Scenery, altitude, length, gradient, little traffic and variety: the Cormet de Roselend has it all. The only thing missing is celebrity status. The Tour de France has only used it a few times for the blunt reason that the pass was only tarmacked in the 1970s.
The Feel: Beaufort is a real place rather than a synthetic ski village or a dusty crossroads. It’s famous for its eponymous cheese which is better to sample after a ride than before, especially on a hot summer’s day. The town’s dairy (pictured) is the starting point for the climb.
The ascent starts with cobbles. It’s hardly Geraardsbergen but the traffic calming stones will rattle lightweight climbing wheels. It climbs immediately out of town and on a hemmed into a steep-sided valley flanked by dark pines. Their shade and the river help cool on a hot day. You’ll soon spot the marker stone for cyclists indicating 20km to go, there’s one every kilometre from here to the top. The road is wide. It’s not busy because it barely leads anywhere but in summer, as part of the Route des Grandes Alpes it has its share of touring motorists.
After five kilometres the road zigzags up the side of the valley wall to escape the confines of the valley and you begin to get views looking back down towards Beaufort. Forest tracks join the road and milk churns sit in the shade awaiting collection by the dairy. From here on you may see more cows than people as the road has very few buildings along the way. At the 12km point comes an intermediate pass, the Col de Méraillet and then you round a bend and suddenly the landscape changes.
The road runs around the scenic Roselend lake for over two kilometres. Moments ago you were in a V-shaped valley, now the view runs expansive and if the weather’s good the lake’s opal waters reflect the peaks around. There are a couple of restaurant and cafés by the road plus the small Roselend chapel, all that remains of a submerged village after the hydroelectric dam was created in 1960 and the artificial lake created. Look up and amid the peaks you can see the road bend around the rocks above the treeline.
Circle the lake and the road climbs up again. That 6% average gradient you read about makes the climb sound easy but once you account for the gentle 2.5km descent around the lake the rest of the climb is 8% for a lot of the time. Geologists will appreciate this section as road bends around dark shale rock, some of which litters the road surface as the road bends around to put the lake out of sight. Now begins the final section, three kilometres in open terrain with grassland and a river whose clear water looks tempting if you’re thirsty but wait as there’s a small chalet with a fountain outside ahead.
The gradient eases and after a few more bends and the pass appears. The top is a large open area with the col sign and no more than a dirt parking area. You can continue down the other side on an open and fast descent where the road is the only sign of human activity for a long way. Keep going to do a 125km clockwise loop back to Beaufort via Bourg-St-Maurice, Moutiers and Albertville although the Cormet’s climb is the highlight.
The Verdict: at 20km this is a long and significant pass and if it almost reaches 2,000m the lake section along the way allows for recovery and the soft gradient for the final kilometre should allow you to finish with some energy to spare. Even amid the verdant northern Alps it’s especially scenic thanks to the cows and their bells, the vast mountain lake and the open expanse towards the top of the climb. It’s peaceful as the traffic is light. But there’s an even better way to climb it…
Ride more: there’s a second way up out of Beaufort via the Col du Pré (“Field Pass”), a hidden gem of the Alps. Look for the sign to Arèches and once you reach this village look for the Col du Pré signs. From here on it’s a small, steep road with 10-11% sections and 26 hairpins for the next 12km. These bends lend a feeling of déjà vu because you just rounded a hairpin next to a barn and then you round a hairpin bend next to a barn and so on. The views are the stuff of postcards with green pastures and pyramid peaks. As you approach the top you’ll cross the col and get views of the lake. A quick descent and you ride along the dam and can continue climbing to the Cormet.
Cormet de Roselend? Cormet is local word for a summit and Roselend (not Roseland) was the name of a village that has been submerged below the lake following construction of the hydroelectric dam.
History: the route is ancient but the road itself is almost new as it was only tarmacked in 1970 which explains plenty. For starters there are few buildings along the way and also the Cormet isn’t a staple of the Tour de France having only been climbed nine times, first in 1979. It’s a transitional pass rather a summit finish and so rarely decisive.
It mattered in 1996. For years Stéphane Heulot had spent July on the slopes of the Cormet de Roselend because he hadn’t been selected to ride the Tour de France and so he took off the Alps to combine a holiday with a training camp. In 1996 he turned 25 and finally got the call to ride the Tour with his GAN team and having gained time in a breakaway during the first week he took the yellow jersey as the race entered the Alps. Only come the stage over the Cormet de Roselend – his climb – he was forced to abandon with a knee injury while wearing yellow. Was he going to win the Tour? Never but this was a sorry way to quit.
Travel and Access: the autoroute network runs past nearby Albertville, high speed trains run to Chambéry and the nearest international airports are Lyon and Geneva (Switzerland). Beaufort would make a good hub for a week’s riding with several passes from the famous to the fiendish.