The Route des Grandes Alpes

A historical route and tourist attraction, the Route des Grandes Alpes allows one to cross the French Alps from Thonon-les-Bains (North) to Nice (South) via the most important mountain passes featured in the Tour de France: Cormet de Roselend, Iseran, Galibier, Izoard or even La Bonnette. On paper, it is a bit like the best-of of the Alps in one week, akind of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela for cyclists. Something that makes cyclists all over the world dream and that the French have within reach, but the grass is always greener… Thus, among the fifty or so cyclists with whom we ride regularly in Paris, no one had “ticked” the box off this crossing, whose starting point is only four and a half hours by train from the capital. L’Amicale Cycliste (the name of our crew) had to set an example, but not in any which way: we decided to attempt it when the passes opened, i.e. just after the last snowplow passages that open these closed roads all winter and push the valleys into a summer as sudden as it is temporary.

Crossing the Alps is like climbing for a long time and, as with any difficult thing, there are always smart people to help make  your job easier. This is how the combustion engine was invented and since then, swarms of motorcyclists have come to take the same road as us, poor humans, sweating for hours when they only risk developing tendonitis in their wrists. Even though we ventured out in the offseason, the road was not ours alone. On the other hand, we had an advantage: some passes were still officially closed and blocked to traffic, but thanks to Strava we knew we could get through. For days, we watched for the first significant passages of users. Based on this, we knew which passes could already be attempted and which ones would require an alternative. This was the case of Iseran, where the quantities of snow were still blocking the snowplows almost five kilometers from the pass and we had to replace it with La Madeleine to reach Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne.

Attacking the Galibier on a closed road, with 8-metre snow drifts on a winding road, was an almost mystical experience. You have to imagine yourself at an altitude of more than 2000 meters, under the summer sun, in almost total silence, after the last whistles of marmots and without even a bird’s song, the snow absorbing the last noises. The difficulties related to the scarcity of oxygen and the length of the ascent (nearly thirty-five kilometers with the Col du Télégraphe) are overcome thanks to the experience. Suddenly, you have to go down, carry the bike to the pass. Disabled by our carbon soles and cleats that form inverted heels, we sink and stagger as we laugh in the immaculate snow, like children who think they are explorers. Without surrounding engines, this moment belongs only to us and the ridge lines that surround us. That we are far from the tuft of the valleys.

The Route des Grandes Alpes holds two interests, the first of which is to cross the passes that the best riders in the world cross every July in the hope of covering themselves with glory, and the second is to experience the change in the landscape. Haute-Savoie is known for its harsh climate and bad weather. The flora and fauna shift from forests and green pastures to arid vegetation when we pass through the Hautes-Alpes, as is the case in the famous Casse déserte of the Col d’Izoard. Once we had climbed the Bonnette, yet another scene was revealed: during the 90 kilometers of descent that took us to Nice, we passed from the snow to the mountain pastures, then from the luxuriance of the Parc du Mercantour to Mediterranean perfumes and vegetation. Finally in Nice, after six stages and thousands of meters of change in altitude, we let the palm trees of the Promenade des Anglais form their hedges of honour and then we went down carrying our bicycles on the pebbles of the beach. We waited until we were in the water to open the cap on our beers and toast timidly. We didn’t say much. We had crossed the Alps, it took a little time to digest.