Cycling in the French Alps: Epic Climbs, Useful Tips, and More

The French Alps, known for their challenging cycling ascents, offer a unique opportunity for personal triumph. You don’t need to be a professional to conquer these epic climbs. With the right training and support, anyone can do it. And, as you push yourself amidst the stunning French Alps, you’ll be rewarded with local delicacies like raclette and red wine. 

These cycle climbs in the French Alps epitomize dream-worthy experiences: envision azure skies, crisp air, and snow-capped peaks. Some are iconic routes challenging you to measure up against cycling’s elite, while others offer feasible yet demanding journeys through breathtaking landscapes. Every climb will challenge your leg muscles and greatly reward you with stunning views once you reach the top.

When to Go

Though mountain weather is very variable, from day to day and year to year, it is still possible to make a few general observations.

In most areas, the driest months of the year are July and August. Rainfall during the summer is often violent but short-lived afternoon storms. A typical summer day starts with clear blue skies, but clouds build up towards the end of the morning. Generally, the weather becomes more threatening in the middle of the afternoon. Storms usually do not break until at least 3 p.m. and only last a few hours.

September is often an excellent month for cycling, although the temperatures are a little cooler, especially at altitude, but changes in the weather can be very sudden and quite abrupt. Temperature variations of up to 10°C from one day to the next are not uncommon.

Also, it’s better to note significant temperature discrepancies between valleys and high passes. For example, 30°C in the shade at Bourg St Maurice (800m) might only be 10°C at the Col de l’Iseran (2,770m), not the 17°C you would expect. If there is a breeze, wind chill will add to the cold feeling. Snow is not uncommon at altitudes above 2,000m, even in July and August, although it generally won’t last long. Be prepared.

Top Cycling Routes in the French Alps

Croix de Fer and Glandon

Distance: 42 km with 1925 m elevation gain

Glandon is famous for its relentless ascent, pushing cyclists to their limits. As you near the finish, the air thins, the legs strain, and you face a final 3 km stretch at a punishing 10% gradient. But if you endure, you’re rewarded with breathtaking views of the French Alps. The Iron Cross awaits another 3 km up the road for the truly adventurous. The climb is a blend of agony and ecstasy, with 20 km of climbing averaging 7.2%, including a daunting 3 km wall at 10% to conquer the summit. Unlike many other cols in the Maurienne and the Alps, Glandon is only open from June to October due to its altitude and location. Regardless of the season, it’s always fresh or chilly at the top, so packing a wind jacket is wise. 

The Col du Glandon has been traversed 15 times in the Tour de France. It is a classic passage connecting the Maurienne Valley and Oisans, including the renowned Alpe d’Huez. 

Commencing from St Jean de Maurienne, you confront the northeastern slope. Despite its 30 km length, the average gradient is misleading due to undulating terrain, masking the steep inclines that lie ahead. The Col de la Croix de Fer, crowned by the Etendard peak (3664 m) and its glacier, offers excellent views. With 7 km at 8%, comprising eight hairpin turns, passing the small lake signifies nearing the top.

Bike the World Col de la Croix de Fer via Col du Glandon – Indoor Cycling Training

Col de Sarenne 

Distance: 56 km with 2851 m elevation gain

The Col de Sarenne, situated in the Bourg d’Oisans region, spans 12.8km with a climb of 958 vertical meters. It boasts an average gradient of 7.5% and a difficulty score of 854, reaching an elevation of 1999 meters at its peak. During the Tour de France, riders navigate an unnamed road, descending to 1,765m before tackling a final 3km ascent with an average gradient of 7.8%. 

Approaching from the south, the D25 route from the junction with D1091 near Le Freney-d’Oisans covers 12.8km, ascending 954m with an average gradient of 7.5%. It features steep sections, including an 11.5% gradient for the initial kilometer and a maximum of 13.5% near the summit. The passage was contested in the 2013 Tour de France, drawing criticism for its narrow, hazardous conditions lacking guardrails.

Cycling in the Alps Unveiling the Perfect Marmotte Alps Warm Up Ride: Col de Sarenne from ALPE d’HUEZ


Distance: 21 km with 1602 m elevation gain

Renowned as one of the world’s top four bike climbs, the route from Bedoin to the iconic radio tower atop Bald Mountain stands as the most sought-after among three available paths. With Mont Ventoux marking its 17th appearance in the Tour de France, it presents a formidable challenge, showing a daunting 7.5% average grade over 21.5 kilometers. Notably, 60% of the ascent falls within the 5-10% range, with a further 18% reaching 10-15%. The steepest 500 meters command an 11.6% incline, while a five-kilometer stretch averages nearly 10%.

Embarking from Bedoin, cyclists traverse an open, picturesque route meandering through vineyards, olive groves, and cherry orchards. After passing Sainte Colombe around the 3.5km mark, the journey ascends into the forest, navigating a winding, relentless path with gradients rarely dipping below 9%, narrow roads, and limited sightlines. 

Upon reaching Chalet Reynard, riders emerge from the forest for a memorable six-kilometer stretch through white rock to the summit. While gradients ease momentarily, brace for potentially brutal headwinds beyond the tree line. Around the 20km mark lies the memorial to Tom Simpson, a poignant stop for many cyclists. However, the descent poses challenges, with steep gradients, often wet roads, numerous hairpin turns, and unpredictable gusts of wind, adding an element of thrill to the journey.

The Col Collective Mont Ventoux (Bédoin) – Cycling Inspiration & Education

Col de l’Iseran

Distance: 95 km with 2959 m elevation gain

The Col de l’Iseran stands as Europe’s highest official col, nestled in a secluded corner of France, lending it an air of obscurity. Yet, its allure is undeniable—a coveted achievement for any cyclist’s résumé. Situated entirely within the French department of Savoy, it’s a haven for winter sports enthusiasts, with Les Trois Vallées boasting the title of the world’s largest winter sports area. As ski seasons dwindle, the region pivots to attract cyclists during the summer months, exemplified by the 2019 opening of the cyclist-exclusive Col de la Loze, connecting Courchevel and Méribel.

Venturing towards the south side of the col offers the most captivating ascent. Starting from Lanslebourg, cyclists ascend to an unassuming col before descending slightly and traversing a serene eight-kilometer stretch through a picturesque valley. However, from Bonneval-sur-Arc, the challenge intensifies with a demanding 13-kilometer climb on a narrow, traffic-light road, offering cyclists an exhilarating workout amidst desolate, untouched landscapes.

The northern approach to the Iseran presents a starkly different ascent. Beginning in Bourg-Saint-Maurice, riders face a daunting 47-kilometer journey to the summit. After a deceptive stretch of false flat, a 15-kilometer climb awaits, marred by lengthy tunnels until reaching Val d’Isère. Beyond this renowned ski village, the ascent intensifies, with another 16 kilometers of climbing at a 6% average gradient. While initially deceptive, the landscape transforms into a lunar-like terrain, providing breathtaking vistas of the ski village and a serene, uncrowded road, offering cyclists an unparalleled climbing experience.

The Col Collective Col de L’Iseran (Val d’Isère) – Cycling Inspiration & Education

Where to Stay

Best Western Aquakub: 173 avenue du petit port, Aix-les-Bains 73100 web | Instagram

Le Chêne Du Py: 592 route du Cru La Côte du Py, 69910 web

B.O. Lodge: Pont de la Romanche, 38520 Le Bourg-d’Oisans, France web | Instagram

Sport’Hotel-Aparthotel de Milan: 54 Rue du Général de Gaulle, 38520 Le Bourg-d’Oisans, France web

Where to Eat

Au bistrot Chez les filles: Rue du 93è R.A.M, 38750 Huez, France web | Instagram

La Mére Michel: 497 route du Signal, 38750 Alpe d’Huez, France web 

Bike Rentals

Bcyclet Geneve: bike delivery web

CCT Bike Rental: bike delivery only web | Instagram

Alps Bike Hire: 14 Rte d’Avoriaz, 74110 Morzine, France web

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