Many of the big climbs in France have signs by the road specifically to help cyclists. These are kilometer markers showing how many kilometers to the top, and the average gradient for the next kilometer. In the text I refer to Kilometer Markers as KmM.
Book and Maps and Apps
There’s a wonderful little book that might be useful if you intend to ride the great climbs in the French mountains. It’s called 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs of the Tour de France. Amazingly, it’s pocket sized but still has fantastic photos, description, maps, and route profile. I quote from it, referencing it as 100GCC.
There are two maps worth having, both Local maps with a 1:150,000 scale. The Michelin 333 (Isère, Savoie) covers the northern area, including the Maurienne Valley and Bourg d’Oisans. The Michelin 334 (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Haute-Alpes) convers the southern area including Bourg d’Oisans, Briançon, and Barcelonette.
Michelin Map. A wonderful online map that allows you to zoom in.
Geoportail. Excellent but slow French maps.
Because most of the climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees have been described endlessly, I won’t generally talk about how to get to them. One of the crazy things is how many different elevation gains you can find for any given climb, which really just attests to how little consistency there is in GPS readings. So I’ll sometimes give distances and elevation gains of the famous climbs from climbbybike.com. Unfortunately climbbybike seems to measure the elevation gain by subtracting starting elevation from ending elevation, which doesn’t take into account any descents that there may be on the ascent – the south side of the Col du Glandon being perhaps the best example of where this gives incorrect elevation climbed. I sometimes give distances and elevation gains from the signs by the road, and sometimes from my own GPS.
The road surfaces vary widely. Some roads are wonderfully smooth while others are cracked and bumpy. A given road can also vary between these two extremes. Sometimes a road can be really bad, then you’ll find sections that have been newly paved. Sometimes this is due to the Tour de France coming along the roads. The point is, be prepared for anything.
An archaic thing about the roads in France is the concept of Priority to the Right (priorité à droite). It’s an old law, one that’s dangerous in the modern world of fast traffic and lots of tourists. It means that unless otherwise specified, someone can pull out from a small side street into fast traffic on a major road and they have the right of way. Fortunately the French authorities realize how dangerous this can be and most places have lines and signs to indicate that the main road has priority. Unfortunately the French don’t quite have the courage to eliminate Priority to the Right. If you want to read more about it, click here.
The Pyrenees are very green. Unfortunately green means rain and the Pyrenees can be much wetter than the Alps. When I was here in 2008, we had very mixed weather. Some days were beautiful, but we rode Superbagneres in pouring rain, had a torrential downpour on Port de Balès, and rode Hautacam in freezing fog. I ended up getting pneumonia. Plan accordingly. My plan is to stay inside and read a book if it’s raining 😀.
Organized Tours and Rides
One of the most famous single-day organized bike rides in the Alps is the Marmotte, which climbs the Col du Glandon, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galibier, and Alpe d’Huez.
Another famous single-day organized bike ride is L’Étape du Tour, which covers the route of one day of that year’s Tour de France. It’s different every year, but in 2015 it was in the Alps.
The Brevet des Randonneurs des Alpes (BRA) is a 1 or 2 day event. There are various options, with the basic option climbing the Col du Lautaret, the Col du Galibier, the Col du Télégraphe, and the Col de la Croix de Fer. Other options add the Col du Mollard, or Alpe d’Huez and Col de Sarenne. You can do whichever option you choose as either a one-day or two-day ride.
The L’Arvan Villards – Trilogie de Maurienne is a 3 day ride which, in 2015 did the following climbs: Col du Chaussy, Col de la Madeleine, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galibier, Col du Glandon, Col du Mollard, Col de la Croix de Fer.
The Cycling Centers
The Oisans Col Series. In 2015 every Tuesday the road up one of the climbs near Bourg d’Oisans will be closed to cars so that cyclists can have the road to themselves.
Briançon and the Serre Chevalier valley don’t have much at all online – at least I could find nothing very good.
Bagnères-de-Luchon has a brochure that shows the rides in the area and also some of the Tour de France stages that have finished in Luchon. You can also see the individual rides on their web site.
Other great web sites about climbs to ride
Cycling Challenge is one of the most amazing sites about cycling uphill.
Cycling Locations has lots of information about great climbs.
The Coll Collective has videos of many of the climbs.
The Inner Ring describes many climbs.
Cycle Fiesta has great information about some of the big climbs in the Pyrenees.
Vélo Peloton Pyrénées has a great map showing most of the cols in the Pyrenees.