New for the 2018 Tour de France, the Plateau des Glières will feature during Stage 10. The gravel road at the top is novel and the climb to get there is tough too. Here is a closer look…
The Route: halfway between Entremont and Le Petit Bornand on the D12 in the Haute Savoie départment is the turning with a bridge over the river Borne. It is signposted. The climb is 6.2km at 11.2% and the gravel road beyond is 1.8km long.
The Feel: a gentle start, you cross the river and ride alongside the riverbank, your last chance to eat and drink. The warning signs appear, one says chaines obligatoires.
This is for motorists going cross-country skiing on the plateau and if it doesn’t apply to cyclists it gives a clue to what lies ahead: the road is steep, dangerous and not ploughed in winter. The next sign warns vehicles longer than eight metres are not allowed, the road is too narrow and the hairpins too tight for anything bigger. A few houses – goats were wandering wild – and from here on the gradient just gets steeper with the road cut into the side of a limestone cliff. Early on you pass a small war memorial to commemorate resistance fighters who died facing the Nazi war machine and a reminder that no matter how steep or how hard you try to push yourself you’re never suffering.
There are several hairpins on the way up and they vary, some are steep while a couple are engineered and allow you a moment to recover by taking the outside line. But the irregularity means you don’t know what is coming up next: is there rest around the corner or do you have to stand on the pedals and punch through? You should be free to pick your line through the bends because this is a quiet road, there is hardly any traffic to the point where sides of the tarmac are covered in leaf litter because not enough vehicles stir up the dirt across the full width of the road. It’s scenic too, there’s one hairpin that sticks out offering wide views of the valley below and the tall mountains on the other side; soon after one section is green with a carpet of moss covering everything except the tarmac, like a scene out of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke”.
With five kilometres at 12% this is arguably the steepest road of this distance you’ll find in France. You will find steeper roads, you will find longer roads but this is a sustained effort. There are two moments where the road levels out but these just set up you up for the next punch in the face. To make it harder still the road surface is bad in parts with loose gravel and cracks galore and at times it’s like mountain biking as you stand on the pedals but keep your weight back to ensure the rear wheel has enough traction on the loose surface.
You suddenly round a corner and there’s a car park and a (closed) café. It’s here that the plateau road and the gravel starts, aim to head west and follow the white road. The gravel is different to the strade bianche which are made up of fine dirt that has been compacted by roadworks and passing vehicles. Here it seems the soil has been peeled back to leave exposed limestone so it is a chalky grey but as well as dust and gravel there are some polished rocks protruding and just waiting to crumple a carbon rim and snag a silk tubular.
It’s hardly perilous, just pick your line and you’ll be fine but it means you spend too much time looking at the road surface when the scenery around is sumptuous. In no time you reach the tarmac again, this marks the location of the Col des Glières. Continue via a quick descent and then a rise that’s just that too long to sprint up and you can use the western descent off the plateau, all on a bigger, smooth road but it’s a hair-raising descent with steep slopes and bends that rush up on you. It is possible to loop back to where you came from in either clockwise or anti-clockwise directions, up to you.
The Verdict: French forums talk of a “mini-Zoncolan” which says as much about the Zoncolan, the climb by which all others are measured. This one is easier but do think about low gears because there are long stretches at 10-14%, not far off double the Alpine average. As well as steep it is scenic, there are stunning views at select moments and it is calm all the way up. The plateau road is fun and perfectly passable on a road bike and the secret is to look up from the dirt road and admire the pastures around. The plateau isn’t the exposed table-top you might expect, the road is more like a valley lined by pine-clad peaks and its the quintessential northern Alps with lush pastures for cows and wooden chalets and barns. It’s an escape route, a detour but rewarding for its calm.
The History: it’s never been used by the Tour de France but the local 2.2 stage race the Tour des Pays de Savoie has been here before. This might have alerted ASO to the road’s existence but former race director Jean-François Pescheux has retired to nearby Grand Bornand and has family in the region so he could be the informant.
However the road is not a shepherd’s secret. The Plateau des Glières is known in France for the resistance fighting during World War Two and the large war memorial that commemorates the place, a V-sign for victory but with one of the branches of the “V” is broken to signify the costs involved. French Presidents visit this site to signal their patriotism. The Tour de France will surely make a tribute and the publicity caravan won’t pass, partly out of respect but practicality too because it’s too steep and narrow for many of the vehicles.
Ride more: the Plateau de Solaison is on the other side of the Borne valley and there are many nearby climbs like the Col de la Colombière, the Aravis, Croix-Fry, Saisies and more.
Plateau de télévision: why cross the plateau? Because it is there and it is a rewarding climb with a fun ride across the plateau. But sending the Tour? This marks the first gravel road since the Pau-Jaca stage of the 1991 Tour de France and these days gravel is a thing. So this detour generates interest in the Tour – QED with this blog post – and now live TV coverage of every stage in their entirety means the images will be broadcast around the world. Remember that the finish of Stage 10 over the Col de Romme and the Col de la Colombière should be where the action is at.
Amenities: there are bakeries, cafes and water fountains in Entremont and Le Petit Bornand, the villages before the climb. The plateau has cafes but they look like the sort that open in season or at weekends only.
Travel and access: the A40 autoroute passes nearby. Places like Morzine and Annecy offer good bases in France to explore the region with the latter having good road and rail links. Geneva in Switzerland is the nearest city with an airport.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads