“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. This is how I have come to know France. My bike has been the conduit of a love affair that has nothing to do with Paris. It’s an intimacy developed after hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers of pushing my bike steadily up the country’s more formidable mountain passes, negotiating my tires over the uneven cobblestone roads of small mountain villages, and stopping occasionally (OK, frequently) to indulge in a café crème or purchase locally made goat’s cheese.
The gentle clanging of cowbells and the high-pitched calls of marmots whistling across the valley are the only sounds that interrupt the cadence of your pedals dragging the bike chain forward across the housing. Occasionally other cyclists pass by with a quick “Bonjour” or “Bon Courage,” as you wobble up some of France’s most notorious cycling routes.
Many of these famous routes are found in the Rhônes-Alpes region, which offers big climbs and long descents through some of the country’s most spectacular scenery. From Spring to Fall, locals and tourists frequent the towns happily situated along some of the most popular cycling routes. So whether you’re a casual cycling tourist or a committed racer, here are five climbs in the French Alps that are sure to provide exceptional views as you power (or wobble) up to the top.
Col du Galibier
Starting from St-Michel-de-Maurienne, this 35- kilometer climb takes you 11.5 kilometers up the Col du Telegraphe, followed by a short descent into Valloire, before beginning the 18.5 kilometer climb up to Col du Galibier. The last kilometer is painful, but in the high season you’ll be sure to have someone to high-five when you reach the summit. Once at the summit you have the option to turn around and head back or continue on to Bourg d’Oisans at the base of Alpe d’Huez.
The most famous climb in cycling. Starting in Bourg d’Oisans, the route takes you 14 kilometers up 21 hairpin turns from the valley floor up to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez. As one of the most popular rides of the famed Tour de France, you’ll have plenty of company as you wind your way up to the top where a coffee and a stunning view await you.
Col de la Croix de Fer
With over 30 kilometers of riding from both sides, this climb is surrounded by spectacular scenery. Starting from St-Jean-de-Maurienne, the route climbs up out of the town and then becomes a series of rolling hills before reaching the climb up to the summit. From the summit, there are views toward the Col du Glandon and the three distinct peaks of the Aiguilles des Arves.
Col de la Machine
One of the most impressive roads in the Vercors, the Michelin Guide to the Alps gives it three stars. Climbing up from Pont en Royans, the road is cut into the side of the mountain and offers incredible views down into the gorge of the Combe Laval and the plains heading out toward Lyon.
Often used in the Tour de France as a warm-up for cyclists before they climb Alpe d’Huez, this Col is just outside of Bourg d’Oisans and offers a gentler 11 kilometer climb with the option of continuing down into the valley. Plenty of opportunities to stop and pick up locally produced cheese, sausage, honey, and jam along the way.
There are a number of options to take on these climbs as a tourist. If you’re traveling with a group of friends, you can rent a car and alternate driving. This gives you the advantage of having a back-out option should you decide to bail out of a climb halfway through. And trust me, you might.
Alternatively you can hire a company to take you along these routes. Admittedly this is the most cost-intensive option, but it’s guaranteed to be hassle-free and the risk of getting hopelessly lost while trying to negotiate mountain roads is drastically reduced.
If you’re feeling particularly committed, you can take these routes on without a car, opting to plan a multi-day trip and taking the train or bus as needed. I’ve been cycling around this area for two years and have never had a car so it can be done. Just make sure you have a solid repair kit and some good maps.
All of these climbs are within an hour’s drive, train, or bus ride from Grenoble, the gateway to the French Alps, and can easily be accomplished as a day trip. Grenoble is one of France’s more unpretentious and laid-back cities, but what it lacks in architectural grandiose, it makes up for with the spectacular peaks encircling it.