KmM = Kilometer Marker
Read this page for a lot of background information about cycling in the French Alps.
The Maurienne valley is home to some of the most iconic climbs in cycling history. There are the great cols: Col de la Madeleine, Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galibier. Then there are the lesser cols: Col du Chaussy, Col du Mollard, etc. And there are innumerable other climbs that leave the valley heading up to small villages perched on the hillsides, the most famous being the Lacets de Montvernier (lacets = shoelaces, which is a good image of the incredible switchbacks).
Locals claim the Maurienne valley is the largest cycling area in the world. Here’s the Maurienne web site.
I don’t know enough about all the other areas in the world to either confirm or deny these claims, but I agree that this is a truly fantastic area for riding beautiful and sensational climbs. I could easily spend several weeks here exploring the big cols and the little roads that criss-cross the hillsides. If I had to rank the big cols based on how much I enjoyed riding them, my list would be:
- Col du Galibier via Col du Télégraphe
- Col de la Croix de Fer from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne
- Col du Glandon from the north
- Col de la Madeleine from the north
- Col de la Madeleine from the south
- Col du Glandon from the south
But the strange thing is that Saint-Jean doesn’t really have many bike stores. The best one seems to be Sport 2000, near McDonalds and Carrefour.
Col du Galibier via Col du Télégraphe
From Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne. 70 km and 2,200 meters (7,218′) of climbing as an out-and-back (this elevation gain includes the climb to the Télégraphe from Valloire on the way back). A spectacular climb, long, difficult, remote, immensely photogenic. If you do only one climb in the French Alps, let this be it.
The first 12 km climb the Col du Télégraphe without any real problem, then you have a gentle 5 km descent into Valloire, then you climb relatively easily up the valley with lovely views. Finally as you are nearing the end of the valley you realize that the road climbs the hillside on the right. From the first switchback for 8 km to the top, the riding is just sensational. The views are wonderful, and the road above you beckons. Then the final switchbacks will make your day! As 100GCC puts it, “From above, the road resembles a go-kart track as it ties itself in a series of knots which lead you to the final kilometer – and what a final kilometer!”
Col de la Madeleine
The Col de la Madeleine is a great climb from either side. From La Chambre, the south side is 19 km with 1,520 meters of ascent. It’s consistently steep, rarely dropping below 7%, and has lovely views all the way.
From the D97, the north side is 25 km with 1,543 meters (4,987′) of ascent. It’s a much more varied climb than the south side, with steep sections and easy sections and flat sections. However, it’s also a much more dramatic climb. I thought this side was a much better climb.
Col de la Croix de Fer
From Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, 30 km and 1,522 meters (4,993′) of ascent. An amazing climb with a sensational finish that switchbacks across the steep wall above the upper valley. This was one of my favorite rides. From Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne follow the signs for the Col de la Croix de Fer. The road climbs very steeply out of town, eases off, climbs steeply again, eases off, then finishes steeply. The last part of the ride climbs steeply through the large ski town of Saint-Sorlin-d’Arves, then switchbacks up the end of the valley for 5 km to the top. Just amazing. There are three short tunnels on the easier section so a rear light would be useful but not essential. As you do this climb you get wonderful views of the spectacular 3 peaks of the Aiguilles d’Arves on the left.
Extra Credit: About 14 km from the top on the way back down, turn right at the dam, following the sign for the Col du Mollard. Climb to the col and descend the other side back to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. This gives you another 6 km and 400 meters (1,312′) of climbing.
Note: You can climb the Col de la Croix de Fer by riding up either side of the Col du Glandon. From the top of the Glandon it’s a relatively easy 2.5 km climb to the top of the Croix de Fer. The Glandon is the big climb and the Croix de Fer is just icing on the cake.
Col du Glandon
From the north it’s about 21 km with 1,472 meters (4,829′) of climbing. The first part is rather boring with no views to speak of, then the road flattens out around the pretty village of Saint-Colomban-des-Villards. Then just over 5 km from the top everything opens up and the ride becomes fantastic. The last 2-3 km are just amazing, with the steepest climbing on the ride. The descent is wonderful, with lots of beautiful turns to navigate. This was my favorite side.
From the south, it’s about 24 km. There is a seriously steep descent on the way up where you drop about 150 meters, and another gradual descent near the top. I recorded about 1,300 meters (4,265′) of climbing on the way up, and 1,500 meters (4,921′) for the out-and-back. This climb was my least favorite of the big cols.
Extra Credit: From the top of the Glandon it’s a relatively easy 2.5 km climb to the top of the Croix de Fer.
Col du Mollard
There are three ways up the Col du Mollard. I rode two of them and descended the third (main) way twice. The easiest way is when descending the Croix de Fer and you turn off the main road by a small dam about 14 km down from the top, then climb 6 km to the Col du Mollard, with about 400 meters of elevation gain.
The main route up the Mollard is from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. Start by following signs for the Col de la Croix de Fer, then at the last roundabout the Croix de Fer goes up to the right and the Mollard goes to the left (signs tell you which way to go.) This route is a tough 17 km climb on very variable road surfaces, with about 1,038 meters (3,406′) of climbing.
The less well-known route starts at the roundabout where the D80 and D81 meet in Villargondran. Ride up the hill and continue through the trees up a seemingly endless set of switchbacks (nearly 50) until finally you break through the trees just before the town of Albiez-le-Jeune. Continue along the road as it rolls towards Albiez-Montrond. Once you reach this town, turn left and follow the main road up to the Col de Mollard. This is a good route on a very hot day as you are protected by the trees for half the ride. 19 km and 1,048 meters (3,438′) of climbing.
Lacets de Montvernier and the Col du Chaussy
A fun climb of less than 3 km. Make your way to Pontamafrey then follow the D778 as it climbs up the stunning switchbacks of the Lacets. Once you finish the Lacets it’s just a short way more to the town of Montvernier.
From Montvernier you can return down the Lacets or continue up to the Col de Chaussy. The last 2 km to the col are wonderful, with great views. From the col you can return the way you came or continue over the other side and down to La Chambre if you want a longer ride. If you want a much longer and harder ride, continue over the col and down to the road that goes up to the Col de la Madaleine and climb this.