Start dreaming about the Alps...
10 min read by Joe Laverick
Joe Laverick is a British professional cyclist currently with the development team Axeon-Hagen-Bermans. For the 2020 season he was based in the French Alps for a training ground, and learned the roads inside and out. Since then he has moved to Girona, for better access to many things, including fantastic training roads and gelato.
Back in 2020, I had the pleasure of calling Chambery, a town on the edge of the French Alps, my home.
Before the season restarted in August after the COVID-19 lockdown, my team and I undertook a training camp like no other, La Route des Grandes Alpes.
Admittedly, I’d never heard of the traverse before our training camp and to be honest, I didn’t expect anything special going into it. Boy oh boy, I was wrong. I’ve been lucky enough to ride my bike in countless countries, but when I’m asked for recommendations for a cycling trip, La Route des Grandes Alpes takes the top spot.
It’s a bucket-list adventure, crisscrossing the most famous roads in France, taking you from the crystal blue waters of Lac Léman, to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s not one for the faint hearted either, with 17,000m in elevation, twice the height of Mount Everest, over 770km.
The route dates back to 1860 when Napoleon III annexed Savoie and Nice to France. He ordered his army to build a road connecting the French valleys and the freshly annexed regions. Now, over 150 years later, it’s one of the greatest cyclo-touring routes in the world. You’ll be tackling some of the most famous climbs in the world of cycling, one’s that you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever watched the Tour de France. I’m going to talk you through my pick of the best.
Col du Galibier
(via Col du Télégraphe)
The Col du Galibier is 17.5km at 6.8%. It tops out at 2645m and is one of the highest roads in Europe. Sound tough? Well, now consider that you’ve got to go up the Col du Télégraphe first and that’s 12km at 7%. The two are only separated by a short but fast 5km descent.
Let’s start with the Télégraphe, it twists and turns through the forest, and is a hard climb in its own right. It will take at least an hour and you want to be careful not to expend too much energy.
Its big brother is next on the menu, the Col du Galibier. It is iconic, but in a way, the less you know, the better. One of the most famous climbs in the world the Galibier has been used in the Tour de France forty-five times. If it’s not the 17.5km in length, with pitches at 13% that get to you, it’ll be the elevation. Topping out at 2642m, breathing becomes difficult at the top. It’s a beautiful beast and don’t try to race the last 3km, trust me…
Even in July, there are still some patches of snow at the top, and you’ll pick up quite a chill at the top compared to the valley. What goes up, must come down too, the descent of the Galibier is stunning, but bloody cold.
Cormet de Roselend
The Cormet de Roselend is the most beautiful climb in Europe that you’ve ever heard of. It’s 20km long, at an average of 6%. I was completely underwhelmed for the first 10km. It’s just a steep, tree-lined road; hard but nothing to write home about. Just before the hairpin at 12km, my teammates started getting a little giddy with excitement, and as we rounded the corner, I could see why.
The road opens up and you’re greeted by the sparkling blue waters of Lac de Roselend. The Alpine peaks contrast the crystal blue water, while it might sound cheesy, the pain from your legs is momentarily alleviated as you bask in the beauty of the scenery. This was one of my highlights of the whole trip, it is one of the greatest roads I’ve ever ridden.
Going around the lake, you’re met with (and thankful for) a momentary flat section, which makes viewing the lake that little bit easier. As you climb out of the mountain covered valley, the next 5km kicks back up again. Leaving the green valley behind, the road slowly becomes more desolate as you reach the peak at just below 2,000m.
At this point, we are all hungry right? Even us skinny pro climbers, we still need to eat, A LOT to get through these big climbing days. One of my favourite local foods is the Tartiflette, a dish from the Savoy region. Think quiche x 1000. Potatoes, cheese and lardons (bacon) cooked to perfection, and ready to warm any soul after these climbs.
(with views to Val d'Isère)
The longest and arguably the most beautiful pass in the Alps, it’s also the highest peak of the tour. Leaving Bourg-Saint-Maurice, you better strap yourself in as you’ll be climbing for the next 47km. The 4% average gradient doesn’t tell the whole truth either. As there are two flatter sections, you’ll be delighted to hear that the final 15km are the steepest.
Riding up the climb, you’ll have panoramic views of the Vanoise National Park, and be greeted by small, traditional villages with stone houses. After 30km, you pass through the world-famous ski resort of Val d’Isere, and on a clear summer’s day, you can see where the slopes will be on the side of the mountain.
There are so many incredible views up the Col d’Iseran, dare I say, they become a little boring. You go through phases on the climb too, anticipation, trepidation, excitement, fear and relief. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions over the 47km.
This is a long long climb. Be prepared. Even when we are there as a team, able to pull together and work together, it’s still difficult, at any ability. It is as hard on the mind as it is on the legs, and whoever you are with, work together with them to tackle it.
The Col d’Iseran must be respected. You’re in for a long day out, and its elevation means it’s like breathing through a straw at the top. The spectacular mountain views are a reward in themselves. It’s one of, if not the hardest climb you’ll ever do. It’s also one of the most spectacular and most famous. When you reach the top, you swear you’ll never return, and then you’ll get that nagging feeling to come back soon.
If you do a cafe stop that day, (trust me, we always do!) keep an eye out for Brasserie du Mont Blanc Beer, a local tipple that will make sure everything feels exactly like it should.
Col de Turini
(world tour material)
The Col de Turini isn’t the furthest, steepest, or hardest climb of the week, but with the previous seven days in your legs, you’ll know about it. The last major Col of the tour, it’s 15km at 7.2%. Given its relatively close proximity to Nice and Monaco, it’s not unusual to see many a World Tour rider testing themselves up the slopes.
The climb is famous for its inclusion in the annual Monte Carlo Rally, which has run since 1911. Renowned for its narrow roads, and numerous hairpins, it’s the most technical part of the car rally.
As you climb the Turini, you start to feel like the mountains are opening up, and each pedal stroke is bringing you closer to the Mediterranean coastline. Reaching its peak, you can take a breath of fresh air. While the climbing for the day isn’t finished, all the major climbs of the week are. You’re almost there.
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Over the previous seven days, you’ll have gone through a rollercoaster of emotions. Both literal and metaphorical highs to the lowest of lows.
The feeling of descending into Menton, and seeing the Mediterranean Sea is something that is difficult to describe. Relief, pride and excitement all come out at once.
When you finish, I want you to promise me that you’ll make the most of the Cote d’Azur. We finished our ‘traverse’, had a ‘shower’ in a Lidl car park with some bottled water and then jumped straight into the car for the long drive back to Chambery. Not an ice cream in sight. Pro cycling isn’t always glamorous.
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