Route des Grande Alpes Road Bike Tour
10th to 19th September 2017
Written by Ted Liddle Category: Alps Tours Published: 01 October 2017
Between the above dates, 6 members of Tyne Valley MTB Cycling Club and 2 guest members from Ferryhill Wheelers rode the very challenging classic Tour des Grandes Alpes cycle route on road bikes. Bikes and bags were transported out and back by minibus ably driven by Geoff Morson who also provided daily en route support.
The North - South Route des Grande Alpes or Raid Alpine is a classic road cycling challenge which traverses the Southern Alps between Lake Geneva and the Mediterranean.
With its 17,000+ m of ascent / descent, the 700+ km route crosses an impressive 17 named cols including some of the most legendary Alpine climbs which feature in the Tour de France. The route includes the two highest cols in France: the Col d’Iseran and the Cime de la Bonette.
Every day, arduously long ascents are followed by incredibly long descents comprising S bend after S bend on spaghetti-like roads many of which are cut into the mountain side and edged by frighteningly low walls.
The scenery changes significantly and wonderfully as the route unwinds. The Raid starts in the 'chocolate box' Alps south of Geneva with picturesque chalets, green pastures and wooded valleys. Most of the higher cols are situated in the central section. South of this lie the Maritime Alps famed for their deep gorges and ravines with narrow twisting roads hewn from the rock and clinging to the mountains sides.
The Col de Turini provides the last big ascent and one smaller col leads to the final descent into Menton, the route’s ultimate destination by the Mediterranean Sea.
Day 1: Thonon Les Bains to above Notre Dames de Bellecombe
Day one began gently as we chose to ride the lower and quieter alternative to the Col de Les Gets via Megevette and St Jeoire. We enjoyed the first lunch of the tour on the lower slopes of Col de la Colombiere (1,613 m) which we later topped before dropping down into La Clusaz.
We ascended the Col des Aravis (1,486 m) in mizzle and descended for some distance to Flumet before ascending to Notre Dame de Bellecombe. By this time we were well ready to arrive at our accommodation only to find it was a further 7 km UP the hill. A combination of energy gels and digging deep and the knowledge that every meter ascended today was a meter not to be ascended tomorrow eventually delivered us all to our accommodation, albeit in instalments. Hotel Tetras was just the ticket with comfortable rooms and a restaurant with a relaxation area beside a log fire. We ate well and we slept exceedingly well.
Day 2: Above Notre Dames de Bellecombe to Bourg St Maurice
Day 2 was shortened because day 1 was lengthened which was very welcome. Col des Saisies wasn’t too arduous and we enjoyed the descent into Villard-sur-Doron as it began to rain so a coffee / tea stop in close-by Beaufort was timely. Here we had our only puncture of the tour and with Geoff parked nearby it could not have been more convenient to access our stand pump.
Cormet de Roselend (1967m) began its ascent at the edge of the village and didn’t relent until we reached Lac de Roselend with a third of the ascent still to go after a level section. Geoff chose a good spot to set out lunch which was eaten standing before we had to hastily pack away the tables etc due to the arrival of gentle rain. Just under an hour later, we arrived at the Comet in sleety snow.
The long descent into Bourg St Maurice was mostly enjoyable with towering peaks looming through the cloud. Unfortunately, in the lower section the road surface was awful. Our accommodation was on the outskirts of town and really excellent. Everyone appreciated an early finish and the opportunity to relax. We took our evening meal in the adjoining restaurant and it was first class.
Day 3: Bourg St Maurice to St Michel de Maurienne
119 km / 74.4 miles – 2,326 m ascent – 6:30 saddle time – 7:25 duration
Day 3 very quickly took us onto the long steady climb to Val d’Isere and our first high pass being the Col de l’Iseran at 2,764m. The air was cold and rain was always a threat as we ascended past the road to Tignes and, as ever, Geoff’s unobtrusive support was very much appreciated. Some of us took lunch at the top end of the ski resort whilst others opted to carry snacks and set off up the Col having been warmed by café coffee in the town. Whilst this meant the group became fragmented, it was more important riders retained their body heat and climbed at a pace that suited them best. The rest of us ate as we rested and donned more layers before mounting up.
In worsening visibility and cold drizzle, cresting this high col really was an achievement and the descent couldn’t come soon enough nor the refreshment we stopped off for at Bonneville-sur-Arc. With still some distance to go to our accommodation, John, Angus and Nick, with help from Philip, took turns to take the brunt of a strong head wind whilst the rest of us tucked into their slip stream. After Modane we split into 2 groups which gave Graham a chance to begin to learn the delicate art of pace setting and slip streaming. The downhill kilometres sped past and different front men led the charge down the old main road adjacent to the Frejus tunnel auto route to our accommodation in St Michel de Maurienne – a large village battling not be forgotten.
Though not a ‘pretty’ place, St Michel de Maurienne was chosen to get the less pleasant road route section described above out of the way but also because of its location at the start of the two biggies – the Col du Telegraph (1,566 m) and the Col du Galibier (2,642 m) - our double challenge for the following day. Our hotel didn’t provide dinner but their assurance we would easily find an eatery only a short walking distance away proved incorrect and it was fortuitous circumstances that rescued the situation in the form of a functional but adequate restaurant in the next town.
Day 4: St Michel de Maurienne to Briancon
73 km / 45.6 miles – 2,236 m – 4:40 saddle time – 5:20 duration
None of the cyclists will forget Day 4. The tree-lined Telegraph was topped at 1,566 m by the last 2 riders just before 11:00 in sunshine which lulled everyone into a false sense of security for what was to follow later in the day. The continuous 7 km descent to attractive Valloire passed all too quickly.
The 18 km ascent to the top of the Col du Galibier (2,642 m) began steeply before becoming a long grind ever upwards in an increasingly strong head wind into ominously low cloud producing constant drizzle. With 8 km to go, the road ramped up steeply, the rain gradually increased and the wind grew stronger and so that at times our bikes were blown almost to a standstill. And the road went onwards and upwards into the murk. Disappointingly but unavoidably under the circumstances, the different level of fitness and the hostile conditions led to an ‘everyman for himself’ approach.
Ted’s bike slowly grinding up to the col in the murk...
Fortunately the faster cyclists were in closer contact than the slower guys and all but one of the party made a good judgement to call at the café / shop a little way down from the summit for shelter, rest, warmth, food and hot beverages. Angus and Graham wisely opted to climb into the minibus which then set off in pursuit of Ken who had missed the high café and set off down the other side of the pass in wind-blown sleet thinking it was best to stay moving to keep warm.
Upper descent / the descent to Col du Lauteret – the temperature was just above freezing
Having checked yet another café at the top of the lower transverse Col du Lauteret (2,058 m) which Ken also cycled past, Geoff eventually caught up with Ken some 30 km further down the valley near Briancon and perhaps just in time. Geoff got the soaking wet and exhausted Ken (and his bike) into the minibus where Angus and Graham wrapped him in dry blankets for the remaining distance to our accommodation. There, and as quickly as possible, Geoff ran a warm shower for Ken and got him into bed under a warm duvet. The appropriateness of this prompt action cannot be underestimated.
In the meanwhile, Nick, John, Philip, James and Ted descended to Col de Lauteret and on down the valley for a further 30 km to Briancon in steady rain on the water-covered road strewn in places with small branches, twigs and leaves. All five riders were cold and wet and Ted’s brakes were hardly functioning so it was with some relief that we quickly found the turning that led us gently at first, then steeply for the last bit, up to our three chalet accommodation, hot showers, dry clothes, tea, coffee and cake and warmth. After a top notch evening meal with our gracious hosts, we retired early and slept soundly.
Key lessons the whole party learnt:
- Clothing appropriate for a cold winter’s day’s cycling at sea level is not at all adequate for unseasonable winter conditions at the top of Alpine passes. Every rider found that their ‘mountain’ kit choices were tested to extremes and frozen hands and feet were the norm.
- Don’t cycle on in those conditions past warm cafes when tired, cold and wet in the belief that keeping moving will keep you alive. When you are that cold, the ability to make good decisions can be seriously impaired.
- Hindsight says that had the party leader jumped into the minibus when still below the col to reach the top at the same time as the faster cyclists, then collective decisions could have been made that would have avoided the onset of the degree of hyperthermia which Ken unfortunately experienced.
- Huge thanks must go to Geoff for his prompt, appropriate and timely action
- On a personal note: this writer is extremely grateful he decided to wear three layers of Paramo clothing for the last part of the ascent and the ensuing 35 km descent to Briancon. Four layers would have been better. It was Winter up there which standard cycling kit isn’t designed for.
Day 5: Rest day at Briancon
This only happened because Nice to Newcastle flights don’t operate on a Monday so it was decided to insert a rest day at the half way point rather than have a day to kill in and around Nice. Little did we know how much we would need and benefit from having time to wash our kit and fettle our bikes. Gone were the plans to enjoy an unpressured relaxing local cycle ride and once the jobs were done we became tourists for a few hours and visited the old walled city of Vauban situated above Briancon followed by an enjoyable lunch.
A big ‘thank you’ must go to Mark and Magili who run the Chalets de la Ferme de Belline located on the outskirts of Briancon. They made us VERY welcome, all four meals they provided were excellent and in all respects the service they provided was second to none.
Our three chalets were cosy to say the least but perfectly adequate, very warm and fitted out with everything one would want. We woke to clear skies and a hard frost.
Day 6: Briancon to Jausiers
100 km / 62.5 km – 2,268 m ascent – 5:40 saddle time – 8:00 duration
Day 6 requires us to ascend the Col d’Izoard (2,360 m) in the morning and the Col de Vars (2,108 m) in the afternoon. Passing through the edge of Briancon, we were quickly onto the ascent of the Izoard.
Most impressive was the Advisory Cycle Lane for climbing and the absence of a central white line which was how the road shaped up from the outskirts of Briancon all the way to the top of the Col d’Isoard – a distance of exactly 20 km or 12.5 miles except for a short break in a small village. Thousands of cyclists use this road in both directions every year along with many thousands of vehicles and motor bikes without problems, confusion or conflict. It is an established and widely used system which works well for all road users as it provides clearly defined road space for ascending cyclists and road space for vehicles whose drivers are required to think carefully about their positioning in regard to all other road users. Briancon has a population of some 12,000 none of whom seem to have a problem using this road design and they do not campaign to have it changed back to old style markings whereby vehicles had priority over other users. In simple terms, cyclists are treated as the vulnerable road users they are and valued for the economic impact they bring to local communities. NB: Downhill cyclists do not need a designated lane.
For the first time on this tour we cycled under a blue sky albeit in winter sunshine enjoying the changing scenery as we ascended up to 2,360 m, increasingly surrounded by fresh snow. It was wonderful to be able to see distant mountains and the valleys into which we descended...
After passing through a gorge en route to Guillestre, Geoff found a wide lay-by where we had lunch giving us digestion time before ascending the Col de Vars. This was a long climb which passed steeply through the ski resort of Vars some 4 km from the summit. Yet again, a stop at the summit café was much appreciated before the 17 km descent to the village of Jausiers and our relatively simple but acceptable accommodation located at the base of the challenging Col de Bonette.
Day 7: Jausiers to Rimplas
126 km / 78.75 miles – 2,924 km – 5.40: saddle time – 7:40 duration
After rain during the night, Day 7 dawned clear but disappointingly, the same clearness closed the Col de Bonette due to fresh frozen snow and ice on the road at altitude. Fortunately, Jausiers is the junction of a second (longer) route option that bypasses the Bonette taking in three passes, two long descents and one shorter descent compared to one BIG ascent and descent.
The 30 km route up the Col de la Cayole (2,326 m) was a gradually ascending scenic gorge until the steeper upper section. This was followed by an equally long descent to the attractive village of Guillaumes and the start of the Col de Valberg (1,672 m). This took 2:15 hours to ascend and the café in the village at the top was a welcome stop-off. The descent to Beuil was far too quick but fortunately the subsequent ascent to the top of the Col de la Couillole (1,678 m) was short as quite few legs were tired by then – some more than others.
From the Col de la Couillole we descended 16 km dropping 1,113 m down one of France’s most spectacular gorges to the large village of St Sauveur de Tinée. From here the road continued less steeply down the valley to the start of the Col St Martin which we climbed for some 5 km consoled by the fact every meter climbed today was a meter less to climb tomorrow. The last 1.5 km up to the high village of Rimplas was off route, up to our superb accommodation and the 6 riders who rode this deserved a medal.
Day 8: Rimplas to Menton
102 km / 63.75 miles – 2,980 m ascent – 5:40 saddle time – 7 hours duration
Day 8 was the final day of the Route des Grandes Alpes cycle tour and we were pleased it dawned fine although cold for the occasion. We quickly resumed the ascent of the Col de St Martin (1,500 m) and swept down the far side for a distance of 20 km into St Martin-Vesubie by which time we were nithered. Really nithered - so a coffee / tea stop was essential and very welcome.
In no time we began the ascent of our last big col – the Col de Turini (1,604 m) which was enjoyed by some and endured by others depending on remaining energy. The 24 km descent to Sospel was nothing short of incredible and one of the defining sections of the route due to its length, its views, its hamlets which seemed to be clinging to the precipitous hill side, the gorge itself and the nature of the narrow road that wound down its flanks to the valley floor.
Once we had ensured we were on the correct road to take us up to and over the Col de Castillon (708 m) and not through an un-cycle-friendly mile long tunnel, we relished our final ascent. Very soon after we had passed through the short summit tunnel we caught our first view of the Mediterranean and began our final descent of the tour. This didn’t disappoint – especially the amazing stone-built semi-circular 13 arched Viaduc du Caramel opened in 1912 as a light tramway.
Unfortunately we missed the turning onto a quiet entry into Menton leaving us with no option but to join the growing traffic flow all the way to the sea. This was not pleasant but it did take us to the seafront where we posed for a group photo to mark our achievement. Sadly, our polite requests for someone to take a picture of us all were all refused. It seems they’re not all a friendly lot in Menton.
Our hotel was the business and our evening meal in Menton a relaxed and well-earned climax to what had been an extremely tough 8 days. Sadly, Geoff, our vitally important support manager, was unwell and unable to join us. What is more, the friendly folk in the restaurant certainly made up for the unfriendly people we met on the seafront.
Undoubtedly the Route des Grandes Alpes road bike tour is one of the world’s special cycling challenges which we prepared well for despite a few en route misjudgements. In truth, because we rode the route in an unusually cold wintry September, for us, the challenge was a lot harder than it would have been had we ridden it in the summer. Decision making on clothing layering taxed us all and summit strip offs to put on warm dry clothes became the norm.
In conclusion, we experienced an extremely tough 8 days which we can all look back on with pride but none more than the amazing Ken Spence who rode the route aged 80. Chapeau Ken – you are an exceptional man who is an inspiration to us all.
Day 9: Menton and nearby
40 km / 25 miles – 800 m ascent – 2:30 saddle time - Nick and Angus + Ted (300 m ascent only)
The homebound flight wasn’t until the evening which provided an opportunity to either cycle with or without an uphill lift combined with a visit to St Agnés some 500 m above Menton which is recognised as one of France’s most beautiful villages. Nick and Angus rode from the hotel up Col de Madone (925m) route to the scenic village whilst Ted opted for a lift in the minibus to St Agnés along with the other 5 guys who elected not to cycle at all.
Menton from our hotel and from St Agnés...
The cliff edge café we visited provided superb views after which the 5 non cyclists enjoyed a leisurely walk up to the spectacular mountaintop medieval garden and castle then round this very charming village before having lunch. In the meanwhile, Nick, Angus and Ted cycled the lovely narrow part contouring / part descending road inland of St Agnés which leads to the seriously quaint mountain village of Peille (top 3 pics below) where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch before easily ascending the Col de Madone from the north. With the road to ourselves, we descended with barely a pedal stroke all the way to the hotel where we rejoined our companions.
NOTE: The Col de Madone is a well-used test route for the many pro cycling teams based in the area because the cycling is so challenging and the climate so very pleasant. Incredibly, Ritchie Porte is said to have ridden to the top of the col from sea level in under half an hour. Infamously and allegedly, it should be said, the col de Madone was where Lance Armstrong used to meet his ‘medical’ man to top up supplies of whatever it was he used to take to power his bike so extraordinarily.
Whether cycling or touristing, both groups were happy with their choice of activity. The minibus was packed and because storm clouds had gathered, Nice airport was driven to where the 5 fliers were dropped off to wait for their flight home. Geoff, Nick, Angus and Ted then drove for 4.5 hours to Maulicene at the foot of Mount Ventoux where they stayed in an interesting and ideally placed converted farmhouse bed & breakfast ready for one final cycling effort – Mont Ventoux.
Day 10: Mont Ventoux
56 km / 35 miles – 1,800 m ascent - 4:20 duration – Nick, Angus and Ted supported by Geoff
Mont Ventoux has a special place in cyclists’ hearts and being close to the homeward auto route and a convenient distance between Nice and northern France, Nick, Angus and Ted, supported by a poorly Geoff, took the opportunity to cycle up its steep and wooded lower slopes as far as Chalet Renard before ascending its upper barren flanks. The weather was perfect; the views were spectacular and the experience a superb final effort which drained the last vestiges of energy from our near empty tanks.
Chalet Renard and many cycles worth thousands / Durham-born Tom Simpson’s memorial: died 1967
Route des Grandes Alpes Awards
- Best support driver
- Geoff Morson – you did a brilliant job thanks Geoff
- Best Veteran Cyclist
- Ken Slater – totally amazing!
- Fastest lead man
- John O’Donnell – never flagged once
- Most aggressive climber
- Angus Liddle – climbed like he was on an e-bike
- Best descender
- Nick Trewhitt – and no mean ascender either
- Most consistent cyclist
- Philip Westall – consistently consistent throughout the tour
- Cyclist who got fitter as the tour progressed
- Graham B – (drug test results pending)
- Most determined cyclist
- James Swabey - Never up first but always got there
- Slowest climber
- Ted Liddle – took longer than anticipated painting his name on the road
- Best and most reliable navigator
- Nick Trewhitt – VERY much appreciated Nick
- Best rear of minibus organiser
- Philip Westall – an unseen hero
- Best minibus loader
- Nick Trewhitt – again VERY much appreciated
- Best one liners
- Angus Liddle – always cheerful
- Most punctured cyclist
- Philip Westall – grand total of ONE
- Best photographer
- Ted Liddle – no negatives
- Worst rider judgement of the week
- Shortlist of two - decision pending
- Best tour organiser
- Shortlist of one - decision pending
The tour photographer took just over 500 photos during the tour of which roughly 30 were binned. Some 30 images of cycling facilities, signs and / or infrastructure were taken and a total of 95 images were used to tell the story of the tour including a few that were poor quality. The early part of the tour wasn’t ideal for photographs hence fewer than hoped were taken during the first 4 days. Very few shots were ‘arranged’ so the final photo gallery consists of quickly grabbed opportunistic shots. Many pictures were taken from the saddle which nearly always produces a degree of blurring.
No rider whinged at having their photo taken but most were pretty clueless about the amazing pictures that were missed by speeding past fantastic shots. Very few photos were taken of the faster cyclists for various reasons i.e. because they rarely cycled with the photographer when good shots were possible; they never stopped when a good pic opp arose; they always set off quickly downhill so were usually well beyond the ideal shot from above when the photographer arrived there or the weather was bad. Evidence suggests not everyone entered the spirit of group poses.
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS….
Seriously demanding multi day tours like this bring out the best in people but inevitably, fatigue builds up as the tour progresses. The former was evident on a daily basis and everyone eventually felt the latter. Some riders were comfortable taking regular turns as lead-out man whilst others preferred to be in the chain gang. Indisputably, photos provide the evidence that ‘high viz clothing’ lives up to its name. No mechanical failures occurred, short of essential maintenance such as brake block replacement. All riders had the right equipment for the job although some wished they had an extra couple of cassette teeth as legs tired later in the week - Angus of course, rarely bothering with his lowest three gears!
In truth, taking account of the weather conditions and the severity of the route, EVERYBODY did exceedingly well and should be deservedly proud of what was achieved. There with no weak links – just some sore derrieres and different ascending speeds!
St Agnés and a few turns of the Madone
– for more info see https://www.cafeducycliste.com/where-we-ride/col-de-la-madone
The Col de Madone upper section
Ken Slater’s Reflections on the Route des Grandes Alpes Tour: September 2017
It was in March that I came across an invitation for cyclists to join Tyne Valley MTB Cycling club on an Alpine road bike Tour in September. This seemed a splendid opportunity to extend my cycling experience as I had skied many times in the Alps but never cycled there and being 80 years old, time was fast running out.
There were 3 potential problems: would my wife agree to the trip, would the organiser be willing to take such an oldie on board and could I get fit enough in time.
The wife did agree (with some reluctance), the organiser, Ted, was most encouraging and to my surprise and delight expressed no reservations. I took taking every opportunity to get miles in before the tour and so gained a reasonable state of fitness.
The arrangements for travel and accommodation throughout the tour proved to be excellent. Although quite varied, the hotels were of good quality as was the food.
My personal impressions are as follows:-
Having never before ridden over the high cols I found the length of the climbs rather daunting. The only way for me to tackle them was to select a low gear and patiently grind away until the top was reached. I was initially apprehensive about the long descents but as time went on I felt more comfortable on them and began to enjoy them especially during the last few days when we were in the gorges on dry roads.
My worst experience was on the Galibier when we all suffered from the extreme conditions. As on most of the climbs I was on my own, not being fit enough to keep up with the leading group and not stopping as much or for so long as the rear group. For some reason I thought we were next to gather at a café at a lower col but because there was no sign of the others (they were all behind me), I kept going towards Briancon. This turned into a nightmare with streaming road, thick mist and I was very cold. I kept my speed at about 10 mph and concentrated on staying on the road. My mind was a blank but I do recall the 35 km descent seemed interminable. It was wonderful to see Geoff and the minibus when he caught up with me not far from the town. I was in a bad state and would have been in deep trouble if he hadn’t appeared. I would have had great difficulty in finding our next lodging as it was in an obscure location out of the town. It was a great relief to get into a hot shower and then bed. I stopped shivering about 2 hours later.
As the week progressed and we moved further south the warmer weather, clear skies and superb scenery enhanced the riding experience. I think we were fortunate that the Col de la Bonette was closed as the alternative route, though longer, was beautifully scenic and a pleasure to ride.
I feel privileged to have been able to have been on this tour and owe a debt of gratitude to Ted for his organisation and planning, to Geoff for his major contribution to the success of the tour and to the remainder of the group for their friendship and support. It was most unfortunate that Geoff became ill and was unable to celebrate with us at the conclusion of the tour. I shall always look back on this trip with great pleasure and the Galibier will always provide the measure for comparing cycling conditions.
During August I saw an email advert from Ribble Cycles for a new model, the Grand Fondo for sale with quite a good discount. The bike interested me because it had a decent group set and low gearing and was set up for distance riding rather than racing. I therefore ordered the bike and it proved to be a good investment.
I was very pleased to have a 32 tooth sprocket on the back and would have really struggled had I been on my older bike. Also I found the brakes on my new bike really effective, smooth and positive and ideal for the long descents.