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 inrng.com/roads