Not one but three climbs. Why a trilogy? Simply because if you climb the first you can keep going, riding an Alpine sine wave across the Chartreuse range to follow a legendary race route.
Legendary? Yes because this has decided the result of the Tour de France several times although not recently. Many have not heard of this and the Chartreuse Trilogy is falling of the radar. Proof that a road’s status is dependent on regular visits by the Tour?
The Route: the trilogy of Col du Granier, Col du Cucheron and Col de Porte can be ridden in both directions and to start with there are several ways up the Col du Granier but for simplicity this is the route from Chambéry to Grenoble. On the map above it’s the yellow road in between Grenoble and Chambery, click here to see the image rotated.
- Col du Granier: 15.3km at 5.6%
- Col du Cucheron: 8.5km at 5.9%
- Col de Porte: 8.3km at 6.3%
The Feel: start and finishing in two cities is rare. Chambéry isn’t big but comes with trappings of city life. The climbing starts with the first ramps passing shops and large apartment blocks although the noise quickly drops off and in no time your in the meadows with and Mont Granier appears. Unlike other Alpine peaks this isn’t a pointy peak but a large square block, more Table Mountain than Mont Blanc. Its square edges only appeared when millions of tons of rock fell away in the 13th century to bury villages below. The climbing continues via part of the 1989 World Championships route and it’s steep at times, worth knowing this is probably the steepest part of the three climbs. Soon some Alpine familiarities appear: green pastures, chalet-style houses and after climbing along a cliff face, a tunnel. The tunnel is brief and once through the scene is set for the rest of the ride with woodland and pastures with large, squat peaks towering over.
Every kilometre of road in France has a milestone and the local region has added information for cyclists indicating the distance remaining to the summit and the gradient for the next thousand metres. It’s a popular route and there’s a disproportionate amount of brown kit, Ag2r’s team HQ is nearby and many locals can be spotted in team kit. Do they sell it cheap? Other jerseys labelled “Chazal” are visible, a previous sponsor of the pro team and the frozen meat supplier must be nearby too.
The top of the Col de Granier arrives soon, a busy restaurant marks the top where drivers and motorcyclists like to stop for a rest. The descent’s quick and takes you to villages with the -Entremont suffix, “between mountains”. There are fountains to top up your water, useful as there aren’t many later on. The Col du Cucheron starts with a firm series of hairpin bends and enough to always make it feel like you’re on a bad day. It’s normally just the gradient so sit back and wait for things to get easier. There’s a descent midway to provide some relief. The helpful milestones have gone as quietly you’ve crossed into another départment and the authorities haven’t added cycle-friendly markers. The descent is nice with a clear river alongside before arriving in St Pierre de Chartreuse.
The Col de Porte loses some of its Alpine charm, the road feels larger to start with and the top section is through woodland, some shade if you want it on a hot day but you lose the views and it’s harder to know when the top is coming. Depending on your destination – see below – you can turn back or carry on for a great descent with wide sweeping bends.
Overall it’s scenic, a mountain road more peaceful than the busy, industrial valleys either side. But it’s not isolated and on weekends or during July and August it can be busy with visitors including many a cyclist. Legendary? It’s more bucolic than dramatic, there are no steep roads and the views might take your breath away more than the climbing.
The Route Part II: the road is famous for racing but more often the visitor needs to return to where they started. You can retrace the route but there are more options. From the top of the Col de Porte…
- Easy: carry on via the Col de Palaquit and Col de Vence, two passes taken during the descent to Grenoble. Near Grenoble hook a left and then return north up the Isère valley. The road’s a bit plain passing fields of walnut trees and the traffic can speed past. But it’s flat and allows you to return to Chambéry at leisure. Near Pontcharra you can turn via smaller roads to ride through the vineyeards and pick up a wide cycle path back into town. Flat but long.
- Hard: turn back and look for the Col de Coq sign on the right. Take this road but be warned, it’s a steep climb on a tertiary road. It’s worth it for the other side, the road descends a much bigger road and look for the left-hander on a hairpin to take the balcony road via St Pancrasse and St Bernard with many scenic views of the valley below
- Wild: descend to the Col de Palaquit and follow the signs for Sarcenas and then Quaix and then look for the Col de la Charmette. This is a long and unused road that’s closed to traffic on one side and you’ll soon see why. Cut into the cliffs at times, it’s not for those with vertigo nor claustrophobia because it passes through some tiny tunnels. Nor for silk tubulars either. The descent on the other side is rough as the tarmac evolves into a gravel road. Pick up the velvety main road north via Les Echelles and the Col de Couz to return. This will make a memorable ride, hopefully for the scenery and intimate road rather than broken forks and a 12km walk down the mountain.
History: the subject of what makes a road mythical is behind this series. Some roads are more famous than others and the trilogy got its reputation following some decisive performances but they all belong in the past and this route isn’t celebrated as much as it once was. In 1947 the race resumed after war and Jean Robic won a stage to Grenoble before sealing his overall win later in the Pyrenees and with a solo flourish across northern France.
In 1958 the race took the reverse direction and Charly Gaul started the Col de Porte with a two minute advantage on the chasing bunch. With execrable conditions he took time on each of the climbs to win solo by 14 minutes, turning the race upside down. Yellow jersey Louison Bobet was at 19 minutes and Jacques Anquetil even further back.
In the 1977 Bernard Hinault showed off on these roads during the Critérium du Dauphiné when wearing the yellow jersey only to crash on the Col de Porte, flying off the road into a tree below. His face streaming with blood he remounted and rode on but on the final climb of the Bastille above Grenoble, a mean finish, he climbed off and wanted to quit the race despite leading the race solo and a stage victory waiting for him just one kilometre up the road. Manager Cyrille Guimard had words and persuaded him to carry on
Action-packed short stages in the Tour aren’t new. The 1989 Tour de France used the trilogy during a 125km stage. Pedro Delgado, third overall, attacked after just 50km and was later joined by Greg LeMond, Laurent Fignon, Gert-Jan Theunisse and Marino Lejarreta, a breakaway royale that stayed away with LeMond winning the sprint.
It featured again in 1998 but came early in the stage and this was a year dominated by scandal and the day was more about police raids and riders being taken away for questioning by police at the finish in Aix-les-Bains.
The race hasn’t visited the Chartreuse massif properly for some time although the Dauphiné crossed in 2008. In 2012 the Tour crossed perpendicular to the trilogy route, scaling the Col de Porte via a steep road from Chapareillan. David Millar won, his anti-doping redemption cheered while David Moncoutié crashed out. Both riders turned pro together with Cofidis in 1997.
Nothing is forever
A road’s celebrity status is never guaranteed, it needs upkeep and regular visits by a race are part of this. The Chartreuse has been the sight of great exploits but it’s largely forgotten today. But it’s also just not decisive, a collection of short climbs that are first or second category at best and nothing to be scared of. They’d make a good stage for the Tour de l’Avenir but this is minor royalty rather than the stuff of a Queen Stage. Perhaps it can never regain its status? If it doesn’t these are still fine roads to ride. Visit for the trilogy but the side roads might be better for exploration whether the challenging Col de Coq or the impressive Gorges de Guiers where the road is daringly cut into the mountain.
The term chartreuse is famous in France as a liqueur made from mountain herbs by monks. Further afield it is also a tone, sometimes yellow, sometimes green. Rapha do a chartreuse jersey.
Travel and Access
Grenoble and Chambéry are well served with road and rail links including some high speed trains from Paris. There is also a small airport for Grenoble and Aix-les-Bains for Chambéry but international air traffic is better via Lyon.
Grenoble has a fine location but the city is a mixed place reviews with a few quartiers for the tourist to avoid. It’s a university town surrounded by the mountains and some high tech industries. Chambéry is the more scenic but smaller.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads