9 epic French cycling climbs that will test your mettle
© Michael Blann
These French favourites will chew you up, spit you out and – should you reach the summit – give you the biggest sense of achievement ever.
When it comes to challenging road climbs, France is pretty much the king of pain. From the Alp d’Huez to Mont Ventoux, the home of the Tour de France is one of the best places in the world to pit yourself against gravity in pursuit of sporting greatness, unbeatable views, and utter exhaustion.
But everyone and their bike-totting mums know this to be true, which means, come spring and summer, the cult climbs of France can become jammed with cyclists from far and wide trying to tick off those bucket-list ascents.
Fortunately, photographer, cycling aficionado, and author of Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs, Michael Blann, is on hand to offer up his favourite French vistas. Some you will have heard of but never attempted, some offer a fresh perspective on legendary ascents, and others are simply the stuff of cyclists' nightmares (or wildest dreams, depending on how you look at it).
From the heights of the Col du Glandon to a tight, twisting number in Savoire, these are the toughest rides France can throw your way.
1. Col du Glandon, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
|Start: River d’Allemont (near Bourg D’Oisans)|
|End: The cafe next to the Iron Cross at the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer|
|Summit altitude: 1,924m|
|Height gain: 1,472m|
|Maximum gradient: 12%|
|Average gradient: 6.9%|
Col du Glandon is one of the big climbs in the northern French Alps but is arguably not as famous as its neighbours, Alpe D’Huez and the Col du Galibier. It packs a punch though, with over 21km of climbing, starting at the River d’Allemont near Bourg D’Oisans in the south west. On the way up, you'll pass Europe’s largest dam, La Grande Maison, before topping out at 1,924m.
Riders entering The Marmotte – one of the toughest cycling sportives in the world – tackle this climb first before dropping down its particularly sinuous path to the base of the Col de la Madeleine (keeping an eye out for the various cows that stray across the road). Alternatively, the road climbs another 3km further to the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer and the cafe sited next to the Iron Cross.
2. Col de l’Aubisque, Aquitaine
Often shaded and frequently enveloped in mist due to its north-facing aspect, this Pyrenean giant has attained near-mythical status on account of its inclusion in the “circle of death” – a revered Tour de France stage route over the four toughest climbs in the Pyrenees.
The Col de l’Aubisque is tackled last after climbing the Col du Peyresourde, the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet. The climb can be broken down into three parts, starting out of the town of Argeles Gazost to the east as a gentle slope. It doesn’t really get steep until after the town of Arrens-Marsous where it takes a sharp turn and the gradient steepens as it climbs towards the Col du Soulour. Once you reach the summit of this climb after 20km there is a brief respite as the road plunges down to the Cirque du Litor – a narrow section of twisting road cut into the rock face featuring two unlit tunnels. With a sheer drop off the side, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Ex-professional cyclist Paul Sherwen once famously described an incident where he was forced to “drop” his bike onto the ground while descending in the Tour de France when he realised he wasn’t going to make a corner. The alternative would have been a plunge over the side.
After safely navigating this section the road continues its ascent to the summit and spectacular views to the east. It’s the last great climb in the Pyrenees before the Atlantic coast.
3. Col d’Iseran, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
At 2,763m, Col d’Iseran claims the prize as the highest paved pass in Europe, but is often closed during winter months due to snowfall. Riding this monster is made more difficult due to the rarified air experienced over 2,000m, where oxygen levels decrease and cause the body to work that much harder for the same output.
As the main gateway north and south across the furthest eastern edge of France, the total length of the climb is 48km if you start in Bourg Saint Maurice in the north, but 33km if you start from Lanslebourg in the south. A small lake, chapel and cafe reward cyclists that make the ascent to the summit. Although, the various scenic bridges and waterfalls of the Vanoise National Park are reward enough during the climb.
Despite its credentials, the Col d’Iseran has only been featured in the Tour de France a handful of times, with 2019 its most recent inclusion. The stage didn’t pass without incident either, with race organisers taking the unprecedented step of abandoning the race at the summit due to a freak hail storm and mud slides in the valley below that had made the road impassable.
4. Col de la Bonette, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
The Col de la Bonette is the final big alpine climb and is a gateway to the south of France and the sun-kissed beaches of the Cote d’Azur. However, during winter months, snow blocks the way until the spring melt arrives and the roads become passable again. It is during this time the mountain takes on the appearance of a killer whale; the black shale rock contrasting sharply with the white snow. Cycling the 24km ascent from Jausiers is largely restricted to the summer months and tends to be an out-and-back affair as, once over the top, the road never heads back north again, making a loop an extremely long day in the saddle.
An interesting fact – at 2,802m, the Col de la Bonette is some 38m higher than Col d’Iseran thanks to an additional “scenic” loop that was built around the top in a bid to take the title of highest Col. Unfortunately, the loop around the 'Cime de la Bonette' was deemed to technically not be a pass, and so it couldn’t claim the prize. As a consolation though, it is the highest paved road in Europe.
5. Col de la Madone, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
Although the Col de la Madone tops out at only 916m, it punches above its weight in terms of scenic views that overlook the Mediterranean and French Riviera. Rising from a fraction above sea level, it climbs steadily out of Menton and past terraced apartments to quieter, more gentile surroundings and stunning views out to sea until it reaches the town of Saint-Agnes. Here, the road turns sharply left for the final 5km and its surface becomes rough, narrowing to a single carriageway for the final push to the summit. You'll know you're there when you reach the military monument made out of old artillery shells and shrapnel that includes the words 'Battles of men, shards of shells, from now on you are no more than a Madonna of peace'.
The climb is a favourite with local riders and professional cyclists who often use it to test their form ahead of important races such as the Tour de France. It was Lance Armstrong who really put the climb on the map with his record time, but this has since been broken several times by various professionals and is now held by Richie Porte with a time of 34mins 43secs.
6. Lacets de Montvernier, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
With 18 hairpins in total, each scattered every 150m, it’s easy to see how the Lacets de Montvernier got its name – 'lacets' means shoelaces in French. This 2.5km alpine Scalextric is easy to miss despite its location alongside the motorway running up the Maurienne valley. In fact, it takes some searching and a bit of local knowledge to find it nestled behind the town of Pontamafrey.
It was essentially built as a shortcut to the Col du Chaussy, which connects the valley to the Col de la Madeleine. For many years it led a quiet existence until its inclusion in the 2015 Tour de France, which opened up its potential and really put it on the map. It is now considered a 'must do climb' for cyclists visiting the area who want to ride in the tyre tracks of the pros.
7. Mont Ventoux, Provence
It’s hard to talk about French climbs without mentioning Mont Ventoux. At 1,866m, 'The Giant of Provence' or 'Bald Mountain' rises out of the Vaucluse region and is visible from miles around on account of its white limestone scree slopes. Devoid of trees on its upper slopes (they were felled to provide timber for the shipbuilding in Toulon and failed to grow back), it can be a harsh environment when the Mistral blows. Wind speeds of 150km/h and temperatures well below -20°C have been recorded at the weather station that marks the summit. It’s easy to see how the mountain got its name – 'Mont Ventoux' translates as 'Windy Mountain'.
There are actually three routes up to the summit for road cyclists but the most frequented is the route used in the Tour de France from Bédoin. The climb starts easily enough and only really gets going after 6km when it takes a sharp left at the Esteve bend as it enters the forest. It’s here that the road ramps up and the gradient is at its steepest. The climb continues in the shade for the next 9.5km before it breaks out into the full glare of the sun at cafe Chalet Renard. Here, the landscape changes abruptly and gives way to the limestone scree and a view of the summit some 6km away. The final slog to the line is a battle against gradient, wind and heat. During the summer the temperatures can soar, becoming unbearable – a contributing factor in the death of the British cyclist Tom Simpson in 1967.
8. Col du Peyresourde, Occitanie
The Col du Peyresourde is one of the oldest climbs to feature in the Tour de France, first appearing in 1910 and then regularly ever since. Starting in the town of Bagnères-de-Luchon, the 13.7km climb kicks off with a series of ramps that rise in irregular intervals until the road levels off after about 9km.
Lush meadows and beehives make this region look very appealing. But don’t let that lure you into a false sense of security – the climb kicks up again in a series of switchbacks to the summit.
Not had enough climbing for one day? Once over the top, the road drop likes a stone and a detour to the left puts you onto the road to the ski station of Peyragudes a further 4km away. This is the final sting in the tail and tops out at 1,605m. What most cyclists don't appreciate (it might be something to do with lactic acid burning in their legs) is the airstrip on the side of the mountain, which was used at the start of the James Bond film, GoldenEye and as a stage finish in the 2012 Tour de France.
9. Col du Tourmalet, Occitanie
Col du Tourmalet is considered the toughest climb in the Pyrenees and has provided the backdrop for many enduring tales in cycling folklore. First introduced to the Tour de France in 1910, the race leader, Octave Lapize, crested the unpaved Tourmalet shouting “You are assassins, yes assassins!” to the race director Henri Desgrande such was the brutality of this climb. Naturally, most cyclists embark on a summit of the Col du Tourmalet with some trepidation.
From Luz Saint Sauveur it rises steadily at 6% for the first 7km. The summit is always in view, which makes the slow slog to the top all the worse. The next 13km never drops below 8% – at points reaching 10% – before the final sting in the tale – 1,000m of leg-sapping road that peaks at 11%. At 2,087m, it’s a true monster.
For those wanting to experience more of the mountain, they should venture to La Mongie, the ski station further down. Here, a cable car takes you to one of the best alpine views in the Pyrenees and the astronomy observatory at the Pic du Midi. Rather than taking the cable car back you can either hike or mountain bike back to the top of the Col du Tourmalet.
The new and revised Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs is out on March 26 2020 and available for pre-order here