Seven Secrets for Cycling In the Alps – in Winter

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Scary descent

Col de la Croix

The high Alps passes won’t open for another 6 or 7 months (!) and the snow has now even arrived down low. But winter doesn’t mean that one can’t continue to cycle uphill.

This updates a post first published in 2008

My Top Seven Secrets for Cycling In the Alps – in winter:

#1 Bring a Sense of Humour

Top of Galibier

Col de Bassachaux

If being frozen solid, miles from home, knee deep in snow with a flat tire doesn’t make you laugh …. perhaps a basement trainer is best for you.

Super long descents in winter conditions while being soaked in sweat from the climb is nothing like just cycing around in the cold. It can be scary, painful, awful. Be warned!

#2 Cycle where the skiers are.

Sure Galibier and most of the high Alps are completely inaccessible.

Snow Wall Col de  Pierre Carrée Above Les Carroz Aravis Alps

But, roads leading to ski stations get ploughed all winter. So, for example near Geneva, while the famous Col de la Colombiere (1618 metres) and Col de Joux Plane (1691 metres) will be closed until June – in between these two passes, the much higher Col de Pierre Carrée (1844 metres) is open all year – as it leads to Flaine ski station.

Other quiet nearby climbs leading to skiing (or X-Country skiing): Col des Glières, Col de la Croix Fry, Col des Saisies, Col de la Faucille, Col de Cuvéry, etc.

And yes, Alpe d’Huez is a ski station!

Update: The classic west side of Joux Plane from Samoëns is actually plowed in winter as there is cross country skiing at the top. It can still be very icy, but on a sunny day is a dream mountain-bike ride:

Col de Joux Plane

#3 Leave the Road Bike in the Garage
Saleve - snow on my route Ploughed bike route Snow - I am lost Skier on my bike route Top of Salève

Even when roads are clear and relatively dry, there will often be lots of little ice patches. Descending long climbs on a road bike is crazy.

Yes, I know the above snow wall photo in #2 is with a road bike. But I am smarter than last year. :)

#4 Dress like it’s Antarctica
La Cagoule!

No matter how cold it is, a long climb will keep you warm and soaked from sweat. But descending sweaty and even warmly dressed is near suicidal.

Le Saleve

The most important places to overdress is the hands and feet which get very cold very quickly on descents.

My wardrobe

  • Headgear: Light beanie for ascent. Balaclava for the descent
  • Torso: 3 layers for ascent. Five for the descent (spares in a backpack).
  • Gloves: Insulated gloves are not enough …. honestly. Wear a second light pair underneath.
  • Legs: Guys wear extra shorts under insulated pants to protect that other valuable extremity (Martin has a good story on this one :) )
  • Footwear: Light socks under ski socks. Gortex shoes and Booties over top.

Update:

On climbs on snow covered routes, I have gotten into the habit of wearing Sorel winter boots. Heavy, but WARM!. Well worth the extra effort as cold feet are no fun.

Col des Pitons

#5 Be Careful!
Cycling Col du Galibier Col de Bassachaux Le Saleve Col des Glieres View of Lac du Bourget from near Col du Sapenay

You do not want to hurt yourself in cold conditions. Always wear a helmet on descents. Bring a phone and better yet, bring a friend. If a descent is too icy, walk.

Top of Galibier

Watch the weather forecast closely. You do not want to be in the wrong place during a snow storm. I also watch the wind forecast very closely as heavy wind up high is just not worth riding in.

But when the weather is still and sunny, it’s time to ride.

Yes, it can get icy descending:

#6 Bring your Camera
Col de la Croix Fry - Self Portrait Col de la Croisette Col de la Croix Too much snow to continue Col de la Forclaz - steep - almost at top

There is nothing more beautiful than being in the mountains on a sunny day in the winter.

Cycling Le Saleve - I found the sun

#7 Try cross-country skiing instead

The Alps is full of great, well-groomed, cross country ski centres. It’s an incredible workout, and almost impossible to get cold. Last winter it became my newest addiction:

Cross Country Skiing

If All Else Fails Go To Australia!

While I try and convince myself (and you) that there is no off-season, one of my regular cycling partners isn’t buying it. Barry (middle) is Busy Biking in Balmy Brisbane, Australia.

Barry doesn’t like the cold …. Coward! :)

Do We Look Cold?

Psssst – the real secret to winter climbing? Convince someone with a car to meet you at the top!

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About Author

Happiest while cycling uphill. More enthusiastic than talented, my 2014 Challenge is to cycle 50 great rides, slowly.

17 Comments

  1. I would agree with your friend Barry. There is definitely an off-season in Brisbane. In winter it gets to chilly 5C (at night!). Temperature is relative.

    The photo of your bike leaning against the snow wall is definitely worth “Photo of the week”. Love it!

  2. Gday Will,
    your post sent a shiver down my spine just reading it!
    All I’m doing is joining the hordes of Euros already down here. I even spotted a Gruyere jersey the other day!
    Yours, bathed in sweat, sans Snicker bar wrapper
    Barry

  3. Winter bike it’s so nice (read it n-ice) and reminds me some memorable rides when outside was cold and I felt so good on the bicycle along with my friends!

  4. Emyr Williams on

    Great piece. Hmmm, maybe next winter I’ll be more organised and fitter…

    Where did you get your snow boots. The one outing I had in the snow on the Salève ended being cut short because my (admitedly cheap) snow boots fell apart.

  5. Emyr

    The boots in some of the photos are Sorel brand. A famous Canadian brand and warm to -30C!

    You are from Geneva, yes? I believe I bought them at the sports store near the cinemas at Balexert :)

    They are fantastic for hiking or snow biking.

  6. Will,
    Tuesday the weather is supposed to tick all your boxes. Let’s go ride in the snow with many layers, boots, hats, gloves and for me…my to be tested hand covers made out of empty plastic coke bottles. Let’s see if descending can finally happen without cursing once the hands start to melt again. Oh yes, this reminds me : you missed one tip on how to survive cycling in the mountains in the winter : hot soup and grilled cheese sandwich afterwards. Yummy! Love all of it.
    Eric

  7. Will
    You bring back fond memories of the exhilerating winter climbs I did in Colorado. Winter is one of the best times to ride! The solitude is wonderful as is the crisp, clean air. & generally a lot less traffic in the high country.
    One of my favorite rituals was downhill skiing 1/2 the day at A-Basin Ski Center then hopping on my bike and riding over Loveland Pass at 3654 M (that is not a misprint) down to the Loveland ski resort, turning around and riding back up over the pass again and returning to A-Basin. Unfortunately, I did not follow Rule #3 and one year I got caught in a raging snow storm & rode down at about 2 km/h being pelted by snow and ice crystals. Another time, there was a truck accident & they closed the pass to car traffic all together and I had the whole road to myself. Great memories!
    Always overdress, it gives you the added benefit of good padding when you hit that unexpected patch of ice.
    The rides were always culminated with a high carbohydate, isotonic, malt based recovery drink…or two..or three!
    Ralph

  8. Will, great summary !
    One extra thing that I have found useful- studded winter tires.

    I just got out yesterday around Canmore, Alberta and they work really well on ice.
    Hopefully, I’ll use them to get out once or twice / week when it is sunny.

    Cheers !

    Matt

  9. Pingback: Col de Joux Plane : Cycling Challenge

  10. Hi there Will

    I used to cycle all the time in the Alps – know the roads you speak about like the back of my hand “comme ma poche”! You have to find the wee warm pockets or warm micro climates on south facing slopes are ideal! I used to climb the Aravis mountains, Les Saisies, Col du Tamie and all around Annecy region – La Forclaz and Col Epine and Esserieux were always my local climbs – and my favourite climb I used to do endlessly was Col du Croix Fry in winter…..just a paradise! you get some funny looks from the skiers but it’s certainly all doable. However, as you say you do need a warm ski annorak to descend if temps are below freezing BUT on the whole you find there’s a temperature inversion, so as soon as you’re above the low level fog, you can climb out above the cold and into glorious mild weather and sunshine. I miss it I really really do. Here’s hoping my husband gets a job in Geneva this year and I’d be glad to meet up with you for a ride up the Forclaz and have a coffee overlooking the lake…used to train up there over and over again….cheers, Rebecca.

  11. @Slogfester – On the cold-blooded canadians, it reminds me of a comment from a tour guide operator in the south of Chile. He loved Canadians. They never complained about the cold, cloudy, rainy, stormy weather!

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