This is the fourth article in a series detailing the 684 kilometre Route des Grandes Alpes. A great cyclo-tourist route through the French Alps, over 16 mountain passes, on a road linking Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) to the Mediterranean Sea. The main goal of these articles is to highlight alternate route options and interesting detours.
Part 1 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 1
Part 2 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 2
Part 3 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 3
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 4: Lanslebourg to Briançon
Official Route (blue track on map):
Distance: 115 Kilometres
Ascent: 2300 metres
Descent: 2450 Metres
Below, I will explain the map in some detail (or click any point on map for additional info).
The Official Route
This stage climbs the best, north side of Col du Galibier, via Col du Télégraphe. At 2642 metres, Galibier is one of the highest, and perhaps the most famous, climb in the French Alps. Woohoo.
The first 45 kilometres or so are down low – in the Maurienne valley – ever so slightly downhill the entire way. It’s not my favourite stretch of road (avoid via detour 2 below). But then, at St-Michel-de-Maurienne the fun begins. First Col du Télégraphe, a tough and scenic climb in its own right.
The top 8.5 kilometres of the south side – above Col du Lautaret – are also superb. Then from Lautaret, it’s a fast, non-technical, descent all the way to Briançon on the main road.
Detour 1 – Briançon via Italy
110 kms, 2600 metres of ascent.
The yellow line on the map. For those that already know Col du Galibier – here is an alternate route that visits Italy and completely replaces the official Route des Grandes Alpes. But it starts and ends in the exact same towns as the official route.
As mentioned in the previous post, the climb to Col du Mont Cenis is fabulous. The French side is far shorter than the Italian side, but the lake at the summit is beautiful and worth visiting.
This strategic pass was first made into a road by Napoleon, but the Emperor Constantine, Charlemagne and possibly even Hannibal also crossed the Alps with armies here. Here is my brief history: Mont Cenis: From Elephants to Emperors to … Cyclists – including plenty of info for cyclo-tourists.
Once this detour descends into Italy, it’s of course necessary to climb back into France, to Briançon. While the obvious choice is via Col de Montgenèvre (1854 metres), this is a busy-ish climb with lots and lots of tunnels (although an old road can bypass some of these). Instead, I suggest taking Colle della Scala (Col de l’Echelle; 1762 metres). This crosses into France to a scenic, quiet valley, before eventually descending into Briançon.
Note, the lower portion of this detour, between Susa and Bardonecchia is not fabulous, but ride-able.
Detour 2 – Aussois
The red line on the map. The stretch between Lanslebourg and St-Michel-de-Maurienne is flat or gently downhill but on a road that gets very fast traffic. To quote my friend Tim, commenting on the stage 3 post: “I think that stretch of road was about the worst part of the entire route-des-grandes-alpes.” I agree.
To avoid much of it, take this detour. Be forewarned, this adds a little more climb – perhaps 350 metres. But it is worth it. Note, the second half of this detour joins a great, even quieter, 3rd road that passes by some of the old, well preserved, 19th century fortifications in this stretch of the Maurienne valley. Very fun:
Also note, above Aussois, up through the ski slopes is an excellent climb to two beautiful dams/lakes. This link includes the ride to the dams and the forts.
Detour 3 – The Maurienne Valley
The first half of this stage runs through the Maurienne valley. It is perhaps the greatest valley in Europe for famous climbs – Iseran, Croix de Fer, Mont Cenis, Madeleine, Glandon, Lacets de Monvernier, Galibier/Télégraphe, Mollard, Plan du Lac, etc. Once could base themselves in the valley for a day or two and visit a few of these amazing roads – before attacking Galibier.
For example, just ten kilometres past the start of Galibier/Télégraphe are the Lacets (hairpins) de Montvernier:
I won’t go into a full review of the region. But here is a detailed post with map outlining the 15 best climbs in the valley.
Detour 4 – Alpe d’Huez
I know, you really want to visit Alpe d’Huez. I think it is hugely over-rated – see 100 Climbs Better Than Alpe d’Huez – but it is certainly possible to add to this tour.
- Skip Galibier and head to Bourg d’Oisans via either Col de la Croix de Fer or Col du Glandon …. both great climbs. To rejoin Route des Grandes Alpes, climb to Col du Lautaret, and descend to Briançon – beware this climbs up through 10 tunnels, some dark and wet, on a fairly busy road.
- Climb Galibier, descend to Col du Lautaret, then descend to Bourg d’Oisans (beware the same 10 shitty tunnels).
For much of 2015, the road between Bourg d’Oisans – the base of Alpe d’Huez – and Col du Lautaret was cut-off due to the closure of a tunnel. An emergency bypass route has finally been opened, but one should check that it is still open before touring here.
If you decide to base yourself for a few days near Alpe d’Huez – see this article: Beyond Alpe d’Huez: The Best Cycling Climbs from Bourg d’Oisans.
Road Openings: Col du Galibier (2642m) is usually opened early June. In 2014, it opened the last couple of days in May – the earliest I remember. One of the challenges here is that different Departments clear each side. The north side above the tunnel often has avalanches so is last to open – BUT it can be possible to cycle through the tunnel (2556m). Bikes are not permitted through the single lane tunnel – regulated by a traffic light – but I’ve done it with the blessing of the official road crew when the col is closed. Galibier is reliably open through September. I’ve ridden it as late as Oct. 26th – but don’t count on it. Alternates: Both the Mont Cenis and Col de la Croix de Fer detours should be ride-able early to mid May. Col du Lautaret is often open for much of the year as a key through road. Official Savoie Col open/closed map here.
A Final Word
I love Galibier, one of the great cycling climbs in Europe. But this stage has many options for those that have already visited. And as much as any other stage on the Route des Grandes Alpes, there are opportunities to base oneself for an extra day or two to explore.
More good news: Col du Galibier even has its own beer. Photo taken at the Henri Desgranges monument – at the tunnel exit on south side.