Roads to Ride: Joux Plane

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Joux Plane

This will be the final climb of the 2016 Tour de France. It’s an unusual climb in the French Alps, a true mountain instead of a ski station access road. What’s it like to ride on a normal day?

The Route: the D354 heads north out of Samoëns. It is 11.6km long and reaches an altitude of 1691m, an average gradient of 8.5%.

For the “official” Tour route, start in the town by the Rue des Glaciers and look for the Banque Populaire where you’ll see the see the sign for the Col de Joux Plane and La Piaz. You can take take the road east out of town that starts alongside a small river as well and this joins the road later on but it’s not the race route. See Strava for a map.

The Feel: it begins with a laverie, a laundrette. You don’t see many of those these days but it’s a good invitation to get into your lowest gear and start a spin cycle otherwise you’ll be rinsed in no time. The hardest part of the climb is about to begin, within moments the 12% ramps start as you pick your way past the wooden chalets, their flat driveways inviting anyone unprepared for the sharp start or those who dropped their chain. The more you ride, the more the chalets begin to look authentic, first they’re poured concrete pavilions clad in ersatz wood panelling, further on they’re real timber Alpine dwellings and scruffy farms.

It’s a hard climb because you’re going uphill without realising it, threading through meadows without the obvious vista of the valley below to signal how high you’ve climbed nor is there a view up to the pass, at least not until late. There are few tight hairpins which let you go round and look down on the road you’ve just travelled, instead just wide bends.

Col Joux Plane

This isn’t a road ordered by decree and built by engineers. Perhaps once upon a time a local would walk into Samoëns and have a glass or three of génépi and once intoxicated they tried to walk home but unable to hold a straight line they waved all over the place. This went on several times until a path was established and in time everyone used it and eventually it got tarmacked. Or maybe not. The mind wanders because the road wanders and almost all the time you have meadows on both sides, safe for those who suffer from vertigo because there’s no drop off the side for most of the way.

Even the pros think funny things, Daniel Friebe recounts in Mountain High that Chris Horner said it was “like 20% all the way up” while Dutch climbing legend Peter Winnen wrote it was “the nastiest climb in the Alps“. They’re wrong as you can find tougher, nastier climbs but as Friebe says there is something of the optical illusion about this climb, it feels hard work yet doesn’t seem to climb. The road is narrow for two oncoming cars to check their position carefully but the main thing is the way the gradient keeps changing subtly between 7-9% a lot of the way although there are cruel sections at 12-14% too.

Because the road doesn’t lead anywhere but to the pass and then down to Morzine there’s little other traffic on the road beyond cyclists, tourists and a few farmers. Everyone else goes to Morzine via the lower, straighter Col des Gets to the west, a big ring of a climb. It’s only near the top that the climb takes a more dramatic feel and begins to supply all the elements you need for an Alpine bingo bonanza. First come cowbells, then some proper hairpin bends and soon a view of Mont Blanc framed by pine trees.

Make it to the pass but don’t expect a rest. You’ll see the Joux Plane sign, a hut and the small lake but the road continues. In fact the actual Joux Plane pass isn’t here, it’s up a small dirt track, the road bends around below the pass and continues and even climbs further to the Col du Ranfolly where the ski lift installations mark the start of one of the best descents in the Alps.

Summary take: atypical, it doesn’t go to a ski resort or cross above 2,000 metres but it’s still one of the hardest climbs in the Alps thanks to its 8% gradient and early sections that drain the legs, especially of the imprudent.

Col Ranfolly

History: it was first used in the Tour de France in 1978 and has been climbed 11 times since making it almost a novelty in the race but it’s left it’s mark and gained a reputation. In and every time but one except one a climber has surged over the top. The exception was 2006 with Floyd Landis on his roid rage rampage although he’s been stripped of the win. Marco Pantani holds the record with 32.50 in 1997 where he was seen scaling parts of the climb in the big ring.

The last time it was used in a main race was the Criterium du Dauphiné in 2012 when Team Sky paced Bradley Wiggins up with the first full sighting of Team Sky’s mountain train, the express that would go onto derail everyone else’s plans in the following Tour de France. But one rider managed to attack and ride away that day, Nairo Quintana.

One way traffic: you can climb the road from both sides but everyone seems to go up the south side and down the north side into Morzine. This is the Tour de France route, the race has only ever crossed in this direction. There’s more to copying the pros, the descent into Morzine is one of the best descents in the Alps with the feel of bobsleigh run as the road twists and turns into town. The internet says Sean Kelly hit 124km/h on the way down in 1984, not sure if this is true – did they have speedometers capable of recording this? – but it helps tell the story. It’s this descent that the Tour de France will use for its final act before the Champs Elysées parade.

Say It: the X is silent in Joux Plane and plane is not “plain” but sounds like “plan”. A joux is a forested area of a mountain and plane means flat: Flatwood Pass.

Travel and Access: the nearest international airport is Geneva in Switzerland and the area around the Joux-Plane is well served by road connections. The nearest rail station is Cluses. The base of the climb in Samoëns is far up the Giffre valley, not quite a cul de sac but it’s the last town on the road. It makes a decent base to stay with several other climbs around: head north for Morzine and beyond the Vallée d’Abondance where Team Sky hold their pre-Tour camps; head south for the Col de la Colombière, the Aravis and more. The Morzine tourist office has a dedicated website to promote their roads: morzinemountaincycling.com

More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads

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Anonymous October 31, 2015 at 11:04 am

1st sentence typo. Should be 2016 Tour, not 2015!

Other than that, great article as usual. Wish I still had the fitness to do the climb justice 🙂

The Inner Ring October 31, 2015 at 12:29 pm

Thanks, always a mental limbo between this year, last season etc at this time of year.

MrkPrc October 31, 2015 at 11:28 am

Good article as usual – the Joux Plane is one of my local climbs and not once have I managed to do it without suffering horribly. It’s some comfort to know the pros hate it as well….

StuartN October 31, 2015 at 12:31 pm

It’s a great climb and descent, lovely write-up. The descent to Morzine was officially closed in summer ’15 due to a landslip but you could sneak round the barriers and the gaping hole on a bike. I guess there are some big plans for repairs before July ’16. On the plus side, you could rip the descent as there was almost no traffic.

It’s surprisingly good as an out-and-back ride or you can return from Morzine via the col d’Encrenaz (D328) and a then D307 into Taninges – they are lovely roads and much, much quieter than the main Col des Gets road which carries a lot of heavy traffic in tourist season.

Starwasp October 31, 2015 at 1:55 pm

+1 for Stuart’s comment about the bucolic route back from Morzine to the Giffre valley and +1k for INRNG’s prose and topics.

Other cracking climbs out of Samoens include the climb up to Samoens 1600: due south from the village rather than the due north Joux Plane. Slightly lower but steeper. If memory serves, an average of 9.5% and a c15% pitch just above Vercland. My gamin showed 18% at one particular hairpin.

The climp up to Flaine (col de Pierre Carree) is also very good: c40k from Samoens of which 33km is uphill. Great once you’ve turned around!

Will November 10, 2015 at 12:05 am

+1 for Col de Pierre Carrée. It’s the highest Col in the northern French Alps that is open year round as it is an access road to Flaine ski station. 21 km climb, top half is beautiful. Never in the Tour. Deserted top 10 kms in summer. Very under rated.

Larry T. October 31, 2015 at 4:46 pm

Nice bit, thanks. Last time I was up around there was the BigTex finale in 2010. You inspired me to watch this clip again https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmgKFZ-Ko14 but to me it didn’t seem Pantani was using a larger gear than most of the contenders on this climb. What I find more interesting is while he had 55 seconds over Virenque and Ullrich at the summit, he had 77 seconds on them at the bottom in Morzine. For all those who claim Pantani’s results were 100% due to EPO I use this as an example to the contrary. As to the 124 kph claim, I find it hard to believe. Getting up to 76 mph on this narrow road with plenty of curves sounds implausible at best.

gabriele October 31, 2015 at 11:52 pm

Agreed. I would be surprised if anyone among the pro who decides to attack hard here didn’t sometime use the big ring, for example in the section after the first 3 kms (as long as the profile is ok: I don’t personally know the climb). On a prolonged under 6% stretch, a strong attack may mean 30+ km/h, both in the 90s *and* today, which means you’d need something a bit larger than a 39×15 to hold 90 RPM. Is it more normal to climb at 110 RPM? Not so sure.
If we also consider that, before the agility revolution brought in by Lance for good or ill, most people were climbing even at 75-80 RPM, it’s not so strange that you could use the big ring even through the 7%-gradient zones, in order to be ready to drop some teeth when digging deep if attacks started, without getting to cross a lot your chain under pressure, or to call upon the big ring while forcing (footnote: it’s this kind of details that explains why a dropped chain may partially be responsibility of the rider, not just misfortune).

Larry T. November 1, 2015 at 3:26 pm

I’d say a dropped chain is most of the time a “pilot error” rather than mechanical malfunction. In my experience bike racers don’t pay that much attention to things like cross-chaining, especially in these daze of STI, Ergopower, etc. Instead they too often row up and down the rear cassette in search of the perfect ratio and only switch between the chainrings as a last resort, usually when the chain is seriously crossed-up. The gap between 53 and 39 is 14 teeth (compacts with 50-34 are even worse and I’ve noted the problem IS even more frequent with them) almost the maximum that can even be expected to shift with any reliability. When faced with that huge gap under serious pedaling force, this downshift often results in a stop to put the chain back on at best, a jammed chain and bike change at worst.
http://cycleitalia.blogspot.com/2012/06/never-drop-your-chain-again.html

Chris J November 1, 2015 at 12:52 am

Typo in the first graf of the history section: “In and every time but one except one a climber has surged over the top.”

Otherwise nice writeup. Interesting point about how some climbs seem harder on the road than they appear on paper. The length/gradient numbers don’t tell the whole story, for sure…

Peter November 1, 2015 at 3:14 am

” get into your lowest gear and start a spin cycle otherwise you’ll be rinsed in no time. ” That was nice! Thank you.

Simon November 1, 2015 at 11:11 pm

I love this area of France and heresy aside, it is the place for mountain biking. It is so rich and fertile too, you could almost eat the dirt. I rode up to the little lake pictured in the first pic from Morzine sans lockout on a low end hardtail taking me ages. The descent back down was thrilling and very fast as I recall. Does anyone remember the win by Virenque into Morzine in ’03? It was heart stopping stuff particularly further down towards Morzine as he seemed to brush the walls of the houses so close to the road.

dodge2000 November 2, 2015 at 2:21 pm

Can’t believe no one has mentioned the lovely use of ‘roid rage rampage’ in the text yet. My first scan through of inr ring articles is to check for these little nuggets

David November 2, 2015 at 9:36 pm

Pantani’s ride definitely falls into the category of roid rage rampage!

Will November 10, 2015 at 12:01 am

That was a very good description of why this climb feels harder than it seems statistically.

My best Joux Plane tip: The famous side, just to Joux Plane will occasionally open in late winter when the cross-country skiing conditions deteriorate in the valley below. There are then briefly groomed cross country ski trails and rentals at Joux Plane. One can sneak up on a bike at this point, although a mountain bike is usually wise as some of the shadier parts of the road 2 or 3 kms from summit might still be slippery.

Bike up and XC ski at the summit is a dream day out when sunny:

http://www.cycling-challenge.com/col-de-joux-plane-cycle-up-and-rent-cross-country-skis/

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