Barcelonnette: Alpine Cycling Paradise

Col de la Bonnette

There may not be a better base in the French Alps for cycling than Barcelonnette. Located in the Ubaye valley (south alps), it is literally surrounded by mountains looking to be climbed.

Barcelonnette (population ~3000) was founded in 1231 by the Count of Barcelona. The town has a distinctive Mexican feel due to families that had immigrated to and prospered in Mexico in the 19th century and then returned.

Col d'Allos

This is cycling country – and every major route has kilometre markers with altitude, % grade, and distance-to-the-top.

The town is at 1,135 metres (3,720 feet) – so even the easier climbs are tougher near the oxygen starved top. Here is a link to a PDF brochure from the local tourist office. It is in French but from page 20, the Cycling maps and routes are easy to understand.

The 2008 Tour d’Enfer (a touring vacation with friends) will finish with three days here.

All 2008 Tour d’Enfer Previews can be found here.

Brevet des 7 Cols de l’Ubaye

Translated: Certificate of the 7 passes of Ubaye. At the Tourist office, a card is available that can be stamped at the top of 7 great climbs – to receive a certificate. The local bike shop also sells “7 Cols” cycling jerseys.

Below is a quick overview of the 7 climbs (Red Icons on the Map) – all start in Barcelonnette. Subjectively, I have listed them in order of “interestingness.”

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#1 – Col de la Bonette

Summit: 2,802 metres (9,190 feet)

The Climb: 32 kms (19.9 miles); Ascent: 1,667 metres (5,470 feet);


Doreen and Col de la Bonette

Doreen climbs Bonette

The road signs proudly claim this as the highest road in Europe. In fact, there are a couple of paved roads slightly higher in Spain and Austria – but it is the highest road in France. And was included in Le Cycle Magazine’s list of the 30 most beautiful climbs in France.

The Col itself is only the third highest Col in France at 2715 metres but solely to be higher than Col de l’Iseran they built a road up and around the summit (see photo above).

Click here for more on this epic climb.

Tour de France: Rated Hors Categorie, this climb will appear for the 4th time in 2008 – although from the other side in stage 16.

#2 – Col d’Allos

Summit: 2,247 metres (7,370 feet)

The Climb: 21 kms (13 miles); Ascent: 1,130 metres (3,700 feet);

Col d'Allos

Included on Le Cycle Magazine’s list of the 30 most beautiful climbs – this is a truly magnificent ride.

Much of it goes along a cliff road. See the photo above – that is the route well below Doreen. Amazing!

Tour de France: Allos first appeared in 1911 and was one of the only routes crossing the South Alps before World War One. It has appeared 8 times since 1947, including 1975 when Eddie Merckx was first over the top, before losing a legendary stage to Thevenet atop nearby Pra-Loup.

#3 – Col de la Cayolle

Summit: 2,326 metres (7,630 feet)

The Climb: 29.4 kms (18.3 miles); Ascent: 1,200 metres (3,940 feet);

Col de la Cayolle

This is another stunning climb. It starts off winding through a beautiful river valley with mountain walls on each side, and gets ever more scenic. See photo above of the bridges over the cascades.

Tour de France: Col de la Cayolle has been in the Tour 3 times since 1950. The legendary Charly Gaul was first over in 1955.

#4 – Col de Vars

Summit: 2,108 metres (6,915 feet)

The Climb: 30.2 kms (18.8 miles); Ascent: 1,000 metres (3,280 feet);

col de Vars

The South side starts out easy, but always uphill. The last few hair-pinned kilometres are challenging Day 6 of the Tour d’Enfer will have descended this side.

Included on Le Cycle Magazine’s list of the 30 most beautiful climbs in France.

Tour de France: Col de Vars forst appeared in the 1922 Tour and has appeared over 20 times since.

#5 – Sainte Anne la Condamine

Summit: 1,830 metres (6,000 feet)

The Route: 18.5 kms (11.5 miles); Ascent: 730 metres (2,400 feet);

Col de Larche used to be one of the 7 Cols, but it has been closed to cyclists and replaced by this climb. It is supposed to be a superb route.

Tour de France: As best I can tell, this has never appeared in the Tour.

#6 – Col de Pontis

Summit: 1,301 metres (4,270 feet)

The Route: 34 kms (21.1 miles); Ascent: 835 metres (2,740 feet);


In fact, from Barcelonnette the first 25 kilometres or so are actually downhill. The elevation chart starts from Ubaye.

Tour de France: As best I can tell, this has never appeared in the Tour.

#7 – Col Saint Jean

Summit: 1,333 metres (4,375 feet)

The Route: 33 kms (20.5 miles); Ascent: 660 metres (2,165 feet);

col st jean

In fact, from Barcelonnette the first 20 kilometres or so are actually downhill. The elevation chart starts from Lauzet-Ubaye.

Tour de France: Col St Jean has appeared three times in the Tour de France, lost recently in 2005.

Other Stuff

If the above hasn’t peaked your interest, there are lots of other cycling possibilities.

For example:

  • Climb one of the routes described in the tourist brochure here. Routes range from flattish and short to truly epic (one is a mountainous 192 kilometres!!)
  • Climb nearby Pra Loup. This was the finish for the epic 1975 Tour de France Stage where Bernard
    Thévenet cracked the legendary Eddie Merckx
  • Mountain biking: There are loads of signed routes with maps and rentals available in town
  • Hang out in the pleasant town square drinking tequila with me

About Author

Happiest while cycling uphill.


  1. Hello,

    If I went near the Lake of Serre Poncon I would climb the Cime de la Bonette and the Col de Pontis firstly.
    But I think that if you go there, it’s essential to climb the Col de Parpaillon (north of Barcelonnette) and the Mt Colombis (West of the Lake, 12.3 kms to 8.3%) wich is perhaps the most unrecognized great climb in France.

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  3. …was here 9 days ago for a few days, and your right Will, a truly lovely place – great riding, although i was struck down with food poisoning- Bonette is a MONSTER! 😉

  4. I look immensely forward to visiting Barcelonette this year.

    Will, I will be taking this itenarary and doing a marathon of col cycling over 2 days.

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