycle.
The Tour de France has ensured the Alps are embedded in cycling folklore, thanks to the pain, suffering and glory dished out by legendary climbs including the Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galibier, Col de la Madeleine and the most famous of them all, Alpe d’Huez.
Taking on the challenge of riding the very same climbs the pros ride is a unique challenge, and entices cyclists to visit every year.
If you’re thinking about making the pilgrimage – whether to tick off some cols from your bucket list, set your best Strava segment time against the pros, or just to roll up to the Tour and sample the atmosphere – read on for our one-stop guide to road cycling in the French Alps.
When should I go?
The mountainous nature of the Alps means that, for half the year, they’re a hotbed for ski and winter sports action. Conditions are certainly not conducive for cycling and most of the major climbs are covered by snow and ice.
The key months to visit are in the summer, from May through to September, though those climbs above 2,000m, including the Col du Galibier at 2,646m, don’t usually open until early-to-mid June, depending on winter snowfall.
You expect the best guarantee of good weather in the peak summer months of June, July and August, when temperatures regularly hit 30 degrees in the valley. But be prepared – even if it’s scorching hot at the foot of a climb, it can be a very different picture at the summit, and conditions can change quickly and dramatically at any time of year the Alps.
Of course, the Tour de France passes through the Alps each year in July, making this the most popular time to visit the region if you want the full-bore experience. However, if you’re keen to avoid the crowds that the race brings, then visiting a couple of weeks before or after the race has been through is advisable. September is also an excellent time to visit if you want to avoid the crowds.
Where should I base myself?
The French Alps cover a wide area and the nature of the terrain means it’s not always easy to get from A to B, so it pays to consider your base carefully, depending on what climbs you want to hit. Luckily, there are a number of ideal options if you want to be within riding distance of the major mountain passes.
Bourg d’Oisans is a small town in the Romanche valley – and, most importantly for cyclists, lies at the base of Alpe d’Huez. In fact, Bourg d’Oisans is ideally located for a number of major climbs, including the Col du Glandon, Col de Sarenne, Col du Galibier and Les Deux Alpes, as well as plenty other lesser known ascents. The town is also well setup for cyclists and it’s little surprise Bourg d’Oisans is a popular option for roadies on pilgrimage to the Alps. Otherwise, Alpe d’Huez itself is a more scenic option and, if you can’t face the 21 hairpins at the end of the day, there’s a bus which can take you and your bike back to 1,860m.
Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, the biggest town in the Maurienne valley, calls itself the “world’s capital of uphill cycling” – and it’s easy to see why. If you want to tick off as many major Tour de France climbs as possible, then Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is a another good choice, with the Galibier, Glandon, Madeleine and Croix de Fer within close reach, as well as the beautiful Lacets de Montvernier, which starred in the 2015 Tour. La Chambre is another base close by or, if you head further into the Maurienne valley, then Lanslebourg provides convenient access to the Col de l’Iseran, which is the highest paved mountain pass in the Alps, and Mont Cenis on the Italian border.
Morzine is ski and snowboard resort in winter and an action sports hub in summer. The town sits at the base of the Col du Joux Plane – the final climb and descent of the 2016 Tour de France. Other key climbs within close range are the Col De Ramaz – another Tour regular – and the Col de la Joux Verte. Otherwise, Morzine itself is an excellent base for a number of other sports, particularly mountain biking in the Portes du Soleil area, if you want an all-action holiday, and the town has an excellent range of restaurants and bars for post-ride recovery.
Situated on the north shore of the lake of the same name, Annecy hosted the Etape du Tour in 2013, on the same stage on which Nairo Quintana was victorious up the final climb of Semnoz. The town itself is beautiful – sometimes dubbed the Venice of the Alps thanks to its network of canals – and another top base for a trip which includes more than cycling. La Semnoz looms large over the town, and has five routes to the summit, while the Col de la Colombière is the closest major Tour de France climb. However, Annecy is a better bet if you want to experience some of the Alps’ lesser-known (and, in terms of elevation, lower) climbs, some of which offer stunning views of the lake.
Further south, Briançon is a picturesque fortified town which provides easy access to the 2,360m Col d’Izoard. The south ascent of the Col du Galibier is another Tour giant within riding distance and, closer to the town, the Col du Granon is an equally tough climb but off the beaten track, rising for 16.5km at an average gradient of 7.2%. From Briançon, you can also ride to Italy via the ski resorts of Montgenèvre and Sestriere, which has featured in the Tour de France.
Continue towards Nice and you’ll find Barcelonnette – another climber’s paradise but located in the southern Alps and off the typical tourist track. The Col de la Bonette, used four times in the Tour de France, is the main draw, rising to 2,715m (or 2,802m if you continue to the Cime de la Bonette – the highest paved road in France). There’s plenty more besides, including the jaw-dropping Col d’Allos and Col de la Cayolle.
The French Alps are a cyclist’s playground, and there are countless climbs to ride, whether you want to ride Tour de France cols or head away from the crowds and explore the unknown ascents of the Alps. However, here are five big hitters to whet your appetite.
It’s not the longest, highest or steepest climb, but it’s almost certainly the most famous and recognisable ascent in the French Alps. Italian legend Marco Pantani holds the official record for the 14.454km timed ascent from Bourg d’Oisans at 37’ 35” (although Colombian Nairo Quintana holds the ‘untainted’ record in 39’ 22”). However, for most mere mortals scaling the 21 hairpins in under the hour mark is a fantastic benchmark achievement. If you visit the climb on Tour day, be sure to check out Dutch Corner, perhaps the most raucous bend in all of cycling.
Length: 14.45km from Bourg d’Oisans, 13.2km from the base Average gradient: 8.1% Elevation gain: 1,071m
Cols du Galibier and Télégraphe
The Galibier can be scaled from the north or south, and it’s the northern ascent from Valloire which is the most famous. The catch is that to ride this side you’ll also need to crest the ‘Gateway to the Galibier’ – the Col du Télégraphe – as well, turning the ride into something of an epic. Taken in this order on the Marmotte sportive (along with the Col du Glandon and Alpe d’Huez) is one of cycling’s greatest challenges. The views from the top overlooking the snow-covered La Meije and Massif du Pelvoux mountains make the oxygen-starved ride the top worthwhile.
Col du Télégraphe
Length: 11.8km Average gradient: 7.8% Elevation gain: 856m
Col du Galibier (from Valloire) Length: 18.1km Average gradient: 6.9% Elevation gain: 1,245m
Col de la Madeleine
There are two ways up the Madeleine, each with its own challenge – it’s one of the toughest climbs in the Alps, but also one of the most beautiful. The route from La Chambre (close to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne) is 19km long with no let up in the 8% gradient from bottom to top, while the huge 28.3km ascent from Augueblanche is shallower at an average of 5.4%, but don’t be fooled; there’s a short 3km descent in the middle, after which you’ll be challenged with the final 12km at an average of 7.4% gradient with sections of 10%.
South from La Chambre Length: 19km Average gradient: 8% Elevation gain: 1,529m
North from Augueblanche
Length: 28.3km Average gradient: 5.4% Elevation gain: 1,540m
Lacets de Montvernier
The Lacets de Montvernier is the wildcard here, because it’s only 277m high. But what it lacks in length or difficulty, it more than makes up for in drama, with the 3.4km road packing in 18 hairpin bends. You may remember it from the 2015 Tour de France, when TV viewers worldwide were captivated by the climb’s majesty.
Length: 3.4km Average gradient: 8.5% Elevation gain: 277m
How to get there
The two major airports that serve the Alps are Geneva and Lyon. Both offer direct flights to and from several UK airports and are within reasonable transfer distance of the Alps. Turin is the closest airport to Briançon, while Nice serves Barcelonnette.
Eurostar offer a direct service from London St. Pancras to Lyon year round, while with a change in Paris you can catch a connection to Grenoble on the edge of the Alps.
Of course, you can choose to stick your bike on a rack and drive to the Alps. The shortest Channel crossing is to Calais via the Eurotunnel or ferry, although Brittany Ferries also offer options from Plymouth, Poole and Portsmouth to the French mainland.
Package tour or DIY trip?
There are two fundamental ways to get organised for your trip: by using a tour operator to do the legwork for you, or by organising it yourself – and there are pros and cons to both options.
A tour operator will take much of the hassle out of your trip and most will take care of everything once you’ve arrived, from airport transfers to hotel bookings, routes to bike hire. You’ll find options to suit a range of options but the downside of going this way is (sometimes) the cost and that you are largely bound by the itinerary of the trip.
Alternatively, you can arrange to visit the area yourself, which can be cheaper and gives much more flexibility because you’re not tied to a set itinerary. Want to wake up in the morning, look at a map and pick out a climb to ride? Then you’re better off on a DIY trip. There are a range of campsites deep in the area which offer a more outdoorsy feels, while there are also plenty of chalets, holiday homes and hotels peppered around the towns, village and resorts of the Alps.
Preparation – your bike, gearing and what to take
Riding in the French Alps is both a beautiful and challenging experience, but like all adventures on unknown terrain you need to be prepared for whatever the mountains can thrown at you.
Firstly, you need to consider the terrain. This means making sure that your bike is setup to deal with prolonged climbs – unlike almost anything we have here in the UK – so you’re not left at the side of the road, defeated. While very strong climbers may prefer a standard double 53-39 chainset or (more likely) semi-compact 52-36t chainset, most riders will appreciate a compact 50-34t chainset paired to an 11-28t cassette. If you know if you know climbing really isn’t your strength, opting for a cassette with a 30 or 32-tooth sprocket (if your bike will accept it) will give you an extra gear or two to get out of jail.
Gearing will only get you so far. Ensuring you’re well-trained for the climbs and distances you’re going to be covering will go a long way to making the trip a more enjoyable experience. A route planning tool like Strava will help you plot your routes, as well as gauge the length and severity of the climbs you’re set to take on.
All year round, the weather in the Alps can change very quickly, so it’s important to be ready for this. Especially in early and late summer, within the space of a week you can experience temperatures of up to 40 degrees on the road with bright sunshine, or barely reach double digits with heavy rain, and even hail and snow at the highest passes.
This means it’s advisable, along with taking your summer kit, to also pack arm and leg warmers, a waterproof jacket, a gilet, long-fingered gloves and shoe covers. Remember, the temperature can also drop significantly as you gain elevation, and you need to descend these mountains as well as climb them, so having packable kit you can take with you on the bike, to pull on and off as required, is also recommended.
You also need to ensure that you’re carrying at least the spare equipment you would have for a normal ride at home, with extra spares in your luggage just in case. This should include spare tubes, tyre levers, and a pump or CO2 canisters, as well as puncture repair kit, a versatile multi-tool (some may even want to bring a toolkit for larger repairs back at base), and anything you may need over the course of your trip, including chain lube and the charger for an electronic groupset, if you have one.
Remember that airlines have strict rules about what can and can not be carried in hand luggage, so be sure to check this before flying out. You should also factor in the cost of transporting a bike box in the hold if you intend to fly with your own bike, and make sure it meets the airline guidelines.
Did you know?
While we normally associate the Alps as being largely French, there are in fact eight countries that share the Alpine ranges: France, Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia, Liechtenstein and Monaco. It’s fairly common for the Tour de France to head into these other countries during a mountain stage, with Sestriere in Italy being one of the most famous towns, and the 2016 to visit Switzerland.
Events and sportives you might want to try
L’Etape du Tour – the Etape is operated by the ASO, organisers of the Tour de France, and usually held over an important mountain stage of that year’s race, either in the Alps or Pyrenees. Held on closed roads, it’s normally run around a week before the pro riders get their chance.
La Marmotte – the Marmotte is one of the most famous and challenging sportives in the world, and takes in the climbs of the Glandon, Télégraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez over a 174km looped route. This one also has a usual time slot, normally held in the first Saturday in July each year.
Haute Route Alps – instead of just one single ride, the Haute Route Alps ties together seven consecutive stages around the region, totaling more than 800km with plenty of climbing naturally thrown in for good measure.
Paris-Nice Challenge – a relatively new sportive run by the ASO, this one forms a ‘gentle’ introduction to sportive cycling in the lower Alps. Taking place on the very southern edge of the Alps, it’s March date provides an early season test and coincides with the Paris-Nice pro race.
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