Izoard, Risoul, Galibier, Alp d´Huez, Croix de Fer, Gladon, Lacet de Montvernier, Chaussy

During two different trips with our van we came through the French regions of the Dauphine and Savoie which are home to some of the most well known (especially among road cyclists) mountain passes in the world. For those in the know the list above conjures up images of skinny guys with pain stricken faces on their bikes riding through almost out of control crowds and being one of those nerds I of course took the chance to tackle some of these roads myself.

Where to stay and what to ride?
We were based in La Grave on the first trip and in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne for the second. La Grave gives you access to the Col d´Izoard and Alp d´Huez as well as to the Gladon and Galibier from their respective south sides. Besides that there are tons of other roads to ride like the one up to the Risoul sky station that has been used as a Tour de France finish many times.

Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is one valley further to the north and features again the Gladon and Galabier (this time from the north) as well as the Croix de Fer and the truly amazing Lacet de Montvernier with it´s 18 switchbacks in less than four kilometers of road. Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is also the birthplace of the Opinel knife - if you wanted to know that.

What time of year? How about the weather?
In both cases we visited in late September and were lucky with the weather. Fairly warm to hot in the valleys and cool but not cold up at the passes. Two things to consider are:

  1. Even if it's 25 degrees in the valley, riding down from 2.500m can be very, very cold. Easily sub five degrees with wind chill!
  2. There are thermal winds in the valley that pick up around noon. You might encounter very strong headwinds (or tail winds if you are lucky) that need to be taken into account in route planning.

How good is riding here really?
This question can be answered in different ways.

  1. The landscape is very beautiful and sometimes awe inspiring. This holds true especially for the passes that are not tainted by the sometimes almost ridiculously ugly architecture of the ski resorts.
  2. The road quality is mostly good. However the most well kept ones seem to be the ski resort access roads.
  3. The riding itself is as hard as you want to make it. I did put the hammer down especially on the climbs that were used as Tour de France finishes (just to see how freakishly fast those guys are) and I rode some of the long passes more leisurely (which is possible because they are not as steep as the ones in Italy or the Pyrenees).
  4. The nerd factor is very high. There is something about riding up Alp d´Huez with all of the history that happened on this road that makes the experience quite special.

Maybe this helps you in deciding whether to visit. And if you just keep looking at pictures and the Tour de France that's fine as well.