Roads to Ride: The Col du Galibier

Col du Galibier

The Tour de France likes its themes with anniversaries, war memorials and more in recent years. 2011 was the year of the Col du Galibier with the race visiting the mountain pass twice and each time with thrilling consequences. Even the Giro d’Italia has paid a visit.

A crucible for the sport but a vast open space and a climb that has everything, from ski resorts to wildlife.

The Route
The D215a starts in Saint Michel de Maurienne and passes over the Col du Télégraphe to drop into the ski resort of Valloire and then takes the D902 south to reach the pass at 2,645 metres above sea level . The Col du Télégraphe alone is 11.8km at 7.3% and the Galibier from Valloire is 18.1km at 6.1%. In total the route is 34.9km with an average gradient of 5.5%, a figure distorted by the descent in the middle.

The Feel
The wide Maurienne valley is a busy place. Tourists come for the scenery and trucks come for the heavy industry. The Arc river is used to make electricity for energy-intensive work like aluminium smelting and the valley is a strange place with its factories and railyards surrounded by pristine nature. To start climbing is to turn your back on all this. The road starts steep with the slope biting at 15% if you take the inside line on an early hairpin bend.

The Télégraphe is wooded for much of the way and progress is hard to measure. The road is wide and after a series of hairpin bends you know the top is near when the road straightens out and there are views to your right back across the valley to the white peaks. The top is signalled by a large wooden sign to welcome visitors and then follows a straightforward descent to Valloire.

Valloire is a ski resort and has all the trappings: pine-clad chalets, cheese and cheesy goods for sale and a string of sports outlets seemingly owned by the Locationski family – presumably of Polish origin? Stop to refuel if you want but the town has a dull vibe. On the way out a sign indicates 17km to the Galibier, an invitation to look down at your bike computer, see your speed and calculate the time remaining. An hour? More?

In time the buildings disappear and what felt like a dull place was comforting with its shops and cafés. The road heads up a wide valley with pastures and peaks all around and it gets increasingly barren although mankind’s imprint is obvious with the road, a few cars and convoys of motorbikes roaring past. The gradient is consistent but the road’s straight line makes progress slow, there’s little to aim for as the road ramps up in a straight line beyond your bars. But be careful what you wish for as the road approaches Plan Lachat, a collection of buildings and a bridge where the road bends to the right and climbs up. If the road didn’t look steep before, now you see it climbing diagonally up the mountain to the right.

Plan Lachat
“We’re going to need a bigger sprocket”

Now begins the hardest part of the climb and the place where the famous attacks have been launched. Pantani’s acceleration in 1999 for example. You’ll see a palimpsest of cycling graffiti, especially on the rock faces because if they resurface the road over time, some paint is durable enough to cope for decades on the rocks. Evans, Delgado, CSC, a golden kangaroo.

Onwards and past the “Granges the Galibier”, a couple of iron-roofed barns where cheese is sold out of one building. Not really for the cyclist but a sign of progress. Onwards and the pass comes into sight, the last ramps again cut diagonally in to the dark rock. There is a tunnel but cyclists are not allowed, an evil regulation but perhaps whoever designed the rule knew it’s worth forcing the riders higher over the ridge just so that they go home without regret. Stop to admire the view but beware the weather, linger too long and a big chill awaits on the descent.

Even the Giro’s visit gets stopped by bad weather

Ride it
Stand at the top and Valloire feels a long way below: measured vertically the ski resort is a kilometre lower. In other words they built a place for the winter season and abundant snow much lower. Consequently the pass is only open for a few months of the year, typically early June to early October and indicated by large “Col Ouvert” signs. But just because it’s open doesn’t mean it’s fine, the weather can change quickly and anything is possible from icy conditions to a raging thunderstorm. Even the Giro had to alter its finish on the Galibier this year and riders had helpers on hand with warm clothes and hot drinks.

Descend it
Having covered one side, you can descend the other. Note the large stone tower near the tunnel mouth on the south side, this is the memorial to Tour founder Henri Desgrange to seal the link between the Tour de France and this road.

Col du Télégraphe
This gets its name from the fort at the top built by Napoleon which itself takes its name from a telegraph post that stood on the site. The telegraph post was part of a communications network stretching from Paris to Milan and beyond where an operator created semaphore signals using a mast with mechanical arms which would move to different positions to signal different letters. An operator would signal whilst the next operator, perhaps 25km away, would use binoculars to note down the signal and then they’d use the mechanical signal themselves so that the next operator could make notes and so pass the signal down the line. The system started in 1790 and by 1810 was in operation in the Alps and able to pass messages from Amsterdam to Paris and on to Turin and then Mantova but only if the weather was good.

Haven’t they got wings, our men who have been able to climb up to heights where even eagles don’t fly? Oh Sappey, Oh Laffrey, Oh Col Bayard, Oh Tourmalet! I shall not fail in my duty to proclaim to the world that you are like an insignificant and small beer compared to the Galibier: all one can do before this giant is doff one’s hat and bow.
– Henri Desgranges

Race History
As the owner and promoter of the Tour de France Desgrange was entitled to some hype but sending the race up the climb in 1911 was wild, the equivalent of trying to run a World Tour stage race in Ladakh. The road wasn’t surfaced properly and bikes had no gears and only rudimentary brakes. Riders had no more than wool clothing and they were a far cry from today’s technical garments in merino.

The Galibier has been climbed 58 times in total on both sides and 37 ascensions of the Télégraphe. 2011 featured both sides and some of the best racing in recent memory. On the south side via the Lautaret it was Andy Schleck who took off solo for arguably his best career win and a move that was brave in hindsight as at the time it looked wild and almost foolish but ridiculously entertaining. The next day saw a short stage and the race climbed the north side from Saint Michel with Alberto Contador attacking right from the first hairpin bends, forcing Cadel Evans and Thomas Voeckler in yellow to chase, a move which cost the Frenchman the race lead as he cracked higher up.

Travel and Access
The Maurienne Valley is a fine place for cycling although a mild gamble if you’re visiting from afar in case the weather’s bad. The Galibier is there to ride but there’s the Col d’Iseran, the Mont Cenis into Italy, the Croix de Fer and Glandon sisters and the Col de la Madeleine. As well as the bonus… the Lacets de Montvernier, 18 hairpins in less than 4km.

The town of St Jean de Maurienne is a good enough place – FDJ have a deal with the town as their Alpine base – but again the main valley road is busy and at times industrial so climb to get away from it all.

Photo credit: Main image by Flickr’s Muneaki

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15 thoughts on “Roads to Ride: The Col du Galibier”

  1. Thanks INRNG. Happy memories of climbing it September this year on a beautiful clear day. Busy with motorbikes but plenty of quiet moments to take in the views and spot marmots. One of the highlights of the Maurienne/ Oisans cycling theme park.

  2. A very precise description, especially your warning re: weather; riding it in early June can be extremely cold. Those treacherous, pitch-black tunnels on the descent are also worth a mention.

  3. Galibier. Never ever have I felt so small, my bike so useless as when I climbed this mastodon during last years Marmotte. It really killed me, leaving black holes in my memories of that day. The height, the heat, too fast on both the Glandon and the Telegraphe and those slopes. Oh, those slopes in the final 4km of the climb… I really have to go back next year to make it an enjoyable experience and imprint some nice memories so I can smile again when I hear that name…

  4. I rode the Telegraphe followed by the Galibier a few years ago. As young man I could climb with the best at a shametuer level. On the Telegraphe I thought yes I could have raced this, but on through Valloire and on to the Galibier it’s another world, I watched the Tour pass by and thought somethings not right, this is beyond a normal, it was of course EPO, it would be nice to think these days are behind us , fingers crossed they are.

    • You really get a sense of remoteness on this climb, I could imagine it being hell in bad weather.
      I was lucky however to tackle it in July this year on a near perfect day with very little traffic of any variety. Such a pity where I live in Tasmania is so far away but I will definitely return.

  5. Not sure the comparison to Ladakh is massively just. If you’ve been there you’ll have noticed that the roads are generally in pristine condition due to the huge army presence in the area. If your lungs can take it it’s an interesting place to tour. Kardung La is the obvious ‘road to ride’, if a little busy.

  6. I did this year’s Marmotte. Your description gets to the top way too quickly. I got to Plan Lachat wondering what all the fuss was about and assuming that I must have been somewhere near the top. Those who have ridden it will be laughing now. It’s tough dragging yourself to what appears to be the top of the world. The view is amazing, especially the empty valley to the left of the one you have just climbed out of. For those who arrive at the top ashen faced and dehydrated the easy next 30km are scant consolation for the hell that awaits on the Alpe d’Huez. I’m with you, Timo, I can’t wait to go back in the hope that knowing what to expect will somehow make it easier.

  7. thanks, great memories of l’Etape in 2011. Drove it with the wife on the way to Annecy this summer, great to see it again but not the same as climbing it on a bike, of course. Have lunch in Valloire, its fun. Hey, you’re in France in July, how bad can it be?

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