Colconquerors - Cycling Holidays French Alps

Riding the alps, is it all glamour?

Rob Hawkins

For a road cyclist the French Alps can be the pinnacle of cycling achievement. Famed by the Tour de France the region offers some of the most challenging terrain to be found anywhere. Strangely this offers 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 of us, mind over legs - Is this really the ultimate challenge on 2 wheels?

It’s easy to talk about the Alps in relation to cycling but until you’ve experienced the challenge of a 20km long climb at an altitude that can make you ask yourself where the next breath is coming from it’s hard to fully comprehend.

Yes, it’s possible to train for the alps but you really must visit to fully understand it’s draw (not to mention the ability to make us suffer!). Michael Cotty who I met filming in Valloire has produced the stunning accompanying video of the Galibier that will certainly help set the scene.

A quick flight with airlines that are increasingly aware of how to treat our huge boxes of luggage containing our stead means we can enjoy an alpine cycling holiday easier than ever before. Once you’ve arrived in the alps there’s a multitude of options ranging from the ‘go it alone’ approach through to all in trips that allowing you to to get the most out of your trip by leveraging the experience of those of us that love to share our passion for the sport and experience of riding through this stunning terrain.

The Alps is a huge 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 map that you can ride an awesome looking circular route from St Michel de Maurienne to Alpe d’Huez and back, after all it’s only 150km, how hard can it be? Closer inspection highlights that there’s the small matter of four mountain passes to be covered in this proposed alpine epic with a vertical ascent of over 4500 meters. If we put this into perspective that’s more than half the vertical of Mount Everest from sea level on your bike with no sherpas in sight!! The mountains are accessible to all but to get the most out of them you need to be realistic with your goals, after all you know your limits don’t you?

I could pen a huge post on the different cols, their gradients, scenery and Tour de France history and indeed many have been written however this article is not about this, rather it’s about sharing an insight into how some of these beasts actually feel to ride and how you can best prepare for the challenge. Some of the climbs will be familiar but others may not immediately spring to mind.

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 alps. The Col du Chaussy next year finally make an appearance in the Tour and if that wasn’t enough the tight bends of the Lacets de Montvernier also make an appearance. What more can we ask from a tour?

Here’s a personal perspective on how some of these giants feel…

Col du Galibier

The Galibier is a stupendous alpine challenge wherever you start from, south from the Col du Lauteret or North from St Michel de Maurienne. One thing is for sure, that is the higher you get the harder it becomes as the volume of oxygen available to service our weary muscles reduces. The route up from the Maurienne valley (St Michel de Maurienne) is the most traveled route as this first tackles the Col du Telegraphe, a steady climb once the first 5 out of 12 kilometers have been covered. You always seem to be able to sustain a steady rhythm from here on and it’s as if someone has custom built this climb as a warm-up for the main event that’s to follow. Should we look at the signs telling us there’s a meager 34km to the summit? Yes you should! Try hard to ignore these or else the voices of doubt will start playing havoc inside your head!

Now the Telegrpahe is over and done with, you’ve time to sharpen your descending skills that will be in much demand later in the day during the short 5km descent down to Valloire. It’s from here that the remaining 17km’s of the climb to the summit commences. What more can we ever want on a bike than this?

Col du Galibier alpine climbing at it's best

The first kilometer after Valloire feels like hell, a road that heads seemingly straight up with a gradient of around 10% is the first of the three part challenge that we’re now faced with - How long does this go on? Select an easy gear and keep things easy on your self here, keep the powder dry for later (and we’re not talking doping here!). If the Telegraphe was preparation, the next 7km of road is the a warning prior to the final assault. In stark contrast to that first kilometer after Valloire 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! This is a cruel trick of the eye and one that curtails many a La Marmotte aspiration, the gradient is actually around 7-8%, in places as steep as the Telegraphe. Pushing too hard here can be near suicidal especially if you want to keep something back in the legs for the top, resist the temptation to push too hard - Important to look good at the finish isn’t it? You’ll soon arrive at over 2000 meters in altitude and your legs and breathing pattern will be telling you that this is a very different experience now.

As you start the final 8km of the climb legs burn and your heart rates increase to a level infrequently seen on our Garmins but how much harder can it get? Legs continue to feel heavy and it’s now obvious that the heart rate is not going to come down too much so it’s all about managing pace, you’ll never be alone on the mountain suffering with these thoughts.

As you pass the 2km to go roadside marker, and how welcome these countdowns can be, you realise that there you are now only minutes from the top. A kilometer 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 2645 meters.

I’ve lost count of the times people have looked towards the final KM and wearily gestured upwards whilst mutterning the words “up there Rob?”. Hard yes, rewarding definitely, are we riding the other side? Let’s see after lunch!

Col du Mollard

If the Galibier is a touch on the painful side then the Col du Mollard is tranquil and not frequently visited with the added benefit that you actually feel like you’re riding it rather than being punished with each pedal stroke. You have three, yes three options to climb the Mollard but a favourite is one of two starting points from St Jean de Maurienne. Starting off you’ll head through the forest past Villargondran and 10 km of climbing that really pleases the legs whilst stroking your ego at the same time, at times you can actually imagine that this is what it must feel like for a pro although that feeling doesn’t last for long! You’d be wrong in thinking that it’s all a walk in the park, 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 and the views at the summit are nothing short of exceptional.

Col du Mollard alpine climb with Colconquerors

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 a 1000 meters above St Jean de Maurienne at 1533 meters. 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 over looking 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 literally plunges all the way down to the right. The road is 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! The pro peleton are in for a real treat next summer and our Strava times on this climb will never look quite the same again!

Alpe d’Huez

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 and 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 after only 12 kilometers you find yourself at 1800 meters in altitude with a cold beverage on a sunny terrace, surely that’s not possible on a bike?

The first 4km alone are 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 Uni-Cycle! I guess that sums up the variety that this ‘legend’ has to offer.

Once again the 2015 edition of the Tour de France has a grandstand finish on the Alpe where surely the tour will be decided before heading north to Paris.

When can you cycle in the alps?

Typically you can ride in the Alps from mid May until mid October. The snow after a regular winter is normally disappearing fast by mid May and the passes around 2000 meters in altitude like the Col du Glandon and Col de la Madeleine begin to open around this time. Others like the Telegraphe and Mollard are accessible on a road bike from April but always be aware of run off from melting snow on descents. The high passes such as the Galibier, Iseran and Izoard tend not open all the way to the summit until early June but there’s always a huge amount to climb from May onwards.

Alpine roads are never as busy as the UK but if you want to benefit from a really quiet time then May, June and September are ideal as they fall outside of the French holiday season. May, June 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 favorite and riding conditions are superb.

If I could only ride one?

Has to be the Galibier - I still feel a huge sense of achievement when I get to the summit and look around at the glaciers and down at the mountain tops you’ve passed on the way up. I’ll never get bored with this climb, special full stop.

A guest last summer concluded: - “Cols are steep, Alps are beautiful” and I have to agree!