Road cycling in the French Alps – Climbs, routes, pain and awe

Galibier The French Alps. A cyclist’s nirvana but with the addition of suffering, a strong sense of self and an even stronger desire to cycle forever. So nothing like nirvana then. Too much torture to be heaven too. A rapture then, for here you are transported from earth to heaven or your sins are punished accordingly. Will you be left behind?

Famous mountains open to all. Rider’s heads go down as the roads head up. A struggle ensues, the victor never certain until, yes, almost there, boom, the summit. As many emotions as heart beats.

The grind over, your legs stop spinning and are no longer uncertain of their purpose. Your eyes re-focus. The summit view only outdone by the sense of accomplishment. And the need for a lie down.

Day 1 – Galibier the Goliath

Up early to beat the heat, 37 degrees is not weather it’s cooking. The horizon a wall of mountains. You feel small, insignificant. Awestruck. It is inconceivable you will ride over such colossals.

The comfort of my hotel behind me, ahead, a car driving straight at me. I’m cycling on the wrong side of the road. The driver more surprised than me. Yet there is no beeping of horn, no angry gesture of hand. No swear words in a language I would not understand, no spittle from a rage I know all too well. Must remember. You’re in France you idiot! You drove the length of it yesterday. Oh, and drink more coffee at breakfast.

The short ride to the base of Col du Galibier awkward, my legs stiff after a week of idling. Roaring rivers of mountain water beside me, chalky, bluer than the late night movies your mom pretends you never watch.

I enjoy the scenery as much as the warmth. Seven a.m. Hotter than hell’s sauna. Already. Sweat forms whenever I slow, arms and legs glistening.

Col du Telegraph

Climb time. Up first the Col du Telegraph, 1,566 metres and 17 km in length (10.5 miles). The col begins like an algebra lesson, the immediacy of the 10% gradient difficult to understand. Heart pounding, my legs are too fresh to know any better. Muscles shocked, they shake. Ten percent turns to six, the gradient more manageable, my legs tricked into thinking I’ve hit a down hill. Almost.

Tall trees guard the road, their shadows my protectors, shelter from the fireball above. What the climb has in gradient it lacks in charm. The single meagre view near the summit is little comfort before a welcome descent guides you to the foot of the Col du Galibier. Entrée complete, I await the main course.

Col du Galibier

Col du Galibier summit cyclingThe Galibier contradicts for first you must descend before you can climb. Freewheeling to a minor recovery, it’s best to avert your eyes as you pass through yet another charmless ski resort. They must look better covered with snow.

The col touches the sky at 2,645 metres. You know you’re climbing into the clouds when you begin a climb when you’re already at 1,566 metres. High? Sure. Long? Oh yes. Including the Telegraph, the col is 48.9 km, making for over 30 miles of climbing.

My legs hit the snooze button on the descent perhaps thinking they are done. Sun beating down, my leg strength evaporates and I turn the pedals with the grace of a new born foal on ice.

The grinding soon begins. The luscious green valley beside me seems not to move, the horizon fixed. The smell of piss. Goats. Grazing in slow-motion beside the road, as oblivious to my struggles as they are to their stench.

Not so the swarms of flies. Buzzzzz, buzz. Kamikaze dive bombing, my ear canal the target. I don’t recall mention of such pests in the glossy tourist guides.

The kilometre markers tick by one by one, slower than the hands of the clock a child stares at on Christmas morning. The mountain ramps up to 8, 9, 10%, where it remains. My foe predictable now at least. My sweat thickens as the air thins and my breath shortens.

Hairpins allow respite. The shade long gone. Snow here and there, despite the furnace. On I push. Cyclists spinning backwards in my wake. The views ahead and behind amazing.

The final kilometre. A malfunctioning sprint finish empties what remains of my legs, the no-nonsense summit seemingly arriving from nowhere, the mountain top thankfully lacking the usual alpine restaurant and car park. The view to the west endless, stealing my last gasp. My first alpine climb done. Brilliant.

Route and GPX file on Strava: Col du Galibier and Telegraphe

Day 2 – Mighty Madeleine and Loopy Lacets de Montvernier

Col du la Madeleine summitDay one may have been the longest and highest climb of my alpine tour but I was under no illusion as to what would be the most challenging. Yet day two still surprised. Tip, never tackle an unknown climb in the French Alps willy-nilly.

First, my main climb of the day. The Col de la Madeleine is perhaps the steepest major climb in the Savoie region, not far short of a 10% gradient for the entirety of the 31 km climb, which tops out at 2,000 metres. Ouch.

The day was destined for wrong turns. The first took me to the foot of Les Lacets de Montvernier, a soon to be infamous climb when the Tour de France brings the crazy 18 loopy hairpins of this climb to the world. I had planned to tackle this rollercoaster at the end of my ride but finding myself so close, I reasoned an early morning twist and turn was better than a struggle beneath the midday sun with heavy legs. A wise choice with hindsight.

The Lacets de Montvernier is great fun. Looping up hairpin after hairpin on the narrow road, catapulting out of each dizzying turn, pace quickening each time. This climb should be ridden to the soundtrack of sirtáki, the Greek music that gets faster and faster as made famous by the Zorba the Greek film.

Cycling Lacets de Montvernier
The dizzying Lacets de Montvernier

I pushed hard near the summit. Well as hard has I dared with the knowledge of many a metre still to climb. Fun run done, I turned around and descended Les Lacets, a thrilling ride but not so when I returned at the end of my ride. More of which later.

Up next, the Col de la Madeleine. The climb kicked like a donkey right from the get go. The heat rising quicker than I. Grind, grind, grind. The distance between kilometre markers stretched and stretched with each sighting.

Fortunately the views up the climb are magnificent, the valley behind opening up with every metre gained. Before I could say ‘ouch’, I was inside the last 5 km and with 2 km to go, I held back my er, sprint, waiting for the final kilometre marker that I never did see. Still, I arrived at the top relatively fresh, the view to the east of Mont Blanc tremendous.

Big climb conquered, my day was done, or so I thought.

The descent from Madeleine was brilliant, slicing through the gentle curves down to what I thought was a short climb to the summit of the Col du Chaussy. If only. Never has a climb seemed so unending. My legs cold, they seized up after the descent of Madeleine, energy gone. Hungry, I did all I could to swallow malt loaf, barely chewing when the climb hit 11, 12%. Kill me now. The sun burnt through my thin skin, robbing me of water quicker than I could drink it.

Summit er, conquered, my battle had just begun. Ahead a winding narrow road, uneven gravel and melting tarmac on the steep descent. The road carved into the mountain, the views magnificent if you dared to look up from the terrible road surface.

Down I crept, hitting Les Lacets de Montvernier for a second time, my arms already hurting from braking so much. Twist after twist, my brakes squealed in the heat. At least I assumed it was my brakes making the noise. It could have been the tendons in my arms.

What a relief to finish. What a relief not to have to climb back up Les Lacets de Montvernier as originally planned. The heat by this time was hitting 39°C on my Garmin. I was thirsty. Tired. Yet somehow elated.

Route and GPX file on StravaLacets de Montvernier and Col de la Madeleine

Day 3 – Rest day

Mountain restaurant
Recovery food, mountain style (best lunch in France!)

Time to relax and rest my weary limbs. This was a holiday after all. Went out for a long lunch. In Italy. Well, it was carb loading day. Rested. No more Soreen. Or gels. Or warm water. Instead, a belly full of pasta and gnocchi and wine and good times. Bellissimo! Although as you can see from the image above, I enjoyed better lunches.

Rested and want more? Read part two of cycling in the French Alps.

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14 thoughts on “Road cycling in the French Alps – Climbs, routes, pain and awe

  1. I have only been back two weeks, but reading that makes me wish I was there again. Spare a thought for those doing the Etape today.

    Great read and the bit about the flys made me smile. I think the pros go too fast for them…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks cryptic cat – the mountain air certainly gets beneath the skin. Etape today? Hope the heat has cooled a little since the heatwave – sounds like we there at roughly the same time – were you out there for the Marmotte by any chance?


  2. Yes its the Etape du tour today. Loads of UK club cyclists will be out there. Yes I was at the Marmotte which was super hot.

    I am looking forward to part two…

    Pyrenees next year?




    1. Bravo on the Marmotte, quite the feat. Not sure I could enjoy such suffering! I like the look of Dolomites, which look better than the Alps if Google images is to be believed. Bit of a pain to get to though. Switzerland also looks tempting, some of their mountain passes are stunning.


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