Travel Log: Seven Day Tour des Grandes Alpes

Tour des Grandes Alpes: A week discovering the famous and hidden gems of the Alps. Andrew Ward of Thomson Bike Tours takes us on an unforgettable Alp tour.

The route was set and plans made.  The objective was to take in and climb some of the famous and hidden cols of the Alps over a 7 day period with a group of mixed ability cyclists – a Tour des Grandes Alpes.  All of the riders were fit skiers (downhill and cross country) and the route would be roughly linear and allow riders to accustom their legs to the rigours of cycling in the high mountains whilst following the routes that the pros use in their races.  We believe the objective was achieved and we hope to repeat a similar route in the Alps some day soon.

Day 1, Warm-up ride around Croix de Fry (1477 metres)

Croix de Fry was one of the cols used in the 2004 Tour de France when Lance Armstrong and his team at that time, US Postal, imposed control on the race.  It was stage 17 of that years’ race which went over the Cols of Madeleine and Forclaz – but more about those cols later.

Held up by cows on the Croix de Fry
Held up by cows on the Croix de Fry

Croix de Fry was climbed from Thones in 2004 and for the warm-up ride we decided to start from La Clusaz, a short spin that acclimatised the legs and heads for harder efforts to come later in the week.

Day 2, Key pass: Col de la Combi?re (1613 metres)

The climb of Col de la Colombi?re is a 1st category climb.  Our group of cyclists had to negotiate an average gradient of 6.8% and an elevation gain of just over 1100 metres.  This is not an easy climb to finish so early in the schedule.  This year Frank Schleck was the first rider over the top in stage 17 of the Tour de France.  Other tours have seen, amongst others, Marco Pantani and Luis Herrara as the leaders over its summit.

Jared closely followed by Bill on the steep part of the col de la Colombi?re
Jared closely followed by Bill on the steep part of the col de la Colombi?re

We climbed from the Sconzier side, which is the side the Tour de France went over this year.  We were glad of the clear skies, offering great views and the bar at the top of the col was open for refreshments which helped legs to recover.

Day 3, Key pass: Col de la Forclaz (1527 metres)

With the difficulty and distance increasing each day and legs adapting to the rigours of the Alps we were able to take in the cols of Marais (843 metres) and Forclaz (1527 metres).  The area around Forclaz is stunningly beautiful and the 85 kilometre route we did saw spectacular views over lake Annecy.

The run up to Col de la Forclaz
The run up to Col de la Forclaz

It is a shame that this col is not used more – the last time the tour went over was in 1977 and leaders over the top have included Roger Pingeon (1969) and Federico Bahamontes (1963).  This is a must-cycle col and the route we did through Faverge and back to La Clusaz whetted the riders’ appetites for harder cycling in the days ahead.

Enjoying views over Lake Annecy
Enjoying views over Lake Annecy

Day 4, Key pass: Col des Aravis

Tartiflette is a rich dish which originated around the valley of Aravis.  Made with potatoes, onions, bacon and Reblochon cheese, it is an ideal high calorie food that can be eaten the night before the cycling cols such as Aravis or Saisies.  And that is exactly what we did before we tackled the mountains of Day 4.  Aravis and Saisies, like Forclaz, are worth cycling over simply for the view.  The route we did was just over 65 kilometres with 1300 metres of elevation gain.  Saisies (1630 metres) the second of the days’ cols and has superb views over the Mont Blanc range.  Thor Hushovd was the leader over the Col de Saisies in this years’ Tour de France (Stage 17) and clearly had eaten a healthy portion of tartiflette the night before.

Spectacular views of the Mont Blanc range
Spectacular views of the Mont Blanc range

Day 5, Key pass: Col de la Madeleine

And so to Day 5 and col de la Madeleine – 2000 metres of elevation gain and over 80 kilometres of cycling.  Col de la Madeleine is the 6th most visited col in the Tour de France and the last time it was visited was in 2005 when Santiago Botero was the leader over the top.  The group of our riders were somewhat muted knowing that tomorrow’s ride (Day 6) would take in the epic climbs of Galibier and Alpe d’Huez.  Many of the riders used their heads more than their legs and saved energy for the tough day 6 ride.

Day 6, Key pass: Col du Galibier (2645 metres)

Our Tour des Grandes Alpes would not be complete without climbing the two classics of the alps – Galibier and Alpe d’Huez – in the same day!  Col du Galibier is 2645 metres high and is nearly 35 kilometres long (including Col du T?l?graphe).  Sweeping over the col and past the memorial of Henri Desgrange (first director of the Tour de France) we were able to contemplate the legendary race days that this mountain has witnessed – Coppi, Merckx and Pantani have all been leaders over the summit of this pass.  We were blessed with sunshine and relatively warm temperatures for the roll down to the base of Alpe d’Huez.  At the stop in La Grave we refuelled and chatted to a group of Dutch cyclists who, undoubtedly, would pass us later on up Alpe d’Huez.

Tackling the hard slopes of the Col du Galibier
Tackling the hard slopes of the Col du Galibier

The climb of Alpe d’Huez was first put on the map by Coppi in 1952 and since 1976 has been a regular feature in the Tour de France.  It is a Dutch mountain and as our Dutch friends from La Grave passed us I was reminded that they had won 8 of the first 14 finishes on this col – they have even installed a Dutch priest in the church of Notre Dame des Nieges!

The light helping to alleviate the strain on the slopes of Alpe d'Huez
The light helping to alleviate the strain on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez

The fastest Alpe d’Huez ascent is a hotly debated subject amongst cycling aficionados with Marco Pantani allegedly holding the record – 37 minutes 35 seconds for the 14.45 kilometres – an average speed of 23.08 kph!

Day 6 would be clearly classed as a “death ride” with 4000 metres of climbing and 120 kilometres of cycling and Pantani’s record is still safe for the time being!

Day 7, Key pass: Col de Sarenne (1999 metres)

Our last day of the Tour des Grandes Alpes saw us wake up to rain and wet roads.  We waited for it to clear and went into Alpe d’Huez town for lunch.  Being the last day some packed bikes and bags while an intrepid few ventured over to do the Col de Sarenne – a hidden gem.  This road to the col goes up the back of Alpe d’Huez and finishes almost at the same spot as its more famous cousin.  It has a higher difficulty index and is probably more interesting due its open views of the valley and surrounding mountains.  The rain eased and cyclists left and returned.  Col de Sarenne has never been used in the Tour de France and due its proximity to Alpe d’Huez is never likely to be.  We like it that way – a hidden col waiting to be discovered like others in our next foray into the Alps.

The group picture
The group picture



About The Author

regularly leads fully supported rides though the Alps and the Pyrenees for Thomson Bike Tours.

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