Route des Grandes Alpes
The Route des Grandes Alpes is a 684 kilometre tourist route starting on the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) that heads through the French Alps finishing at the Mediterranean Sea (French Riviera). On paved roads, it crosses 16 Alpine passes, many made famous in the Tour de France, including Col de l’Iseran – the highest paved pass in Europe. It’s an excellent cyclo-tourist route.
The goal of these articles
The goal is to provide details of this great route, but also provide you some route planning idea/options. Each post will feature a map that shows the official route, but also includes an option or two that I believe improves the route.
Part 2 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 2
Part 3 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 3
Part 4 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 4
Part 5 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 5
Part 6 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 6
Part 7 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 7
Stage 1 Thonon-Les Bains to St-Jean-de-Sixt
Official Route (blue track on map):
Distance: 91 Kilometres
Ascent: 2600 metres
Descent: 2100 Metres
A gentle enough start, the official route includes only one famous pass: Col de la Colombière, but more than any other stage, it is a no-brainer to add a detour that not only skips a slightly busy stretch but adds the legendary Col de Joux Plane. I’ll explain the map below.
The Official Route
The official route (blue on map) starts gently enough winding through the Gorges de la Dranse. Just two climbs this stage (profile at the bottom of below map). It is very gently uphill – but never steep – all the way to Morzine. Here the road turns up – but only slightly – to Col des Gets (1173 metres) – the first pass of the trip.
From here, it’s perhaps the least impressive stretch of the entire route-to-the-sea – from Morzine to Scionzier (to skip it see below). Then the first big climb: Col de la Colombière.
2009 Tour de France: Contador and the brothers Schleck climb Col de la Colombière:
When is the Route des Grandes Alpes Open?
Before I begun discussing detour options to the official route, let’s talk weather.
One of the most frequent questions I receive is “when will Col xyz Open?” The answer: It depends. It changes every year depending on the weather, and how much snow fell during winter (how difficult is it to clear). For the Route des Grandes Alpes the biggest worries are of course the highest climbs: Col du Galibier (2642 metres), and especially Col de l’Iseran (2764m) and Cime de la Bonette (2802m). But also the remote and difficult to bypass Cormet de Roselend (1968m).
Below – May 4th 2013 – Cormet de Roselend cleared road ends here several kilometres below summit:
Broadly speaking, the entire route should be open from mid-June through to September. Iseran will rarely be open before this. May is asking for trouble on the highest cols. Some years October and even into November “might” be possible.
I’ll try and give some guidance throughout this series on when roads are likely to open/close as well as possible alternatives routes. I’ll link to the official government traffic sites for each region – the best source for up-to-date information on the status of a col. But remember, weather is unpredictable. I’ve been hailed and snowed on many times in July.
Now let’s talk a couple of excellent detour options for stage 1.
Detour 1: Col de Joux Plane
You must do this detour. Far better than the official route:
The green track on the top map shows the detour to Col de Joux Plane. One of the more famous climbs in the north French Alps, it will appear in the 2016 Tour de France (but in opposite direction). This is the less famous side of Col de Joux Plane, but it’s still steep, challenging, and scenic. It’s also a quieter climb than the official route that heads through Les Gets. It probably adds 600 metres or so of additional ascent.
Enjoy the views of Mont Blanc while descending:
Detour 2: Col de Romme
The official route up Col de la Colombière is fine. Very nice. But if you want an extra challenge, there is an alternate, super steep, way via Col de Romme (orange route on map).
It was a feared “secret” route enjoyed by locals until it appeared in the 2009 Tour de France. It adds perhaps 300+ metres of additional ascent.
I beat all the pros to the top of Col de Romme by several hours 🙂
Also on the map, beyond Samöens, is Cirque Fer du Cheval. It’s a beautiful World Heritage Site – basically high mountains shaped like an amphitheatre. Not a tough ride, but worth a peek. Great hiking above. Finally, half way up Col de la Colombière, is the very well preserved Chartreuse de Reposier monastery.
Weather: Col de Joux Plane and Col de la Colombière should be open around the beginning of May until late October or early November. If closed, Joux Plane can be bypassed via Col des Gets (stay on official route), and Col de la Colombière can be bypassed by riding through the Gorges des Evaux starting near Bonneville. Official Haute Savoie Col opens/closed map here.
I get quite a few emails asking me about touring the Route des Grandes Alpes, so this is an attempt to provide a more public response to questions. Feel free to leave feedback on any additional information that may be useful – I do know the north French Alps very well.
However, the very last post in this series, as the route approaches the Mediterranean, will also be for me, as I don’t know that region well. 🙂
Col de Joux Plane in winter: