Cycling routes in the Briançonnais
Cycling the Etape du Tour 2017 or visiting Serre Chevalier Briançon for the Tour de France these are the routes and cols you can ride. This guide will be in three sections, firstly the classic Cols in an around Briancon / Serre Chevalier, then those further away and then lastly Off Road / VTT / MTB routes
Tour De France 2017 Briançon
2017 sees not only the Tour De France but the Etape du Tour as well visiting Serre Chevalier and Briançon.
The Etape du Tour kicks off proceedings on the Sunday July 16th, and the route is that of the Tour De France Stage 18 on Thursday July 20th, starting in Briançon and finishing atop the Col D'Izoard after already climbing the Col de Vars from the Barcelonnette side.
The previous day, Wednesday July 19th Stage 17 sees the tour finish in Serre Chevalier (almost outside where we live at Style Altitude HQ) having raced down from the Col du Galibier via Col du Lautaret.
With the Etape de Tour starting in Briançon there are going to be many active cyclists visiting Serre Chevalier and the surrounding area, so with this is mind I've put togeter this guide for those looking for cycling routes when visiting here.
My cycling background in Serre Chevalier
This guide is based on living and cycling in the Haute Alpes. Most of the mountains and Cols I've cycled on a regular basis and I know them well, apart from the ones further afield.
I've also cycled them in a wide range of conditions and seasons and when not cycling I'm hiking and together with my experience of the mountain in both winter and spring I have a pretty good knowledge built up over the years.
I first cycled the infamous Alpe d'Huez back in 1997 when I visited La Grave snowboarding - back then I often took the bike with me along with the winter sports gear.
When staying in La Grave in the winter we'd often do road trips to Serre Chevalier and on to other resorts passing through Briançon. I then used to stay in Serre Chevalier for four to six weeks in March and April and was able to cycle in the fine spring weather as the roads gradually became snow free, though the likes of the Col D'Izoard, Col du Galibier and Col du Granon stay closed until mid May. But that still leaves plenty to do such as cycling the Col de Montgenevre and then on up to the Col de Sestrières.
As I've already alluded to the fact that I've known this area for a while. My first cycling trip in the summer was back in 2011 after I had torn my ACL in the previous ski season and I was using cycling as a precursor to my expected operation.
I used to time trial, hovering around the hour mark for a 25 mile trial but that was a good 15- 20 years ago. I switched back to running from cycling around 10 years ago and ran cross country marathons and half marathons. Back then 1hr 40 was a good time for a cross country half over the South Downs with around 1500m of vertical. I tweaked my right knee in September, 2010 which then saw me back on the bike, and with my more serious ACL to the right in April, I upped the miles; and prior to going out to the Alps was doing 90 mile sportives.
Since 2011 we bought an apartment in Serre Chevalier just outside Villeneuve. We now stay out here for all the winter and a couple of months in the summer and autumn. I've ridden three Etapes - and biggest ride to date is 240 miles.
In the winter we ski tour / ski randonne, often with our Rando Chiens to many of the cols that you can cycle to in the summer.
Ski touring is climbing up on specially equipped skis along with climbing skins, then once at the top take the skins off and go into descent mode to ski back down!
As much as I love the road riding the last couple of summers I've also been doing a lot of off road riding as the routes here are just so good, and so many options, more on that later.
As for the weather, you're in the mountains and weather can change quickly, so you always have to be on the look out and check forecasts. For me heat is the killer and, yes, it can get very hot in the summer here. But more about weather and conditions later.
Cycling Mountains & What to Watch Out For!
One thing's for sure when visiting this part of the world, you will be climbing well above 2,000m.
All the major cols will stretch your lungs as you start to climb above 2,000m as the air gets thinner.
So if coming here to the cycle the Etape du Tour then it's worth coming out for a few days before for some acclimatisation, and that doesn't have to be cycling but just hiking up in the mountains to get used to the altitude.
If visiting in the Summer months and especially so if hiking or out cycling Off road VTT MTB then good to be aware of the Patou.
The Patou is similar to the Pyrenean Mountain Dog. It guards the flocks of sheep (supposedly from wolves) that are brought up in the summer to the high mountain pastures. There have been numerous cases of these dogs attacking walkers.
What they will do is from a long distance come over to you to check you out. I have had them travel well over a kilometer leaving their flock to suss me out, though I did have my two Jack Russels with me.
I have three encounters with them now two off the bike and one on the bike, and can be pretty disconcerting so be aware!
That said on the more popular ascents such as the Galibier and Izoard they are not usually there, you just have cows in the middle of the road :)
If like me you're rather susceptible to mosquitoes and being bitten by midges etc then when it's hot one of the fiercest beasties that can really ruin your day is the Horse Fly.
They are easily recognisable by their large red or green eyes.
And when climbing through the high altitude pastures then they can be quite prevalent especially when it's really hot. They just don't bike but tear your skin, and they seem to love your buttocks and lycra does not stop them and the thing is it's normally too late by the time you've been had, all you can do is keep a watch out for each other.
The bite can be painful and the effects will differ from one person to another, but immediate swelling can be an issue. I always cycle with anti histamine pills and do cover myself in fly repellent prior to going out.
And there are good things to be seen too!
The most obvious being Marmot and Chamois, though in our part of the world if cycling up to the Col du Lautaret / Galibier around around 6km out on Monetier you'll often see Bouquetin, these are like a cross between a cow and a chamois, and they can often be seen very close to the road just after Pont de l'Alpe / Le Lauzet.
I'm convinced the local tourist office puts them there for the tourists :)
When grinding your way up a long climb it's worth keeping your eyes and ears open and not just focus on your computer and the various km signs giving altitude and gradient!
When you hear a high pitch whistle often repeated that will probably be a marmotte warning others, they will usually be above you standing on their haunches, best time to see them is quite early in the morning when roads have been quiet.
If you really want to guarantee to see them, and or have family with you then head on down towards Mont Dauphin near Guillestre (map here) and there you'll see them up close, but in the height of summer can be busy!
Then up in the sky if you're lucky you might well catch sight of an Eagle or two as well as buzzards.
Cycling Tips and Weather in the Mountains
It does very much depend what time of year you're here as in between seasons (winter / summer) many cafes are shut.
Water is not an issue, I cycle with just one bottle as in all villages there is always a fountain, usually by the church. And, yes, I will fill my bottle up from mountaiin streams especially at altitude. And, when feeling hot and a bit flakey, I drench myself to reduce my overall body tempertaure and 'paddle' still wearing my shoes, again to cool myself down.
This shot was from the Etape a few years ago at a village fountain, when it was really hot with about 15km to the finish and 2km to the next feed station I seem to recall, was carnage in the heat that day!
I check the forecasts and, as I'm fortunate to live here, I do not feel compelled to have to cycle when the weather is suspect. But for those out for a week they do not have that luxury and I have seen many a cyclist battling with foul conditions.
In the summer, I try and be off the mountain by around 13:00 as temps do rise very quickly along with cloud bubbling up that often produces heavy thunderstorms. Though as is often the case, these thunderstorms can be so localised that there may be heavy rain 5km down the valley and dry elsewhere.
When it is hot, obviously, the lower down you are in terms of altitude it will be so much warmer.
The good news is that for the Etape du Tour stage the lowest altitude is circa 800m.
When riding in the summer, it does make sense to pack a rain jacket if out for a long ride, though again does depend on conditions forecast. We can have a week of unbroken sunshine and temps in the high 20s low 30s (no need for a jacket) followed by a week of changeable weather.
Few years back I cycled from here to ride Alpe d'Huez in July and the weather was hot as I set out. Four or five hours later, climbing back up to the Lautaret I was caught in a heavy shower and the weather then closed in. By the time I arrived home after descending down from Lautaret, I was nigh on in the early stages of hyperthermia.
I do check the rain radar but often, in the summer, the thunderstorms have not bubbled up before I leave!
If cycling in spring and autumn, I cycle with an ultralight backpack with waterproof bag carrying jacket, buff, spare top, gloves and, sometimes, tights.
As for bikes, if driving out and you have a MTB then please bring that as well as there are so many amazing excursions to do here.
If you don't have an MTB then Philippe Sports in Villeneuve rents some great bikes, and all the rage here last season was for Electric Mountain Bikes and I'm sure their popularity will continue to grow, especially when you consider that the daily rental of an Electric Mountain Bilke is similar to that of a daily lift ticket in the summer !
Etape du Tour Sunday 16th July - Stage 18 Tour De France Thursday July 20th - Briancon Col D'Izoard
I have ridden much of this route over the years, both sides of the Izoard, a fair few ascents of Col de Vars (from Guillestre), around Lac Serre Poncon, but I have never ridden from Lac Serre Poncon on to Barcelonnette and ascend the Col de Vars from the south side from Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye.
While out this autumn, on All Saints Day, 1st November, I rode 126km of the 178km stage.
Parking up at Mont Dauphin, I cycled down to Embrun and on to Savins de Lac then around the lake, where you climb up to the highest point at Le Sauze-du-Lac at 1,020m, and stunning views with the backdrop of the lake.
From Sauze du Lac you descend down and ride along just above the shore of the lake to the very end where you cross over the bridge and then it's a long undulating drag all the way up to Barcelonnette along the Ubaye gorge that then opens out into a valley.
Best tactics here, like at the start from Briancon to Savins de Lac, is to get in a group and get dragged along.
From Barcelonnette it's still a gradual climb to Jausiers, where the long climb to the Col de la Bonette 2,715 starts!
After Jausiers it's still a drag as opposed to a climb as you pass by the amazing Fort de Tournoux
By this time you are wondering when the climb will start as you see signs giving 15km to the Col.
The hard part of the climb starts at Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye and I was quite amazed at the severity of it with 6km to go as you can see from the profile!
Once over the Col, it's a cracking not too technical descent all the way back down to Guillestre passing through the ski resort of Vars.
At the bottom it's then a right turn at the roundabout heading into the Queyras along the stunning Guil Gorge and on to the Izoard.
Boucle de l'Izoard - Col d'Izoard 2,360m loop - Casse Deserte
I've riden this circuit four or five times now, and in both directions. What's great is that you stay off the main Briancon / Embrun N94 main road and, at the same time. end up with more climbing, though luckily the Etape du Tour stage is not taking this route as there's quite a sting in it, Le Chambon Climb.
This circuit incorporates the rest ot the Etape du Tour stage as you then cycle up and into the Queyras along the Guil Gorge which, in some ways, is very similar to the Ubaye Gorge.
The Izoard climb starts as you turn off heading towards Arvieux. There is a fountain here so good to top up your bottle - in fact, in all the villages you can usually find a fountain.
Things start ramping up after Brunissard as you head into the forest. Then, as you break out of the forest at around 2,200, you enter the Casse Deserte which is truly spectacular, though maybe you'll be more stressed at losing some of the elevation you've just made as there's a short descent down into it.
By the time you've cycled through the Casse Deserte you're in touching distance almost of the finish.
Once at the top it's downhill all the way to Briancon with only a couple of tiny inclines, again the descent is super fast and not too technical. Just below the Col above the Refuge Napoleon will be photographers so be ready!
Col d'Izoard 2,360m from Briancon - Boucle in reverse
A few years ago, I made the mistake of tackling the Boucle in reverse - it was not so much the ride but the intense heat with temps in the 40s
I also took a wrong turn which did not help. I have yet to ride that direction again!
Col de Vars 2,108m from Guillestre
It's become a bit of a tradition that I usually do this ride at the end of the skiing season as the Col de Vars is one of the few cols that opens early, though the ski station of Vars closes earlier than Serre Chevalier.
It's always quite tough as I'm trying to get my cycling legs back after the winter layoff even though I'm doing a lot of climbing when ski touring, but different muscles etc
The Mighty Col du Galibier 2,642m
For those cycling the Etape du Tour I suspect many will stay on to watch the tour as it arrives in the valley on Wednesday July 19th Stage 17.
This is a big stage, 183km starting in La Mure with the Col d'Ornon, the Col de la Croix de Fer, the Télégraphe and, finally, the Galibier back after a six year absence with, then, what promises to be a mad descent to Serre Chevalier.
I suspect many on the day will cycle the Galibier not only to seek out a vantage spot but to be part of cycling this legendary Col.
I've actually lost count of how many times I've been up to the Galibier, especially if I include ski touring up there!
I have ridden up from both here and La Grave, which is the same amount of vertical, as where we live in Serre Chevalier, Villeneuve / La Salle Les Alpes is at 1,400m.
The road to the very top does not open till late May / June and can be affected by freak snow storms even in the height of summer. There is a tunnel lower down that allows the road to be opened when the top is closed, which has been the case for most of October and will now stay closed till end of May.
The Galibier can be ridden from both sides. However, if staying in Briancon / Serre Chevalier and you would like to ride a circuit then that is almost the equivalent of the Marmotte, as you have to cycle from here up to the Col du Lautaret and then on down to Bourg Oisans, then it's a big ascent to the Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer before descending down into the Maurienne valley, which in the summer can be stupidly hot.
Once in the valley, then it's a bit of a drag to Saint Michel de Maurienne and the climb up to Col du Télégraphe 1,566m. When you top the Télégraphe it's a frustrating short descent to the ski station of Valloire 1,409m and then the real ascent to the Col du Galibier starts.
When I have cycling mates out here in Serre Chevalier when we 'do' the Galibier we will cycle from here up to the Lautaret 2,057m and then up to the Col du Galibier. Once at the top and after photos, we then descend down the other side to Plan Lachat at 1,962m where there's a nice little cafe, or you can go further down to the ski station of Valloire where there are more cafes and restaurants.
On the way back up from that side at Granges du Galibier 2,300, there is the monument to Pantani, though it's quite easy to miss!
On the Lautaret side near the entrance to the tunnel there is the monument to Henri Desgrange who was the first organiser of the Tour de France
The final km up to the Col from the Lautaret is quite tough and pretty similar on the Valloire side as well as your lungs have to work hard in the thin air especially above 2,350m.
There is also a good off road route up to the Galibier which is, in fact ,the old road, about 1.5km down from the Lautaret, which starts just before the long galleried tunnel at 1,950 - more about off road routes later on.
Col du Granon 2,413m - the poor relation?
I've climbed the Granon over 10 times and, like the Galibier, I've hiked and ski toured up it as well. There are also, a couple of off road routes.
I often refer to it as my "local hill" and my Strava log has over twenty excursions featuring it!
It is nowhere near as popular as the two classics either end of the valley, the Izoard and Galibier, and a quick bit of Strava research confirms this.
Galibier has had 3,771 people cycle the HC segment, the Izoard 7,201 while the Granon has only 1,959 people.
This could be in part because on a road bike it goes nowhere so you cycle up, get to the top, do the selfie thing, have a drink and then head back down Unless, of course, you're on a mountain bike and then there are some superb options. But more on that later.
The Granon is tough; it's deemed to be the toughest climb in France, though nigh on half the distance of the mighty beast of Provence, the Ventoux, I cycled both within three days of each other and the Granon is on a par as, again, you're cycling at well over 2,000m.
It has only ever featured once in the Tour de France back in1986 which was the infamous battle between Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond. Legend has it that the reason it has never featured again is that Hinault, as a tour director, can't face it again as it broke him!
I've copied this extract from Eduardo Chozas who in 1986 won the Granon Stage, along with three other TDF stages, though sorry about the grammar, but you'll understand where he's coming from!
As I was recovering I was more aware of what was achieved, I came news that many riders were having a bad finish, that Hinault himself came KO, He had been beaten, He had succumbed to this great stage. I realized it was going to be remembered for its hardness. I could not guess is that this stage would enter the history of the Tour de France who dethroned king of the Tour: Bernard Hinault caiman.
He did not know the rise, hardly anyone knew, if the other two were known, Cole Vars and Col d'Izoard had risen in the Dauphiné, but the Col du Granon, after that day still remains the great unknown. However it is a true 'HC' out of category, It is a rise of the toughest I have faced in the Tour de France, harder than the mythical Izoard, Col du Galibier, col du Tourmalet, col d'Auvisque and other best-known ascents Tour, it is that at the top there isn't a ski resort that wants to promote the area, there is only a military base and the road ends at the top, you can only continue on a dirt road. The Col du Granon deserving again in the Tour, sure make a difference again, I wish it did on this stage one of the Tour de France next decade.
I think the first time I cycled it was in the afternoon after having cycled the Galibier in the morning, and it was very windy.
I was not that used to descents and the Granon is quite technical as well as being steep so I managed to blow my carbon rim as it over heated from way too much braking.
That first descent was back in August 2011 and timed at 41.29 and a few weeks ago I did a PB at 15:41 and still had a few cars in my way, though has to be said disc brakes on the Granon descent are a huge advantage.
One descent on the Granon I was chased by a Patou and this is really the only mountain when climbing on a road bike that you might well come across them.
Initially the start of the climb up to Le Villard Laté is not too bad then as you leave the village by the church it starts to ramp up, but still only 8-9%.
There is then one little section at around 11% below the Summer village of Les Tronchets then a couple of km after Les Tronchets so it gets tough.
And then it's +9% all the way with only a slight break with 3km to go as you then turn up towards the Col.
Just below the Col you pass through the barracks of the Le 7e Bataillon de Chasseurs Alpins (French Mountain Troops), and I always think how they should at least have one barrack block open in the winter as a refuge.
At the top is a large parking area and a Cafe in the summer.
For the descent it's back the way you came or if you have a Gravel bike / MTB then there are some superb routes.
As you can see I don't just go up there in the Summer, bike pic was just before Christmas 2015 when we'd not really had a decent snowfall yet. Then the dogs was probably in late Spring
Col de Montgenèvre 1,854m Col de Sestriere 2,035m Circuit
I always dread this ride as I tend to ride it after a long break off the bike (having piled on the kgs) in Spring as the winter ski season comes to a close and the roads are clear of snow and temps are warming up and you can take a chance on longer rides.
The Col de Montgenèvre climb is quite tame compared to the Izoard, Granon and Galibier, but in Spring those are not open for a couple more months.
In the Summer the road can be quite busy, but in June and out of the high season it's not too bad, and remember to have some identity with you as you will crossing the border into Italy and then back again, though I've never been stopped on the bike!
Montgenèvre tops out at 1,854m as you approach the roundabout take the turn into the center and then out to the Needle along the pedestrian precinct and then rejoing the main road avoding the tunnel.
After Montgenèvre you pass through the French customs and then descend down to Claviere, at the RAB take the second exit into Clavierer itself and then once you pass through the old customs take note of what Cafes are open as you might want to stop off on the way back.
As you leave Claviere about 750m afterwards keep a look out for a right hand turn off the main road just before the main road enters the new tunnel.
This junction will take you on the old road and through the fabulous galleried tunnels that are now the preserve of cyclists, and used to be pretty damn scary cycling through prior to the new tunnels being built, and no way could you stop to take a picture!
After the tunnels you have a very fast descent into Cesana, and at Cesana you take a right turn, but DO NOT take the road to Sestrierre instead follow the river and signposts to Sauze di Cesana. This is a much quieter road and far more scenic that the main drag up to Sestrierre.
The climb through the valley is gradual and the climb proper starts just after Cesana Torinese at 1,355 and climbs steeply to Sestrierre at 2,035m.
Depending on the time of year and day of the week, in the Summer at the weekend can be busy on the road as the hordes pile out of Turin and so many Cafe racer motorcyclists as there is a major circuit from Turin. In the Spring the ski station closee before Serre Chevlaier so it's almost a ghost town mid week.
Ironically the worst weather I've ever encountered cycling in the mountains was when I'd I cycled up to Sestrierre after having come from the Pragelato side having climber the Col Finestrelle, this was in the Summer and did the weather catch us out or what.
You could see the squall coming down and across the valley from Claviere and when it hit we were nearly blown off the bikes, only lasted around ten to fifteen minutes and luckily we only had to decsend down to Oulx where we had parked up - more on that ride and route in the second section of this guide.
The descent down from Sestrierre is fast as the road is good and not too tecnical, but you do have the Italian drivers to contend with.
Once down at Cesana it's back up to Montgenevre the way you came, and like I mentioned earlier a Cafe stop in Clavierre is always a good call.
Col de l'Échelle 1,762m via Col de Montgenèvre, Oulx and Bardonecchia Circuit
Not as demanding as the Sestrierre circuit but still tough if cycling the route climbing Montgenèvre first then the long drag to Bardonecchia from Oulx before the final climb to Échelle
Both directions are great rides taking you up or down, depening on which direction you take, the Nevache Valley
The plateau on the Col itself stretches for a couple of km and is a truly beautiful location.
Puy St Vincent Circuit & Extension
This is another route I tend to ride at the end of the ski season.
It's really worth looking at the route I take that avoids the main N94 out of Briancon, in fact the first part makes up the Boucle D'Izoard.
You rejoin the N94 going back on yourself briefly before turning off at Prelles and again study the route as there are two routes up to Puy.
This second route is a slight extension to the above one and takes you up in to the Chambran valley and area where we ski tour a fair bit.
In the Spring I've driven the van round in the afternoon and left it at the snow line in the upper part of the valley then taken the bike out to cycle back, then the next day we've skied off the back of the resort (slack country) to where I'd left the van.
Other road cycling routes around Briancon
I'm sure I'll probably miss some, but if just looking to spin the legs and nothing to major in terms of severe climbing then rides into the Nevache and Les Fonts valley are great options.
However you'll probably still be doing a 1,000m but only at around 3-4%
This summer was the first time I'd cycled to Les Fonts and it's a stunning valley which I think is more beautiful than Nevache and not so busy, and with a superb Cafe at the very end.
This too is a beautiful ride up through the Vallée de la Clarée beyond Nevache and up to the Refuge Laval.
Here too I often leave the van and then cycle back to either ski tour over the next day or hike over from our home in Serre Chevalier.
Bois de l'Ours / Croix de Toulouse
This route/ climb I was only told about a few years ago and it is tough!
On a road bike you can't go all the way to the top but it's still a good climb and hardly any traffic as the road is quite gnarly (dangerous).
The views over Briancon are great as you can see, and you can see what I mean about the state of the road :)
9th November 2016. Over the next few weeks I'll be adding more rides to this guide and other cols that are a bit further away such as the Colle delle Finestre 2,178m and Col de la Bonette 2,715m as well as some great off road guides visiting the many fortresses that surround Briancon.