The pass of the Col du Galibier (2,645 metres) is located in the southern region of the French Dauphiné Alps. The tunnel at 2,556 meters used to be the only through road until 1976 – when the tunnel was closed for restoration, a loop around the summit, similar to the one over the Bonette, was constructed, reaching the ‘official’ summit of 2,645 meters.
With this loop included, it claims 9th spot in the highest paved European roads list and is listed as 5th highest mountain pass. – without it, it’s ranked 11th and 6th respectively.
Like all passes in the area, it’s closed during winter, roughly between October and June. I cycled up the Lautaret side June 9th, 2012 and found the final loop closed from the Valloire side – luckily, I could still cycle up from my end. When I tackled the other side in 2014, it was two weeks later and the road was free of snow.
What makes climbing the Galibier hard, is the distance. It can only be reached via the Col du Télégraphe from Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne and via the Col du Lautaret from either Briançon or Bourg-d’Oisans (Le Clapier).
The Col de la Croix de Fer (2,067 meters) connects the Isère and Savoie regions. The area – on both sides – attracts many cyclists, as there are many famous climbs to be found, besides this one.
In Isère – centered around Bourg-d’Oisans – these include the Lautaret, Les Deux Alps, la Bérarde and “the most famous of them all”, the Alpe d’Huez.
In the Savoie region, centered around Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, you’ll find – among others – the Glandon, Télégraphe / Galibier and the Madeleine.
The Croix de Fer has featured in the Tour de France 17 times since 1947, most recently in 2017. In 2015 it was included in 2 stages: stage 19 via the Col du Glandon from la Chambre and stage 20 from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.
The latter stage was the result of an alteration, since the original stage route over the Télégraphe / Galibier was blocked because a landslide had made descending the Lautaret unsafe. In stage 18, the climb from Rochetaillée was included too, but that took the left turn over the Glandon…
Previously listed to be 2,770 meters high, the official summit of the Col de l’Iseran on recent maps is now shown at 2,764 meters. That still makes it the highest paved pass in Europe, although the artificial loop around the Bonette is claimed as such by the French.
However, the official pass height of the Bonette is 2,715 meters, so the Iseran, the Stelvio (2,758) and the Agnel (2,744) are higher ‘by nature’…
The Iseran is part of the Route des Grandes Alpes (in French). It connects the valleys of the Isère (Tarentaise) and Arc River (Maurienne) between Val-d’Isère in the north and Bonneval-sur-Arc in the south.
The north side of the pass officially starts at Val-d’Isère, or further down from Bourg-Saint-Maurice. The climb from the south officially starts at Lanslebourg-Mont Cenis, but you could also consider Modane as the starting point.
Post WWII the Iseran was included in the Tour de France 5 times between 1947 and 2007 – in 1996 it was also scheduled, but that stage was rescheduled due to bad weather (snow on both the Iseran and the Galibier).
Starting from Bourg-Saint-Maurice, the climb to the summit of Col de l’Iseran is 48 (!) kilometers and over this distance, the road ascends 1,955 meters, an almost modest average grade of 4.1%.
While those grades seem rather friendly, the sheer length of the climb makes it a hard one. Plus, not considering the two 9 kilometer ‘near flat’ sections at the bottom and through the tunnels past the lake of Tignes, the average over the remaining 30 kilometers is close to 6%.
The views higher up, past Val-d’Isere, are fantastic, as is the panorama at the summit. Report of my trip up this end in 2014 here.
From the south, the official climb starts at Lanslebourg-Mont Cenis and is 32.9 kilometer long, with a 1,371 meter elevation gain, or an average grade of 4.2%.
The first 7 kilometers are up the Col de la Madeleine (notthe Madeleine), with some 350 altimeters not the hardest bit. After that, there’s a 12 kilometer ‘flat’ section through the Bessans valley.
Without that section, the average of the climb increases to around 6%. The hardest part starts at Bonneval-sur-Arc: 13.4 km with 977 m of elevation (7.3%) with several stretches over 10%.
I descended this way towards Modane after my climb from Bourg-Saint-Maurice, with a little ‘detour’ up and down the Mont Cenis. Thinking this was mainly downhill, I figured it would be relatively easy. However, the section in the valley between Bonneval and la Madeleine, completely wore me out because of the strong headwind.
If you go the other way and would then also have to battle a headwind, you will face a very tough 12 kilometers – despite being used to riding headwinds (the famous ‘Dutch Mountains’), I know I would not be happy.
If you also include the section between Modane and Lanslebourg as a ‘warm up’, you can add some 23 kilometers with an additional 450 meters – including some up- and downhill bits – of elevation gain, but also here, the wind could be your greatest enemy, as I experienced first hand…
Image gallery of my trip up from Bourg-Saint-Maurice in 2014 on Google+
The Col Agnel / Colle Dell’Agnello is number three on the list of highest paved passes in Europe – the Cime de la Bonette not included – and with 2,744 meters it has also been the Cima Coppi in the Giro d’Italia several times.
A not too busy road, where you’re not constantly passed – at high speed – by motor bikes or cars. The pass out of the valley on the opposite side – the Izoard – is a lot busier for that matter…
Report on my climb up the Agnel in 2014 here, pictures on Google+ here (combined with the Izoard)
The official start of the climb from the north / French side is in Guillestre. I got on the bike in Chateau Queyras – from there it is only a few kilometers to the real base of the climb, at La Casse / Ville-Vieile.
From there, you have about 20 kilometer of real climbing ahead of you, but the 20-kilometer ride from Guillestre through the “Gorges du Guil” would be a very nice warm up – the altitude gain of roughly 400 meters, is almost negligible.
With an average of 4.1% from Guillestre, the Agnel may not seem like a tough climb, but from Ville-Veille the average of 7.1% is a lot more “interesting”. The most difficult parts are right out of Ville-Veille and the last 5 to 6 kilometers, where the averages go up to a stinging 9%.
Furthermore, the ascent is actually reasonably ‘straightforward’ – only in the last five kilometers you get some hairpin sections and prettier pictures if you’re into that sort of views. Other than that, the views throughout the climb are often overwhelming in their wideness and the silence / absence of traffic is a relief…
Video from the Col Collective on the climb from Ville-Veille here.
From Casteldelfino the climb is much more is irregular in the first half and quite steep in the upper half.
In that part – from Chianale – the road winds up at an average of 10% to the top, over a distance of about 9 kilometers – definitely more difficult than the upper half from the other side.
I have not climbed this side myself*, because at the summit, I turned around and descended back to Ville-Vieille, in order to then climb the Izoard.
Looking at the profile of the south side of the Agnel and taking into consideration that I’m not a fan of “irregular”, I’m not sorry I skipped it at that time and preferred to go down in favor of the Izoard – as it was, that one was difficult enough for me…
* I did tackle the Agnel virtually, on CVT – that ride starts in Sampeyre, which adds another 10 kilometers. While these – like the ones between Casteldelfino and Chianale – are not too difficult, I experienced that they wear you out just enough to make the final almost insane.
Granted, many argue that virtual is too easy from the comfort of your home and doesn’t count at all. However, as I have stated (many times) before, I can assure you that a high end smart trainer, capable of mimicking big inclines – like my Tacx Neo – will give you an experience not far off from the truth.
No bad weather, no wind, sure, but the high RPE specifics of the environment during indoor cycling, like difficulties with cooling or sweating, do compensate for that.
At any rate, I was more exhausted when I finished that virtual ride, than when I got up the other end IRL…
With its 2,715 meters, the Col de la Bonette scores a 4th place in the list of paved “passes”. Not high enough for some, so an additional loop around the top, the “Cime de la Bonette”, was cut out of the rocks and that takes you to 2,802 meters.
Therefor, the French – or at least those in the Ubaye Vallée, I reckon – claim it’s the highest pass of Europe. But that is really the Iseran, which is 2,764 meters all by itself, without frills. The Stelvio then comes in close second with 2,758 meters, followed by the Agnel with 2,744 meters…
During my Tour de France of 2014, we rented a cottage at the foot of the Bonette (La Mexicaine, highly recommended!) – not only this col, but also the Larche and the Vars are around the corner.
This ascend was the first on the list of that week. It’s part of the Brevet des 7 Cols de l’Ubaye also, because of its length perhaps the most feared on that list. Personally, I had (a lot) more trouble with the Col de Vars.
Up to La Chanalette, the grades are “easier” – in the bottom half of that part, you’ll find some stinging section, but it never gets really steep. Gradually, the views become more beautiful, the hairpins more attractive.
After some 17 kilometers you ride past a lake and a few kilometers further – about two kilometers from the summit – you pass the Caserne de Restefond, part of the Maginot defense line. This is around the 2,550 meter mark.
Once you arrive at the pass, you will not be able to resist the temptation and ride the extra loop, if only for the even better views. I was forced to ride over the left side, because the “natural” route over the right was still blocked by snow.
That final part turned out to be quite the stinger, as the grades rose to about 15% – as you can deduct from the profile image from this end, the right hand side – going counterclockwise – of the loop has easier grades…
Similar to the climb from Jausiers, in both length and average grade, is the climb from Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée. You first get to ride through a more “forestry” part, meandering along the river la Tinée.
Just after some 10 kilometers, you will most likely have to get out of the saddle, because the following stretch of about five kilometers has some rather annoyingly steep sections.
And also from this end, you’ll pass a former barracks complex, the Camp des Fourches, part of the same Maginot defense line, where the “Diables Blues” were housed.
Not long after that, you reach one of the best viewpoints, marked by an Obelix in honor of General Jacquemot – the view down into the valley is absolutely stunning.
Hopefully, you then still have some energy left for the last kilometers to the summit, because the road keeps turning out of sight, the grades are not too bad, but if you’re unlucky, a (cold) headwind might completely destroy you…