Few things in cycling strike the emotional chords like the great mountains of France. In so many ways those giants of the Tour de France are what bike racing is all about; pain, passion and inspiration splattered along the twisted mountain roads of the Alps and Pyrenees.
Most of use are firmly attached to our TV screens during the month of July, and we’re not alone. Sports fans around the world tune in daily to watch the three-week Tour de France, the greatest, toughest and most spectacular sporting show on Earth.
The early stages have a dose of razzamatazz, with the nail biting bunch sprints and heroic solo breakaways. But it’s when the race hits the mountains that the true battle for the yellow jersey starts.
By the time the peloton reaches the mountains the race is already taking shape. The jaded and sun dazed racers approach the foothills of the two great French mountain ranges of the Alps and Pyrenees with a sense of fear, in the knowledge that there will be no more easy riding and no hiding.
For most it’s an excruciating battle for survival, while for a select few it’s a time to bid for glory, carving their names into the hearts of the frantic roadside fans and affirming their eternal lineage in the stories of cycling history.
They are something we all yearn to see, and probably even ride at some time or another. To most cyclists these mountains are a holy place, and a pilgrimage is a must, at least once or twice during our pedalling life.
The Alps are the more popular of the two mountain ranges, and to say the least they are stunning, and ultra tough to ride. Guarding the French-Spanish border are the Pyrenees, a far more subdued range of mountains, yet due to their nature these mountains are perhaps even tougher to crack than the Alps, with slightly heavier road surfaces, narrower valleys and steeper pitches.
Scattered between these two rocky masses are several smaller mountain ranges, and of course the “Giant of Provence,” Mont Ventoux, another true “bucket list” climb. You could spend months on the road and still not even scratch the surface of these legendary ascents, but there are a number of standout climbs that you really should not miss.
“The Alpe” has to be the most famous mountain in bike racing. It’s not the longest or the steepest, but it always comes at the end of a long day in the saddle. There’s nowhere but cafes to go to when you reach the end of the road at the top.
This is perhaps the ultimate place of pilgrimage for all cycling fans, and a must ride climb.Distance is 13.8 km, and the gradient is an average of 7.9 per cent, with 21 famed hairpins along the way to the 1,860 m summit.
Col du Galibier
This one has to rank as one of the toughest (if not the toughest) and highest of Alpine climbs. The climb is hardest when tackled from the Col du Telegraph side, which means climbing two big cols without any respite in between.
It tops out at an airless 2,646 m with an average gradient of 6.1 per cent for some 18 km, making this one gruelling climb.
Col de La Croix de Fer
One of the most feared of Alpine climbs, and a truly spectacular one too. This climb can be approached from many directions. The most challenging is to combine it with a crossing of the Col du Glandon (near twin peak).
A very narrow road climbs through the valley, which is 22 km long when combined with the Glandon, or 31 km the “easy” way. Via the Glandon, the gradient averages 7 per cent to reach the 2,067 m summit, where several small monuments adorn the roadside, including the famous “iron cross (croix de fer).”
Col de Joux Plane
The Joux Plane is one of the steepest of all Alpine climbs, and one of the most spectacular. This ferocious beast has caused many a Tour stir, although perhaps the most memorable incident came on its’ twisted descent when Lance Armstrong famously rode off the edge and down a grassy slope in order to avoid the horrific crash of Joseba Beloki.
From Samoens it’s tough 11.6 km to the 1,691 m summit, and although the average grade is 8.5 per cent, most of the pitch is at 10 per cent. The descent into Morzine is one of the most exciting.
Col du L’Izoard
With its amazing and varied scenery the Izoard ranks highly on the must ride Alpine climbs list. It sits close to Briancon, and is a regular fixture in the Tour and other major races. The climb is a touch under 16 km long, with an average 6.9 per cent grade, although in places it touches sections that are 14 per cent, making it a varied and tough ascent.
The “Giant of Provence” rises high above the plains of western Provence, boldly standing tall and alone. This huge pale-faced volcanic cone makes for one of the toughest climbs around. It’s relentless and usually hot, with the last third being exposed and gusty. On a hot day, the pale grey surface turns this climb into a furnace.
Just before the summit is a small and humbling memorial to fallen British ace Tom Simpson, who collapsed and died here in the 1967 Tour.
The toughest ride up Ventoux is from Bedoin, 21.8 km with an average gradient of around 7.4 per cent to the 1,912 m summit. There are few hairpins on this climb, which makes it torturous for the mind, not just the legs.
Col du Tourmalet
One of the original and greatest Tour climbs, and still one of the toughest. The Pyrenees seem to have a whole different character to the Alps, and the roads seem much heavier. From the historic Sainte Marie de Campan the narrow road veers up at an average gradient of 7.4 per cent for 17.2 km, the road is often shrouded in mist, and at 2,115 m tall is the highest road in the region.
Sainte Marie de Campan was where Eugene Christophe welded his bike back together during the 1903 Tour; be sure to check out the forge.
There are so many classic climbs in the Pyrenees, and most are long and gruelling. The Aubisque is another of the “original” Tour monster climbs.
The road reaches 1,709 m high, and is toughest when climbed via the Col du Soulor, making for a 30 km ascent. The gradient varies a great deal, but averages a 7 per cent gradient.
Col du Perysourde
This is what you could term a “bike rider’s climb,” which can be quite enjoyable if you’re in decent shape. It is just over 15 km long with an average pitch of just 6.1 per cent (climbing from Bagneres de Luchon) it’s a long grind, which can turn epic if you ride it after a couple of neighbouring climbs.
Col de Marie Blanque
Hard for Tour contenders, the Marie Blanque is a real system shocker. It generally comes early in a stage, and at just 9.5 km, with a summit of just 1,035 m high, it’s often underestimated. Its gradient is relentless and steep, with the last 4 km flickering between 10-12 per cent in grade.
With a full stop at its 1,720 m high summit the winding 14.7 km climb to the ski station at Luz Ardiden has become a popular mountain top stage finish in the Tour, hence is often the venue for a great climbing show down. From Luz St Sauvier, the road starts climbing very steeply, but evens out a little after 4 km. The climb has a wide open and epic feel to it, with the road neatly pinned to the sides of the open mountain. The average of the climb grade is 6.9 per cent.
Great French mountain rides
Maybe the most challenging of French permanent randonees is the Raid Pyrenean. Traversing the spine of Pyrenees from coast to coast (Atlantic-Mediterranean), stamping your carnet along the way to prove that you rode the 710 km and 43 cols in under 100 hours. www.ccb-cyclo.fr
Ride a fixed route (permanent randonee) from Thonon on the shores of Lake Geneva to Cannes on the Cote d’Azure, tackling 31 cols and taking in 740 km of classic riding along the way; an awesome Alpine ride, but it does skip many of the famous Tour climbs, for logistical reason.www.bikeevasion.chez.com
France has several permanent randonees. These are set routes from place to place. You sign up with an organising club, get a carnet and then ride the route, stamping your card at various set stations along the route as proof you rode it.
They usually carry a time limit (for certification) and are great self-ride projects. Several tour companies also run supported trips on these routes.
L’Etape du Tour, July 8th 2012
The annual “Etape” is possibly the most famous of all sportive events. It takes place along the route of a classic Tour de France stage (often on the actual TDF rest day), and riders get many of the race support frills and thrills usually only reserved for the elite pros. This year the event is an epic 152 km from Albertville to the Alpine summit at La Troussuire, which also takes in the climbs of the Madeleine, Glandon and Croix de Fer along the way.www.letapdutour.com
Time-Megeve-Mont Blanc, 10th June
A true Alpine classic challenge, with three distance options. The 145 km marathon version takes in some 3,980 m of climbing and includes the legendary cols d’Aravis and Saisses. Here you will also often find top pro riders lining up, and they are not just along for the ride.www.velo101.com
La Marmotte, July 7th
Ride 174 km over the great cols du Galibier and Telegraphe. Lautartet and the Glandon, and then crawl up the most famous of them all – the curvaceous Alpe d’Huez. La Marmotte is a true classic, and the ultimate way to experience the prime climbs of the Alps.www.bikes-oisans.com
La Mont Ventoux, 2nd June
Climbing the Giant of Provence is one of cycling’s toughest and most memorable challenges. This is another of France’s great classic events. On Saturday there’s the “cyclo” with three distance options, while Sunday is reserved for a massed start ride against the clock and the Ventoux, just so you can compare your time against Lance.www.sportcommunication.com
French mountain mist & mystery cleared
Some of the major mountain passes are open year-round, as they serve ski resorts (such as Alpe d’Huez), but most are closed from October until around May, or even June if there is still high-ground snow.
By far the best time for riding the French mountains is between June-September, although weather conditions can vary between scorching hot to freezing snow; so be prepared.
During the Tour de France thousands of fans flock to these climbs, and roads are often closed to vehicular traffic from the day before the stage arrival until long after the stage. Either go very early in the morning and ride up and down the mountain, or arrive a day before and camp out for the night (hotels are often booked out as soon as the TDF route is announced). For riding in the Alps the best access point in Geneva, which is well connected to Canada and major European cities by international and budget carriers (such as www.easyjet.com and www.ryanair.com).
For accessing the Pyrenees the small regional airports at Pau and Biarritz are good options, and are both connected to major hubs thanks to Ryanair and Air France.
If you’re not hooking up with an organised tour then a rental car is a great option, and most major rental companies have outlets at the airports (Hertz, Avis, Budget and Europcar being the most common). You can also book place-to-place hire (within France), which makes logistics easier.
If you intend to tour by bike, be prepared for all weather conditions, and travel as light as you can. The permanent randonee routes are ideal base plans for this, and are well facilitated with accommodation along the way.
When it comes to gearing, don’t be lured into attempting these climbs with the gearing that the pro’s do. These guys are super human freaks of nature, and even the slower guys often hit the bigger sprockets.
Triple and compact cranks are the way to go, with 27/28 bottom sprockets at the rear. If you go in to an over-geared battle with the mountains you will lose.
Many of the climbs also have carnet machines at their base and summit, so you can clock in and off. Usually the local “office du tourisme” carries the registration cards and certificates (sometimes for a small fee). It will say on the machine where to find the cards.