Cycling in the French Alps; if we had to guess what pops into most people’s minds when they think of this we’d have one clear winner – cols! The names steeped in cycling history: the Galibier, Telegraph, Glandon, Petit St Bernard, L’Iseran, Madeleine; the list goes on and on! And it’s not by chance we’ve positioned ourselves so that all these great climbs are on our doorstep. But what is the history of these ancient routes? What happens in the intervening weeks between them being snowbound and impassable, to snow-free ribbons, weaving between pristine alpine summits? And why should you want to want to cycle them?
Every May, the opening of the high cols of the alps signifies the end of winter and the transition to summer. Excitement grows as the roadside markers begin to appear low down in the valley, nestled amongst the first shoots of summer, whilst the machinery works hard higher up the passes to tunnel through the snow. We may have been basking in the sun and out on our bikes for weeks (or months) in the valleys below, but the snow takes time to recede in the high alps.
These cols follow ancient routes; some historians believe Hannibal to have crossed the Col du Petit St Bernard in around 218 BC. At the summit, the col passes through a stone circle. It’s 72 metres in diameter and through coins found at the site, has been dated all the way back to 725 BC! The cols were the lifeline of the alps. These trade routes allowed the most direct path to be taken between neighbouring valleys and countries during the summer months, thus shortening journey times significantly before the harsh winters cut off access.
Today, their use as a means of primary transport has, to a large extent, become redundant, and superseded by an extensive valley floor road network that links the towns and villages. A network that can accommodate vehicles and loads which were never designed to climb the challenging gradients and negotiate the stunning switchbacks of the alpine cols. With the speed and reliability of the modern car, it is now much easier to go around than over! The relentless march of progress has little use for an antiquated system.
This however, is great news for us! The network of tarmac that weaves its way up and over some of the most stunning scenery in the world has been left for us to enjoy and explore in summer and unbeknown to many of us, pass under our skis or snowboards in winter! You may well have already descended part of the Col de la Loze from either the Meribel or Courchevel side, the Petit St Bernard in La Rosiere and La Thuile or L’Iseran in Val d’Isere and been none the wiser! I think I can safely say the cols are definitely easier to scale sat on a chairlift in winter than on a saddle in summer!
In a region where the way of life is dictated by the cycle of clearly defined and dramatically different seasons, how do they manage the change from groomed slopes to cycling heaven?
Well, it’s quite an effort! The lower parts of some cols often stay naturally clear all year round. The mid-sections of many are regularly ploughed to ensure year-round access to the mountainside towns and numerous ski resorts they serve. But there comes a point where the tarmac gives way to piste or snowfield and the pass is lost for the winter.
As the seasons change, spring chases the snow and the skiers further up the mountain and the road is slowly revealed again, but it is not just a matter of letting nature take its course to ready these fine roads. The snow will melt eventually, but us humans are an impatient bunch and the human powered work begins almost as soon as the ski season finishes, in preparation for opening in late May.
The team of experts that have dedicated the previous five months or so to maintaining the snow and slowing the melt, dramatically change tact. Piste bashers begin to clear the bulk of snow that has settled and been compressed over the underlying road, allowing the strengthening sun to lend a hand. As nature takes over for a while up top, a flurry of activity lower down the mountain sees defective surfaces re-layed and collapsed sections repaired after months under metres of snow. The winter months can take their toll on the tarmac!
The iconic yellow-topped kilometre markers begin to appear. Seemingly shooting up as quickly and unexpectedly as the alpine flowers that surround them, they identify the pass and road number, whilst ominously displaying the average gradient of the next kilometre, and count down to the summit. And when it’s time, the heavy machinery gets back to work high-up. The mass of snow is approached from both sides. The giant plows and blowers may have to clear 10+ kms of road, chewing up the snow and spitting it out to clear the pass and cut out the infamous snow banks, until they eventually meet in the middle.
When all is said and done, it is a huge combined effort between different departments and countries. Although the necessity of the openings to the local communities is not what it once was, the significance is not lost on them and there is always going to be some pomp, flair and vino when the French and Italians cut a path out to meet on a mountain top!
So the question is really, why wouldn’t you want to come and ride some of the most historical and iconic passes in the world, at perhaps the most spectacular time of year? Why wouldn’t you want to begin your ascent in the valley surrounded by the sights and sounds of summer, and enjoy the climb up through the flower-filled meadows and forests? Why wouldn’t you want to pass the treeline and push on to the summit, with the road flanked by imposing corridors of snow, before they go for another year?
Riding in the alps is an experience not to be missed at any time in the season. Head over to our ‘Ride with us’ section to see what we have to offer and come and experience all of this for yourself!