2018 Part 3:
Le Grand-Bornand to Briancon
Like our ride from Besancon to Le Grand-Bornand a couple of days ago, our ride from Le Grand-Bornand to Briancon could be as short or as long as we wanted it to be. The fastest non-motorway route was 116 miles and 3 hours. Our preferred route was 6 hours and 155 miles. The plan was to ride 7 mountain passes that included some old favourites plus a couple of new ones – the Glandon and the Croix de Fer.
Despite the number of passes we weren’t in a rush to get off today. Last night we’d arranged a later start for this morning and it was almost 10am when we finally checked out. When we got down to the bikes though we discovered a huge street market had sprung up overnight and our bikes were parked up slap bang in the centre of it. Not a problem but a little embarrassing as we slowly rode past all the stalls, avoiding eye contact with the traders and hordes of pedestrians.
Before we could start our journey though both Taj and Kyle needed fuel. Unsure where the next fuel stop was on today’s route we took a brief deviation to the petrol station at Les Villards-sur-Thones. Retracing our steps we headed back up the hill to La Clusaz and from there we made our way over the Col des Aravis. The run down the other side was okay but after we passed through La Giettaz the traffic began to build culminating in a long queue at Flumet due to roadworks.
From Flumet we turned right onto the D1212 and headed towards Ugine and then Albertville. In a rare navigational error though we completely missed the turn for our second pass of the day, the Col de la Madeleine. Instead of taking the N90 and heading towards Pussy, which would have been our start point to ride the Madeleine, we carried straight on. Shame because it’s a nice pass but by the time it dawned on us that we’d gone the wrong way it was too late to turn around.
Instead we rode the 35 miles to La Chambre, the entry point to the Col du Glandon and our now revised second pass of the day. This did save us an hour in time but made virtually no difference in terms of mileage. This is because regardless of which way we travelled, Madelaine or not, we were going to end up in La Chambre. Not only does it provide access to the Glandon, it also marks the end of the Madelaine when heading south from Pussy.
While the Glandon was new to Phil and Taj, Kyle had cycled up it from La Chambre in 2012, and again in 2013 from Le Bourg-d’Oisans. Knowing that it was long climb and aside from the view there wasn’t a great deal up at the top, he suggested we stop half way up at Saint-Colomban-des-Villards for a coffee. The ride to the top was indeed long, and while the road surface wasn’t great, it was very enjoyable and certainly worth riding. It also links up nicely with a lot of other significant passes in the area.
For our purposes today that meant the Col de la Croix de Fer. After cresting the Glandon we came to a junction. Turn right and the road takes you to Bourg-d’Oisans – from where Kyle came in 2013. Turn left, which we did, and the road takes you the 2 miles up to the top of the Croix de Fer, where Kyle headed in 2012. The view up top was spectacular and looking down the other side we could clearly see the ski station of Saint-Sorlin-d’Arves below us.
The short run down to Saint-Sorlin-d’Arves was quite steep but from here the road levelled out a little, until Saint-Jean-d’Arves where we began to descend again. The midpoint on the ride down was marked by the right turn that takes you over Col du Mollard – the route Kyle followed in 2012, and from here we were in a grey rocky wilderness all the way to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. During this time, in a little over 18 miles from the top of the Croix de Fer, we’d lost an incredible 1,500m of altitude – that’s almost 5,000ft.
Passing through Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne we headed down the valley to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne where the traffic was particularly heavy. Filtering through the town we slowly made our way towards the head of the queue. There seemed to be quite a bit of irritation at this act but unperturbed we carried on regardless and at the traffic lights that mark the end of town we turned right and began making our way up the Col du Telegraphe.
The road up the Telegraphe was incredibly busy. In fact as far as any of us can recall it’s been like this every time we’ve been up here. All it takes is a bus, a truck, or just a slow car, and very quickly the traffic starts to build up. The result of this, today at least, was much impatience and nobody willing to surrender even an inch of road. We were no exception to this, equally guilty, but the thing is bikes are usually given a certain degree of latitude. Not today though.
On crossing the Telegraphe we dropped down into the ski resort of Valloire and straight out the other side. At the small hamlet of Les Verneys, a couple of miles up the road from Valloire, we spotted something that caught our attention – the Sculptures sur Paille et Foin. Every winter Valloire hosts a snow and ice sculpture contest. A month earlier it had hosted the equivalent summer competition. Over the course of a week 12 teams of 2 sculptors from all over the world had competed to create works of art made from straw and hay.
Valloire had marked the start of our fifth and penultimate pass of the day, the mighty Col du Galibier, and on leaving Les Verneys the road climbed gently for the next 4 miles. Running alongside the Valloirette river we made our way up the valley floor until eventually reaching a bridge that crossed the river. This is where the Galibier climb starts in earnest and from here it’s a stunning final 5 miles to the summit.
At Les Granges du Galibier, about half way up from the bridge, there’s the barely noticeable Pantani Forever monument. Unless you’re a cycling enthusiast you probably won’t be aware that it’s even there. It’s a memorial to the late Italian cyclist Marco Pantani and honours his historic 1998 Giro-Tour double. It was here on the Galibier during the 1998 Tour de France, at the end of stage 15, that Pantani launched a ferocious attack against then race leader Jan Ullrich.
Overhauling a 3 minute deficit, going on to take a further 6 minutes from the German, Pantani finished the day in yellow, while Ullrich was relegated to 4th overall. The monument is located at 2,301m, the exact point where Pantani began his attack. The monument was inaugurated in 2011, just in time for that years edition of the Tour, and celebrates 100 years since the first inclusion of the Galibier in the race.
The last time we rode the Galibier was in June 2010 when the weather was abysmal. Back then it had been raining down in Valloire when we started the climb. By the time we reached the tunnel, located 70m below the pass road that takes you over the top, it was snowing and the road was white over. With no choice but to use the tunnel we rolled through it and on exiting the other side we were confronted by a full blown blizzard. Today conditions were perfect so we took the left turn just before the tunnel and headed up to the top.
The views from the top were just awesome, both looking back to Valloire and looking out towards Briancon where we were heading. After a brief stop for the obligatory photos we began our descent. The traffic on this side was surprisingly light which made the 5 mile run down to the D1091 at the bottom a really enjoyable ride. To put things into perspective how big this mountain is, by the time we came to a halt at the junction we’d lost 600m of altitude – about 2,000ft – yet we were still more than 2,000m above sea level.
The junction at the bottom where the pass road meets the D1091 represents the Col du Lautaret and while barely noticeable as being a col technically it is one. Turn right here and the road will take you to Grenoble. Turn left and it will take you to Briancon. We turned left and set off on the final 17 miles of our journey, a straightforward 30 minute run down the Lautaret pretty much into the city centre.
Our hotel for the next couple of nights was Hotel de la Chaussee. We’ve stayed here a few times now and it’s another hotel that provides secure parking. This is in the form of a private locked garage that had ample space for our 3 bikes. Being a short walk from hotel we unloaded our luggage first before moving the bikes to the lock-up for the night. We then checked in and fell into our by now familiar routine of shower and change, then retire to local bar and restaurant for the evening.