Cycling the French Alps


The Alps are a vast European mountain range that occupies part of the south east of France. The French Alps dominate the Rhone-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur regions. While some of the ranges are entirely in France others are shared with Switzerland and Italy. After doing some general research you might have heard of the Maurienne valley and Oisans valley.

There are many excellent cycling locations but these two valleys, in particular, provide access to dozens of epic cols which during the summer period are open and all within striking distance, or better put, cycling distance of each other. We could literally write and write but this ‘Cycling the French Alps’ guide focuses on Alpe d’Huez to Mont Ventoux and everything that basically lies in between.

In this blog we share our road cycling knowledge and offer suggestions on where to start your French Alps cycling holidays, the famous ‘cols’ on offer, the lesser known cycling climbs that you should have on your radar, some of our favourite cycling routes including profiles and options of where to base yourself to get the most out of your cycling challenge.

The famous cycling cols in the French Alps

Where to Start your French Alps Cycling Holidays

Grenoble (France)

Grenoble is a favourite location when it comes to starting our French Alps cycling holidays. Whether you are simply looking for a quick fix of ‘cols’ or you are looking for a cycling crossing of the Alps this city will probably be your best bet. It is considered by many as the French Alps capital and the Fort de la Bastille sitting high above the city centre provides an amazing backdrop.

The town is surrounded by inspiring mountain peaks which will have you all itching for some cycling action. From Grenoble some of the biggest road cycling household name climbs are all only a short drive away. Alpe d´Huez, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Glandon, Col de la Sarenne and Col d’Ornon are all within 45min drive. Here you will have the car parked, bike prepared and be out on the road cycling in around an hour!!

Kisses all round on the Alpe d’Huez cycling podium

So if ticking off Alpe d’Huez is your main aim why not hire a road bike for the day and get cracking. Col du Lauteret, Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier are 1hr 30min drive away and a 2hr drive gets you to the base of Col d’Izoard if they are your dream French Alps cycling destinations.

Simply catch a fast train (TGV) from Paris and in 3hr you will be in central Grenoble. Alternatively, fly into Lyon Exupery Airport and there are trains leaving on the hour to Grenoble (just over 1hr travel time).

Geneva (Switzerland)

Geneva is a perfect starting point for road cycling adventures in and around Chamonix, Lake Annecy and the Swiss Alpes. This ‘Cycling the French Alps guide’ does not cover any of these regions but we promise we will get to them another time. However, coming through Geneva is still a very good option for accessing a grand selection of French Alps cycling routes.

From Geneva it is only a 1.5hr drive to Grenoble or La Chambre / St Jean du Maurienne. We have already mentioned the road cycling climbs around Grenoble but by detouring towards La Chambre fantastic rides through the Maurienne valley open up including the climbs of Col du Glandon, Col du Mollard, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col de La Madeleine, Lacets de Montvernier, Col du Chaussy, Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier.

One thing to consider if driving in Switzerland and making border crossings into France is the compulsory 50 Euro Switzerland road permit (prices during 2016/2017). At the border you may get stopped and asked to present your Swiss permit if the sticker is not on your windscreen. It is valid for 12 months and we have had to pay this a couple of times even though we have only entered Geneva for 30 minutes to collect clients and head back inside France to start our French Alps cycling holidays.

Fly into Geneva and within 10 minutes driving you are already at the French border. There are also direct train services running between Geneva and Grenoble (2-2.5hr travel time).

Turin (Italy)

From Turin you are only a 1hr 30min drive to the base of the Sestrieres climb (Usseaux is a good starting point) which is a well-known ski village used by many Italian sporting teams for altitude training camps. UAE cycling team were there in July 2020 and in July 2016 we saw Team Sky also preparing selected riders for the second half of the European cycling season.

Once over the ‘Sestrieres’ Giro d’Italia climb, descend down to Cesana Torinese and you are right on the Italy/France border. Climb into France over Col de Montgenevre and the descent leads you straight into Briancon (classic French Alps medieval fortress town). Now the cycling challenge awaits with Col d’Izoard, Col du Granon, Col du Lauteret, Col de Vars, and Col du Galibier (southern side) all only a few pedal strokes away.

From Turin it is also only a 45min drive to Susa. Important – just a minute from the town centre one can easily access the start of Colle delle Finestre. That crazy climb used by Contador and Froome to attack on the upper gravel sections to take Giro glory. On this side the final 8km are on snaking gravel roads which are physically and technically demanding but also fun as all hell! The descent on the other side is asphalted and puts you at the base of Sestrieres (read above).

From Susa township the climb up to Mont Cenis is also right on your doorstep and this epic route has been used on multiple occasions during both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. The magical turquoise coloured waters found at this elevated 1900m+ elevation plateau provide your passage into the French Alps.

At the bottom of the subsequent descent one can turn right and head for Col de l’Iseran or left and in no time you will be looking at the Col du Telegraphe/ Col du Galibier double. Now you are in the French Alps and your earlier decision to head left or right will probably come down to which bucket-list cycling cols you are dreaming of.

From Turin you can drive 1hr 30min to the base of Colle dell’Agnello. This is a monster climb which often goes unforgotten. But at 2744m it is ranked number 2 in the French Alps and once ridden you will never forget it. It is frighteningly good! Some might remember Steven Kruijswijk going over the handlebars as he slid uncontrollably into a snow wall near the summit while still wearing the pink jersery during Stage 19 at the 2016 Giro d’Italia. Dreams shattered for one and realized for another in Vincenzo Nibali.

The full descent leads into the French town Guillestre. Before arriving to Guillestre one can decide to turn right off the main road for direct access to Col d’Izoard. Once over the Izoard and everything that staying in Briancon offers is now available for the keen road cyclist

The iconic Casse Desert landscape on Col d’Izoard

As you approach Guillestre there are left hand turns available for Col du Vars (typical linking col used during the Tour de France) or up to Risoul ski station. If you decide to ride Colle dell’Agnello and later head towards Vars then you are also giving yourself easy access to continue into the Col de la Bonette, Pra Loup and Col d’Allos region.

Again simply a take your pick scenario depending on the big cols that you are interested in. Cycling over Col du Vars might be attractive for some as from Bonette you can continue all the way through to Nice on the Cote d’Azur in 2-3 days of additional cycling. At the same time detour over Col d’Allos and you will now be on the border of Provence and we all know that Le Geant (Ventoux) resides over there!

There are excellent train connections to Turin from major European centres such as Paris (6hr) and local Italian cities like Rome (4hr) and Milan (1hr). Flying into Turin Airport and picking up a hire car is another great way to explore this Piedmont region before embarking on your French Alps cycling holidays.

Avignon (France)

Mont Ventoux stands alone on the western periphery of the Alps and geologically speaking is part of the French Alps even though there is a lack of other high mountains in the region. If you are dreaming of ticking off this giant cycling col (Geant du Provence) from your bucket-list then Avignon is an excellent starting point being only a 40min drive to its base.

Remember that this particular region of Alpes Provence is isolated when it comes to getting multiple A-grade climbs. The cycling around Provence though is superb with many 2-4km climbs so it is still a great starting point for Mont Ventoux. More suggestions for rides around the Mont Ventoux region are described later.

Catch a fast train from Paris, Lyon or Marseille (plus more locations) to Avignon using the TGV fast train service. We often fly in and out of Marseille Airport when we have cycling tours through Provence and the Mont Ventoux region

Keeping an eye on the prize up to the Mont Ventoux summit

Bucket-List Road Cycling Cols

Here we present what we believe are the top French Alps bucket-list climbs in the Rhone Alps and Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur regions. We have been lucky to ride these climbs consistently over the last decade and between our own experiences and feedback from guests it has become clear that these are the best road cycling challenges! So here we go in no order of particular preference. Cycling the French Alps has never been easier – Alpe d’Huez, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Galibier, Col de l’Iseran, Col d’Izoard and Mont Ventoux!

Alpe d’Huez

Alpe d´Huez and its famed 21 switchbacks. No other mountain has had so much Tour de France drama. With the number of roadside spectators over the years it is easy to call it the Hollywood of French cols. Switchback seven, otherwise known as Dutch Corner, is probable etched into your mind with the splash of orange found during Le Tour. However, with or without the TDF, the atmosphere on the mountain is always fantastic and the 13km at 8% average grade will be a constant test!

Alpe d’Huez road cycling profile

The excitement on the mountain has grown exponentially since the 1980s. Up until the early 1950’s Alpe d’Huez was simply a primitive ski resort (2 or 3 hotels) with a potholed road leading to the top. Hard to believe right! Especially considering that Alpe d´Huez has now hosted 30 Tour de France stage finishes making it centre stage for many famous battles.

Going back to 1952 and Fausto Coppi won the first ever summit finish attacking with 6km to the summit. Coppi was fourth overnight, 5 minutes down and following the inaugural Huez summit he found himself sitting with the race lead. Not a bad day’s work by Coppi who was definitely at the peak of his powers during the early 1950’s. Thanks to some high-profile local businessmen a big pot of money was paid to the TDF organisation for the Stage 10 finish of the 1952 edition.

Surprisingly it took another payment, again from one of the original backers, before the race returned to the 1976 Alpe d’Huez. A 24 year hiatus which again saw two riders go head to head all the way to the top and provide a spectacle to be remembered that now sees the race frequently return to the famous 21 bends.

To conquer this TDF summit finish get yourself organised in the town Bourg d’Oisans (especially if you need to find yourself a hire bike). From there you can get started to enjoy the switchback countdown. Each of the 21 hairpin bends has been named after past stage winners and you too will soak up all the history! Pacing the first km is pretty important as its 10.5% average grade often puts recreational riders away too early. It is just so difficult to not get caught up in the moment! We understand.

Exclusive Alpe d’Huez cycling jersey

We often get asked about what’s a good time to the top? Before this can be answered it will depend on where you choose to stop. In the town shopping area or at the official Le Tour race finish line? If you are riding with others we would say your best bet is to finish in the town shopping strip (before the left sweeping underpass) and wait for everyone to regroup.

That way no-one will get lost, you will have time to look through the shops and souvenir hunt, pose on the makeshift podium and finally you can all ride the final kilometre together for a group photo at the official race finish line. Please note – if a rider gets it really wrong they just might keep pedalling another 5km or so all the way up to Lac Besson. This is not a problem for mountain goats who love to climb all day (highly recommended) but if you were already at your limit passing through the village (12km) then stopping here will be the best option. We know of this happening and riders wondering how they ended up at the lake!

Now getting back to the point! Coppi’s 1952 time was 45min 22sec. EPO boosted times went as low as 36min 50sec. We would have to say that anything around 1hr 15min for a recreational rider is a very good time.

Please note that there are a couple of other road cycling approaches to reach the Huez ski village and these are presented later in the ‘Cycling Routes & Where to Stay’ section.

Col de la Croix de Fer

This legendary climb is located in the heart of the Maurienne valley. Its elevation is 2067m so it’s typically one of the earliest climbs to open in the French Alps considering other climbs such as Galibier and Iseran top out at 2600m plus. The standard iron cross monument at the top is the perfect place for a keepsake photo. In 2016 this was vandalized so it is a good thing that it is back up there adding to the cycling experience.

From the top there is Alpe d’Huez to the south, Galibier to the east and Madeleine to the north. Talk about the perfect climb for cyclists to link between the Maurienne valley and Oisans valley.

This famous climb was first used during the 1947 Tour de France. To emphasize its link road nature Col de la Croix de Fer has never been used as a stage summit finish in the Tour de France. It has been used on 19 occasions but always providing access from one valley to another. This really surprises us because we have seen plenty of other TDF summit finish locations with much less space at the top. For instance, we would love to see a Tour de France stage which includes Col de la Sarenne to the top of Alpe d’Huez, down to Allemont (various options available) and up Col du Glandon with an epic summit finish on Croix de Fer.

All smiles atop Col de la Croix de Fer in the French Alps

There are five main routes to get to the top and in many cases you can be rewarded with Col du Glandon and/or Col du Mollard as well. Now that is what we call efficient cycling col hunting! Our favourite Croix de Fer approaches are listed here:

  • From Allemont it is 24km at 5% average grade first ascending Col du Glandon (21km) before the right hand turn off and final 3km to Croix de Fer. It is a difficult climb which should not be underestimated as a number of short downhill sections misrepresent the average grade (maximum biting uphill gradients of 11%)! Being originally from Victoria (Australia) cycling from Allemont follows a profile and physical expenditure which we believe is very similar to what is required on Mount Hotham in the Victorian High Country.
  • From St Jean du Maurienne one is confronted with a 29km at 5% average grade climb. Without analyzing all the TDF crossings to date we would have to think that this is the favourite wheel path of Le Tour. Really it is not until you leave the St-Sorlin-d’Arves ski village that things become too complicated though. From here on the road narrows, the switchbacks set in and the road ramps up for a final 6km test to the summit.
  • From Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines the climb measures 22km at 7% average grade. Officially you have started on Col du Glandon where the early kilometres pass a thick forest with fresh stream crossings before a wild switchback finish. Just quietly but this is one of our favourite places for cycling photography! At the Col du Glandon summit veer left and now the Croix de Fer summit is in sight. Here is your chance for the final 3km kick to the summit.

Col du Mollard is another variation that can be added to your Croix de Fer route. If you are looking to spice up your ride start descending Croix de Fer towards St Jean du Maurienne on the D926 road. After 14km of descent turn off to the right at Barrage de Belleville onto the D80 and the Col du Mollard signpost. Col du Mollard offers a further 6km of climbing (404m elevation gain at 6.7% average grade). The final 13.5km descent includes a packed finale of hairpin corners down to the Maurienne valley floor at Villargondran. At the base you are now only a few km to St Jean du Maurienne where you will have time to go back to your Garmin for the official hairpin descent count!

Col du Galibier (north side)

The Galibier peak stands at 2640m and to date is the highest mountain used for a TDF stage finish. Just quietly but Col du Galibier has a total of 59 magical Tour de France moments!

One kilometre from the summit is the single lane 355m tunnel. As a cyclist make sure to detour the tunnel and take the paved road all the way to the top (applies for both sides of the tunnel). On the southern side of the tunnel there is a monument dedicated to the father of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange. The souvenir Henri Desgrange is the prize awarded for the first rider that passes the highest elevation during any Tour de France edition. When Col du Galibier is included in the race it usually takes this prize easily and double king of the mountain (KOM) points are awarded!

Looking back to some Tour de France history and it was in 1910 that the first Pyrenean climbs were successfully introduced to the race. Subsequently the much higher Alps were introduced the following year. In 1911 a 266km stage included the inaugural crossing of Col du Galibier. You might remember that in 2011 they climbed Galibier twice to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its first crossing! Talk about punishment. The second time up was the first ever and still only Tour de France summit finish which was won by Andy Schleck.

Col du Galibier is the highest Tour de France stage finish

Nowadays it is the total length of the climb rather than the grades which affect most recreational cyclists. One needs to remember though that since the first TDF warriors the roads have been regraded for the better and asphalted. What it must have been like a century ago scaling to these heights on inferior bikes!

The Giro d’Italia even organized a Galibier stage finish during Stage 15 of the 2013 race. This was quite a risky proposition during the month of May and as such the stage finish on this occasion was set 4km down from the summit at the Marco Pantani memorial. The plan worked as the weather held off at this 2295m elevation and Giovanni Visconti took the chocolates! The Pantani memorial sets the location where Italian rider attacked in the rain to secure victory in the 1998 Tour de France.

The Col du Galibier summit can be accessed from the Maurienne valley (Saint Michel du Maurienne) or from the summit of Col du Lauteret (main road that links Briancon with Le Bourg d’Oisans). It is from the bottom of the valley in Saint–Michel–du-Maurienne where the authentic Tour de France double awaits: Telegraphe (12km) followed by Col du Galibier (18km)! It is often a good idea to break up the ride with a stop in the ski village town of Valloire. Valloire is neatly and strategically placed between these two epic cols:

  • Col du Telegraphe: 11.8km long, 856m elevation gain, 7.3% average grade
  • Valloire ski village
  • Col du Galibier: 18km long, 1245m elevation gain, 7% average grade

After Valloire there is quite a long straight section which mentally is tough as you struggle with the grades and you just don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Usually with the switchbacks you can at least see the prize at the top. So it is not until you arrive at Plan Lachat that you start to feel more confident that you might actually make it the summit. The final 8km above Plan Lachat is what you will hear everyone talk about. 8km of never-ending switchbacks to cycling glory!

Most of our clients who complete the Telegraphe / Galibier double refer to it as the hardest and yet most rewarding day of cycling they have ever experienced.

Exclusive French Alpes cycling jersey; Galibier, Alpe d’Huez, Croix de Fer and Izoard

Col du Galibier (south side)

From the summit of Col du Lauteret it is also an amazingly beautiful ride to the top of Galibier. Technically this southern Galibier approach belongs to Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region of the French Alpes.

As you pedal along it is as if a spell has been cast over you. All you want to do is watch the scenery below rather than concentrating on the twisting roads ahead! This Galibier ascent is even better when you climb in this direction the day before the Tour de France. The vantage point over the Col du Lauteret road is exceptional and the never-ending line of caravan city below is to be seen to be believed!

Cycling Col du Galibier only moments before the Tour de France

If you are new to cycling and want to achieve something magical than start at the summit of Col du Lauteret. Here it starts at 2058m elevation which is a good help and only 8km to the Galibier summit! If you are planning to ride from Le Bourg d’Oisans to get both Col du Lauteret and Galibier we would say no as there are many tunnels. But at the end of the day this will come down to everyone’s personal risk profile and what they find enjoyable or not or even normal. In contrast, from Briancon to the summit of Lauteret there are no closed tunnels and one can usually find another space/shoulder to feel relatively comfortable.

Col de l’Iseran (south side)

The mighty Col de l’Iseran rests at a staggering 2770m elevation. Despite this giant col being ranked number 1 on the list of Europe’s highest asphalted passes it has only been scaled on nine occasions during the Tour de France, the last being during Stage 19 of the 2019 edition! Anyone remember that day when hail and ice in Tignes caused a mudslide making it impossible for the peloton to ride to the stage finish? It was a good thing for Egan Bernal that he made an early attack on Col de l’Iseran and put some time into Alaphilippe before the resulting mayhem near the stage finish.

The options for scaling Col de l’Iseran are from Bourg Saint-Maurice and Lanslebourg / Modane. Technically, from Bourg Saint-Maurice the north approach is located outside of the blog titled region. It is a 46.9km, 2045m elevation gain and 4.2% average grade kind of ride. However, the first 30km from Bourg to Val d’Isere are on a busy rather non-interesting kind of road and some fairly dark tunnels near Tignes. Just for your information, the final 17km to the summit from Val d’Isere average around at 6%.

Our preferred option for cycling Col de l’Iseran is from Modane/Lanslebourg (south approach). We often take our time and ride from Modane when tackling Col de l’Iseran. From Modane the climb measures 48km with an average 4% grade:

KM 0 – 9: a very accommodating 1-2% average grade

KM 9 – 24: constant climbing which ranges between 4-7%

KM 24 – 33: easy 1-2% average grade

KM 33 – 48: constant 6% average

All alone on the Col de l’Iseran summit during the 2019 TDF

To be honest though it is really only the final 12-13km where the feeling of riding an epic mountain road takes shape. From here switchbacks, rock carved tunnels and glaciers are all around. During that 2019 TDF edition with all the mayhem occurring on the Tignes side the mountain pass was quickly closed to traffic. The local emergency services had created a temporary road block about 7km to the Iseran summit. We were on our bikes and politely asked the roadside authorities if we could simply continue to the summit and then return straight back down.

With our experience with the French police (Gendarmarie) we did not hold our hopes high but we were given, to our surprise, the green light to proceed. And what an opportunity it was! Here is a link to our short blog post ‘A Moment on Tour´. In summary though our cycling tour group cycled in solitude to the top of the mighty Col de l’Iseran. Probably the best bit though was enjoying a car-free descent. Cycling like the pro’s for 1hr on Europe’s highest mountain pass where the 2019 TDF had just been won moments earlier was something magical!

Final thoughts – if given the option our pick would be to ride from Modane or Lanslebourg anytime. When you start all the way down in Modane it is also straightforward to select parallel roads that take you over smaller cotes such as Aussois even before arriving to Lanslebourg.

Col d’Izoard

Any cycling outing that includes Col d’Izoard is yet another classic Tour de France route. For many the ´Izoard´ (2360m) and its sandy eroded cliffs above la Casse Deserte resemble an amazing lunar landscape. The 35 TDF crossings have provided many an iconic black & white photo of the race!

The race to the summit was first included during the 1922 Tour de France. It was during the 1950’s though where its name was etched into cycling folklore with so many special moments thanks to riders such as Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet. Solo breakaways and cycling heroics was the call of the day and the reason why a special monument to these two riders can today be found in the Casse Deserte.

Being located so close to the Italian border means other special Giro d’Italia moments have also been celebrated with Izoard crossings during 1949, 1964, 1994, 2000 and 2007. A fantastic day on the mountain was also experienced during the 2017 La Course where the TDF organisers took the women’s race away from the Champs Elysees to the heights of Col d’Izoard. Van Vleuten was the winner on the day as has been so often the case already in this interrupted 2020 season. Warren Barguil is also the only male rider who can proudly say he has won a Col d’Izoard stage summit finish.

Beautiful ride from Briancon up to Col d’Izoard

In order to conquer Col d’Izoard it can be ridden from its south or north side:

  • Traditionally the toughest climb and most used during the Tour de France is from the Guillestre direction (south side) which includes 16km, 1095m ascent and a 6.9% average. Be sure to take note though that if you decide to head-off from Guillestre then you now have a 30km climb to contend with. 14km of pedal power is required up the D902 gorge road against the grade of the River Guil before you turn left and onto the official Col d’Izoard ascent.

[If you know the Col du Tourmalet in the French Pyrenees you will know the Gorge de Luz road up to Luz St Sauveur. It seems like a gentle, friendly valley road but many Tourmalet assaults are over before they even begin when this gorge road is pushed too hard].

Like the Tourmalet the same applies to Col d’Izoard when started from Guillestre (be sure to also pray for no headwind)! Now that you are on the climb there are many 8-10% sections during the initial 7km which are relatively open with long stretches. From around 1800m elevation the fun begins as the switchbacks arrive.

With approximately 3km to the summit the climb enters the unique landscapes of the Casse Deserte. Eroded cliffs, rock pinnacles and stunning valley views all surround. Pro-riders tell tales of only realizing how beautiful the Izoard landscapes are until they return well after their careers have finished and they actually slow down and stop to take it all in.

  • From Briancon the climb is closer to 20km, 1141m ascent and 5.7% average grade. This northern approach is the climb that we normally use as we prefer to stay in Briancon and surrounds when cycling in this part of the alps. It is a relatively easy beginning up to the Cervieres village (10km). The final 6km towards the summit includes about a dozen switchbacks with wide open views and beautiful scenery. Descending down the south side and then flying down the gorge to Guillestre is a highlight. If you are feeling really strong then you can also tackle Colle dell’Agnello from the base of Izoard.

Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux has celebrated 10 spectacular TDF finishes on what is a ‘bald’ limestone, windy and moonscape-like summit. The mystique of the mountain has grown over the years with death (Tom Simpson), unlikely heroes (Eros Poli), race fixing allegations (Pantani/Armstrong), doping scandals (Richard Virenque) and comedy (remember Chris Froome running with no bike during the 2016 TDF) all at play.

Lacking surrounding mountains, Ventoux, is still surprisingly for some a part of the French Alpes and can be climbed from Bedoin, Malaucene or Sault. The three ascents range between 22km and 26km and vary in difficulty. The southern approach from Bedoin is the most famous TDF ascent and the inspiration for our ‘South Side of the Moon’ slogan designed on the back of our exclusive Ventoux cycling jersey. V is also for Victory and scaling the ‘Geant du Provence’ will be one of your greatest cycling accomplishments!

Exclusive Mont Ventoux cycling jersey

Here is a glimpse of what to expect on Ventoux when cycling from Bedoin and the famous route straight from the Tour de France.

KM 0 – 6: 4% average grade up to the famous St Esteve bend

KM 6 – 15: the feared forest with constant climbing always touching 9 – 10%

KM 15 – 21.4: the lunar landscape above Chalet Reynard at 8% average grade

From Bedoin the early kilometres up Ventoux are quite easy cycling past vineyards. Here you can still keep an eye on the prize being the iconic summit weather station. On reaching the St Esteve bend you enter the ‘forest’ and things do not let up for nearly 10km. Rejoice on arriving at Chalet Reynard where you can catch your breath. From here the average 8% now feels flat unless you are unlucky to be hit by strong winds on the exposed white cliffs.

Be amazed as every pedal stroke now reveals the lunar landscape towards the summit! Now it is not the time to compare yourself against the pro’s who typically need 60 to 75 minutes to climb Ventoux. Your aim should be to get to the top and enjoy the incredible views from the iconic weather station. Plus remember to sample plenty of the sweets and dried fruits from the stalls at the summit.   

The moonscape above Mont Ventoux rivals that of the Casse Desert on Col d’Izoard. With only rocks all the way to the summit it feels remote and wild. What better place for a road cycling challenge! Le Geant du Provence towers over the surrounding terrain and the bare limestone cliffs resemble all-year round snow on the summit.

If scaling it once wasn’t enough than why not attempt joining the prestigious “Les Cinglés du Mont Ventoux” group of cyclists. To join the Cingles club you will need to ride to the summit from Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault all in the one day (137km and 4400m of elevation gain. Start pedalling!

Le Geant de Provence is the ultimate Provence cycling challenge

Cycling Routes & Where to Stay

When considering cycling the French Alps you must first decide how you prefer to travel. You might select one town for your entire cycling holiday, multiple towns and split your holiday with a minimum of 2 or 3 nights in each location or even pick a start and finish town to make a point to point journey (bike packing is becoming all the rage now).

Grenoble

Grenoble allows one to enjoy a cycling holiday with all the benefits of staying in a city with shopping, general tourism and attractions, bars, high profile restaurants and plazas. Earlier we have mentioned that in 45 minutes you can find yourself in Le Bourg d’Oisans at the base of Alpe d’Huez.

Grenoble also provides some good warm-up ride options immediately north of the city. Jump on your bike from the town centre and head out towards Saint-Egreve. Once you turn right you find yourself climbing up into the Massif Chartreuse-Tourisme. Just like the the 2020 edition of the Criterium du Dauphine follow the road to Sarcenas and up onto Col de Porte. Stage 16 of the 2020 Tour de France also used the Saint Nizier climb (11km at 6.5% average grade) as the final climb of the day from Seyssins (Grenoble suburb) up to Villard-de-Lans.

Road cycling routes around Grenoble

La Prise de la Bastille is also one of the shortest bike races going around but during September every year the 2km time trial to the top of the fort is conducted. Six switchbacks and 320m of elevation gain (16% average grade) with pinches at 25%. The world’s best take 7 minutes and the slowest 20 minutes so add this to your cycling challenge. Be sure to admire the views on the terrace of the Chez le Per’Gras restaurant once the lactic acid has settled!

Starting in Grenoble also allows a north to south crossing of the Alps. Why might this be interesting? Well in our experience finishing a cycling challenge on the coast is our favourite way to end a cycling tour. In this instance Nice is a good option and why not enjoy some final days on the Cote d’Azur to celebrate your achievements. Here is an example cycling tour itinerary from Grenoble to Nice

Le Bourg d’Oisans

It is true that everyone needs to cycle Alpe d’Huez at least once in their lifetime. But what many do not realise is that the Villard Reymond, Auris and Pas de la Confession balcony roads are simply jaw-dropping good. What is even better is that you do not need to move from Le Bourg to find these amazing roads. Other nearby towns such as Allemont, Oz and Vaujany are also good back-up options.

In addition to the famous TDF cols in the region Le Bourg is a great base thanks to a number of lesser known cols. The road cycling experience on the following climbs typically exceed the expectations of most cyclists; Col d´Ornon, Col de la Sarenne, Col du Solude, Col du Sabot and Montee de la Berarde after Saint-Christophe-en-Berarde.

  • Col de la Sarenne: From Le Bourg we like to find Col de la Sarenne via Auris which means climbing the tough first km of Alpe d’Huez before turning right. To get things going we have what’s best described as a lumpy 20km to the base of ‘Sarenne’ following the remarkable Auris balcony road. The following 15km climb to Sarenne that now awaits needs to be respected as it has ≥ 10% ramps in places and will be a huge test. The trade-off though is cycling through the beautiful Ferrand valley and the final hairpins which take you up to 1999m elevation (yes 1999m!). Now you have a final easy 9km to the Alpe d’Huez ski village.
Road cycling routes around Le Bourg d’Oisans
  • Col de Solude: The climb rises out of Le Bourg d’Oisans and while it is asphalted for the most part once you have past Villard notre Dame it also includes a few unsealed sections for the gravel grinders. The road is ridable but for road bikes we only recommend cycling the route following this direction. From Villard Reymond enjoy the views across the valley to the Alpe d’Huez ski station. If you have already ridden Alpe d’Huez then the sense of satisfaction of what you have achieved will be at an all time high! To complete the loop back to Le Bourg d’Oisans first descend back down to Ornon. If you still have some legs Col d’Ornon is now waiting!
  • Pas de la Confesion: From the Alpe d’Huez ski station the ride follows a small backroad which initially descends, later slightly rises, hugs the edge of the mountain and then provides spectacular views down to the valley floor. You will need to pass Switchback 5 and then look for the right hand turn off. After 2km of cycling you will reach the balcony lookout and Pas de la Confesion. Once back down in the valley there are many ride options from Allemont (Glandon, Croix de Fer, Col du Sabot and Col d’Ornon) or simply head back along the bike lane back to the base of Alpe d’Huez.
Vive le Tour with our French Alps cycling jersey
  • Col du Sabot: If you love cycling challenges then look no further than Col du Sabot. This 14.5km climb (1290m elevation gain at 8.9% average grade) is a real surprise packet as it goes higher than Alpe d’Huez (2100m compared to 1860m), is harder (1.5km longer and steeper), is surrounded by nature and has only a handful of cars. Just saying….

St Jean du Maurienne

Within a few kilometres of the town centre and the following climbs await; Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, Lacets de Montvernier, Col du Chaussy and Col du Mollard. Lacets de Montvernier is a climb that has not yet been discussed. While it is not overly difficult the chance to ride Lacets de Montvernier is truly memorable. This short but spectacular climb has only been used in the 2015 and 2018 Tour de France editions. 18 tight switchbacks (‘lacets’ in French) wind up over 3.5km creating a simply incredible cycling experience. Remember: the mythical Alpe d´Huez has 21 switchbacks over 13km!! Once we are all photo’d out the route can continue from the first cross road after the summit onto Col du Chaussy (turn left) or straight back down to St Jean du Maurienne (turn right).

The cycling switchbacks found on Lacets de Montvernier

For those who turned left Col du Chaussy includes a further 9km with approximately 750m of elevation gain. Another narrow balcony road awaits where two vehicles cannot pass in places but a wonderful cycling experience for those who are not afraid of heights. To keep the chance for linking cols alive and it is even possible to ride from the Chaussy summit over to Col de la Madeleine (an extra 25km following the D99 and D213 roads).

Road cycling routes around St Jean du Maurienne

From St Jean du Maurienne it is also only 14km to the base of the Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier double. It is another long haul up the valley floor which is taxing and lots of traffic so we typically recommend starting the Telegraphe climb from St Michel du Maurienne. We have cycled many times from St Michel down to St Jean though. There is usually a good shoulder and being all downhill the 14km are ridden pretty quickly.

Cycling profiles of the legendary Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier climbs

In addition, if you drive 1hr from St Jean du Maurienne towards the French/Italian border you can stay in Lanslebourg which is discussed later.

Briancon

The historical centre of Briancon was built in the 17th Century and its steep and narrow streets are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thanks to its history, fortifications and cycling on offer it is a great base for French Alps cycling holidays. Briançon at 1326m elevation is also categorised as the highest town in France.

The region surrounding Briancon includes the following climbs; Col de Montgenevre, Col du Lauteret, Col du Granon and Col d’Izoard. On the south side of Col d’Izoard the Col du Vars and Col dell’Agnello climbs are also possible but tackling these rides from Briancon will be a big day and we would recommend some help with a vehicle and driver.

Col d’Izoard road cycling profile from Briancon

One of the toughest climbs in the French Alps based on the stats would have to be Col du Granon. The 11.5km climb averages 9% and offers glacier views above the Massif des Ecrins peaks. The col has only been used as a summit finish during the 1986 Tour de France. With the race getting bigger and bigger and limited space at the top the logistics seem to be too difficult now for the race organisers. The road to the top is a dead-end so the traffic is limited meaning more of the spectacular mountain views for you.

The final advantage for tired cyclists are the local thermal baths. Be sure to pack your bathers (no boardshorts) and swim cap (mandatory in France) and let the warm waters revitalise your muscles. This is the best way to guarantee free Watts for your future rides! It doesn’t have to be all about cycling the French Alps!

Barcelonette

Barcelonette is a small town with only a few thousand inhabitants but it is steeped in Tour de France history. Col de Vars, Col de la Bonette, Pra Loup, Col d’Allos, Col des Champs and Col de la Cayolle are our favourite local climbs and with all of this available it is very easy to spend a few days here. There is also a strong Mexican heritage in town which brings something different to the table!

Col de la Bonette for most is the major drawcard for cyclists looking for a cycling challenge. At 2802m altitude it is the highest asphalted road in France as the extra loop up to the car park means it leapfrogs just slightly ahead of Col de l’Iseran. Perhaps a rivalry for bragging rights does really exist in the French Alps after all! Cycling from Barcelonette means your legs get an important 10km warm up to the base of the Bonette. This 24km climb averages 7% and is a constant climb that rarely gets too steep. Let the switchbacks take you up into what is an expansive alpine landscape. Being so far above the tree line means the views are awesome!

The region is also home to one of the best loop rides in Europe. Most cycling enthusiasts have heard of the famous Sella Ronda loop in the Italian Dolomites yet possibly have never heard of this Maritime Alps beauty. This French Alps loop includes Col d’Allos, Col des Champs and Col de la Cayolle which at 100km is almost double the Sella Ronda distance and at 3000+m elevation also boasts an extra 1250m of elevation gain.

All three peaks also soar above 2000m elevation and include beautiful river valleys and scenic mountain roads. Col de la Cayolle is a real favourite of ours and it is probably the toughest climb when approached from the south (20.5km at 6.3% average grade). Tour de France history is also at every switchback with three race crossings for Col de la Cayolle and nine crossings for Col d’Allos.

For those who love TDF history then the climb to nearby Pra Loup will be a must ride. This was the finish for the epic 1975 Tour de France stage where Bernard Thévenet cracked the legendary Eddie Merckx (5 x TDF champion)! 

Lanslebourg

Lanslebourg is a ski village located near the France/Italy border. Col de l’Iseran is number 1 on the list of Europe’s highest passes and a must for all recreational cyclists. However, Mont Cenis has also been a strategic crossing between France and Italy for thousands of years and the road rises up from this small town. To cap it off Mont Cenis has 5 x Tour de France appearances (3 from this French side) and the 2013 Giro d’Italia created an amazing stage where the peloton scaled both sides! From Lanslebourg the Mont Cenis climb is 10km up towards the Italian border at 7% average grade. The mountain roads either side of the summit are cycling paradise!

Lanslebourg is a fantastic base because it also allows you to easily cycle into the Maurienne valley. So what does this mean for recreational cyclists who now have Iseran and Mont Cenis on their cycling CV? The Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier double are now in striking distance! The first 45km are mostly downhill to the base of Telegraphe but we also like to make sure we get off the main road and include Montee d’Aussois and Cote de Saint Andre. Both are 3km climbs at around 6% average grade and provide the perfect chance to get the legs going before a classic TDF double.

Road cycling routes around Mont Cenis

Bedoin

The cycling around the Mont Ventoux region of Provence combines breathtaking scenery, challenging climbs, awesome descents and the quiet backroad experience. Cycling through Provence is amazing at the best of times but when you combine your Ventoux cycling adventure with towns and places such as Sault, Gordes, Rousillon and Gorges de la Nesque then an excellent French Alps cycling holiday awaits! Bedoin is also a charming town and usually from May to October the Monday morning farmer’s market is a sight to see.

Road cycling routes around Bedoin and Provence

Final Cycling Challenge Words

The weather when cycling in the high alps (hautes alpes in French) always needs to be carefully assessed. Early June to mid-October every year is typically a good ballpark for col collecting. However, there is nothing set in stone as it is still very much a season to season proposition.

The summit elevation should also be considered. The cycling season is usually a few weeks longer in total for cols with elevations between 1500-2000m compared to those between 2250-2750m. Be sure to give this some serious consideration if a giant mountain pass like Col de l’seran or Col du Galibier is on your hit-list. At the same time in the hautes alpes the weather during the peak of summer can change from one extreme to another daily so always come prepared with the appropriate cycling gear especially if you will be riding without a support vehicle.

Are you now ready for some cycling in the French Alps? We hope you have found our guide to cycling the French Alps useful. If you have any questions regarding the famous ‘cols’ on offer please feel free to Contact Us and we will be pleased to assist.

In addtion, take some time to go through our tips for ‘How to get the best out of your next European cycling holiday‘.

Other cycling guides coming soon will include our Italian Alps and French Pyrenees blogs so stay tuned to our Blog site for more posts.

2020 Tour de France preview

Is anyone else expecting the 2020 edition of the TDF to be one of the most unpredictable in modern history? All we hope though is that it’s not for all the wrong reasons. No-one wants to see riders or teams being sent home for positive cases or at worst case the race being pulled before it even arrives to Paris. Shorter stage races like the Dauphine made it through unscathed so we must stay positive!

It will definitely be a different scene though this weekend with past winners such as Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas both absent from the start line. All riders have also had far from ‘normal’ preparations and with so many tough mountain stages, including unusual summit finishes in the first week of competition plus new summit finishes, we think there will be plenty of surprises along the parcours. Not to mention our initial Pre-Covid thoughts that the overall course with limited time trial stages was already looking for a Thibaut Pinot pódium for France.

So what should we all be looking out for? The Nice race start with several quality local climbs and a mountain stage finish on Stage 4 should have all the main GC riders already lined up in the top 10. Scrutiny on the best riders and the tensión that it brings will be on them right from the word go. Shortly thereafter there is Stage 6 with 30+ kilometres of uphill finish to Mont Aigoual to sign-off what should be a pretty dynamic week one of Le Tour.

Probably the stage that we are most interested in watching play out is Stage 13 up to the extinct Puy Mary volcano. The stage includes 4400m of elevation gain over 7 climbs ranging between 3km and 10km in length. Traditionally this type of elevation gain would be found linking longer traditional climbs such as Col d’Izoard and Col du Galibier for example. Anyone else think that Julian Alaphillipe has been written into the script again after his 2019 heroics? We expect to see some awesome racing and team tactics on display during Stage 13 that will shuffle the GC standings and keep things ‘alive’ for the final week.

Tour de France
Julian Alaphilippe – the man of the moment during the 2019 TDF!

Stage 15 which comes on the eve of the second rest day should also be pivotal in the quest for the maillot jeune. There are multiple climbs on the road that leads to the Grand Colombiere stage finish. It’s 17.5km at 7% average grade statistics puts it right in the same category as other famous climbs like Tourmalet so expect fireworks but without the Bastille day celebrations on this occasion. Seeing new roads introduced is always exciting and the Stage 17 summit finish has even had a new road built for cyclists only up to Col de la Loze. In the final 4km of this 22.5km climb there are ramps up to 20%. The winner of Stage 17 will also take home the Souvenir Henri Desgrange for the highest elevation reached during the 2020 edition peaking out at 2304m. I cannot wait for this one! But even more importantly I am dreaming of being able to guide Sierra clients on this cycling friendly road in the near future.

When it comes to time trial racing everything has been left until Stage 20. The penultimate race stage includes a finish on La Planche des Belles Filles so the final climb actually removes the chances for the pure individual time trial specialists. Did you know that Pinot lives only 20km from La Planche so he will have ridden this 6km climb (8.5% grade) more than anyone else. Will it serve as extra motivation or added pressure? Without the big crowds allowed this year it may just be the perfect scenario for the Frenchmen to go in relaxed this time round!

What else do we think could be different in 2020? Well the race is starting almost 2 months later than normal which could have weather implications. The French mountains during September can be covered in mist and heavy cloud cover near the summits and the likelihood for rain is greater than July. With such a mountainous parcours hopefully the riders stay upright as the descending skills could become even more important than previous race editions.

We usually like to go out and give some Top 3 predictions but in this upside down Covid world we simply hope that the riders have the chance to dispute the final sprint on the Champs Elysees. How’s that! We were able to slip the word sprint in there at last. There will probably only be four real sprint chances this year so most teams will be bringing extra climbing resources to support their GC contenders.  Hopefully a successful TDF should also mean that the rest of the condensed 2020 racing season can be contested. Fingers crossed!

Tour de France, Col du Galibier
Fast and furious finish in Valloire during 2019!

Mark’s 2019 Tour Testimonial

Cycling through the Spanish Pyrenees. Pyrenees Coast 2 Coast Cycling Tour

A few years ago I decided to tackle the 3 Peaks ride in the Victorian Alps and in preparation I got some online coaching help from one of David Heatley’s excellent Cycling-Inform training programs. Early this year I was looking at doing some European cycling and through Cycling-Inform  I became aware of the various cycling tours offered by Sierra Sports & Tours and decided upon the Pyrenees Coast to Coast cycling experience. The tour fitted in perfectly with what I was looking for in terms of  cultural mix,  a blend of iconic Tour de France climbs and the dates that I was available .

Not having been on an organised cycling tour before I was impressed with the way our very sociable and well organised Spanish hosts Jorge and Jaume took us on an amazing  journey of fantastic  rides across the Spanish & French Pyrenees with a backdrop of absolutely spectacular scenery mixed with good quality food/accommodation and the comradery of my fellow cyclists. I would have to say this was the most memorable cycling experience I’ve ever had and I definitely will be coming back next year.

Col de Portet in the French Pyrenees. Pyrenees Coast 2 Coast Cycling Tour

Author – Mark (Adelaide, Australia)           

Tour – Pyrenees Coast 2 Coast (Sept 2019)

Webinar – European Cycling Tours!

On 5 December 2019 Paul from Sierra Sports & Tours spoke with David from Cycling-Inform about three of Sierra’s fantastic Explorer style tours. Follow this link to watch a recorded Webinar video which focuses on our Dolomites Cycling Tour, Pyrenees Coast 2 Coast Cycling Tour and Grenoble to Nice (French Alpes) Cycling Tour.

Every year Sierra runs around 15 unique European bike tours through France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Slovenia and Switzerland. Tours span from March to October giving our guests many opportunities to choose their dream cycling getaway. There are tours that suit all levels of cycling ability but three of our challenge tours visit the Italian Dolomites, Spanish & French Pyrenees and French Alpes. During this webinar we focus specifically on the ins and outs of these three epic cycling experiences and what is required to get you in good shape to enjoy a your cycling experience to the maximum!

Click here to download the Webinar presentation in pdf format (Cycling Inform Webinar – Dec 2019 – Blog) and look over some of the tour maps, ride profiles and photos from the above European cycling adventures. If your preference is to ride away from the professionals then the following a Sierra Explorer Cycling Tour will be your best bet. Rewarding rides (code for good challenges), mythical climbs, amazing landscapes and more time to indulge in the local culture!

2019 TDF – A Moment on Tour!

The 2019 Tour de France was an intriguing battle all the way to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. From sweltering temperatures, massive storms in the final stages and a tough final week in the French Alpes the 2019 TDF edition truly was a race of attrition! Our cycling tour group though picked things up in Nice and the first ride crossing Gorges du Verdons and cycling into Provence was a real highlight! There is a lot to like about Provence and cycling through small villages like St Saturnin, Gordes and Roussillon provide excellent contrasts to Le Geant de Provence which is always lurking nearby. Yes, Mt Ventoux was the first serious test and to conquer this Hors Categorie climb is simply put an achievement and a half!  But to find out where it all happened around the Tour de France race read below: 

Col du Galibier


[Setting the scene] – Who remembers Stage 19 of the 2019 TDF when the heavens opened up and to everyone’s surpise washed out the summit finish to Tignes? Our tour plan was to watch the peloton pass over Col de l’Iseran (the penultimate climb and Europe’s highest mountain pass at 2770m). The Gendarmarie (French police) were nervous all day and we settled to watch the race from Bessans still 20km from the top of Iseran. With the poor weather hovering we had discussed coming back the next morning to conquer the beast.

As the peloton passed us by we re-assessed the weather conditions and the storm was holding-off on our side of the mountain. So with the support van providing close cover our guests, with only a handful of other cyclists, decided they were keen to give the mighty Iseran a go! At the point where the road becomes a real ‘mountain pass’ the Emergency Service crews had closed all access to vehicles due to the intense storm the TDF was experiencing on the other side. We were also stopped but we put our case forward that we only wanted to ride up to the summit and then back down the same way. And just like that we were given the green light to proceed!

So the climb was obviously great but what was even better was what happened next. A 13km descent to where we had the support van waiting. Not a single car on the road and the chance to feel like a pro rider for 20 minutes descending with only which glacier to look at to worry about! And while all of this was taking place the TDF was experiencing total CHAOS and we were still riding in warm weather and short sleeves!

Col de l'Iseran

Tour de France – Assessing the Race Rumours

The Tour de France is arguably, year after year, the world’s biggest sporting event! With that attention brings constant speculation as to where the following year’s route will travel, which climbs will be featured, any new climbs to be revealed, innovations to the race structure, any gravel road finishes like recent editions of the Giro d’Italia or any narrow ‘goat-like tracks’ to lofty summits as rolled out at La Vuelta a España??

When it comes to waiting for the next edition of the Tour de France most cycling enthusiasts resort to keeping an eye on the A.S.O. website (Le Tour race organizers) for the date of the following race route presentation. The 2019 TDF race edition for example was presented just a couple of weeks ago on 25 October 2018 in Paris. This approach seems the most sensible as trying to hunt-down start and finish towns over 21 cycling race stages is a somewhat ‘Mission Impossible’ task.

But surprisingly enough there are cycling fans out there whose curiousity gets the better of them. As soon as the bikes zoom around the Champs d’Elysees for the final Stage 21 sprint finish their attention must quickly turn to the next Tour de France race edition! It was not until we begun our cycling tour business Sierra Sports & Tours that we uncovered an incredible website dedicated to TDF race route rumours which tracks down information piece by piece. The www.velowire.com website in a way takes the small pieces of information it collects to try and create the full Tour de France jigsaw puzzle well before the official presentation in Paris. The website creator is not affiliated with the A.S.O. race organisation, is not a professional or ex professional cyclist nor works for any of the pro cycling teams but just another cycling fan like you or me.

So how does the www.velowire.com website do it?

  1. When you look at the stage by stage TDF analysis you find that they have been scrolling the local French newspapers with a fine toothcomb looking for details. The Tour de France is a magnet for national and international tourism so the towns and cities are very proud when selected to host a stage start or finish. So broadcasts to the media (print or radio) are excellent ways of finding out TDF race route information.
  2. The Tour de France is also a moving road show with the professional teams, race organizers, media circus and sponsors all requiring huge amounts of accommodation along the race route. An in-depth analysis of hotel reservations over the ‘July TDF pilgrimage period’ is another way of either finding out or confirming possible stage start or finish towns!
  3. At times social media plays a part with the A.S.O. organizers uploading a photo or comment to their feeds. Such details are often ambiguous and require further examination and if you are lucky one might uncover some further race information following these avenues.

So did velowire.com hit the mark with the 2019 Tour de France race route?

It wasn’t until 24 September 2018 that velowire.com began to publish its possible 2019 Tour de France race route which was one month before the official race presentation. At this time A.S.O. had already released the first two stages in Belgium. During October 2018 velowire.com made additional modifications as they uncovered more information. At the end of the process it is quite remarkable that 24 hours before the official release velowire.com had 41 of the 42 start and finish locations correctly reported. Only the Stage 15 start in Limoux was erroneous (they reported nearby Foix) which I think we can forgive them for!

To take the analysis back to the first 2019 TDF rumour release on 24 September 2018 and they had 10 stage start and finishes correct out of 19 possible stages (2 stages were already confirmed for the Belgium start). Another 6 stages had either the start or finish town correct which again provides very useful information for a tour operator like Sierra Sports & Tours looking at planning Tour de France cycling tour itineraries!

We would love to know the number of hours spent by velowire.com as they sit and research the highly anticipated Tour de France route every year. They take what seems to be an almost ‘forensic science’ approach to revealing the TDF route for everyone. To take things full circle and you can even watch a livestream of the official TDF presentation in Paris straight from their very own webpage. If only we could find a similar webpage dedicated to Giro d’Italia and La Vuelta a España rumours and race leaks. Chapeau!!

Spanish Paella for Hungry Cyclists

Before getting your apron stained with saffron threads and prawn heads how about we kick things off with a Spanish grammar class. Why is that I hear you all say? Well the next time you say paella we want to make sure you sound as though you really know the dish! That way you will be able to impress your guests when you serve up our authentic Sierra paella recipe. So here we go with our first class in Spanish pronunciation 101! The ll in Spanish is pronounced in English like the letter y in yet. So paella when spoken by a native sounds like pah/EH/yah. Practise that a few hundred times while preparing the stock and you should have it sorted by the time you need to serve your paella!

Having the Sierra Sports & Tours base in food-mad Spain has meant we have had the pleasure of sampling literally hundreds of excellent paellas over the last 10 years. Paellas made by my wife, her mother, her grandmother, aunties, friends who are chefs at top-end restaurants and even cycling clubs after what has been a long day on the bike!

The thing which always amazes me though is a Spaniard, with no background in cooking whatsoever, will still know what it takes to throw a paella together in front of a crowd of masses without the slightest concern. A bit of stock, sofrito (onion, garlic, capsicum, tomato & olive oil), rice, saffron, add the meat plus seafood and Bob’s your Uncle! And the end result? It always comes out amazing. Some paellas might have more ingredients than others, others are served with a little more moisture (meloso) or some with the nice crispy layer on the bottom (socorrat). But at the end of the day it is a paella and enjoyed amongst friends and family which is the most important thing.

Now to get a few things clear! When some of our Spanish cycling tour guests arrive they have the impression that they will be feasting on paella every night. But that is far from the truth. Paella is a typical dish for that Sunday afternoon when every now and then you catch up with friends or family. It is a well loved dished but it is easy in your day to day life to go a month without enjoying this flavoursome rice dish. Perhaps it is because it takes time to prepare (often the stock is prepared days in advance to get the best effect) or perhaps because you need time to stand around the paellera (paella dish) and catch up on gossip while the rice absorbs all that goodness! When I asked my wife why the Spanish don’t eat paella more often her instant response was ‘Do you eat kangaroo every night?’ Fair point I thought. I don’t like stereotypes either and on I went looking for more Spanish paella cooking secrets.

Some final tips before you get stuck into the cooking!

Rice – short grain rice varieties work best for paella. Look for the Bomba, Senia, Bahia and Calasparra types in your local market.

Saffron – gives the rice its distinctive yellow color. Saffron threads are best but they need moisture to release the flavour. The best way to extract flavour from saffron is to soak the threads in a tablespoon of hot (not boiling) liquid for about 10 minutes. Then add both the saffron and the liquid to the recipe. As the saffron soaks, you’ll notice the distinctive aroma indicating that your saffron ‘tea’ is ready.

Here I am doing my thing for 1000 hungry cyclists after Gran Fondo Contador (Madrid, Spain)

Paella is usually cooked in a round shallow pan to give the best end product. If you only have deeper pans don’t let this put you off. The paella you prepare will be more in the ‘meloso’ style!

The Sierra paella which we are pleased to now handover is our authentic family Spanish recipe. Put the BBQ aside for your next family get together and experience the satisfaction of preparing a quality paella in true Spanish style.  Even I can get this recipe to work which gives everyone hope! And take note – many paella recipes, even those of Jamie Oliver, use Chorizo sausage. Feel free to add whatever protein you like but if you are cooking for a Spaniard please do not add any Chorizo to your paella. This is a big no no! Chorizo is for cooking on the BBQ or in another typical winter breadcrumb based dish called ‘Migas’. But that’s another lesson for a rainy day!

Ingredients (4 people)

1 red capsicum, chopped

1 green capsicum, chopped

3 ripe tomatoes, grated

3 cloves of garlic, chopped

250 grams of chicken thigh, bone removed, chopped

250 grams of pork fillet, chopped

1 squid, skin removed, cut into rings

12 raw prawns

1 cup of rice (short grain)

Saffron mix: (1 garlic clove, chopped; 1 handful of parsley, chopped; saffron: 4 threads and ½ tsp powder; 1 tsp of salt; 1/2 cup of prawn stock)

8 mussels (optional)

Paella Cooking Method

  1. Remove the prawn heads and shells. Separate the prawn body for cooking later. Place the prawn heads and shells ONLY into a saucepan and cover with 2 ¼ cups of water and bring to the boil for 5 min. Strain the stock to remove the prawn shells (Note: when we use the prawn based stock later it must be hot).
  2. Heat olive oil in a pan. Add chicken, cook both sides until brown and then remove. Add the pork to the pan and repeat as above for chicken. Leave the chicken and pork on a plate for later use.
  3. In the same pan add the 3 cloves of garlic and cook for 2 min. Add the red and green capsicums until they are cooked. Then add the squid, tomatoes plus the chicken and pork meat. Mix well.
  4. Add the rice, hot prawn stock and saffron mix. Mix well. Bring to the boil then simmer on low heat, uncovered for 20min.
  5. 5 min before the cooking time has elapsed add the prawns on top of your rice mixture. If you like mussels you can add them now (place vertically making sure the shells are partially submerged in the rice).
  6. Remove the paella from heat and leave it to rest, covered for 5 min.

And now for the finished product – oops – too slow!

2019 Giro d’Italia – A trip down memory lane!

October in Europe is always an interesting period as the Grand Tour cycling races begin to release the stage profiles for the following year. Now that the anticipation and speculation has turned into reality we are pleased to report a few of our favourite findings from the 2019 Giro d’Italia race route.

In 2019 the Tour de France will pay a special homage to Eddy Merckx with two initial stages in Belgium. The Giro d’Italia, not wanting to miss out, has also prepared a nostalgic itinerary for its 2019 race edition. Giro #102 features three legendary climbs in the final week of racing (Passo di Gavia, Mortirolo & Passo Manghen) and a Stage 21 individual time trial for Verona and its Roman Amphitheatre.

Mortirolo & Giro 1994 – A legend is Born!

Mortirolo in our opinion would have to be in the top three climbs for difficulty when it comes to European pro cycling. Monte Zoncolan (Italy) and El Angliru (Spain) are the other beasts which have average climb gradients soaring above 10%. Relatively speaking it’s a new Giro climb as it wasn’t until 1990 that the road to Mortirolo was asphalted and included in the Giro route. 2019 marks 15 years since a young Marco Pantani came to prominence as the then ‘gregario’ executed a solitary Mortirolo escape during Stage 15 of the 1994 Giro.  The ‘Pirate’ left Miguel Indurain and Claudio Chiappucci in his wake. It was not enough to win the Giro d’Italia but he found himself second on the podium and the legend of Marco Pantani was born that very day on the Mortirolo. Stage 16 of the 2019 Giro d’Italia will again scale the summits of Mortirolo just before the finish line in Ponte di Legno so be sure to be watching as the Giro is set to be ignited yet again. A successful breakaway on the Mortirolo in 2019 is likely to deliver a career defining stage win!

Giro 1949: Cueno to Pinerolo – A Solo Victory for the Ages!

Going back even further to 1949 and Fausto Coppi rode alone for 192km as he attacked through the Alpes during Stage 17 to claim his third pink jersey! During the 2019 Giro d’Italia the race will honour the 70th Anniversary of this remarkable solo victory with the stage also starting and finishing in Cuneo and Pinerolo like all that time ago. The 2019 Giro stage in no way resembles what Coppi endured but expect a true Italian celebration as the towns are ‘dressed in pink’ for what was arguably Coppi’s finest ever victory!

Verona ITT – Sabotage at the 1984 Giro?

To round out our ‘ride down Giro memory lane’ and we go back to Stage 21 of the 1984 Giro d’Italia. It was during the Stage 21 individual time trial around Verona that Italian hero Francisco Moser finally won his only Grand Tour title over French cycling star Laurent Fignon. The entire 1984 Giro d’Italia was a battle between Moser and Fignon and they were the only two riders to actually wear the Maglia Rosa that year. Despite many stories of sabotage during the 1984 Giro (time penalities for Fignon, roadside assistance for Moser on the big Dolomites cycling climbs, removing the Stelvio Pass to Fignon’s disadvantage when in fact there was no snow …..) the most intriguing story we think surrounds the Stage 21 time trial in Verona.

Moser took more than 2 minutes over Fignon during the Stage 21 time trial to reclaim the pink jersey but it was later alleged that the official race helicopter had flown directly in front of Fignon and behind Moser creating a headwind and tailwind respectively! Whatever the case the photos of the 1984 Giro d’Italia victory for Francisco Moser inside the Verona Roman Amphitheatre are now part of Italian cycling folklore. Three second Giro d’Italia places during the late 70’s were finally rewarded with victory for Moser in 1984!

Who will win the 2019 Giro d’Italia?

25 years on and will the 2019 Giro d’Italia crown a new Italian hero inside the Verona Roman Amphitheatre? The 2019 Giro final stage time trial only measures 15.6km and it would have been nice to see something a bit longer, a stage closer to the 42km raced by Moser and Fignon back in 1984. Perhaps the 2019 Giro d’Italia has been prepared with Vincenzo Nibali in mind? Stage 15 of the 2019 Giro route, for example, is a replica of ‘Il Lombardia’ cycling monument race which Nibali has won twice before. It is still a long way out to make big predictions but with Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin most likely to focus 100% on the 2019 Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali looking for his third Giro d’Italia crown and Simon Yates fresh from his 2018 La Vuelta a España success are our two top picks right now. No point sitting on the fence though so we have Nibali ahead of Yates by a wheel length!

Cycling with TDF Royalty – Big Mig!

The Sierra peloton received a special treat cycling an organised 150km stage with Miguel Indurain from Urzainki to Formigal through the Spanish high country. The ride took us from the Irati Forest before finishing above Formigal, one of Spain’s most recognised ski stations in the Pyrenees, and only 5km from the Spanish/French border.

Big Mig stepped onto his first TdF podium in Paris on 28 July 1991. During the 1991 Tour de France, Miguel gained more than 7 minutes over Greg LeMond during the ‘Tourmalet’ Stage 12 to receive his first yellow jersey. The rest as it goes was history and he held it all the way to the Champs Elysees and started a 5 year winning sequence through to 1995!

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain

As our day surrounded by cycling royalty was heading to a close we arrived to the valley approaching Formigal. The final 16km climb at 4% average grade, while long, is not overly taxing unless of course you are riding with a past TDF champion! To add some interest we left the main road mid-climb to cycle the winding road which follows the reservoir through to Sallent del Gallego. Spectacular scenery with multiple 3000m+ peaks surrounding us! After leaving the town centre one is met with a sudden transition of 4 kilometres around 8%. The final ramp on the backroad to the Formigal ski resort was 25% and required one last effort.

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain

 On arrival Miguel Indurain spoke to the local newspaper that had gathered to ask him about his famous day on the Tourmalet in 1991:

“My idea was not to attack in the mountains.  When I launched my downhill attack on the Tourmalet I simply wanted to see what happened. At the outset I was not prepared. My intention had been to try and maintain my presence during the mountain stages and to arrive to the last time trial with an opportunity”. You already know the rest of this story.

The Sierra peloton continued to chatter away excitedly in the presence of an international sporting hero!

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain

European Holiday Cycling Tips

This article is a result of a fun and interactive webinar hosted by Cycling-Inform where Paul D’Andrea from Sierra Sports & Tours also joined the panel of presenters. Feel free to watch the 1 hour webinar replay at your own convenience but if you would like a summary of what was covered please read below. The focus of the webinar was to receive live questions and provide instantaneous responses!

  1. Where are some of the best European regions for cycling?

The Dolomites in northern Italy are a favourite destination for cycling enthusiasts. Jagged limestone mountain peaks provide an inspirational backdrop for testing yourself on some of the most mythical Giro d’Italia climbs. The Sella Ronda loop is a real gem and includes a staggering 4 categorised climbs within only 60km; Pordoi, Sella, Gardena and Campolongo!

The French Alpes are home to 4 of the 5 highest mountain passes in Europe and often play out epic Tour de France stages on Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier & Col d’Izoard but for pure cycling enjoyment the Sierra guides cannot go past the Pyrenees in southern France. There are many quiet linking backroads to be found in the Pyrenees where cycling through valleys and dense forests is also possible. Check out Argeles-Gazost & St Lary Soulan for an excellent base!

Andalusia in southern Spain is the sleeping giant when it comes to quality road cycling. While the Costa del Sol is packed with beachgoers the inland mountains offer a peaceful setting and incredible mixed terrain rides. Sierra de Grazalema, Sierra Cazorla and Sierra Nevada are just a few places to enjoy quality road cycling. With 300 days of sunshine per year there is no better place in Europe to just get outside and ride!

For pure drama Oudenaarde in western Belgium is the place to be during the European Spring. Cobbled classics races follow one after another and for cycling superfans the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix professional races provide a once in a lifetime experience!

  1. How does one go about selecting a cycling tour?

There are a few things to consider here and it basically comes down to whether you want to travel alone or within a guided group, what time of the year do you plan to travel and where do your interests lie? If your plan is to cycle the big mountain passes then to be safe cross-out October to June. The majority of Europe´s high mountain passes will most likely be under metres of snow during these months! Guided cycling tours also follow different styles some of which include: a) those which follow the professional races (Giro, TDF or La Vuelta), b) those which ride all the iconic cycling destinations but away from the professional races and c) those which also include a gran fondo/sportive ride into the tour program. At Sierra Sports & Tours we find that our guests often begin by joining us on a tour such as the Giro d’Italia where the race atmosphere is a key focus. For future holidays some guests move across to the other tour types where their interests shift to wanting more time cycling and time to explore the European regions during the afternoons!

  1. What are the typical characteristics of a tour group?

Sierra Sports & Tours is based in Spain but its roots are from Melbourne, Australia. As such, 95% of our guests are from Australia and New Zealand. The typical age profile of a Sierra guest is between 45 to 65 years old. We have many couples joining our tours so the current male to female ratio is about 60-40%. Non-cyclists do join our tours and typically account for about 15% of our clientele. Non-cyclists receive a discount and can join the group in the support van or visit the towns where we are based. If they would like us to prepare special excursions we have experience organising local cooking classes, guided hikes, leisure bike rides, etc. For road cyclists who are keen to join but are unsure about the big mountains we also have a fleet of electric road bikes that we can make available when things get a little more challenging.

  1. Should I bring my own bike or hire a bike?

For many clients this generally comes down to what their pre- and post-tour travel plans look like. For guests who are travelling solely for the cycling tour we find many will bring their own bike. International airlines, such as, Emirates and Qatar provide a 32kg luggage allowance which is more than enough. For guests though with several other domestic European flights or train connections they might find it easier and cheaper to select a hire bike. For clients attending the Spring Classics we find most select hire bikes as we have them fitted with 28mm wide tyres, double handlebar tape, etc so there is already some extra comfort built-in! For a tour ranging from 8-10 days the bike hire price is typically 300 Euro.

  1. What does a guided tour include and what is a typical tour price?

Tours to the public generally range between 8 to 10 days. We like to spend 2 to 3 night stays in each location to provide a relaxed setting and to have time to explore each township. All of the guided tours also have at least one support van on-hand carrying your day packs, food and drink, spare bikes, parts and wheels, tool kits, etc. The Sierra guides all speak English but also have additional languages including Spanish, French and Italian. All of the accommodation and breakfasts are included. We like to select hotels with local charm, which are family owned and are welcoming to cycling tourists. About half of the dinners with beer and wine are also included. We find it is also great for clients to have the chance to explore for themselves during the free evenings. Most of the start and finish locations are international airports and all of these transfers are also included in the tour price. For each tour we also have a commemorative cycling jersey which amongst other cycling related gifts is presented during the tour briefing. And most importantly you receive our professionally guided cycling routes following breathtaking scenery on roads away from major traffic to maximise your enjoyment and safety! The typical price for a 9 day / 8 night trip is around the 3000 € price range. There are also discounts for group bookings with a starting 5% discount for a minimum group of 4.

  1. Who designs the cycling tours?

Paul and his team of guides have over 10 years experience cycling through Europe. We have set off on 100’s of cycling adventures through Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Norway, Slovenia, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria & Germany. Every year Sierra Sports & Tours also conducts a number of private cycling tours so if you have a group of 6 or more why not ask us to design your very own customised European cycling tour.

  1. Any other tips?
  2. Plan Ahead: If you like to plan ahead then be sure to look at the European early bird flight specials which always finish around late October / early November. Through our association with Pellegrino Travel Agency we often secure flights for our guests between $AUD 1300-1500.
  3. Just ride! Many guests are initially unsure if they have what it takes to join a cycling tour. Being consistent is the main thing! Get in a longer ride on the weekend but keep up the spinning during the week (a few 45 minute indoor sessions with Cycling-Inform will put you in good stead). To get the most out of a tour you do not need to be fast. Cycling on the flats (25-28km/hr) keeps the group together and then you are free to ride the climbs at your own speed (always guided support at the front and back of the group). Remember – pace your climbs! Ride within yourself, be able to talk, then if you have some more to give finish the final 2-3km with a burst! Also consider getting away pre-tour for a long weekend ride in the mountains and Cycling-Inform events, such as, the Bright Boot Camp and 7 Peaks in 7 Days are selected by a number of Sierra Sports & Tours guests to start preparing for Europe.
  4. Practise your descending skills! Many guests have the stamina and strength to cycle 1-2hours uphill but then some find it difficult when descending for 30-45 minutes continuously. Practising to be relaxed and in the drops helps a lot, knowing when to apply the brakes and which ones is critical, how to handle the bike in wet or dry conditions, picking your entry and exit lines, outside pedal down and pressure applied, …….. Practise will make perfect and a cycling clinic is a good place to start developing these skills.
  5. And the final word on Travel Insurance – there is a saying that goes ¨If you can‘t afford travel insurance, you can‘t afford to travel overseas¨. We recommend that any travel insurance purchased should also cover tour cancellation in the event you become ill, injured or other last minute family or work related matters arise. If you are travelling with an expensive bike also make sure that you have a sufficient level of cover in the event of damage.