I receive a few emails each week asking questions about cycling in the Alps. To save some effort, I thought I’d put some of the more frequently asked questions / answers here.
Feel free to ask additional questions in the comments.
1. When do the Cols (passes) Open?
It depends on the weather – of course. But the highest Cols usually aren’t open until early or mid-June.
The following links show the status of most of the major French climbs. If links are dead, search “etat des cols + the region.
- Many Big French Cols here
- Haute Savoie here
- Savoie (Galibier, etc) here
- Hautes Alpes here
- L’Ain /French Juras here
- For Swiss Climbs click here and tick Cols category
- Another site with Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland: here.
As the openings approach, you can contact local tourist offices and they will often have an exact opening date. For example, for Galibier, contact the Valloire tourist office here.
In autumn, I have climbed Galibier in late October, one year, yet in 2007 there was significant snow in September.
Remember, early and late in the year to bring extra layers for the FREEZING descents.
2. Could You Recommend a Tour Route?
The Route des Grandes Alpes goes from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean over most of the famous French Alps climbs. I’ve written 7 posts detailing a 7 day Tour of this great route here.
The book “Cycling in the French Alps” by Paul Henderson (available at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk) – details 8 great multi day trips. Including the Route des Grandes Alpes mentioned above. Highly recommended.
Or see the Switzerland National Routes link below.
3. Are there Sign-Posted Bike Routes
In the French Alps, Haute Savoie and Savoie have a large network of signposted routes ranging in Difficulty from Green (family), Blue (rolling), Red (difficult) to Black (Epic). You can order by mail a fabulous free package (link here) of 3 maps detailing Cols, Routes, and multi-day trip ideas. A free PDF brochure is available for download here. An online list of routes including google map with links is here.
In Switzerland there are 9 National Cycling Routes that follow superb routes and are perfectly signed. Plenty of cycle friendly hotels along the routes. For more details see here.
Additionally, virtually every local tourist office in France or Switzerland will have maps and details of local cycling.
4. Where should I stay to climb Alpe d’Huez?
The most asked question! Most people stay in Bourg d’Oisans at the bottom. The official site is here and lists accomodations.
Personally, I prefer staying up top in Alpe d’Huez. Much more scenic.
5. What Gearing Do I Need??
Well, it depends how strong you are. 🙂
Generally I always suggest to people to bring easier gears than they think they need – there are many climbs 20 miles long.
Even strong cyclists will appreciate a compact. Recreational cyclists unfamiliar with HUGE climbs will be absolutely miserable without proper and easy gearing – this means a triple.
Macho studs will mock me and my triple (with a 27!! at back), but on long steep days, even if I am bonking, I can still turn the pedals.
My wife has a huge granny gear and has conquered Galibier, Alpe d’Huez and Ventoux.
6. I am going to Alpe d’Huez / Mont Ventoux. Can I rent a road bike?
Yes. At the base of both climbs are very good cycle shops. For example:
For Alpe d’Huez see here.
For Mont Ventoux in Bedoin, take a right turn towards Ventoux and 100 yards later on left is a huge store with rentals.
7. Where Do You Get Your Climb Details?
Primarily, I use the series of books “Atlas des Col des Alpes” – by Altigraph. The series includes books on the Swiss and French Alps as well as the Juras, the Pyrenées, and the Vosges.
Although in French, they are easy to understand. Basically just route directions, low quality map, and an elevation chart for pretty much every climb in each region.
8. What do the “N”, “D”, “C” mean on French Road numbers?
N routes are “National” routes and usually very busy. AVOID. For example, the N201 appears the best option on a map to leave Geneva towards the Alps. It is a horrible, fast, crowded, truck-filled road. And I often see hapless cycle tourists struggling along it. Yeck.
D routes are “Departmental” roads and are usually good quality and less crowded.
C are “Commune” roads. Small local and almost always very quiet. Ideal.
9. Watching the Tour de France Live?
First, watch in the mountains. On the flats the Peleton passes in a flash – dull. In the mountains the suffering is epic.
It is so much fun to cycle up a huge climb the day of the Tour. Cyclists and Fans everywhere.
Generally, the roads will be closed to non-official cars several hours before the riders arrive (even earlier for places like Alpe d’Huez). A publicity caravan passes over an hour before the riders – throwing little gifts, playing music, etc. So you need to be at the top well before this or the police will stop you.
Thus you need to start climbing several hours early. Bring lots of water and food as it becomes a long day – riding then waiting for the Tour. But a memorable experience.
Yes and lots of it. Just because it’s cooler up high doesn’t mean the sun isn’t very strong.
I have gotten into the habit of using 30 or even 50 SPF. And on very long rides bring a little tube and reapply. Nothing worse than riding with sunburn.