Twenty of the Highest Unpaved Cycling “Roads” in the Alps

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This updates a December 2015 post with five now ten more climbs.

The Alps are filled with super high, unpaved roads perfect for mountain biking. Usually they are either old military roads (especially along the French/Italian border) or, service roads for ski lifts. Either way: they are almost always stunning, and completely deserted.
Here is a list of many of the very highest. This is not a complete list, only roads that I have cycled. I will gladly take any recommendations:

If you are more interested in paved cycling climbs, see the following links for the highest paved roads in France, Italy, Switzerland, and the Jura Mountains.

#1 Col du Jandri – 3158 metres
Glacier de Mont-de-Lans

Glacier de Mont-de-Lans

jandri700

It is very difficult to get above 3000 metres on a bike in the Alps, but Col du Jandri is completely ride-able on a ski-lift service road high above Les Deux Alpes ski station.

The good quality gravel road ends just beyond the col at the top of a cable car station, at the base of Glacier de Mont-de-Lans. One could start as low as Bourg d’Oisans at roughly 700 metres for a truly huge climb. But the gravel starts at Les Deux Alpes.

Full details here (map, profile, photos, etc).

#2 Mont Chaberton – 3131 metres
wooohooo !

wooohooo !

chaberton700

This old military road starts in Italy and ends in France atop a mountain at the highest Fort (now ruins) in the Alps. The fort was used by the Italians in WW2 but de Gaulle demanded the mountain be ceded into French territory as part of the WW2 peace settlement.

The summit is literally the very top of a mountain with commanding 360 degree views (hence the fort). The top was flattened and huge artillery towers built. Amazing place.

Full disclosure, this is the one road on this list where even the strongest cyclists will likely do some pushing. But this is an astonishing road – closed to motor vehicles. The photo at the top of article is me descending near the summit of Chaberton. Yikes!

Ride details here.

#3 Col de Rosaël – 3003 metres

The next two climbs actually meet at the summit, high above Val Thorens ski station, climbing opposite sides of the mountain. But they start perhaps a two hour drive from each other as there is no way to cross the Alps here (except on mountain bike).

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This gigantic climb starts way down in Orelle, not far from the start of Col du Galibier/Télégraphe – but climbs the opposite eastern mountains. I’ve seen people call this Col de Caron, but that is just beside and without a road. The sign at the top of a ski lift says Col de Rosaël – 3000 metres, but it might be just lower: However, one can follow a short linking road through the mountain pass to the far side that links to climb #4 detailed below. This passes another cable car station which is at 3003 metres. Woohoo.

Ride details here.

#4 Above Col de la Montée du Fond – 3003 metres
Road to Col de la Montée du Fond

Road to Col de la Montée du Fond

The unpaved part of this climb starts at Val Thorens (highest ski station in the Alps), but one could begin 39 kilometres lower in Moutiers for a monster of a climb. Me, I compromised and started 10 kms below Val Thorens. I don’t have a profile for this climb. While it is occasionally very steep, it’s generally fully ride-able.

The road reaches Col de la Montée du Fond at 2974 metres and then heads a little higher to the same Cable Car station and linking road to Col de Rosaël discussed above.

Full details here.

#5 Colle del Sommeiller – 2993 metres
only the top hairpins fit in the photo

only the top hairpins fit in the photo

somm250

Cycling author Daniel Friebe once told me this is the Holy Grail for cyclists. Yep. It’s a beast of a climb, but always ride-able.

It starts in Bardonecchia, in the Piemonte region of Italy. Originally built to service a tiny ski station, it is now completely deserted up high. Early on, one passes a nice Alpine dam/lake, and then the road climbs relentlessly into and through a couple of different valleys. A tiny lake and a savage stretch of French border provide a greeting at the summit.

Don’t forget to carry your bike up some rocks to get above 3000 metres. 🙂

Full details here.

#6 Glacier du Varet – 2900 metres
End of the road: Glacier du Varet

End of the road: Glacier du Varet above

Above Les Arcs 2000 ski station in the Vanoise Alps is a cable car that goes above 3200 to l’Aguille Rouge. I’ve skied there and been terrified coming down the top stretch. From Les Arcs 2000 village one can cycle past Col de Chal (2460 metres) and then up towards Aguille Rouge. But a glacier prevented me from getting beyond 2900 metres.

Although I approached from Les Arcs, one could climb from the far side of Col du Chal, making a gigantic climb on beautiful deserted, unpaved roads.

Full details to the glacier here.

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#7 Pic du Midi de Bigorre – 2877 metres
Wooohooooo

Wooohooooo, view from Pic du Midi

OK, this is the Pyrénées, not the Alps, but one of my very favourite rides ever. Exactly at the summit of the legendary Col du Tourmalet (2115 metres) begins an unpaved road that leads to the Observatory high above. It’s a superb route, even if the road ends a little below the observatory and a steep hiking trail requires a touch of pushing.

Ride your mountain bike to Tourmalet and then watch the road bikers drool as you keep going higher. Full details here.

the goal high above

the goal high above

Photo below: Half way up. Entire road in view is above Tourmalet.

Nice hairpin. Climbing to Pic du Midi.

Nice hairpin. Climbing to Pic du Midi.

#8 Col de la Bailletta – 2853 metres
Early slopes: Lac du Chevril below

Early slopes: Lac du Chevril below

I probably shouldn’t put this here as I found out afterwards that cyclists aren’t allowed on the highest stretches of this climb. Sorry! But you can at least climb to the beautiful Lac de la Sassière at 2460 metres.

The climb starts by turning off the main road beside Lac du Chevril, in between a couple of tunnels, just below Val d’Isere. It is paved until Lac/Barrage du Saut (the 13th highest paved road in France).

Full details here.

#9 Monte Jafferau – 2805 metres
Battling Vertigo

Battling Vertigo

jaff250

Another Piemonte climb starting in Bardonecchia. The summit has the ruins of Fort du Jafferau, the second highest in the Alps. Built between 1896 and 1898. It was bombarded and largely destroyed as part of the peace treaty ending World War 2.

There are a couple of ways up, but the ride-able one goes via Col Basset (2596 metres). Full details here. Or an excellent alternate route here – both routes converge before Col Basset.

#10 Strada Militare Colle delle Finestre – 2800 metres

IMG_0671 - Version 2

In 2015, The spectacular endurance cycling event The Transcontinental Race brought some publicity to the high altitude old Italian military road Strada dell’Assietta. This amazing gravel route of perhaps 50 kms rides along mountain ridges and is almost completely (well) above 2000 metres, passing perhaps 10 passes, the lowest being the famous and fearsome Colle delle Finestre. This is all above the 10 unpaved kilometres below/to Colle delle Finestre that Giro d’Italia fans may know.

But what most don’t know is there is side-road extension Strada Militare Colle delle Finestre that is even crazier/higher than Strada dell’Assietta and – I am not certain the exact high point – gets to roughly 2800 metres.

Top tip: Cycle Assietta on Wednesday or Saturday in summer as it’s closed to cars (it’s popular with Jeep-type trek companies), but ride the Militare Finestre extension anytime as it is closed/unpassable to motor vehicles. Full details here. Or see here for another route that climbs the famous side of Colle delle Finestre before exploring higher.

#11 Col de Chassoure – 2739 metres
Cliff Road above Col des Mines

Cliff Road above Col des Mines

Finally, Switzerland is included on this list. Passo Umbrail (the 3rd, lesser known Swiss way, to Stelvio) is the highest paved climb in Switzerland at 2503 metres. But above Verbier ski station are some fabulous, much higher, unpaved roads.

I made it to Col de Chassoure, the highest I’ve ever been in Switzerland on bike. This route has it all: plenty of hairpins, a crazy tunnel, several other cols on the way up, a few super high alpine lakes, and …… a giant stork. Note, in the comments section of the link below, my friend Chris has ridden even higher there to Col des Gentianes at roughly 2900 metres.

Full details here.

#12 Monte Fraiteve – 2702 metres
Strdaa dell'Assietta from Sestriere, just below Col Basset

Hairpins below Monte Fraitève

This is another detour above the Strada dell’Assietta, but above Sestrière, the opposite end from Finestre. From Sestrière, it’s a fabulous twisty climb towards Col Basset – 2426 metres on the beginning of the Strada dell’Assietta. From Basset, one detours up Fraitève on a ski lift service road. One can go to the absolute high point of the mountain and enjoy perfect 360 degree views. Details here.

#13 Glacier de St-Sorlin – 2680 metres
Glacier de Saint-Sorlin

Glacier de Saint-Sorlin

Col de la Croix de Fer (2167 metres) is a favourite among road bikers. But most don’t know that exactly at the summit, behind the little parking lot at the Col sign, is a gravel road that climbs up to a couple of cols and two beautiful alpine lakes/dams. And beyond, on trails, one can reach the Glacier de Saint Sorlin. Beautiful. Full details here.

#14 Tunnel (Col) du Parpaillon 2643 metres

Once the highest road in France, with 1900 metres of ascent, it’s the biggest single un-interrupted climb I have done in France.

The route du Parpaillon was built between 1891 and 1911 by the French military to link the Ubaye and Embrun valleys. The high point of the road is the tunnel – 520 metres long – at 2643 metres. The geographic col is above at 2780 metres. Full details here.

#15 Monte Gran Costa – 2615 metres
Monte Gran Costa

Monte Gran Costa

I mentioned above, in ride #10, the amazing Strada dell’Assietta. Monte Gran Costa is a little mountain above the Strada with old fort ruins at the top. For this ride I approached Assietta from a different route, through the beautiful Parco Naturale Gran Bosco (big woods). Almost 2000 metres of climb in a deserted cycling paradise. Details here.

#16 Col des Chavannes – 2592 metres
Col des Chavannes - 2592 metres

Col des Chavannes – 2592 metres

On the Italian side of the road up to Col du Petit St. Bernard is a side road into a long valley. Soon becoming unpaved, this road seems to go on forever, finally reaching Col des Chavannes and its majestic view of the Mont Blanc Massif. Details here. Note the link discusses another ride almost as high on the other side of Petit St. Bernard

#17 Lago di Misérin – 2580 metres

2580 metres

miserin250

It’s tough to find a road with 2250 metres continuous climb (Stelvio has 1800m).

This giant climb in the Aosta Valley, Italy is 29 kms uphill with the second half unpaved and deserted. The reward at the end of the “road” – the beautiful Lago Misérin at 2580 metres. Details here.

#18 Col du Fréjus – 2541 metres

Col d'Arrondaz

A rare (admittedly minor) positive legacy from war: the great network of old, high, unpaved military roads in the Alps on the Italian/French border. This climb runs above the famous Fréjus tunnel that links Savoie (France) to Piedmont (Italy). The road to the Col was built in the 1890’s at the behest of the French Général-Baron Berge. Lots of old fortifications along the way. Minor WW2 skirmishes occurred here. Detail here.

Note, the Col itself is at the French/Italian border. The top stretch of the Italian side is a very steep trail, but passable on bike carefully – a future project for me will be to ascend from Italian side starting in Bardonecchia.

#19 Rifugio Sogno di Berdzé – 2531 metres
wooohooo

wooohooo

cogn700

35 kilometres uphill! The first 22 paved kilometres of this huge 35 kilometre climb are paved, but there are 13 kilometres higher requiring a mountain bike for the real fun.

The Cogne Valley is one of many interesting side “finger” valleys of the Val d’Aosta region in the Italian Alps near Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco). Beyond the rifugio, the adventurous can hike higher, carrying their mountain bike over a much higher pass and link up with Lago di Misérin (see higher). More details here.

#20 Mont and Fort Janus – 2529 metres
Monte and Fort Janus

Mont and Fort Janus

Above Briançon, at 2347 metres, Col des Gondrans is the 11th highest paved road in France (only debatably paved in places). But as one summits this little known military col a huge yellow/copper mountain appears: Mont Janus. And in the distance I could see a “road” up to a very old military installation.

Crazy fun. The “road” is slippery and steep. And my vertigo made me nervous to pedal parts of it. But wow. I am not certain the altitude but the peak is at 2565m, and the sign beside the fort said 2529 metres. Makes sense? Note this link describing the ride also includes a superb climb up the 29 hairpins to La Croix de Toulouse.

Final Thoughts

It’s no exaggeration to say that each of the above rides were truly memorable experiences. I love road biking the big paved cols but there is something extra special about being all alone, up high, on some of these slightly crazy “roads.”

When I get a chance I’ll probably lengthen this list to 20 climbs. And again, please use the comments to suggest any of your favourite, super high, Alpine roads.

Not yet convinced these are fun? Well, the top of Col du Jandri – the highest I have ever been on a bike – serves beer.

Le Bar 3200 was open :)

Le Bar 3200 was open 🙂

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Happiest while cycling uphill.

19 Comments

  1. Salut will,

    Une petite suggestion de cols à plus de 3000m : le Théodulpass depuis Valtournenche. Je n’ai pas l’impression que tu l’aies déjà gravi…

  2. Will, I did the Grand Raid from Verbier once and that went above 3000m at one point – I’m pretty sure anyway. You might want to check that out.

  3. Lot of good ideas for my summer rides in Europe! (I am living in Taiwan). If one day you visit taiwan, you can participate to one of the best road race: the taiwan KOM challenge, one single climb from the beach up to 3170m… with the last 8km always above 12% gradient

  4. The Pic du Midi de Bigorre is tough but doable on a road bike with 25mm tyres… at least until the road turns to shale but by then you can’t even ride a MTB.

  5. Fantastic ,I love the numbers of the big climbs but too go higher is superb .Shame I live near London .Have ridden the Galibier ,Alpe D’Huez,Croix De Fer amongst others but riding over 3000 metres off Rd your a lucky guy .

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  7. You should try the Sierra Nevada in Spain. When I was 17 I cycled from the beach at Salobreña up to the top of Mulhacén at 3479m the highest point on mainland Spain (climbed the final 500m on foot) and then Valetta, the highest paved road in Europe at 3398m. The ride afterwards was an unbelievable 50km without any pedaling down to Grenada. If you like hills this definitely one for you.

  8. John Sanderson on

    I used to live up in Zermatt in the Swiss alps. A long brilliant ride is from town up to Schwarzsee, which is at 2580m or so. You ride up right beneath the matterhorn and it’s really spectacular. There are a few ways down including some serious downhilling. Worth a visit.

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  10. At the suggestion of Jobst Brandt, I rode/walked my road bike over Col Ferret (2490m), Col de la Seigne (2516m), and Passo San Giacomo (2313m) on a cycling trip I took in 2009. I was expecting “non-paved” passes but found I was instead taking my road bike with 700×28 tires over mountain hiking trails. I loved it! A mountain bike would have been better suited for the route but Jobst Brandt rode these same “roads” on a true road bike … skinny tires with standard road gearing.

  11. I’m guessing at least some of these routes can be considered do-able on a gravel bike, Will? I live in Vevey, Switzerland, have a GT Grade 105, and I’m looking forward to putting it to use off-road next year. But I’m guessing some of these rides are only possible on an MTB. Which would be the best rides for a gravel bike? Anyone out there fancy taking a few of these on with me next years as the days warm up and lengthen?

    • Hi Elliot,

      The issue is rarely the climbing but the descending. Some of these can be very bumpy/rough, and a mountain bike can help soften the ride. For example I have done Finestre/Assietta on both a hybrid and a mountain bike and enjoyed the day much more on the mtb – (even if both days were great fun). All of them could be done on a gravel bike, and several I did with 35c tires on a hybrid sort of gravel bike. But if you enjoy fast descending ….. a mtb is usually better. It depends how fussy you are.

      Narrower tires? The best options perhaps: Jandri, Sommeiller, Varet, Pic du Midi, Parpaillon, Janus

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