In May Andy Hodges and a fellow cyclo-grimpeur Lee Rounce visited the Maurienne to taste the charms and challenges of some of the most famous climbs of the cycling world – before the Tour de France peloton gets its wheels on them at the end of July.
With the Tour de France about to spend three full days there, this year seemed a good time to visit the Maurienne for a week of cycling and cafés in the ‘Plus Grand Domaine Cyclable du Monde’, as the area around St Jean de Maurienne is becoming known. It isn’t an idle boast either.
A new super-model of the cycling world is about to make her debut at this year’s Tour de France. The secretive Lacets de Montvernier’s 18 tight hairpins are beautifully stacked on top of one another to climb an impossibly steep cliff face. Yet they are only the precursor to a longer climb to the Col de Chaussy. Meanwhile the snow-bound Galibier pouts in the best of French traditions at this little beauty and the Croix de Fer stands steely-eyed in the distance.
Our trip was planned: a flirtation with Col du Mont Cenis to begin the week; then a visit to the debutante Lacets before the Tour puts her in the spotlight; followed by paying our respects to the Galibier and to the Croix de Fer, not forgetting the femme fatale that is the Col de l’Iseran. Quite a week, particularly with a recently diagnosed anterior cruciate ligament injury! Well, the surgeon had said cycling was a good part of recovery...
The petite Col du Mont Cenis was as beautiful as I remembered. It was a joy to clamber up to the all-too-soon reached summit. The coffee was in the best of Italian traditions and the patisseries pure French. Heaven! And the descent was as thrilling as the climb with a detour to Lanslevillard and on to Bonneval-sur-Arc adding to the day (crossing the youthful usurper to the name Col de Madeleine en route).
The second day arrived, sulking and cloudy but we were not to be put off. On to the Lacets! Imagine our disappointment to find signs declaring the road closed for resurfacing prior to the arrival of the Tour. The most sought-after beauty of the valley was preening herself for another suitor. And yet, it was a national holiday... would any work really be going on? We began the climb in trepidation but in the end danced up the immaculate hairpins in delight and soon reached the top. Another hour of climbing saw us reach the highest village of Montpascal and then the final curves to the summit where a beautiful café appeared and with it a welcome coffee at the bar.
It was then we noticed a poster for a local time trial along the route we had just taken an hour and a half to complete. I asked the owner if there was a misprint – the time to beat was 39m 54s! But, no, this was the record and it was held by local boy, not a professional.
The debutante had already been conquered by a local beau. Who will be next? A new record is sure to be made soon, so soon...
The next day was a rest day. The clouds were now giving way to sunshine, however, so we allowed ourselves a short morning ride and decided to try the Col de l’Iseran. The road was closed and signs were in place warning of an avalanche danger. Unsure what to do we decided to ask the only person we had seen in the village. He said the route was open and safe until Pont de Ouilletta. It would make for an interesting mini-adventure.
And so it proved to be, the climb was a delight as there was no other traffic apart from two road contractors who passed by without discouraging us from continuing our journey to the highest of true roads in the Alps. Dodging the rocks and debris which the winter snows and thaws had left strewn across the road we made our way higher and higher.
The panoramas kept opening up and it was difficult to keep our eyes on the road.
When we reached the bridge the road was still clear, so we continued. The tunnel was clear but the melt water had frozen solid and it was paved with sheet ice. Cautiously we tiptoed through and carried on. Eventually the road came to an end and we thought our adventure had, too. Mais, non; a huge dumper truck was parked there – big enough for us to fit in the shovel. Sometimes life bring you pleasures you could never have expected.
The descent was everything we had hoped for and it had promised to be – empty roads, marmots and eagles our only company for the entire descent. Our attention kept being dragged away from the immediate with timelessly classic views of glaciers and impossibly high mountain summits in the distance.
Having suffered a minor technical mishap when an SPD-R cleat split we next had to find an open bike shop out of season. The local shop in Lanslevillard was, unfortunately, only open in the evenings at this time of year so a trip to St Jean was scheduled. The numerous bike shops there would certainly be able to help out. We found what we needed at Sport 2000 and were also able to leave the car there while we investigated the La Toussuire ascent.
This little climb promised something a bit different, it had three different options to ascend the route and finished in the middle of the ski station rather than a lonely col. The Jarrier option was our route of choice and at the edge of town the road took off rightwards and began a remorseless climb. The usual welcome ‘borne’ roadside signs telling us the next km stats were sorely missed too. Higher and higher we climbed until the ugly tower blocks of Corbier finally showed themselves. In such a beautiful setting these seemed even more out of place and harked back to the heedless developments of the 1970s ski holidays. At least they were hidden by the forest bordering the road. The constant twists and turns also helped hide them from view.
The edge of La Toussuire came into sight and the final climb into the deserted town was as peaceful an experience as you could wish for, the screaming crowds urging the leading Tour rider to the finish line this summer will be quite a contrast. The welcoming café was a godsend as it threatened to rain. But it was an idle threat from this overlooked sister of the climbs. And the grumpiness continued as we approached Corbier, dusty, yet-to be resurfaced roads threatening to throw us off on the corners.
Galibier is a high-maintenance, highly demanding goddess of the cycling world. Two middle-aged men in lycra flirting with the most A-class of celebrities – what were we thinking?
But Col du Galibier was open and we were in business. The climb to the Col du Telegraph on the way was as tough as any other climb, and a beautiful ride through trees to reach its summit on a bend in the road. The lost of altitude on the drop to Valloire was most unwelcome but our knees appreciated the break of 5km and the coffee at the bottom before the biggest ride of our lives. The climb out of Valloire is a warning in itself, the steep 9% ascent out of the town reminded us this is not a saunter. After a couple of kilometres of pretty level road the final 12km of climbing never drops below 7% to the summit. This is no quick fling.
Before we realised it we were above the tree line, then the vegetation zone pretty much ran out leaving us in a land of barren rock finally giving way to the snow line this early in the year. Galibier regained her beauty amid the folds of perfect white and that final km will be kept for another date as when we were there the road had yet to find its way out from under her white cloak. But at 2560m we felt we had served our time and donned every piece of clothing we possessed for the descent. It didn’t disappoint. The sweeping bends that were so hard won gave pleasure back in equal measure. Swooping round corner after corner and dropping with the agility of a soaring eagle we descended to the lands below. A date with such a classic could never be forgotten.
And so to the Croix de Fer, the steel-eyed giant of the valley – a male mountain if ever there was such a thing. How would he receive us? We had 29km of climbing in which to prove ourselves.
Once more we climbed the road from St Jean de Maurienne. The kms slipped by more steadily than earlier in the week and we felt good. At Pierrepin we swept left and enjoyed a brief couple of km descent and the views opened up once more. The spectacular Aiguilles d'Arves hoved into view like three knights guarding the king's realm and stared impassively at our efforts. We passed through ski stations and marvelled at how fit we were, careless of the easy 6% gradients. Then the final slopes showed themselves – each 8% and 9% more punishing than the last. Our cadence slowed, our breathing increased. We were entering the hardest, if not the highest, of realms. Two pro team cars passed us on descent. The final curves were completed and the col came into sight. We'd made it!
After the obligatory photo and coffee we set off to Glandon. Sweeping down at over 80kmph was thrilling and the short, sharp ascent to Col du Glandon was over in minutes. There, staring from an incomprehensibly great distance away was the giant of giants. Mont Blanc, clearly visible over 70km away, was higher by far than anything around.
Our final descent was precipitous, steep 10% and 11% hairpins, perched above terrible drops, demanded the utmost of respect. A sobering memorial to a cyclist paying the ultimate price on these slopes saddened an otherwise perfect moment. The air was warm and the sky blue. After almost 20km of descent we peeled off towards Pontamafrey and the beginning of the Lacets du Montvernier once more. Summer had certainly arrived in the valley as we completed our ‘boucle’ ride back to St Jean and a well earned pavement cafe celebratory drink.
Is the area the ‘Plus Grand Domaine Cyclable du Monde’? I can’t imagine anywhere to beat it. With readily available maps from the tourist office and well-signed routes it is easy to explore the area on two wheels and the region is continuing to develop cycle-friendly hotels and businesses, offering cycle storage on site, washing facilities for both your bike and your clothes, access to bike repairers and wholesome menus to provide the dedicated ‘cyclo-grimpeur’ with fuel for the coming day. Not every route is a huge climb to a stunning col. There are shorter routes in the valley for those needing a rest day or just a lesser challenge. But it was the cols that we came to admire and we have fallen in love with them. We’ll be back, that's for sure... if our wives don’t object to another flirtation or two.
Due to the Chambon Tunnel closure after a landslide in June Galibier has jilted the Tour this year. The alternative climb to the summit of the Col de la Croix de Fer is still a staggering 29km of climbing with the final kilometres continually ramping up the difficulty as the air thins. It may not be quite as high but it is just as hard. The Maurienne is so blessed with world class cycling climbs that when one col is closed another is immediately available... Vive La Tour!