Every Tour de France supporter will know the mountains of the Maurienne. Many a champion has been made on these slopes. The mighty Galibier, the demure Madeleine, the iron-hard Croix de Fer: they all stare dispassionately down upon any cyclist daring to challenge the mountains’ slopes. Rarely will they pity any efforts to gain the summit. But, once there, the effort, the tireless struggle and the pain are worth it. Views to snow-capped mountains stretch as far as the eye can see. Far below, mere mortals are going about their everyday business while cyclists touch the sky and share the rewards of a labour tough enough to have challenged the mighty Heracles. It isn’t difficult to understand why folklore believes the high peaks to be the domain of the gods.
Thanks to an invitation from the local tourist office, we had a chance to visit the area for a few days. We were also fortunate enough to be given their newly designed cycling jersey, which features ten cols and climbs synonymous with the Maurienne: l’Iseran, Galibier, Télégraphe, Madeleine, Glandon, Croix de Fer, Mollard, Mont Cenis, Toussuire and Grand Cucheron. What a bunch! We decided to ride them all! But there are tranquil routes along bubbling rivers and flower-carpeted meadows to be enjoyed too. The magnificent mountains add a breathtaking backdrop to a lazy picnic of local cheeses, fruit, bread and wine. Food fit for the gods of cycling too!
The Maurienne Valley is fast becoming a Mecca for road cyclists
The Maurienne Valley is fast becoming a Mecca for road cyclists. It is known as ‘The world’s largest cycling area’ and few could argue with that claim. A multitude of cols and climbs are scattered along the valley, enough for even the most hardened mountain-climber, but within the grasp of regular cyclists too. Climbs of 15 or 20km abound, and the height gains are unheard of in the UK, with 1000m or more being commonplace. And how civilised – a café at the summit to replenish those burned calories! With small, friendly towns along the length of the valley, quiet roads, considerate motorists and encouraging road-graffiti en route, it is a delight to explore on two wheels.
The towns of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and La Chambre are nestled between the starts of Col de la Madeleine, Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer. This group of sun-kissed towns serves as a fabulous base from which to explore the lower valley. Nearby are the Col du Télégraphe and its big brother, Col du Galibier. The almost-unheard-of Lacets de Montvernier is a ladder of 18 hairpins stacked one upon the other. It offers a spectacular (if all-too-short) climb, which can be extended over the Col du Chaussy. Further up the valley Modane is the gateway to the upper valley – the Haute Maurienne Vanoise, which hosts both the Col du Mont Cenis and Col de l’Iseran. These towns will be familiar: Saint-Jean welcomed the Tour de France in 2010 while Modane was the starting point of the gruelling 19th stage of 2011’s Tour, the beginning of the end for both Schleck and Contador’s dreams of winning.
We stayed at the two-star Hotel de l’Europe; how many hotels do you know of that have a specific cycle store area that will comfortably house a dozen or more bikes? Or a hotel owner who will willingly help with repairs and who features in the local cycling brochure? And from the front door a road sign indicates ‘Col de la Croix de Fer’ and ‘Vallée de l’Arvan’. Fabulous local cuisine and wines round the day off nicely and after a monster day of col climbing a cheese fondue or Tartiflette is well-earned!
Our journey began within eyesight of the source of the Arc river, its birthplace a permanent ice sheet that shimmered in the sun as we climbed the road out of Bonneval-sur-Arc. Starting at 1800m meant a lung-busting climb; the village sits at an altitude virtually twice that of Scafell Pike and the air felt thin to our unacclimatised lungs so the immediate climb was something of a shock. Luckily the views are so breathtaking that we stopped for photographic reasons if no other. Glaciers, cow bells, chalets, twisting roads – you couldn’t dream of a better series of images of cycling in the Alps! The road began to steepen and this time it meant business. Snow and ice lie by the roadside well into July. Indeed this is no place to be in a storm and a study of the weather forecast is essential pre-ride preparation.
A cyclist reaching the summit will attract more respect than the Ferrari we saw crossing the col! Here, at the top of the Alps, we come as close to touching the hands of our gods as is possible. We offered a prayer of thanks to the creator of low ratios Shi-Ma-No and then another to the God of Friction. After putting on a windproof jacket the descent was thrilling, the temptation to overtake cars hard to resist. We took care; the road surface can be loose as this road is only open a few months each year before being covered once more in snow and ice. Taking time to stop and enjoy the view was the least we deserved after the efforts required to get up here in the first place. And what views!
All too soon Bonneval-sur-Arc appeared and a final hairpin allowed an exhilarating finishing swoop into the village. The warm air came as something of a surprise after the high mountain and the many cafés and bars spoilt us for choice for a post-ride beer. This pilgrimage to the highest of cols makes for a short first ride, taking around three hours in total, but it whets the appetite for more!
The road then became a thrilling roller coaster with more picturesque views than we could shake a mini-pump at. The shrill whistles of marmots echoed through the upper reaches of the valley as we passed Neolithic rock art and pretty villages before hurtling down into Val Cenis and the towns of Lanslevillard and Lanslebourg. The sweeping turns descending the (other) Col de la Madeleine were a joy and then the uniform zigzags of Col du Mont Cenis appeared. Built by Napoleon to aid his troop movements into the Piedmont, it has a gradual and almost welcoming nature to the ascent.
But it was no pushover; it climbs over 700m to gain the col and the border with Italy. The forts on the mountain summits are a solemn reminder of the area’s past and a visit to the Pyramid at the col explains much about high alpine life and the conflicts that have raged on these now tranquil slopes. This was familiar terrain to us, much of Mountain Adventures in the Maurienne was written here and we could identify many summits and routes we explored in the making of the book.
Where next? The road continues to drop as it follows the ever-growing river. But an enticing option to climb from Termignon-la-Vanoise to Aussois presented itself. From our previous route-finding we knew there was a wonderful option via Aussois and the back road to the forts. We reached Modane, start of possibly the most epic stage of the 2011 Tour de France, after one of the best days in the saddle we’ve ever spent.
The road continued to descend and eventually we arrived at Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne. We had descended for the best part of 40 miles and the options here are like a cyclist’s Nirvana. Which of the mighty cols should we pay homage to next?
The undisputed King of Kings must be the Galibier.
The undisputed King of Kings must be the Galibier. You have to feel sorry for Col du Télégraphe. If it were anywhere other than sitting like a patient lapdog at the foot of Galibier, it would be a king in its own right. After the punishment meted out by Galibier the descent was a dream and we rolled on to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. If a town were ever to claim the title ‘Road Cycling Capital of the World’ then St-Jean-de-Maurienne would be a leading candidate.
We were then joined by an old friend, another Andy, and his marvellous machine, 6.9kg of gleaming Orbea carbon, built for the mountains and raring to go! The Lacets de Montvernier are possibly the most impressive series of hairpins in France (including those of Alp d’Huez). Its hairpins stack on top of each other like a supermodel’s delicately coiffed hairstyle, too close together to be mapped on a 1:50,000 scale! They were all-too-soon over and the haul up to Col du Chaussy was a delight – virtually no traffic and beautiful villages everywhere.
Our base of Saint Jean-de-Maurienne tempted us with another sunny day; now Glandon and Croix de Fer, or Madeleine? The long haul up Glandon was closely followed with a short hop to Croix de Fer. We opted for a couple of short days, splitting the classic Mollard–La Toussuire round into two shorter rides (after all it is a holiday!) The Montée de La Toussuire was a short morning ride and the Col du Mollard allowed us to explore the village of Albiez-Montrond, home of the Opinel brothers, inventors of the famous pocketknife.
The afternoon was spent exploring St Jean and its museum of Savoyard life as well as discovering the Opinel factory museum. Col de la Madeleine was a tough climb in the sun and our final day, the Col du Grand Cucheron, was another short morning ride with ‘only’ 900m of ascent (but in 12km!). The climb is mostly in the shade of trees and it was completed on our way out of the valley and onto the motorway home. What a week! In total, 10 climbs of spectacular passes and ascents, and we were blessed with sunshine every day!