Roads to Ride: the Col du Petit Ballon

There are more famous places in the Vosges mountains but this is probably the hardest climb on Stage 20 of the Tour de France. It’s also a quiet side road while many of the other climbs in the Vosges are bigger and even crowded at times.

The Route: It’s 9km long with an average gradient of 8.1% and climbs to a height of 1,166m. From Munster in the Haut-Rhin department of France take the D10 out of town to Luttenbach. Here look for the “Col du Petit Ballon” signs, cross the railway, then the Fecht river, and this is where the climb starts. On some maps the road in Luttenbach is the Route du Ried, on others it’s the Route du Petit Ballon. Either way the signs make it easy.

The Feel: German for starters, you’ve ridden out of Munster to reach Luttenbach. The place names are Deutsch but it’s 100% français, people buy baguettes speaking French but there’s the underlying presence of history. All the road markings are French and this helps as the start of the climb is well signposted.

Munster has local architecture but the climb starts among the type of identical villas you find all over France. You’ve time to notice this as it’s steep from the start amid the houses and this is one of those climbs that signals intent from the start with 10-14% ramps as it heads into woodland. Once in the forest the road has long sections between bends and it’s pleasant and shaded amid the pines but this means a lot of the climb feels the same only the kilometre signs for cyclists seem to mark progress.

How steep is the steepest part? To reprise an idea mentioned before mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot once asked “how long is the coastline of Britain?”. You could trace the coast on a map, but which map, to what scale is it drawn? The larger the map, the more you would start tracing around each bay and inlet and the longer your measurement gets. Survey in reality and you might be measuring around every rock, pebble and even grain of sand and the coastline gets longer still. Now Mandelbrot was on about fractals rather than land surveys but there’s always a thing with road profiles, they never tell the full story. The first half of the Petit Ballon is consistently steep but the detail comes in the micro aspect as the road surface is fine in that there are no potholes or cracks, but it is lumpy. It’s as if they hadn’t quite flattened the road before laying tarmac or some moles operate underneath, you ride up with an eye on the road to spot the smoothest way around the bumps and even then you still can’t dodge these micro rises in the gradient.

There’s an opening in the woodland with some pastures and the slope eases here, a breather with 4-6% slopes and past the Auberge du Ried restaurant. Press on and you seemingly come to a junction but it’s just a car park and a track leading to a ferme auberge, follow the Virage Pinot to the right and you can now see the top of the climb ahead as the road climbs through pastures. There’s another restaurant to pass and then a final kilometre to the top where there’s a small car park and a ridge.

The Verdict: a hard start out of town and through the woodland but once the pastures appear it gets easier and there are some good views at the top. It has restaurants and inns – by all means stop – but feels much quieter and more private than many of the other roads.

Ride more: there’s a warning sign for the tricky descent but it’s nothing technical, just bumpy so better to descend with both hands on the bars and eat and drink before or after, Alberto Contador crashed out of the Tour de France here in 2014. Once the descent is finished you can tackle the Col de Platzerwasel by turning left and follow the 2023 Tour route onto Le Markstein, a tiny ski station.

There are many roads to ride in the Vosges with plenty of mountain passes. Many are wide roads and roll well, you can climb without resorting to your lowest gear. So far so good but these roads are open to everyone and in summer that means plenty of motorbikes. A cycling blog encouraging people to visit can’t moan too much about others enjoying the same roads, but we can accept it is crowded at times. The Route des Crètes (“road of the summits/ridges”) is a popular route for motorists and motorcyclists in the summer. Which is why the Petit Ballon features here, a tough climb for the Tour and a road to enjoy by itself.

Tour history: the nearby Ballon d’Alsace was climbed in the 1905 Tour de France and so some people say it was the first big mountain climb of the Tour de France (more below). Sports history here is intertwined with geopolitics as this area has changed hands between France and Germany. In the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1 it went to Germany and the Tour de France organiser Henri Desgrange made a thing out of racing along the border in the early editions and even racing into the German part of Moselle. When France regained the Alsace-Lorraine area via the Treaty of Versailles… the 1919 Tour de France started the day after the treaty was signed and featured a route that rode up to the new border. As themes of French revenge and nationalism faded, so too did the Tour de France’s regular presence in the Vosges. It didn’t tackle the Petit Ballon until 2014 on the way to La Planche des Belles Filles and the climb featured in the 2022 Tour de France Féminin.

Ballon? Literally a balloon in French and the spherical association can be applied to a glass of wine, in a bar you can ask for un ballon de rouge as in a “glass of red”. It can be said the mountains in the Vosges have this rounded form, that’s poetic. The origins here are a little cloudy, it could be from the celtic tribes, a pabulum could be from Latin and the Roman times. In German the local word is Belchen and the Petit Ballon in German is the Kleiner Belchen and it’s also known as the Kahle Wasen.

Know your Ballons: it’s easy to get confused but there are four ballons in the Vosges:

  • Le Ballon d’Alsace is probably the source of a lot of confusion, it’s a ballon, it’s in the Alsace but so are the other three. It was first used by the Tour de France in 1905 and marks the first high mountain used in the race’s history, although the first mountain pass used by the race was the Col du Pin Bouchain during Stage 1 on the way to Lyon in 1903 and the next stage climbed the Col de la République, taking the race beyond 1,000m above sea level so each stakes their claim to fame
  • Just to the west is the Ballon de Servance, a mountain but no road climb to the top although the D16 that passes the foot of the Planche des Belles Filles runs close and the Tour de France has labelled this road as the Ballon de Servance before
  • The Grand Ballon and the Petit Ballon sit further over to the north-east. The Grand Ballon lives up to its name as the highest point of the Vosges mountains at 1,424m.

When to visit: the Vosges are not the Alps but they do have ski stations and icy winters that can last so a spring trip to try some mountain passes is optimistic, you might think “but it’s only 1,000m” but remember it’s still well to the north of the Alps so wait and let things warm up. June to October is ideal, it’s busy in July and August with holidaymakers and if you can chose, weekday cycling is best because the roads are quieter.

Travel and access: Basel in Switzerland probably has the best travel connections with air, road and rail, it’s a hub sitting between France and Germany but it’s not a place to stay for cycling in the Vosges as it’s too far to ride out each day. In France Mulhouse and Colmar are the nearest French cities – Strasbourg is in the Alsace but the other end – and neither are big on tourist appeal and sit on the plains. So somewhere like Munster and the valley it sits in (pictured) can make a good base.

More roads to ride at

19 thoughts on “Roads to Ride: the Col du Petit Ballon”

  1. Wouldn’t Gérardmer be a natural base? I was there a long time ago (in the Winter though), and it seemed like a very nice town with plenty of infrastructure for tourists.

    • A good pick too, a bit further from the Petit Ballon though as you have to cross over the Col del la Schlucht but if anyone’s visiting, it’s a place to consider as well with lots of other climbs within reach.

      • Stayed overnight in Gérard mer ml. Camped by lake, there are several campsites. Seem to recall watching tdf tt on French telly there. Rode up schlucht in the morning, very pleasant, before driving up to ghent.

  2. Thanks for these always interesting bitesize articles.
    (apropos of nothing: maybe I’m out of the loop, but it seems unusual that the lady and the gentleman in the photo are both wearing what appear to be single-leg compression pants.)

  3. I love riding in the Vosges, but as you say it can get very busy, particularly along the Routes des Cretes…but the gradients are generally very pleasing, and that combined with the (relatively short) length of climbs makes it a lot more accessible (and dare I say more enjoyable) to those of us incapable of 6w/kg…

  4. Nice review of a beautiful climb, which I rode once from the northeast side via Wasserbourg. However, I am rather baffled by the comment that Colmar is without touristic interest. The old town center is a jewel that stands out, even in a region full of beautiful villages. In the summer, it’s full of tourists. Also, for art lovers, Gruenewald’s Eisenheim altarpiece in the Unterlinden museum is a monument of northern renaissance painting, a must-see. As for Mulhouse, I can vouch for their exceptional auto museum.

    • Yes, Colmar is lovely. It reminded me of Bruges, but with more interesting roofs , Burgundian tile patterns.

      It’s also a centre for Alsatian wines, which are not very fashionable in much of Europe but well worth drinking.

    • Hmm, didn’t say without interest, just less tourist appeal for a cyclist, I imagined you’d be riding out on the same roads past big retail parks, housing estates quite to get to the vineyards and then west to the Vosges. Maybe for Colmar stay in Turckheim which is wine central?

      For my recon ride of the Tour stage I started in Basel, rode out to Belfort, did the stage route and then continued with the Grand Ballon, descended to Cernay and rode through Mulhouse back to Basel… all while thinking Munster’s central location is good. Belfort has its charm and history but it’s a bit away from the mountains; like Mulhouse is firmly on the plains and feels like an Alsatian version of Saint-Etienne, a post industrial city.

      • Most of the industrial stuff is north and northeast of the centre of Colmar and there is a choice of pretty good cycle routes out of Colmar west, so you don’t need to ride through the Logelbach retail area if you don’t want to. I think it’s a lovely city to relax in in the evenings and its position near the middle of the wine cycle route means there’s several cycle friendly hotels.

  5. Petit ballon and platzerwasel are nice climbs, with some steep parts.
    However I strongly advice to go and explore the other part of the Rhine: the black forest. It has not the legend of the Tour, but well plenty hard climbs on back roads where you will just meet one car or two.

    • By the way, I didn’t know that ballon and belchen were translation of the same word.
      And as a matter of fact, one of the highest peak in the german black forest is called belchen.

      • So is Belchen some particular dialect? Sounds like it should mean “to burp”… As a nearly-fluent German speaker I’ve never heard this term before, so I’m curious…wonder what its etymology is…

  6. Sorry to comment on Alps v. Pyrenees here – comments were closed on the older post. Having just returned from my 1 and only Pyrenees trip I felt compelled to add.

    I finally got my first chance to ride the Pyrenees July 1-15. I’ve been lucky enough to dabble in the Alps on 3 previous trips (Italy, Switz, and France not too far from Albertville and Annecy). As an american, I’ve only had a few chances to ride these passes and admittedly I’ve only scratched the surface of Alps rides. That typed – this Pyrenees trip was the best of my 4 trips by far. In my opinion the Pyrenees have MUCH lighter traffic and seem MUCH more amenable to tying 2-3-4 passes together in a somewhat manageable ride. I completely agree that the lesser known passes offer the greatest reward.
    You mentioned col de Portet as a very high col (2215 according to sign at the parking area) and slightly higher than the mighty Tourmalet (2115 – I think). I climbed that on a moderately warm sunny day and it was toughest col (of about 30) I did (imo). Much like what you relate about Granon – the climbs that end in a national park or NON – ski resort are to me the most memorable. I thought col de Tentes (and Troumouse), Cap de Long, and port de Cabus (one of Andorra’s very few non ski resort climbs) were the best and all ended in dead ends (Tentes might be a little higher than Portet). Obviously these great dead end climbs could only ever be a finish – mid stage climbs have to lead to the next climb!
    Best climbs for the tour vs. best climbs for a cycling trip are not always the same thing (imo) and from my recent experience in the Pyrenees – that is a VERY good thing.
    Though I’ve purposely avoided Alpe d’Huez (though it would have been a tough add from where we stayed), I really enjoyed Tourmalet (we took voie Laurent Fignon, we had a very nice day and were passed by (and met) Laurens ten Dam on top!).
    Thanks for the post (timely for me!) and for all the great pontificating about the racing.

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