VéloSki Classic Climbs: Route des Grandes-Alpes // August 31st – September 15th, 2019
Cycle over the most famous climbs of Tour de France fame! This is a tour for anyone looking for an unforgettable cycling adventure. We’ll begin your exploits in Switzerland, along the shores of Lac Leman (aka Lake Geneva). Your route includes all of the passes made famous to cycling fans by the Tour de France as we progress on our journey southward to the Mediterranean Sea. Your itinerary checks off every important name in a distinguished list of nearly every pass considered household words among enthusiastic cyclists around the world, from Alpe d’Huez to the Col de la Bonette, Croix de Fer and….
This IS the epicenter of spectacular mountain pass riding. We will climb more cols (French for pass) than the riders of the Tour de France climb each July. We will spend three times as much time climbing as descending. And it’s worth every moment enjoying the stupendous views on the way up…before we roll over the top and tuck into world-class downhill exhilaration! You’ll be grinning from ear-to-ear at the end of each day’s epic ride as we engage with the ultimate ski-to-sea cyclist’s dream; you’ll bag 25 named climbs in 15 days of riding!
The Route des Grandes Alpes follows a perfectly spun ribbon of road traversing the high Alps separating France and Italy and drops all the way from Geneva to Nice on the Cote d’Azur. Reserve your space today!
First time riders in France will be amazed at the courtesy of drivers; often pulling over to the side of the road to allow us to pass on the exhilarating descents. You will hear shouts of encouragement from people on the side of the road near the top of nearly every climb. And you will wonder why you waited so long to ride in France where cycling is the national passion—or is that obsession?
The designation of the route name occurred during the early years of the automobile as a way to promote tourism. Today it is one of the premier tourist routes in the world. Each summer every village and town along the route rolls out the welcome mat with festivals and local products prominently displayed.
Riding thru this Haute Savoie region of the Rhone-Alpes we are treated to visual and culinary delights, where cheese is offered as a delicacy almost above the delightful desserts. You will savor Tome de Savoie, Beaufort, Camebert, Reblochon and Chèvre cheeses in salads, sandwiches and sauces. The wines are light, but just right to enhance the less complex flavors of mountain meals.
Day 1: Arrival
We meet you at the Geneve, Switzerland airport for the short van transfer to our start hotel. At the hotel we will help you get settled and offer suggestions for a short shake-the-legs-out ride in the hills near Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). Our welcome dinner will feature regional fare and allow everyone to get to know each other.
Day 2: Samoens
The start of our odyssey along the Routes des Grandes Alpes begins with views of Lac Leman as we climb alongside a glacier fed stream to the ski resort of Morzine. Here we pause for a late morning café and pastry before continuing over the Col de la Joux-Plane; the first of the ‘big name’ climbs of our tour. The road surface is nearly flawless, as this is a perennial favourite climb for the Dauphine-Libere and the Tour de France each summer. Descending into Samoens we marvel at the tight turns and narrow roadway.
Day 3: Chamonix
The morning ride today is highlighted with spectacular vistas of the imposing Mont Blanc glacier covered peak. We ride the more tranquil “side roads” up through the rock cliffs and old forests on the flanks of Mont Blanc. The Chamonix valley is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise, and we will arrive early in the day to enjoy the Aiguille du Midi Telepherique access to the high alpine trails and vistas. Descending to the center of town the temperatures will be cooling and the lighting will be fading just in time for dinner.
Day 4: Albertville
A chilly descent from Chamonix to Blanc to the base of our next climbs; the Col Romme and Col de la Colombiere. The final descent into le Grand-Bornand and La Clusaz is an exhilarating rush of scenery and wind.
Riding into the heart of the Haut Savoie we are treated with the sound of cowbells as we climb three perennial favourites of the Tour de France; the Colombiere, the Aravis and the Saissies with an option for the Col du Pre. This is the region of Reblochon and Beaufort cheeses. At Beaufort continue downstream to Albertville and our luxurious 3 star hotel, where our hosts SuChen and José greet us with smiles and the promise of a delicious dinner.
Day 5: Albertville loop rides
Albertville was the host of the 1988 Winter Olympics, so it is ideally situated for skiing during the winter months. The roads to the ski stations are well maintained and provide cyclists with spectacular riding opportunities just a few kilometres from town. The “must do” ride today is up the Beaufortain valley along the Isere river to the base of the mighty Col de la Madeleine. The first few switchbacks announce that this is a serious climb, but after a few kilometres you settle into a more comfortable rhythm. The ascent brings you thru lush meadows and along deep canyons to a mandatory café stop on the summit. Here you evaluate your energy level and decide; continue over and down thru la Chambre or return directly to Albertville.
Either way, the riding is awesome and scenery is always changing. We are definitely not in Kansas Toto.
Day 6: Val d’Isere
Leaving the Beaufortain behind, we tackle the inspiring Cormet de Roselend, the classic climb between the upper Isere and the Haut-Savoie regions of the French Alps. This is a wonderful almost flattish climb through lush forests that open to broad meadows as we reach the top of the first climb of the day, the Col de Maraillet. A short reprieve as we traverse the shores of Lac de Roselend, then it is climbing in earnest to the Cormet; actually more of a saddle than a pass. Descending to Bourg St. Maurice is another exhilarating high stimulus adventure in bike handling skills; careful at Johann’s corner. Bourg St Maurice is perfectly situated as our refuelling stop before choosing between the direct route and the “bonus” climbing route to Val d’Isere. Val d’Isere, famous in the ski world for early snows, long winters and Olympic Gold Medallist Jean Claude Killy, is our resting place tonight.
Day 7: Saint Jean de Maurienne
The day starts out with a few kilometres of gentle riding, and then it is all business for the next 14km as we gain nearly 900m in elevation before reaching the Col de l’Iseran. From here it is downhill almost all the way to St Jean de Maurienne.
Day 8: Saint Jean-de-Maurienne loop options
The normal loop ride scheduled for this day is counterclockwise over the Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer and Col du Mollard, but today we suggest riding this classic loop in a clockwise direction to afford good viewing of the Tour de France peloton.
Day 9 – Bourg d’Oisans
We gently roll along the Maurienne valley to the base of the Col du Telegraphe; our first challenge of the day. The Col du Telegraphe climbs mercifully at a rather mellow grade of 6-8% for most of the distance to this reprieve in our climb to the Col du Galibier. We arrive in Valloire after a short descent and begin climbing thru town. Climbing the last kilometres to the top of the Col du Galibier will leave you in awe of Tour de France riders and everyone else who climbs this mythic pass.
The Galibier is so high that you will wonder if you lost a cog on your cassette overnight; it simply saps your legs before you get to the hardest sections.
Reaching the summit you are greeted with stunning views directly into the National Parc des Ecrins ; le Meije (one of the biggest glaciated massifs in the parc) dominates the skyline and serves as the backdrop to some of the best off-piste skiing in Europe at la Grave. Descending to the Col du Lautaret for café you will be elated to know that it is essentially downhill for the next 20km to le Freney d’Oisans.
[Option] Before descending from the dam to le Freney take a left and climb up to Les2Alpes to experience the same finish as in the TdF when Pantani battled Ulrich. On the return take a left at Mont-de-Lans along the corniche road overlooking the canyon and le Garcin (where I live between tours). When you reach the main road, take a right and pedal the 4km gently uphill to le Freney. Adds about 30km (12km and 600m climb to Les2Alpes).
Bourg d’Oisans loops // Alpe d’Huez
OK…if you have not ridden Alpe d’Huez, then this is your day to experience with your own legs the demands of this legendary climb. You will find numbered switchbacks with the names of past winners of the race to the top. And if you want to feel the intensity of the climb after a long ride over one of my favourite loops in the Oisans vallees, then I will happily lead a group over roads that are not so familiar to tourists. Whatever your choice for the day, this is the cycling epicentre of the French Alps. Enjoy the energy and the surroundings of Bourg d’Oisans.
Day 10: Guillestre
The climb to the col du Lautaret is almost like a rest day ride due to the frequent flat and short downhill traverses as we climb thru the canyon. Although there are numerous tunnels on the route the riding is pleasant; this is France where drivers are courteous. Again, we stop for café at the col; it is kind of a habit by now, before the fun descent to Briancon. From Briancon our next challenge is the infamous col de l’Izoard. The descent into Guillestre finishes with a gradual riverside spin to flush our legs before relaxing in town.
Day 11: Barcelonnette
Today we sleep a little longer and depart a little later to enjoy the shortest day on our itinerary and allow tired legs to recover. The Col du Vars climbs thru pastures, forests and ski stations, and then it’s all downhill to Barcelonnette. Barcelonnette is unique in France; it has a Spanish motif and influence. For anyone looking for another col to climb we have two candidates nearby; Col d’Allos and Col du Cayolle.
Day 12: Barcelonnette loop // (Allos-Champs-Cayolle)
The loop of the three cols is perhaps the most scenically beautiful loop in all of the Alps. Because it is so stunningly beautiful on a sunny day, I recommend checking the weather forecast and choosing the day to ride this loop when it is expected to be sunny or at least mostly sunny. Each of the three climbs offers strikingly different topography and vegetation, so make sure your camera batteries are charged and your memory cards are cleared before you ride.
I recommend a counter-clockwise direction for a couple of reasons: 1) you will be climbing the portions of the route that offer the best views; 2) the clockwise direction descent from Col du Champs is riddled with “water-bars” that are not fun at speed!
Day 13: Valberg
We ride high above the valleys and trees as we climb over Europe’s highest paved road along a ridge that separates France and Italy. The Col de la Bonnet at 2715m is the jewel of the Route des Grandes Alpes, so we will host a grand picnic near the summit where we can relax before our plunge to the valley below. Our work is not done, but the riverside roll thru Isola refreshes our legs for the final climb of the day up the gorges leading to Valberg.
Col de la Bonette at 2710m is the highest paved road in Europe. The 1600m (over 5000’) climb from Barcelonnette to the frontier between France and Italy is breathtakingly beautiful. The Route des Grande Alpes finishes in Nice; fortunately today we are descending nearly 2400m (almost 8000’) before our last climb of the day to Valberg.
Day 14: Castellane
Today we leave the Route des Grandes Alpes to ride a portion of the Route Napolean as we enter the Haut Provence region for our final two days of our tour. The roads are nicely paved, the traffic is minimal and the options are many as we ride ever closer to the sea. And, we return to one of my favorite overnights: my friend Trish has steadily renovated her family’s classic hotel into a warm and friendly, modernized French country hotel.
Day 15: Vence
The Castellane to Vence route is one of the few routes that I have ridden nearly every season since 1996. And…it always delights with the ever changing tapestry of texture and color riding from valley to valley on some of the quietest roads in all of France that are less than 50km from the teaming city of Nice and the Cote d’Azur beaches.