Legendary Passes in the French Alps: Tour de France 2019
Many of these legendary French climbs can be achieved with Ciclismo Classico, alongside a support van and plenty of wine.
Here is our list of the top four legendary passes in the French Alps that you need to do once in your life. For the thrill of the descents, for the beauty of the countryside, and for bragging rights.
Col du Galibier (2,645 meters)
What Tour de France is ever complete without an ascent up the mythic Col du Galibier? This mountain pass is considered one of the ‘classic climbs’ in the French Alps with two separate ascents: from the south via the Col de Lautaret (8.5 km at an average 6.9%) or from the north via the Col du Telegraphe (18 km at an average 6.9%).
In 2011, this mountain pass celebrated 100 years since its first appearance in the Tour de France. The name Galibier comes from the Grand Galibier mountain peak, standing at 3228 meters tall and looming over the col itself.
The pass was originally cut for military communications during the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, the military built the tunnel at 3 km before the top for the easy passage of troops and supplies just a few centuries ago.
However, there has always been a goat path crossing the top of the pass for hundreds of years. In the early 1900s, when Henri Desgrange was looking for wild and savage places to take his new bike race, the Col du Galibier intrigued him. In an age before mass tourism, the French population considered the high alps a dangerous and scary part of the world.
And it is still today the perfect backdrop for epic bicycle battles.
Col de Vars (2,109 meters)
Stage 18 this year will also feature the Col de Vars. This climb from Guillestre measures in at an average 5.7% for 20km. It isn’t a steep climb, but it is very long and can get very hot in the height of summer.
The military also created this notorious mountain pass: General Berge and the 14th regiment from Lyon constructed a strategic positioning on the Col as well as the Parpaillon tunnel, to reduce the flank’s vulnerability.
The Tour de France has featured the Col de Vars over thirty times. Winners at the top of the pass include illustrious names such as Bartali in 1938, Bobet in 1950, Coppi in 1951, Gaul in 1955, and Cassani in 1993.
Of course, the local race authorities paved the roads of the Route des Grandes Alpes in 1937. So all of these cyclists reached the summit on lovely, paved roads. Yet, prior to this date, it was dirt roads and muddy descents.
Col d’Izoard (2,360 meters)
By far, one of the great cols of the French Alps. The army constructed the original road in 1710 to access the distant alpine passes for defensive purposes. Then – again – General Berge built the present road in the late 1890s.
The ascent is an incredible 20 kilometers at an average 5.7% from Briançon to the west, and 16 kilometers long at 7% from Guillestre to the east.
However, the “Casse Déserte” is one of the most breathtaking views in this mountain range. This lunar-landscape has been the backdrop for many editions of the Tour de France. The sandy mountains and the calcium-rich, porous rock towers scattered across the landscape are stunning. They give the Col d’Izoard an outer-worldly aspect unparalleled by any other French col.
Col de l’Iseran (2,764 meters)
Another one of our favorite French alpine passes is the challenging Col de l’Iseran. Featured in stage 19 of the 2019 edition of the Tour de France, it was first featured in 1939. Oddly, it has only been featured 7 times in the Tour as an “hors catégorie” climb.
The designation hors catégorie comes from the creation of the Route des Grandes Alpes for motorists. A “category four” col meant a car could make the ascent in fourth gear. “Category two” meant second gear, and so on. Thus a hors catégorie climb meant it was not suitable for automobile engines of the early 1900s. Cars wouldn’t make it up the mountain, but motorcycles – with smaller stroke engines – could.
Hence, the Col de L’Iseran is not an easy ascent. From the southeast, the climb is 13.4 kilometers at 7.3% from Bonneval-sur-l’Arc. This will be the second to last ascent for the pros before they finish this epic stage at the Montée de Tignes.
But you, luckily, will be watching the finish from a bar stool somewhere at home.
Come and experience the thrill of these Tour de France passes on our French Alps to the Riviera departure. You’ll be the envy of your local bike club!