This updates a December 2015 post with 5 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:
#1 Col du Jandri – 3158 metres
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
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).
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
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
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
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.
#7 Pic du Midi de Bigorre – 2877 metres
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.
Photo below: Half way up. Entire road in view is above Tourmalet.
#8 Col de la Bailletta – 2853 metres
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
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.
#10 Strada Militare Colle delle Finestre – 2800 metres
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.
#11 Col de Chassoure – 2739 metres
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 Mont Fraiteve – 2702 metres
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 Fraiteve 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
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
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
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
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? The top of Col du Jandri – the highest I have ever been on a bike – serves beer.