Back in the Tour de France for only the second time the Grand Colombier is an unheralded climb that offers a physical test and rewards with impressive views.
The Route: there are several ways to the top. Like Mont Ventoux there is one road that climbs over the top and drops down and then forks off in different directions. This piece looks at the climb from Culoz via the “Lacets” or hairpins. The D120 is 18.3km long and averages 6.9%.
The Feel: The start in Culoz isn’t promising. There’s little of interest in the town, the kind of place where people are drinking beers in the morning and it took several laps of the town to find a bakery to get a pre-ride croissant. It’s famous as the home town of Christophe Lemaitre, the 100m/200m specialist in athletics. Perhaps he saw Culoz and wanted to get out quick? Running is easier than climbing the Grand Colombier, the road starts steep. The mountain dominates the town with its cliff faces, look up and you can see a diagonal line scratched across the cliff face: that’s road you’ll be on.
Because it’s steep you gain height fast. First through the vineyards you see the Rhone valley and the Lac du Bourget, France’s largest lake and beyond it the Alps, a view that’s part breathtaking, part geography lesson. The road edges along the cliffs to the soon-to-be famous lacets or hairpins.
These bends are odd, they wind up around a promontory of rock, almost like a tower in the corner of a castle where you ride up a spiral staircase to the ramparts. As magical as this sounds it’s just steep and twisty.
Online forums often mention the heat. The first part of the climb is south-facing and parts of it have a rock wall to radiate the heat back at you but most of the climb is shaded, press on through the exposed part and you’ll find it easier in the woodland. Once past the famous hairpins the slope eases and the road is a very long ramp until you switch back in the opposite direction and the road rears up, more 10-12% sections await and a short downhill section brings relief but just means that 3% gradient above is a statistical average and not reality.
Higher up and the road crosses a cattle grid and enters the final open section and there’s a steady gradient to the top with pastures and views of the Rhone valley below.
Summary take: steep, irregular and a mix of roads, first the escape from a scruffy town, then stunning views early on and long straight sections though shaded woodland before reaching the open summit and more rewarding views, be sure to try it on a clear, sunny day.
The Tour: They’ll race up the other side, drop down before taking the valley road around to Culoz, cross the finish line and then tackle the steep part of the climb and the lacets section before rejoining the already used descent and valley road to the finish. The long climb is not as steep but can still be used for attacks. On paper it looks suited to punchy riders, the stage has something of Liège-Bastogne-Liège about it although the Grand Colombier is much longer than anything in the Ardennes. On paper it’s got the vertical gain of the Galibier but not the altitude.
History: climbed only once in the 2012 Tour de France it led to nothing because it was some way from the finish. However this has been the decisive climb of the Tour de l’Ain stage race every August for many years. It seems to have been dropped now but in the past David Moncoutié seemed to win again and again.
Jura: as in Jurassic and not the Alps. This is a mountain range north of the Alps. Look at the picture above and the white peaks are the Alps, to the north you can make out some green crinkled ridges, these are the Jura mountains. They’re scenic with river canyons and cliffs and totally off the radar with no races to speak of nor much else. See how the Jura arcs round to the South? The Grand Colombier is almost at the end of this.
Travel and access: Aix-les-Bains makes a good base with rail and road access and plenty of roads to ride in the area included the fearsome Mont du Chat and also Mont Revard and access to the Alpine climbs.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads