Roads to Ride: the Lacets de Montvernier

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Lacets Monvernier

Hairpin Heaven. Alpe d’Huez might be famous for its 21 bends but here’s a road with 18 hairpins in short formation. One bend follows another, a helter skelter for the road cyclist and just a short spin away from some of the famous climbs of the Tour de France. But is it as good as it looks?

The Route: the D77B starts in Pontamafrey-Montpascal in the Savoie department of France. The road heads north to Montvernier. The climb is 3.8km long and averages 8%.

The Feel: the sign at the start says Montvernier is 8km away and you should turn the right. Ignore it. Take the road with the small cyclotouriste sign for the Lacets de Montvernier. Lacet is French loop or hairpin bend and it’s not like you need signs, maps or GPS to spot the tarmac garland winding down the mountain.

The road climbs past a few houses and then heads straight for the hairpins. Listed as four kilometres long, the bendy section is concentrated within a 2.5km stretch meaning a bend every 150 metres. This is the steepest part.

Alpe d’Huez’s hairpins are wide and gentle and engineered so that tourist coaches can pass each other. Here large vehicles are banned and if a cyclist and car meet each must check their line. The road is narrower and cut into the rock face – it’s south-facing and in summer the rock walls radiate heat.

You’ll lose count of the corners, there are no numbered bends, but you can sense the end is coming as you get higher and then the road passes below a small chapel and then heads in to a plateau. The mistake is to think the climb is done. Once the bends are done but it rises through pastures and this section is a bit deflating, hard work without the views. Press on for a kilometre and you reach Montvernier where there’s a fountain to top up your bottles.

Le zig and le zag

Yet for all the seductive images and curves, this is a road that looks better from afar. It’s like looking at a Rembrant, you might appreciate the detail but you need to stand back to appreciate the full picture. When climbing you’re so close to the cliff-face that you lose the perspective. But you gain in other ways, notably the feel of the road. At four kilometres this can’t be sprinted up but it’s worth scaling as fast as you can in order to feel mild G-force on the bends as your arms tighten on the bars and it does feel faster than it should.

Downhill: to descend is different, the corners come so fast that it becomes very technical. Unlike other Alpine descents a high speed is impossible, this is all about braking and cornering. It’s more reminiscent of the Poggio with the brake-corner-sprint reps only longer and the surface is rougher.

History: the road dates from 1934. The Col du Ventour to the south-east allows traffic reach to the plateau and the construction of this winding route seems absurd but visitors are all the better for it. Over the years it’s gained a reputation amongst cyclotouristes as a road to tackle but I can’t find a trace of a major race using the road.

Travel and Access: this isn’t a remote climb, it sits next to famous Tour climbs like the Col de Madeleine, the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Glandon, all within a short spin and a little further up the valley is the mighty Col du Galibier via the Télégraphe. In other words if you’re in the area for one of these big cols, here’s an ideal rest day spin, a thrill instead of an epic ride.

The town of St Jean de Maurienne is a good enough place – FDJ have a deal with the town as their Alpine base – but remember the main valley road is busy and at times industrial so climb to get away from it all. It can all be reached by train and autoroute and the end of the valley marks the border with Italy via either the Fréjus tunnel or the Col du Mont Cenis meaning it’s within reach if you’re visiting the Val di Susa and Sestriere too.

Photo Credits: Main photo by cyclo-maurienne.fr, postcard by Flickr’s Modesto Alexandre and contemporary view by Flickr’s Nitot

Part I – Alpe d’Huez
Part II – The Ghisallo
Part III – Mont Ventoux
Part IV – Col de la Madone
Part V – Col du Soulor
Part VI – Passo Dello Stelvio
Part VII – Mont Aigoual
Part VIII – Col de la République
Part IX – Croce d’Aune
Part X – Strade Bianche
Part XI – Col d’Eze
Part XII – The Poggio
Part XIII – Arenberg Cobbles
Part XIV – Col du Tourmalet
Part XV – Côte de La Redoute
Part XVI – Col du Pin Bouchain
Part XVII – Puy de Dôme
Part XVIII – La Planche des Belles Filles
Part XIX – Col du Lautaret
Part XX – Col du Palaquit
Part XXI – Champs Elysées
Part XXII: The Col du Galibier
Part XXIII: The Lacets de Montvernier
Part XXIV: Hautacam
Part XXV: The Schelde Bike Path
Part XXVI: Col de Marie-Blanque
Part XXVII: Jebel Al Akhdar
Part XXVIII: Genting Highlands

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{ 23 comments }

DM January 11, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Is the San Boldo Pass worth a look too… http://i1.ytimg.com/vi/RyRhA3NdI3A/maxresdefault.jpg

Rolf January 11, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Looks good. Am going to the area in July but did not know about this one, now I will make a point of trying it.

Anonymous February 23, 2014 at 2:05 am

It is a great climb, you can make an create a little circular tour by starting in St Jean de Maurienne, reach the top of the hairpins and continue on a good road to the the Col de Chaussay (1532m), then on a rather rough forestry road for a couple of kilometres, back onto a decent road and come out on the Madelaine road a few kilometres up. Turn left, back to the main road and the to St J de M.

Enjoy, I did!

Doug. Doug@leybournes.com

David January 11, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Have you ridden Sa Calobra, Mallorca? Would that be on your list of roads to ride?

The Inner Ring January 12, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Yes and yes, but it was some time ago. It’s a popular climb for those training on the island.

Uli January 11, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Similar

Lago di Fraele, Bormio – http://alpenrouten.de/assets/image/objects/point/510/img4cd1c5a9237be.jpg

Col du Mollard, St.Jean-de-Maurienne

The Inner Ring January 12, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Good picks, the Mollard is almost opposite in the valley too from this one.

I’d add the Col de Braus and the nearby Cabanette too, both in the hills behind Nice.

Kjetil January 11, 2014 at 11:02 pm

I did it last summer. Was at work, actually, invited by Focus bikes. I found it fantastic, even more so by the transition to the pastures above the chapel and the horrible straight section cut into the rock face further up.

A must ride if your’re in the area, maybe as an aperitif to your Madeleine day.

STS January 12, 2014 at 12:57 am

A road to ride? Yes, definitely. While the “lacets” alone are fun to climb the real reason to ride them is to continue that climb all the way up to the Col de Chaussy which I found marvelous. The road belongs to you. The descent on the other side down to the Col de la Madeleine ramp (the D213) is perfectly paved since 2012. When reaching the D213 you can continue the descend or climb up the missing 1200 meters to the Madeleine and then go down to the same valley but on the parallel road over Montgellafrey.

The Inner Ring January 12, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Glad to hear it’s been paved fully, this now allows more options for everyone. Thanks for the tip.

will January 12, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Love this climb. And agree. These great hairpins are actually a short climb. While Chaussy is quite a large climb …. and Madeleine then beckons.

Another suggestion: after climbing Les Lacets and Col du Chaussy, one can get to summit of Col de la Madeleine more directly on a fantastic unpaved farm road that passes Lac du Loup (Wolf Lake) and after several kms crosses into the madeleine valley and joins the Madeleine main road above Longchamps. Quiet, scenic, fun.

Details here:
http://www.cycling-challenge.com/col-de-la-madeleine-via-col-du-chaussy-2/

Separately: If you want to photo the Lacets de Montvernier it is almost impossible to get an interesting photo while on or above the hairpins. Instead, when you finish them and the road flattens …. just below the little chapel …. head into the field to the right, follow a path perhaps a half kilometre over the field and then into the woods … then you will get to a cliff and a clear view. this is where the top photo in The Inner Ring’s article was taken.

STS January 12, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Hi Will,

the unpaved road you recommend is quite entertaining and scenic. And there is absolutely no traffic but I would certainly not recommend doing it on a road bike. I mean I did it with some friends and we had no puncture but it features sections of deep gravel with big stones where you have to ride really carefully to prevent cutting your tires. And the last km on that road when you actually descend onto the Madeleine road some 2 km beneath the col is definitely too rocky to descend it on a road bike. You know why you choose your trekking bike for that road.

MT January 13, 2014 at 11:22 am

Great tips – was going to ask exactly these questions. Happy riding.

Mike de Garry January 12, 2014 at 8:27 am

Just down the road from me.
It’s a Cat 3 on Strava – http://app.strava.com/activities/63385934

Grejsdal January 12, 2014 at 1:38 pm

On the San Boldo question. Yes. great ride, Little traffic and fun. However relatively easy, but it is possible to Combine it with other climbs in that area. Obviously monte Grappa is “The” Climb in that Area of Italy.

DM January 13, 2014 at 12:15 am

Monte Grappa is excellent, I wish I’d known how many ways up there were when I was there…

Bertrand January 12, 2014 at 8:09 pm

I did it in august 2012. Great climb but very hot on the “lacets” of Montvernier (as I remember). And then Col de Chaussy, the road belongs to you: calm, nobody else, peaceful… Totally différent of Madeleine, Galibier,… Great to end a week in Saint-Jean de Maurienne ;-)

The Inner Ring January 12, 2014 at 8:36 pm

It’s south-facing and the rock wall is fully exposed to the sun and radiates heat back at the rider, plus it’s steep so you can’t get much of a cooling breeze either.

channel_zero January 12, 2014 at 8:30 pm

Inrrng,

A tourist’s question regarding riding in France, the towns, even in Paris, appear to have some fountains with a little water running in public squares or even alongside some public-facing wall of a building.

Is there some way to distinguish where it’s appropriate to grab some water from these quietly-running spigots?

will January 12, 2014 at 8:32 pm

most french fountains say either:

1. potable (drinkable)
2. non potable (not drinkable)

Bruno Sousa January 13, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Have you ridden the Mont du Chat? I had never heard of it and rode a few days before last year’s L’Etape, 14.3 km with an 8.9 average – it was definetely tougher than Alpe d´Huez and Semnoz. http://www.podiumcafe.com/2011/6/22/2237291/5-worthy-climbs-ignored-by-the-tour-de-france

Michael January 14, 2014 at 8:28 pm

I rode this climb in 2012, coupling it with the Madeleine shortly after the west side was paved. Yes, the col is as good as it looks, because even once the first three km of tight hairpins are over you get beautiful views of the Aiguilles d’Arves across the valley, and further up a section of road etched into the cliff somewhat like the cols of the Vercors near Grenoble. As a bonus, about 5 km down the Madeleine side, the Auberge du Bon Coin is a nice place to stop for refreshments, and the proprietor dispenses cereal bars to cyclist customers.

daniel January 15, 2014 at 2:27 pm

ah i thought this was the madelaine as i’m sure it comes up when you google it, i have ridden the madeleine and thought ‘eh it doesn’t seem like that climb on google images’, this explains it!!!

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