Ken Roberts - - Bicycling

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Isere river + Alps: France variety week

07sep26 (riding mostly in early September)

Sharon and I had lots of fun in early September doing rides around different sections of the Isere river -- see map + photos.

That region in the Rhone-Alpes is famous for the big climbs over high mountain passes. We discovered that it's also got lots of very pretty and interesting moderate and gentle riding nearby. Later we noticed that most of our riding was near the Isere river, which shares its name with the highest paved-road pass in Europe: Col de l'Iseran.

Here's the riding we did, from gentler to steeper:

  • Lac d'Annecy west side bike path [ photos ]

  • Aime - Bourg St Maurice bike path

  • around Lac d'Annecy -- half road, half path [ photos ]

  • farms + vineyards around Montmélian - La Rochette - Borgneuf [ photos ]

  • Versant du Soleil "balcony": Aime - Granier - Bourg St Maurice [ photos ]

  • Col de l'Iseran (highest paved mountain pass in Europe) from Val d'Isere [ photos ]

And there's other good riding we've done on previous trips and more exploring we did driving in our car -- so we're eager to go back for lots more . . . also Hiking -- lots of famous spectacular trails around. We enhanced our variety with three days of mountain walking [ photos ].

Our overall strategy: Just like home in USA we got ourselves and our tandem bike to the start of each day's riding by driving our (rental) car.

Details -- read more below . . .


more detail about Isere river valley + Alps riding

what's here:

  • maps

  • route websites

  • rentals

  • list of our rides + future ideas

  • details on routes:

    • Lac d'Annecy bike path [ photos ] + road around [ photos ]

    • farms south of Chambéry to Lac St André [ photos ]

    • farms + vineyards around Montmélian - La Rochette - Borgneuf [ photos ]

    • Versant du Soleil with Aime - Bourg St Maurice bike path [ photos ]

    • Col de l'Iseran (highest paved mountain pass in Europe) [ photos ]

    • Col du Pré east side + Cormet de Roselend pass [ photos ]

  • hiking

  • see also:  overview map + photos.


Michelin 1:200000 maps:  We've long found these very helpful for planning our bike routes, and often that's all we bring with us for navigation out riding.

A great resource for planning a France bicycling trip is the Michelin Atlas France Routier & Touristique -- we've got a copy at home, though we usually don't bring the whole thing with us on trips.

IGN 1:100000 maps (Carte Topographique TOP 100): Helpful for planning bike routes because of the greater detail and topographical info, and sometimes we bring one along with us riding for navigation. Key maps for the Isere river region are: #53 Grenoble Mont-Blanc, #52 Grenoble Valence. We also like to bring with us to France these: #51 Lyon Grenoble, #45 Annecy Lausanne.

IGN bicycle route maps (cyclocarte): The only one we've seen for this region is La Drome a Velo, which includes the lower Isere river west toward the Rhone river, and the southern Vercors plateau.

IGN cycloguide packets: I've got Cycloguide #42 La Haute-Loire à Vélo. The packet contains 24 folded brochures, each one with a cue sheet and map for a different circuit route. Says it's done with FFCT, the French cycle touring organization. So far I haven't seen any packet for a department in the Isere river area.

IGN carte Departmentale (scale around 1:125000 - 1:140000): We've only seen them recently. Might be easier to find in local shops (and easier to read?) than TOP 100. On the ones we own, I didn't see any "chevrons" indicating hill steepness (like on the Michelin maps) which are helpful (or critical?) for bicycle route planning.

IGN TOP 25: Too much detail for road bicycling normally. But sometimes I've found them very helpful for planning and exploring delightful routes on narrow roads thru farms + vineyards. (e.g. 3333OT "Chartreuse Nord" for south of Chambery and St Baldoph toward Lac St André)

route websites

road bicycling routes:


We've found more useful to search for bike rentals in the French Yellow Pages than on the usual web search engines like Google. But we had to make all the exact selections in several menus ("formulaire détaillé"), not just freely enter search words like on most search engines. Here's the sequence that worked for us:

  1. Go to

  2. Select "formulaire détaillé"

  3. to the right of "Quoi - Activité", click on "?", then select "Vehicules, Transports", then select "Véhicules et cycles", and finally get to selection of "location de cycles, motos et scooters".

  4. to the right of "Departement ou region", click on "?", then find "Rhone-Alps" and to the right of it click on "Voir les departements".

  5. Select which area along the Isere by clicking on "Selectioner le departement" to the right of: "Savoie" for Chambery and upper Isere river northeast from there; "Isere" for Grenoble and middle Isere river; "Drome" for lower Isere river west, "Haute Savoie" for around Lac d'Annecy (or Chamonix), "Rhone" for Lyon city + suburbs.

French words that might help for understanding the lists of businesses and their websites: "velo" = bicycle, "VTT" = "velo tout terrain" = mountain bike, "velo de route" = road bike, "velo de course" = racing bike, "velo de ville" = city bike, "rollers" = inline skates, "location" = renting, "vente" = selling, "au bord piste cyclable" = near the bike path.

Areas where we found claims of rentals of road bikes included: Annecy city (alsoin the Sevrier + St Jorioz villages near the bike path west side of lake), Grenoble, Bourg d'Oisans, Lyon, Chambery train station.

Another strategy might be to rent a mountain bike ("VTT") but bring along your own 26-inch tires with not-so-aggressive less-knobby tires for less rolling resistance for riding on paved roads and paths. Mountain bike rentals can sometimes be found at major ski resorts.

My strategy for using a rental bicycle:

(a) Assume that the bike has been poorly maintained.

(b) Assume that all their other customers are clueless about anything more than pushing their feet down on the pedals, so no repair equipment will be supplied, and even what is supplied no one in the previous five years has checked if it works.

Therefore I (1) inspect the bike very carefully for mechanical problems I'd never guess for one of my own bikes; (2) bring all my own tools including 4-5-6-8mm hex wrenches, chain repair kit, etc.; (3) bring my own tube repair + replacement kit + air pump + spare tubes; (4) bring my own saddle; (5) bring my own pedals, along with a serious pedal wrench.

list of our rides + future ideas

Here's the riding we've done, from gentler to steeper:

  • Grenoble bike path along Drac + Isere river (2006)

  • Lac d'Annecy west side bike path [ photos ]

  • Aime - Bourg St Maurice bike path

  • Lyon city streets + paths (2006) [ photos ]

  • Chambéry city bike routes + paths (2006)

  • around Lac d'Annecy -- half road, half path [ photos ]

  • farms south of Chambéry to Lac St André (2006) [ photos ]

  • farms + vineyards around Montmélian - La Rochette - Borgneuf [ photos ]

  • Versant du Soleil "balcony": Aime - Granier - Bourg St Maurice [ photos ]

  • Col de l'Iseran (highest paved mountain pass in Europe) from Val d'Isere [ photos ]

  • (Ken on single bike) Col de l'Iseran both sides, Cormet de Roselend, Col du Petit St Bernard.

  • (Ken on single bike off-road) Cormet d'Areches, Col de la Seigne [ photos ]

Other areas we checked driving our car which looked promising for future riding:

  • Col du Pré east side + Cormet de Roselend pass (northwest of Bourg St Maurice) [ photos ]

  • farms west of the Chartreuse mountains (roughly between Grenoble + Lyon)

  • D76 road with Combe Laval in southwest Vercors plateau [ photos ] (? perhaps as part of a loop with Grands Goulets ?) (? could also add climbing the south side of Col de Rousset, which delivers the "alpine col climb" experience, for somebody based near the lower southwestern end of the Isere river who doesn't want to first make a long drive east ?)

The major area along the Isere river that we wish we could have started exploring but didn't was the lower part of the Isere river west of the mountains and toward the Rhone river.

Lac d'Annecy

Pretty lake surrounded by dramatic mountains, ancient city, pleasant villages and open fields along the way. Easy to have a very nice day of riding here.

The bike path ("piste cyclable") along the west side of the Lac d'Annecy [ photos ] is rather pretty. In addition to nice views of fields and villages alongside, it's often set above the lake, so you get views down to the blue-green water. It's all paved, most decently smooth when we were on it. It's mostly off-road but there are several places where it crosses public motor vehicle roads. There's at least three places to rent bikes along the trail.

I've heard that it somehow continues south beyond the lake toward Faverges and Ugine, but I've never checked it, don't know if some of that is on roads.

Going all the way around the lake [ photos ] I've done twice, once with Sharon on a tandem, and once alone on inline skates -- each time in a different direction. I hope I get to do it again sometime.

I think the distance is around 40-45km. There's no bike path on the east side, so we rode out on the road, and there's some significant hills on it. When we did it counter-clockwise, there was a long steep hill north-bound on a section of road that was fairly narrow. It looked most bicyclists were riding it in the clockwise direction, so they could take that steeper narrower going downhill.

south from Chambéry to Lac St André

Interesting mountains of different kinds, narrow roads thru farms + vineyards, leading to a pleasant lake, connected to a nice city. Bike route maked by signs. We've ridden around here several times in the springtime [ photos ].

We usually start near St Baldoph village which has a bakery and grocery store. Sometimes we first ride into the city of Chambery on "Avenue Verte Sud" bicycle path [ more info about bicycling in Chambery ]. It's all paved and mostly off-road, though there are some crossings of motor vehicle roads. Once in the city of Chambery, the "avenue verte" is mostly on sidewalks or bicycle lanes on the streets, and I think it's a pleasant city with some pretty scenes and shops on a pedestrian steet.  It's mostly downhill into the city, and therefore uphill coming back to St Baldoph, but the climbing feels gentle and the scenery is pleasant, sometimes along the Albanne creek.

I think the signs for the Lac bicycle route started around St Baldoph. First the bike crossed over to the east side of the autoroute and continued alongside the autoroute. Then the route went onto the roads and underneath the autoroute to the west side to continue on more roads (mostly quiet) to the lake. Then some more roads to get back to go underneath the autoroute and retrace the way back to the Avenue Verte Sud bike path.

Around 2006-2007 there were constructing a new bike lane close to St Baldoph, so perhaps they'll modify the Lac St Andre route to take advantage of that.

We like to make the route more of a loop, instead of out and back so much the same way, so here's some variations we've tried (perhaps with some mistakes in my memory):

If going off the signed bicycle route onto narrow country lanes, I recommend using a very detailed map. We use this IGN TOP25 map: 3333OT "Chartreuse Nord".

Going out (south) from Chambery, after the SW-to-NE crossing of the Autoroute at St Baldoph, leave the bike trail and continue NE on D9 toward Challes-les-Eaux on marked bike lane.  At first roundabout bear Right (E) on D5 toward St Jeoire-le-Prieux. Where bike lane ends soon, turn Right (SW) at sign for Le Viager, then make quick Left (SE) and climb hill toward Le Viager. After leaving town, road narrows and pavement gets coarse. Pass by two right turns for Ferme de Bois Plan, then at cross-roads make Right turn (S) toward Ferme de Ramee. At T-intersection turn Left and down hill to another T near the Autoroute rest station. Here turn Left to join marked Lac St Andre bicycle route. (not checked since 2006)

In the return from the lake (north) to Chambery + St Baldoph, when reach Route d’Apremont, the main route goes straight across (marked for Léche and Chacusard), which leads to going underneath the Autoroute. Instead we've tried this: turn Left on Route d’Apremont, then take first Right onto Chemin de En Ballier. Through several curves, and at 4-way crossroads, turn Left. Through several curves, and at end near Chacusard, turn Left. Through Les Routes (old “Les Ruttes”) with several curves, into roundabout of St Baldolph main road, then find a way thru St Baldoph (perhaps with a right turn somewhere to use the newly constructed bike lane) to the Avenue Verte Sud bike path. (not checked since 2006) - [ photos ]

farms + vineyards around Montmélian

We saw from the Savoie route website that there were some road bicycling routes in this area, and we saw from the IGN 1:100000 topo map that it didn't have too many big hills. So we tried riding all on roads and villages we'd never see before [ photos ]

Along the way we saw various signs for named bike routes, and sometimes we followed those, but often we didn't. We saw other riders, and I don't know if they were on any official route, but anyway there lots of quiet and pretty roads around there.  But some were hiller than others, and not all of the roads were quiet.

Here's some of the towns and roads I think I remember:

Started near Planaise (east across Isere river from Montmelian), south thru Ste-Helene-du-Lac, some on the D20, with some hills up to la Chapelle Blanche (which was at the south end of this steep ridge, which we were trying to go around without going over). Northeast to la Rochette, then D27 northeast (lotsa nice farm scenes) to Chamoux-sur-Gelon to near Borgneuf. Southeast to Betton-Bettonet. Northwest to Chateuneuf, with some hills and a pretty bakery along the way at D202+D204 intersection at Maltaverne. Across the Isere river and a long climb up to St-Pierre-d'Albigny. (Next time we'd likely take the D201A cut-off to skip that). Southwest on D201 along the side above the valley with nice views and thru several villages to the city of Montmelian. Riding thru Montmelian, we discovered why "mont" is part of its name - (not sure if there's a reasonable way to avoid that steep climb in the city). Found the old bridge (now car free) across the Isere river, then thru la Chavanne back to Planaise.

Versant du Soleil with Aime - Bourg St Maurice bike path

Great "balcony" views down to the valley from high along one side, also far to big mountains, and close to pleasant village and farms on the "Versant du Soleil" route. Pleasant bakery top in the city of Bourg St Maurice.  Then an easy interesting cruise down the floor of the valley on a paved bike path along the Isere river. [ photos ]

We started from the main parking lot in the city of Aime. Then we paid the price for those big "balcony" views: a long climb thru the village of Tessens to Granier (? maybe around 600 vertical meters ?). But the climb was pretty well designed -- didn't seem to get any steeper than 6% grade -- and the views far and near were so nice that we just pedaled steadily and stopped sometimes for photos (and a couple of times to chat with local residents). We continued a little ways above the Granier village to a picnic table with a big view -- I'd do that again.

There's a variation of the "Versant du Soleil" route with a shorter climb but which misses Tessens and Granier. We checked it out later by car. It didn't seem as pretty. I would do the full big climb again.

Then lots of downhill starting toward Valezan, but then another climb required. Then lots of big views and pleasant villages on the D86 road. Then a long fun descent into the city of Bourg St Maurice. Seemed like I remember an unexpected left turn required while coming into the city. And we took a turn which brought us onto the pedestrian shopping street. But most of the shops were closed at that hour of mid-day. But we found a bakery-tea shop lower down and had a pleasant lunch.

Then we found the start of the bike trail near the bottom of the funicular which goes up to Les Arcs. Four nice things about the bike trail: It had lots of nice curves; It went near the Isere river at several points; It was mostly smootly paved; It was mostly gentle downhill in the direction from Bourg St Maurice to Aime.

Path ended at a road. One last climb up a street underneath the main highway took us into the city center of Aime.

Col de l'Iseran

Col de l'Iseran is the highest paved-road mountain pass in Europe -- and it has some big views of mountains that are even higher. [ photos ]

I had ridden up and down both sides of it before, and noticed that the north side above Val d'Isere was mostly not real steep -- not much above 7% grade, and much of the climbing more like 6% steepness grade. So I thought it could be good for Sharon and I to try together on our tandem. And it was, and we thought it would be worth doing again sometime.

There are lots of ski lifts along the way, which seems to bother some cyclists. But we find we can choose where to aim our eyes and focus our attention, so we look at what we like, and we remember what we liked.


  • south side of Col de l'Iseran: Lots of people think the climb from Bonneval-sur-Arc or Bessans is even nicer, perhaps because the villages are quieter and less modern and almost no ski lifts. My problem with the south side is that it's too long and steep to be satisfying as a climb for Sharon and me together on our tandem. Maybe next time we'll start again from the north, but continue partway down the south side, like to a view of the big "alp" meadow, then turn around and climb just the upper part.

  • Lac de Chevril: Lower and further than our start in Val d'Isere is a pretty lake with pretty mountain views. But riding along the lake also requires riding thru lots of tunnels, not all of them short.  Some of the tunnels have been improved recently. Another variant is to park near the north end of the lake to savor the nice view, then start climbing from there and only go thru a subset of the (most recently improved) tunnels to get to Val d'Isere. On the other hand, starting the obvious main roundabout in Val d'Isere gives a satisfying overall aesthetic for the climb.

  • between Seez and Lac de Chevril: There can be a lot of vehicle traffic (including trucks) on the road, because it's the obvious road connecting the the outside world to the big ski resorts of Tignes and Val d'Isere.  The road is not real wide. Spending lots of time on it at slow speed with vehicles whizzing by is not necessarily a fun experience. Most of the views below and north from Lac de Chevril the lake are not as spectacular as those higher up -- though looking up east to the glaciers hanging over la Gurraz is notable. I've done it in the downhill direction, and it was kinda fun. But I'm not at all interested in trying it in the uphill direction.

Col du Pré + Cormet de Roselend

Col du Pré has a very pretty view on its east side over the Lac de Roselend toward Mont Blanc [ photos ]

If you're going over the higher and more famous Cormet de Roselend pass in either direction, do not miss it. At least make a side trip across the dam and climb partway up the east side of Col du Pré.

But the west side of that Col is kinda steep and narrow. It does not strike me that descending from Col du Pré to Areches is likely to be a fun descent on a bicycle (though I've only done it in a car, not a bicycle). I think the more obvious descent to Beaufort is likely to be more fun because it's mostly a wider road (and I have done it on a bicycle).

On the other had, the west side of Col du Pré is quieter and has some pretty views over its valley, so I would consider climbing up it on my way to reaching Cormet de Roselend from Beaufort.

If looking for some fun + pretty riding, rather than a big accomplishment -- some thoughts:

  • Cormet de Roselend is one of the more pretty and interesting high passes in France.

  • from Bourg St Maurice, the lower part of the Cormet de Roselend climb up to the les Chapieux junction is mostly just a long slog up thru the forest. There are some rocky crags to be seen above, but the percentage of varied interesting views is substantially less than the percentage above les Chapieux.

  • the side trip thru les Chapieux northeast up to la Ville des Glaciers (around 200 vertical meters) is on a (mostly) paved narrow road, and interesting with spectacular views. There's also some pretty (and not real difficult) walking starting from la Ville des Glaciers up to Refuge des Mottets [ photos ]. Or some steeper hiking up to Col de la Seigne [ photos ].

  • the climb above the les Chapieux junction is mostly not real steep, and reasonably interesting, and with one brief but remarkable view of the Aiguille des Glaciers mountain.

  • from Beaufort, much of the lower part of the Cormet de Roselend climb as far as Lac de Roselend is a slog up thru the forest -- the percentage of varied interesting views gets much higher at and above the lake.

  • the unpaved section of road across the Cormet d'Areches pass is pretty rough on a road bicycle. So while it is enticing to use it to make a loop with Cormet de Roselend and Granier and the Versant du Soleil route to Bourg St Maurice, I'd only want to on a bike with a suspension and wider tires (though I don't think knobby tires would be needed for the Cormet d'Areches road if it's dry).


  • If driving to the area more from the Bourg St Maurice side, it makes sense to drive up to somewhere near the les Chapieux junction (altitude roughly 1500m), and start climbing from there up to Cormet de Roselend (about 450-500 vertical meters).

  • Once reaching the pass, it's mostly fairly gentle down to the restaurant at Plan de la Laie (altitude 1822m). So it makes sense to ride down to there and have a snack before turning around -- and then it's less than 200 vertical meters of climbing back to the pass. Total climbing less than 700 vertical meters (2300 ft).

Or perhaps a little further down to get a look at the lake. But the views of the lake from this side are not so remarkable, and road down toward the lake gets steeper, which you pay for on return to the pass. So if willing to work for more views, perhaps it's better to go for even more . . .

  • If have the energy to go down to the lake and climb back out (about 375 vertical meters from Lac de Roselend up to Cormet de Roselend) , then it makes sense to continue west along the lake across the dam and climb (at least partway) up the east side of Col du Pré (about 125 vertical meters).

The total climbing less than 1000 vertical meters (less than 3200 vertical feet) -- from les Chapieux junction over Cormet de Roselend to Col du Pré, then over Cormet de Roselend again back to the start.


Lots of famous spectacular trails around. We enhanced our variety by three days of mountain walking [ photos ]. Vallée des Glaciers was the one closest to the Isere river. Pralognan is famous for access to hiking in the north side of Vanoise national park, but we didn't get time to do that this time - (though we've explored around there on snow in early spring). North outside the Isere valley are great hikes around Chamonix -- and we found it was worth it to drive there.

flaw in Route des Grandes Alpes


see also 2008 report on riding all of the alternate grander route

The northern section of the "official" Route des Grandes Alpes (as of September 2007) is not very "grand" and not very "alpine".

But there is an alternate "grander" route, and now I've ridden the key parts of it (after previous riding the "official" version). The "grander" alternative definitely was more spectacular and more interesting. I think it truly presents the "Grandes Alpes" -- indeed the "grandest" of the entire route from the Mediterranean sea to Lac Leman. Here's some photos.

Thanks to Jobst Brandt for suggesting the Gorges du Trient, and I thought of him when I took the photo of the train alongside the route.

The "official" northern section of the Route des Grandes Alpes goes over Col des Gets (altitude 1170m) to connect between Col de la Colombiere (south of Scionzier and Cluses) and the south shore of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). The "high peak" near there is Roc d'Enfer (2243m).

The "grander" alternate version goes thru Sallanches and Chamonix, then over Col des Montets (altitude 1461m), clearly higher than Col des Gets. Next it can go over Col de la Forclaz (1527m) or down the Gorges du Trient to connect with Martigny. Finally this route could either stay low in the Rhone valley to connect with Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), or it climb over yet one more pass, Pas de Morgins (1369m) back into France. Mountains prominently in view close above the road in that alternate version are Mont Blanc (4808m) and Aiguille Verte (4122m) and other great mountains -- all far higher and more spectacular and "alpine" than the one along the "official" route.

I'm guessing that the makers of the "official" route did not choose that grander alternative because part of it goes outside of France, thru Switzerland. But the mountains along this northern section are the grandest mountains of France. So they properly belong on the Route. To maintain a big Route which avoids getting up close to Mont Blanc massif is a denial of the greatness of the French Grandes Alpes.

Sallanches - Chamonix - Col des Montets: Argument over principle aside, I really enjoyed riding the lesser-known roads from Sallanches to Passy to Servoz to les Houches to Chamonix. I always like being there in the town of Chamonix (this was my first time on a bicycle). I could have used less traffic between Chamonix and Argentiere - (interesting that the day I rode they reserved the tunnel for the bicycles and required the cars to go around it outside.) And less traffic on around the curves up to Col des Montets. Then I liked riding in the valley thru le Buet and Vallorcine to the France-Switzerland border.

Gorges du Trient: After turning off the main road and climbing up to the village of Finhaut I found the unpaved trail to Salvan and the Gorges du Trient, but I did not much like doing its steep section in the downhill direction: much too steep to be fun for me. I met another cyclist taking it uphill. And the gorge was not as spectacular as I was hoping -- at least not most of what I could see from the path, which was lots and lots of trees. Then lower down after I rejoined the road, I much enjoyed the downhills and curves and big views down into the Rhone valley.

Tunnel: Along the way lower down the road goes into a tunnel roughly 500 meters long, and inside it the road changes elevation something like 35-40 meters, for an average steepness something around 7% grade -- so in the uphill direction it might take me up to five minutes to climb thru it. (Photo on Google Earth around the tunnel seems to show an old path carved into the cliffs to the east side of the tunnel, but I have no idea if that path is accessable from both ends, or if it's passable from one end to the other by either walking or riding.)

Possible variations:

  • for bigger views of the Mont Blanc peaks, could try a side-trip of riding above Passy to Plateau d'Assy or Plaine-Joux -- (or could even get higher views by leaving bike at the trailhead for Desert de Platé and hiking partway up that trail - see photos).

  • from Finhaut could try going up to the Emosson lake (the dam is visible from the road north from Vallorcine) -- but I haven't checked that.

  • I also rode over Col de la Forclaz, and I liked that too -- though of course it gets much more motor vehicle traffic than the trail between Finhaut and Salvan.

But I did not get a chance to try riding over Pas de Morgins. I'd be glad to hear reports about it (including Does it offer a great view of the Dents du Midi?)

08sept update . . .

I rode from Martigny to Monthey, and from Monthey over the Pas de Morgins to Evain-les-Bains on Lac Leman, and it worked fine and there was indeed a great view of the Dents du Midi on the climb up the east side of the Pas de Morgins.  Also I rode over Col de la Forclaz from southwest to northeast, and liked that better than riding in the same direction from Finhaut down the Gorges du Trient. But I did like riding from Martigny thru Salvan up along the Gorges du Trient to Finhaut. I also rode up and down the village of Gietraz (between Chatelard and Finhaut) in both directions, so that's another option for adding a climb to the overall route.

Also some riders have mentioned Col de Parpaillon (2650m) (roughly between Embrun + Barcelonette) as an interesting high pass to cross -- although much is unpaved. So that might be a worth alternative to Col de Vars (2108m) for including in "la route vraie des Grandes Alpes".

For more detail see 08sept report.

sampling northwest Italy: Piemonte + Aosta

date: 07sep24

I found several days of pretty and varied riding in September in northeast Italy -- see map + photos.

I haven't seen this region talked about much in English-language forums, but it has a lot to offer for road bicycling . . .

Riding which was some of the best of its kind I've found in Europe or N.A.:

  • ridges of Langhe: for big views out to both sides [ report | photos ]

  • around Gran Paradiso: grand adventure with variety of mountain and valley, hiking and riding [ report ] (as also was the Grand Ferret / Gran San Bernardo loop on previous trip)

  • Colle del Nivolet: for pretty lakes under snowy mountains [ report | photos ]

  • Elva gorge: wild exciting spectacular descent [ report ]

Other riding on this trip I'd be glad to do again:

  • Colle dell'Agnello pass, third highest in Europe [ report | photos ]

  • some of the gentle riding in farmland in Torino + Cuneo regions

On previous trips I also much liked:

  • Colle del Gran San Bernardo + Col du Grand Ferret mountain loop [ report | photos ]

  • Col du Montgenevre + Col d'Echelle loop (near Bardonecchia + Cesana Torinese)

  • Moncenisio / Mont Cenis mountain pass + lake from Susa

Comparing with other regions, I would definitely prefer to do more riding in Piemonte (Piedmont) than Tuscany, but for mountain passes I think so far Südtirol / Alto Adige + northern Veneto still have the edge -- unless you want access to views with more snow. And I think I'm liking the farm-country riding in the Rhone-Alpes region of France (e.g. along the Isere river around Montmélian) a little better because I found more animals to see along the roads -- but if it's vineyards and nut trees you prefer, Langhe has more.

My approach: Just like home in USA I got myself and my bike to the start of each day's riding by driving my (rental) car.


More detail about some northwest Italy riding . . .

Langhe region

This is a hilly area famous for wine (especially near Barolo) -- and I found some pretty riding -- though in the section I rode in I didn't see many vineyards, more fruit and nut trees and fields of hay and maize. Seems like other riders find it pretty too, since as well as various solo and pairs and a group of six -- and I met a bunch of American riders on a tour organized by a well-known company. Also Lonely Planet's very helpful Cycling Italy guidebook has a 3-day tour in this area.

Though I'd heard there was good cycling, I didn't bring any guidance about which roads or towns --  so I just got out my Touring Club Italiano and Michelin maps and looked for the roads highlighted green for scenic, and started driving around. I'd just done two full days of mountain rides, so I wasn't sure I was going to ride at all that day, maybe just scope out some roads to try the next day.

It wasn't more than half an hour before it so pretty that I just had to stop and ride. So I looked for a good place to park, and found it in the town of Murazzano. What seemed special was roads that followed near along the crests of ridges, so I tried to guess a loop route that offered lots of that. And my route mostly delivered -- though I'd change it some for next time.

The roads I rode had mostly pleasant scenery up close, and some nice villages. But what made them special was big views out to the side sustained for a long time while riding. Sometimes to one side and then the other -- sometimes big views to both sides at the same time. 

The two main ridges were on both sides, east and west, of a creek called Torrent Belbo. First I climbed from Murazzano up to the ridge, then north thru Bossolasco + Serravalle Langhe (lots of big views to both sides), then a turn east to go thru Benevello (big views northwest toward the vineyard areas), and another right turn to go north with a fun descent thru Borgomale, down to a bridge which was the low point of the ride, crossing the Torrent Belbol

Around there I started seeing riders with cue sheets, I waved to them and one of them replied with a "buongiorno" (instead of "ciao") that did not sound remotely Italian. So I talked with some who stopped to check a road sign, and there were riding to Alba, said there tour was organized by Ciclismo Classico and they were liking the pretty riding that day (and the overall organization of their week).

I headed a different way, on a long moderate climb that continued (with some breaks) thru Feisoglio + Niella Belbo (some views to the west, but not as interesting). Then the views started getting very good, and descending thru Mombarcaro. A turn west to go near Viglierchi, then a climb with a short steep section to get to the other ridge, and another pretty section to finish at Murazzano.

Afterward I drove my rental car on some on other roads with nice views and vineyards, including starting from north of Bossolasco and Serravalle around "Pedagarre", then turning west to Roddino, north thru Serralunga d'Alba and Solano, then south thru Castiglione Falleto and Monforte d'Alba toward Dogliani.

The only lack I found in the area was not many animals to be seen.

Next time:

  • I'd consider riding the eastern ridge North-bound: because the views seemed to work better that way, and to spend more time with the great views in the southern section climbing up thru them, less time thru the weaker views in the northern section descending moderately thru them.

  • Perhaps try a sort of "figure 8" route, roughly centered around Bossolasco:  Something like . . . start Bossolasco, N thru Serravalle, at next cross-roads turn Left W to Roddino. Then turn Right N thru Serralunga d’Alba, then S thru Castiglione Falletto and Monforte d’Alba to Dogliani. Then climb E thru Somano to Bossolasco. Then S past near Murazzano, then E thru near Viglierchi, then N thru Mombarcaro to Niella Tembo, or perhaps to Feisoglio (or beyond?) taking whatever route W back to Bossolasco seems best.

see photos + map

around Gran Paradiso + Colle del Nivolet

This was a very good adventure for me -- thanks to Sergio for recommending Colle del Nivolet as a climb, and then telling me that a friend had completed the loop.

Gran Paradiso is the highest mountain whose overall base lies within Italy. Monte Bianco and some of its satellite peaks are higher, but the overall Mont Blanc mountain is shared with France. Some of the satellite peaks of Monte Rosa are higher than Gran Paradiso, but the overall Monte Rosa mountain is shared with Switzerland.

The crux of getting around Gran Paradiso with a bicycle (? "circum-cycling" ?) is the north side off Colle del Nivolet mountain pass ("colle" is an Italian word for mountain pass). There's an asphalt road up to the Colle from the south side -- and it continues a little ways over down the north side. There's a paved road from the Aosta valley on the north side up to Pont. But the two roads do not connect. So there's some hiking (with rolling or carrying the bike) required to get between them.

Route:  I started riding early in the morning way low down in the valley from the city of Ivrea (altitude around 250m). I rode north and west, gradually climbing to the city of Aosta and a bit further west. Then I turned south into the steeper climbing thru the village of Introd up into Valsavaranche to Pont. Then I hiked with my bike, first very steep, then mostly gentle, to reach the paved road over from the south, and rode on that up to the Colle del Nivolet (altitude 2593m). So the total climbing from Ivrea was more than 2350 vertical meters (7700 vertical feet), with some flat and slight downhill sections mixed in.

From there it was a long ways downhill to finish the loop. First hairpin curves past blue-green lakes under snowcapped mountains. Then more open curves through forest, another lake, on down thru a long (well-lit) tunnel, narrow ways through some pretty mountain villages, down to the valley floor and the city of Courgne, some gentle riding to Castellamonte, then a moderate climb and moderate descent to back Ivrea.

what I most liked about it:

  • the variety and challenge of the overall route

  • the exciting lower two-thirds of the descent

  • great views from the upper descent section across to the mountains with snow across in France with the lakes below.

  • great views of the snow-capped Gran Paradiso mountains from the hiking section (since Gran Paradiso is not visible from the Colle del Nivolet or its south side road).

what I also liked:

  • riding up through the quiet Valsavaranche the Gran Paradiso national park.

  • riding very early in the morning north from Ivrea.

  • gentler riding much of the return through Castellamonte.

what I did not like:

  • motor traffic on the SS26 highway going west to Aosta -- many sections were not very wide. (Then west above Aosta it got wider.)

  • too many cobble streets thru the city of Ivrea.

avoid some SS26 traffic?

Some sections of the SS26 between Ivrea and Aosta could be avoided by taking other roads on the other side (south or west side) of the valley of the river Dora Baltea. Don't know anything about those roads, but might avoid some motor vehicle traffic, and likely would add more variety to the adventure.

hiking section

There are several alternatives for how to hike between the paved roads from Pont to the north side of Colle del Nivolet. I chose trail #3, which I think was the shortest distance -- because I was eager to hike, and because I didn't know how "ridable" the road sections on the obvious alternative would be. The hiking up trail #3 started pretty steep. The trail was often rocky, and I did lots of "semi-rolling" -- sort of unweighting the bike to help it roll over some the rocks. Much of that semi-rolling was steep -- good that I've got fairly strong arms. There were also multiple times when the rocks were so big that I had to carry my bike on my shoulder for a ways.

My main disappointment was that when I reached the gentle almost flat section I could see that I still had a long distance to go to the pass, but the trail was still rocky enough so that I didn't feel comfortable riding on most of it. At least the rolling was easier, and I kept walking fast while rolling my bike and I felt confident that I would make it through. When I reached the road extending north from Colle del Nivolet, it did look mostly ridable in both directions, though also partly eroded. So I rode it south to the pass. My total time from Pont up to Colle di Nivolet (including rolling + carrying + riding) was about 2 hours.

The obvious alternative would have been to ride up from Pont at first northwest away from Colle di Nivolet. A hiker told me that road was ridable and went through a tunnel, but then the second tunned was not finished, so that's when you start hiking up to reach the other road.

But looking on Google Earth, seems like it could be 5km distance and 300-400 vertical meters of (off-road) climbing to connect between the ends of the two roads. One paper topo map (1:25000) I've got suggests that there is a hiking trail from the road end which is north from Pont but then it goes above the road end which is north from Nivolet, then drops down to connect with the road, or stays level to connect with the road further south toward Colle del Nivolet.

Next time I think I might try that -- because the hiking section might be much less steep and strenuous -- and since I ended up walking my bike at least that far on the gentle section higher up on the more direct hiking trail (I remembered Sergio said his friend took about 1.5 hours to connect, so I'm guessing he took this second alternative.)

Another alternative would be to again take the steeper more direct trail starting west up from Pont -- but then after the steeper section try to find another trail climbing west to hit the Nivolet road much much further north than I did.

long tunnel on south side

In the midst my descent south and east from Nivolet, I think it was east from Ceresole Reale, I encountered a tunnel which was not on my map. I sorta remember the sign said it was almost 4km long (about 2.5 miles?). To me this tunnel seemed wide and well-lit, and sloping significantly downhill the way I was taking it. (I think this is the new SS460, which might be mislabeled on Google Maps [as of August 2008])  I remembered Sergio said there was another road which cyclists could use to avoid the tunnel (I think this is the old road, SS460 Vecchia, which is further south, curvier, and follows the creek). But I didn't see any sign forbidding bicycles in the tunnel, nor any sign pointing to an alternate route, and I didn't want to get lost on some roads I didn't know. It was mid-week with little car traffic. So I got out my flasher light and turned it on -- and rode into the tunnel. It went on and on and down and down. Some cars passed me going fast. To me it felt exciting and fun.

Checking later on Google Earth, it looks like the elevation difference inside the tunnel is something around 300 vertical meters, so that would be an average steepness something around 8% grade. Strikes me that would be a long time to climb at 8% grade with high-speed cars -- so for climbing up I think I'd choose the old road outside the tunnel -- and likely next time also take the old road for riding down.

other ideas for next time

try it in the clockwise direction, because:

  • might be less strenuous and faster to take the off-road section downhill

  • SS26 might have fewer traffic visibility problems in that direction (because it runs on north side of valley, left side in the downhill direction)

Just do the south side up and back:

  • could start from Courgne (or start higher, even perhaps Ceresole Reale)

  • then would have time to hike to the top of Mont Tout Blanc for the great view of Gran Paradiso.

see links to other people's photos + map

Colle dell'Agnello pass

I decided to try this climb because I was feeling strong and confident after riding up the north side of Colle di Sampeyre nearby. I'd heard it was the third highest paved-road mountain pass in Europe. From the descriptions and profiles I'd seen on the web it looked like the main section above Chianale was steeper and longer and higher than l'Alpe d'Huez, and steeper than Stelvio / Stilfserjoch.

This pass is at the frontier between Italy and France, and I rode the Italy side. I started about 8 in the morning from Casteldelfino, with lots of pleasant and pretty riding along a lake and through some villages with stone houses and roofs, mostly moderate climbing, some steeper -- up this metal shed (which I guess was the old "dogana" customs station for the Italian side of the border).  Here there were lots of signs for warnings -- and the start point for an automated time trial for cyclists. I didn't care about my time -- I just wanted to survive riding up to the Colle.

There was little car traffic on that mid-week day, so I felt free to do some "tacking" to make it less steep. And there were pretty mountains and open spaces, and I saw black horses and brown+white cows and stone houses. Good variety of gentle but mostly steeper, going on different sides of the ridges, both switchback sections and sustained straight. I think I was the first cyclist to the top. I was feeling good, so I rode partway into France, down to the Refuge de Col Agnel, which was closed that day. Fun descent that far, but I didn't find it as pretty as the Italian side. Climbed back up to the col, and a French man from his car asked me how the climbing was, and I managed to construct some French sentences that he seemed to understand.

The downhill was exciting and fun. I guess my descending skills have been improving, since I remember when I did not think descending sustained 10% grade sections was fun. Waved to other cyclists going up -- saw a race team car at the dogana station -- looked like they were taking the time trial thing seriously. Fun downhills continued to Casteldelfino, separated by pretty flats and small climbs.

Obviously this one goes on my list of great climbs. The problem for lots of us is finding an excuse to travel there. Though I saw a number of riders who had worked it to be there riding it on a mid-week day in September. My future "excuse" will be the other riding nearby in the Cuneo and Langhe region.

Afterward I drove my car over the pass and all the way down the French side -- and that's how I took the photos (not while I was riding). There were some pretty villages in the Queyras area in France, but I came away convinced that the Italian side is what I'd do again. (Funny how I feel the same way about other paved-road France-Italy border crossings nearby: Larche/Magdalena and Lombarde.)

see photos + more photos + map

Elva gorge + Colle di Sampeyre loop

Not far from Colle dell'Agnello is Colle di Sampeyre (altitude 2284m). There's two routes down its south side, and I took the western one which goes thru the village of Elva. Below the village the road goes into an intimidating gorge which made for a spectacular and exciting descent for me. The gorge has very steeply tilted rock beds, which were especially striking as I looked back up. The road is cut into the steep side, with some tunnels to get thru some of those rock beds. As they sometimes say, "Not for the faint of heart".

Sergio and also a web page have also warned that rocks from above often fall onto that road thru the gorge. I guess I was lucky, since that day I saw only a few small stones on the road in one or two places. My assessment of recent weather conditions were that significant rock-fall was not likely, and that by taking it in the downhill direction I was minimizing the time I would be exposed. (Also the road is often narrow enough so I would not want to drive in a car, because I wouldn't want to deal with backing up from meeting another vehicle going the other way in the wrong place).  But there is the alternate eastern road which avoids the gorge.

I descended the gorge as part of a loop ride (counter-clockwise) over Colle di Sampeyre. I started down on the plain in the town of Busca, rode north and then west to the village of Sampeyre (which had a nice bakery, some of whose products I carried up the climb). The road up the north side of Colle di Sampeyre was narrow with lots of coarser-stone asphalt, which was often eroded. Went under a ski lift several times. I can't say what the views were like along the climb, since it there was lots of mist. From the top couldn't see much to the north either.

Descending the south side was less misty, and seemed prettier. Road surface overall significantly better than the north side, and I was having fun on the descent even before I got into the Elva gorge. (I would not choose to descend the north side unless I first heard of a major repaving of the road). Down the gorge was "Wow!". The road east back to the plain went thru some villages, but I couldn't get excited about it. But then when I got all the way down to the plain I did enjoy riding the gentle SP24 thru the farm country from Dronero to back to Busca.

Lonely Planet's guidebook Cycling Italy has some other ideas for mountain riding in this area.

My thought is that next time I would not try to do it as a loop, instead just focus on the south side of Colle di Sampeyre. I might consider riding up the eastern road to avoid spending lots of time riding slow up the Elva gorge.

photos?  It was a rather cloudy day as I started riding, and the gray continued all the way climinb up the north side from Sampeyre to the Colle. So I was glad I hadn't brought my camera -- until the sun came out while I was in the gorge.

see links to other people's photos + map

more riding . . .

  • Colle del Gran San Bernardo + Col du Grand Ferret passes loop was an adventure that I would try again -- details see story + photos.

  • Torino city. I enjoyed skating around the city and river at night on a previous trip, so it might also be interesting for bicycling.

  • Colle della Maddalena (Larche) looked like it might be worth climbing and descending from the Italian side. On an earlier trip I descended it after climbing from France. Looked like some dramatic crags north of the road but I couldn't see them well in the mist that day, then two or three nice villages a bit lower. One disadvantage of Maddalena is that it gets more truck + car traffic than other climbs because it's one of the gentler + lower pass crossings between France + Italy.

  • Colle della Lombarda: I climbed it from Vinadio on an earlier trip. That seemed like too much work to be worth the views higher up (not unlike lots of other famous climbs in the Alps when started from the "bottom"). If I were to do it again I think I'd drive up to the gentle area around altitude 1700m and start riding from there, and do the side trip to the chapel.

  • Colle della Finestre between Sestriere + Susa: Lots of distance on a remote dirt road up on a ridge with big views. I just didn't think what I could see in those views was all that remarkable. So I'm not planning to ride it again.

future exploration:

  • I also enjoyed some of the gentler riding in farming areas in the overall Cuneo region (though didn't see many animals), but I didn't get at chance to see how to put more of it together into an interesting loop route for bicycling.

  • Looked like there might also be some nice gentler riding north of Torino like around Castellamonte, and perhaps southwest of Torino like toward Pinerolo.

Lonely Planet's guidebook Cycling Italy has some ideas for riding in this area.

  • There's another set of passes to the south of Colle Sampeyre, between Marmora + Demonte, with names like Fauneria + d’Esischie + "dei Morti". I checked out the lower of the south side by driving West-Northwest from Demonte. The road was often narrow and mostly well-paved as far as the village of San Giacomo. Above there it started narrow and with coarser-stone surface that was sound, and I decided to turn back there. All I can say is that what I saw looked promising for bicycling, and if I get the chance I might try it as an up-and-back climb from Demonte (which is on the road west from Cuneo toward the Magdalena / Larche.pass to France).

  • for more riding thru vineyards in the hills (in addition to Langhe), I've heard some people like the Monferrato region.

  • I'd guess that climbing to Pian del Re would offer better views of the high peak of Monviso than Colle dell'Agnello.

see also:  map + photos

la Marmotte

"La Marmotte" is a bicycling event near Grenoble, France which has lots of climbing. Its route starts in Bourg d'Oisans, climbs Col de la Croix de Fer, descends to St Jean de Maurienne, climbs Col de la Telegraphe, descends a little to Valloire, climbs to Col du Galibier, descends to Col de Lauteret and then to Bourg d'Oisans, and finally climbs to l'Alpe d'Huez. The loop with Bourg d'Oisans is around +3800 vertical meters of climbing over 163 km of horizontal distance (+12400 vertical feet over 101 miles). Adding the finish at l'Alpe d'Huez makes a total of around +4600 vertical meters over 176 km.

posted to rec.bicycles.rides on 07aug31:

Russell wrote:

[quote] Yesterday, I rode the 225 km Brevet de Randonneur des Alpes. It's an event that is held every two years and that's similar to the Marmotte with the Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Mollard, Col du Telegraphe and the Col du Galibier

I saw the "BRA" markings today when I was riding the route of La Marmotte.

[quote] Now we just need a few more foreigners to come

My version of La Marmotte today turned out to be more like the Brevet Randonneur Alpes than I expected. I ended up climbing Col du Mollard because the normal descent from Col de la Croix de Fer was closed for work on the tunnels. The good result was that I found that I enjoyed much of the descent from Albiez-le-Vieux.

The bad result was that the extra time spent going over to and over Col du Mollard (together with my late start and generally slow riding) made me run out of daylight partway up the l’Alpe d’Huez climb at the end. But at least I finished the loop back to Bourg d’Oisans. And I know I had lots of energy and endurance remaining to finish the climb -- I just didn’t want to descend it in the dark.

After the previous three days weather, I can be grateful that I didn’t get rained on. But much of my day was spent in the fog. And I got pretty cold on some of the descents, considering it was August - (I should have brought something to cover my legs).

Low point: Approaching Plan Lachat on the climb up the north side of Col du Galibier, feeling like the idea of taking on such a big day of climbing had been stupid, and I had pushed a little too much on the lower part of Telegraphe and then coming south up out of Valloire. Looking at the steep slopes up from Plan Lachat and visualizing struggle and failure.

But then … getting past Plan Lachat into the steep section and finding that I had plenty of energy to get thru it.

Low point: Coming down the south side of Galibier getting blasted by the wind, reaching the main road west down from Lauteret and riding straight into up-valley gusts, legs + arms shivering -- reminding myself not to grab the handlebars too rigidly: stay relaxed even though nothing feels relaxing. Dreading the tunnels ahead.

But then … reaching the tunnels and discovering they had been modernized, and were kind of fun … and a bit warm. Then lower down where it was warmer, finding that I had lots of confidence for descending, when my steering didn’t feel unstable from shivering. Finding that apart from the high-speed car traffic, the descent on the main road from Lauteret west to Bourg d’Oisans was kinda fun, wishing I had more time to stop and enjoy some of the views of the glaciers above and the deep river gorge.

further thoughts

further thoughts later in September:

I think climbing Col du Mollard added about +350 vertical meters of climbing, and I think I climbed about +250m vertical meters up toward l'Alpe d'Huez before turning around. So my total climbing for the day was about +4400 vertical meters (14430 vertical feet), which is the most I've ever climbed in a day.

What I liked about the route:

  • Rochetaillee to the lower lake just north of Allemont.

  • most of the sections above tree-line.

  • descent west down Romanche valley, including the tunnels, most of the way down to Bourg d'Oisans.

  • the satisfaction of finishing the loop and still having plenty of strength to start climbing Alpe d'Huez.

What I did not like so much:

  • most of the climb between the lower lake just north of Allemont up to le Rivier d'Allemont.

  • most of the climb from St-Michel-de-Maurienne up to Col de la Telegraphe.

  • needing to rush thru the loop to allow enough time to do the l'Alpe d'Huez climb

Next time:

  • not try to add the Alpe d'Huez climb.

Take more time to enjoy the views of the glaciers and down into the Romanche gorge, more time to stop in the villages.

Could also choose a different start point . . . e.g. starting in St Michel de Maurienne (or Valloire) would permit riding down the Romansch valley in the morning with the sun behind me instead of in my face, and get to Croix de Fer in the afternoon with good light on the peaks of the Aiguilles d'Arves.

Perhaps not bother making it a loop, skip the less interesting lower sections, by trying . . .

  • out-and-back from Valloire over Galibier to Bourg St Pierre (or perhaps only to La Grave). Or perhaps partway to Briancon.

  • out-and-back starting from half-way up from St Jean de Maurienne (roughly at the junction with the Col du Mollard road) and climb up the altenate road to St-Sorlin-d'Arves, then over Croix de Fer and down to the big lake (or even further down to the low spot just north of le Rivier d'Allemont, then up to Col du Glandon on return to Croix de Fer, then descend thru St Jean d'Arves back to start.


more . . .

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