Riding in the French Alps – Part deux

Riding in the mountains is addictive. The drug comes with its own highs and lows, pleasures and pains. Thankfully the former are great enough to help you forget the latter. Half way through my cycling holiday in the French Alps (part one here) and I was compelled not only to climb but to ride into oblivion.

Rested and bulging with carbohydrates thanks to a day trip to Italy, I was ready to pick up the pace. It was time to tackle the last of my famous French climbs with a little more gusto, or panache if you will. The twin wonders of the Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer waited. Oh and saving the worst for last, the vastly overrated Alpe d’Huez, the only mountain in the world without a summit. Never meet your heroes and all that.

Addiction is… a state characterised by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences.

Day 4 – Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer

Col du Glandon summit cycling

Glandon hairpins

The furnace began to cool as the French heatwave dissipated. The early morning chill called upon my goosebumps on the way to climb Col du Glandon. Brrrr.

With a short loop planned and my legs fresh from the rest day, this climb would be less tourist amble and more of a tempo ride. Within reason of course. The turbo was being saved for the final day ascent of Alpe d’Huez.

Col du Glandon is a beautiful but stiff challenge. Regularly hitting and holding 10% for 33 km to a summit that stands tall at 1,924 metres. Legs strong, I felt invincible demolishing the lower slopes with little effort. The road passed so quickly I seemed to be skipping every other kilometre marker, or bornes as they are called locally.

The pace soon took its toll. Seven kilometres remaining, my body pleaded for respite. Ha! Head down and face grimacing like a bulldog chewing toffee, I did my best to maintain my pace. Relief and bewilderment hit me as I rounded the famous winding hairpins near the summit whilst trying to enjoy the views behind me. Spectacular.

Three kilometres to go, two, yes, come on push, ignore the 11% grind, almost there and bang, done! My favourite climb of the Alps. Scenic, challenging and barely a soul or car on the way up.

Breath caught, I took the relatively short and sedate climb to the summit of the Croix de Fer. Here the scene impressed ever more with views to the valley below and snow-capped mountains in the distance. The ride back to base at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne was equally lovely with plenty of sweeping corners on a well paved road.

Route and GPX file on Strava: Col du Glandon

Day 4 – Alpe d’Huez

Mountain table mat for cycling

No escape from the mountains

So to the Alpe. Mythological in modern times thanks to a certain race and its crazy fans. Anyone who saw the pros cycle through the tunnel of noise that is Dutch Corner in this year’s race cannot but fail to be impressed.

Yet the non-Tour climb is a different beast entirely. Busy with cars rather than drunken fans, the mountain is a ghost of its race day self and a poor imitation of nearby climbs. The views meagre, Huez also has possibly the worst finish of any mountain climb anywhere in the world. In fact, Alpe d’Huez is possibly the only mountain in the world without a summit.

I arrived at Bourg d’Oisans after a stunning drive up and over the Col du Glandon. Warm up non-existent, I hit the lower slopes of the Alpe pushing my ridiculous lowest gear of 39*25 as hard as I dared (note to self, buy bigger rear gear). The opening few kilometres of this beast are unrelenting, pitched at 10%, sometimes 11%, ready to exploit any physical or mental weakness.

Not that I noticed. I was on a mission. On I pushed, past the stragglers, past the first timers, past the resters at hairpin #2, past the mountain bikers spinning gears granny would be ashamed of. The Alpe may be a crap climb but the mystique and lure of this famous ascent does get people on bikes and anything that gets people on bikes is a good thing.

On and up, I did my best to block out the heavy car traffic and the fact my heart rate was so high and my water supply so low. Push on! And so I did until… a red traffic light. On a mountain climb. One I was busting my balls on. Argh.

Tick, tock. Strava would not be happy. Light green, so too was I, my anger switching me into hulk mode. I quickly returned to my former pace. There was no way I was completing my alpine tour without leaving everything I had on the road. To hell with Strava, my legs shall know the truth!

Before I knew it the summit was approaching. But which summit? The official Tour de France summit of Alpe d’Huez requires the navigation of a couple of er, roundabouts, a strange requirement for a mountain climb. Fortunately I had the weird finish plotted into my Garmin GPS and so I followed the official route which took me up a closed road and er, through a bustling pedestrianised market. What a farce!

I slowed to a crawl and rolled slowly past the local cheeses and honeys, my target time up Huez disappearing as fast as the dignity of this so-called great climb.

In cycling you can ride the roads of your heroes, a saying which is for the most part true. Not so on Alpe d’Huez. This is a very different climb to that which the pros tackle on the Tour. There’s no fans cheering you on, sure, this I can accept (just!), it’s the non-existent summit and the route there that disappoints and the er, roundabouts. On the plus side you can refuel at the busy market you need to pass through!

That said, Alpe d’Huez is still one of cycling’s icons. It is certainly a great challenge given its vertiginous slopes. Maybe if I had climbed Huez before the other, much superior local climbs then I would have enjoyed it more.

The red light? The market? Sure, the climb would have been better without them but I still left my legs on the road and enjoyed a reasonable time to the top. What’s more the descent into the valley behind the Alpe coupled with the climb of the Col du Sarenne make for a fabulous alpine cycle route.

My ride in the French Alps over, I wanted to start all over again. Simply magical. The views, the sense of achievement, the descents, the awesomeness of both the land, and of course, yourself. C’est magnifique.

Route and GPX file on Strava: Alpe d’Huez

Read part one of Cycling in the Alps or check out my advice for riding in the Alps below.

Cycling in the Alps - The views

Tips for cycling in the alps

Thinking about it? Don’t, just do it! It really is as good as your dreams. Here’s my advice:

  • Go slow on descents. There’s no prize for the most road rash.
  • Be mentally prepared. 90% of climbing these beasts is brain work. The rest is leg work.
  • How do you train for riding mountains?. Ride at tempo for an hour or two and you’ll be ready for the mountains. The hills of the UK are incomparable (too steep, too short) so you’re better off powering out high tempo rides on the flat than crunching out short hill reps.
  • Take water and look out for mountain juice a.k.a water stops. You’re looking for ‘eau potable’, usually a fountain of mountain water in pretty much every other village below 1,000 metres.
  • Ride Alpe d’Huez. Once. Ticked off, head to better climbs. Tackle the climb before other climbs too if you can, and then it may not seem so disappointing.
  • Stay in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. The perfect location for all of the big climbs above. I drove to Huez but you could ride there over Glandon or the Galibier as part of an epic day. Or skip it entirely, there’s much better climbs nearby.
  • Look up and enjoy the views. Reward for the pain.
  • Forget Col de l’Iseran. I had considered this climb as it is the highest pass in the region but was glad not to have endured the ride there which is awful (I drove it). There’s even road signs advising cyclists to get the train (or drive) further up the valley.
  • Mont Cenis is amazing. As above, the ride there goes up the base of Iseran and is pretty miserable. Again, I drove there.
  • Explore even when not cycling. A car is great and will get to the unbelievably turquoise waters of Lake Annecy. Brrr, icy mountain water. It really does have to be seen to be believed, a Mediterranean-like beach and ocean in the middle of the mountains.
  • Nothing is easy. Not the climbs nor getting to the Alps. The only easy way to get to the Alps is to live there. I drove 11 hours straight from London. Beats a plane, train and hitchhike.
  • Eat well, drink even better. Goes without saying but this is a struggle in St Jean, one of the few bad points about the village. Hard to believe you can’t find a decent restaurant without it costing the earth. This is France for christ sake, right? Not so, you’ll find lots of pizza or overpriced badly cooked food in restaurants more used to catering for the skiing crowd. Go freestyle at the large supermarket in town for all of your self-catered carb and protein needs.
  • Don’t over do it. I had originally planned some monster rides. Both in distance and height. Fortunately I saw sense. In the end I climbed over 12,500 metres in under 200 miles over 4 days. This was perfect and allowed me to cover all of the major climbs with relatively fresh legs. These climbs should be enjoyed not endured.
  • Go there now. With this excellent virtual tour of all the summits.

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Croix de fer summit cycling


11 thoughts on “Riding in the French Alps – Part deux

  1. Pingback: Road cycling in the French Alps – Climbs, routes, pain and awe | The Human Cyclist

  2. I was lucky(?) enough to go up Alpes d’Huez a couple of times during the 100th Tour, the first time I had to stop and hide under a bush for a while, 40° and meandering all over the road, near a big drop, whoops recipe for disaster. The second time was the morning of the Tour and was amazing in a totally different way, thousands of cyclists going up, folk pushing you on and cheering you almost all the road, madness through Dutch corner and diversion round the back near the top, crazy but what an experience! With my white beard & Scottish fly I also ascended to cries of Le Diable Ecosse, Le Diable Ecosse in honour of the guy with the red devil outfit who jumps around during the Tour. he was there as well with his bike decorated like the Eiffel Tower. Altogether a strange disconcerting experience totally unlike any other cycle I’ve done. so may be that’s the way to do it? Plus the descent of the Col de Sarrenne, just pure unadulterated joy.


    • That sounds like quite the experience, must be great with all of the fans. I always enjoy it whenever somebody leans out of their car to cheer me on so your climb sounds great. That’s definitely the way to do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Stayed in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne the past two weeks. I love the region, have been there several times (and more to come) and don’t completely agree with all your tips…
    * Iseran: yes it’s far from St Jean, but take the time to drive to Modane or Lanslevillard en start there. It’s a nice quiet road and the further you get into the valley the better it gets. The climb itself is beautiful once you turn left into the Valley. Just bring dry clothes, a wind stopper and arm/leg pieces because once you are blown away (wind) and cold.
    * Mont Cenis, drive to Lanslebourg or Lanslevillard to start the climb immediately or park your car in Modane so you get some KM’s as warmup.
    * For a swim, no need to get all the way to Lac d’Annecy (although the city is beautiful enough to stay a few days). In the Maurienne valley there are a few “Plan d’eau’s” or Swim lakes. Closest to St. Jean is Plan d’eau des Oudins at Villargondran (free). Great when you return from Col du Mollard. Next up is Lac Blue in Saint-Rémy-de-Maurienne (free). Great when you return from the Croix de Fer, Glandon or Madeleine. Last is Plan d’Eau des Hurtières at Saint-Alban-d’Hurtières (about € 1,50 pp) which is great when you return from the grand Cucheron.
    * Food, there you have a point. There are not that many nice bars and restaurants in St. Jean, probably because it is surrounded with ski villages up the mountains with loads of them. However, if you go to St. Jean I can highly recommend Le Gavroche at Place du Marché. You get a 3 course menu (à la carte) + free apetizer for € 29,- and Da Pinocchio accross the street which is from the same owner and a mix between a pizzeria and Gavroche (not just pizza).


    • Thanks John-Pierre, some great tips, especially where to go swimming. My trip to Annecy was a local tip for a day trip and I didn’t actually go swimming! The water was very cold so perhaps we should recommend a wet suit!

      Agree on Pinocchio too, had a great pizza there. The climbs are all fine if you have a car and can drive past the earlier roads otherwise the other climbs are far more convenient. One thing is for sure, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to cols and scenic routes from St Jean. I miss it already.


    • So true, been there 3 times now and there is still one col left on the list. Also did some round trips this year with more options to go. Additional options are to climb the coll from the other side (Galibier, Madeleine, Croix de Fer, Iseran) so park your car on the top and downhill + climb on the other side, or just both sides if you are in perfect shape ;o)


    • Parking the car at the top is a sound idea, that avoids any monster trips. The Madeleine from the north is meant to be great. What was your favourite climb or ride? Glandon for me. So peaceful first thing in the morning.


    • Great route, will have to take on the Mollard next time. Always good to roll back for the last part of the ride too, one of the great rewards of mountain climbing.


  4. Pingback: Why do cyclists climb mountains? | The Human Cyclist

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