Ken Roberts - - Bicycling
later this year
earlier in this year
September 2008 : see also revised version October 2009
Let's say there's these fundamental kinds of terrain for road bicycling:
Flat or gentle terrain usually has flat or gentle roads, or any steeper hills tend to be small. The satisfaction of riding comes in easily reaching another place, or in getting to the top of a small rise, and in how quickly the work of climbing is followed by the reward of gliding downhill. The achievement challenges are either to cover long distances or to compete at who can go faster. What makes touring interesting is usually human structures and natural things close to the road, especially water features like lakes and creeks.
Foothills have can have steep roads of substantial length; views out across the lowland which are big enough to be notable; climbs long and hard enough to be satisfying to "conquer"; descents long enough to be memorable as serious fun; sometimes interesting rock formations and waterfalls alongside the road -- as well as all the human structures and water features that make touring in flat terrain interesting.
High mountains can have very long climbs and descents - (long enough to get boring). Views so big that you can only see all of it in detail on days with clear dry air. Challenges include just getting to the top of a big climb at all; sometimes handling a wide range of temperature and weather conditions at different altitudes on the same road. Views can include bigger more dramatic rock formations and peaks closer to the road than typically in the foothills. And much more likely to see snow during the normal bicycle riding seasons -- not just in winter. But they often have fewer interesting human structures.
How is it worth it to choose high mountains rather than foothills or hillsides?
It's worth it when there's sufficient special or extra benefit for the extra effort and cost it takes to ride higher. So for selecting which high mountain roads, it helps to identify what kinds of features can make them special relative to foothills and flat terrain, and identify kinds of extra costs which perhaps could be reduced.
special positive features:
Those are the features I'm going to focus on in different sections below.
Snow is a very special feature of high mountain roads, with a very different strategy for handling it, so I'm going to treat that strategy first, then go to the specific features.
For me views of snow make a big difference in how much enjoy riding in the mountains -- I really like seeing the contrast of bright white and dark rock, bright white with green trees, bright white with blue sky.
My thought is that there's three categories of mountain scenes:
(a) those with such interesting rock or water structures (pinnacles, vertical cliffs, lake, waterfall) that they are sufficiently wonderful without the enhancement of snow - (though often the presence of snow makes them even more wonderful) - (examples are the Sella and Groedner / Gardena passes in the Dolomites);
(b) those with sufficient permanent year-round snow to be wonderful even after all their seasonal snow has melted away - (though the presence of the additional seasonal snow makes them more wonderful) - (examples are the views west from Grosse Scheidegg to the Fiescherhorn + Mönch + Eiger, or on various sectionns of roads around Mont Blanc);
(c) all the other mountain places, which are much more spectacular with substantial seasonal snow than without.
Here's my assessment of how to apply this:
based on the discussion under "why ride high mountain roads?", here's what I'm going to focus on for selection:
pointy peaks or interesting rock formations
I myself I'm not all that impressed by seeing high summits or ridges with a smooth profile. Because the hills and ridges around where I live have mostly smooth profiles, which is nice -- but why should I put in the time and effort to ride high if I'm going to see basically the same kind of shapes? So I prefer to select roads with views (and close views) of pointy peaks.
see also: viewpoints for Mont Blanc mountains (09jun)
For me, snow enhances the interesting visual contrast of almost any mountain view. I've found that seeing the same pass with snow is much more dramatic for me than without. In another section I've discussed the timing strategy for riding near "temporary" seasonal snow. In this section I'll give some suggestions for riding by snow which does not depend on timing -- because it's there all year round. (though usually it's even more spectacular to ride these roads when they are enhanced by additional seasonal snow.)
I love riding near water, lakes or streams or rivers. Wide rivers are rare in the mountains. Streams are pretty frequent (so they're not a strong distinguishing feature for selection). Lakes are not so frequent up in the mountains. And with mountain roads you often get to see the lake from above, which is different (and often more visually dramatic) than on flat or gentle valley terrain.
lakes or waterfalls on loop routes
What I like on a long climb are: variety of curves, some variety of steepness (but not much of steepness too high, or I'll burn out my muscles), pretty villages, nice views across the valley already low down, rock formations or pretty creeks close alongside the road, variety of views.
For me one of the big problems of riding in the high mountains is long climbs that get boring, so what I do not like are mostly long straight sections of constant steepness, and long sections with lots of dense trees on both sides (so I don't see a view).
Also I prefer to avoid climbing up roads where if I ride on the right side of the road, most of the time I'm riding on the up-slope side of the road (away from the side which has the better view outward and downward) -- especially on roads with significant motor vehicle traffic in the uphill direction. Because when such a road makes a sharp curve toward the right, cars overtaking me have limited visibility around that curve, so they might not see me riding until they're close to me. Since I'm climbing I'm slower so I'm spending more time in that limited visibility situation, and the speed difference between the motor vehicle and me is larger.
Here's some roads with climbs I found interesting:
What I usually like for going down are: interesting curves, variety of slopes, little rollers, variety of curves, short tunnels
I usually do not like roads which are too steep, or too gentle, or too much straight.
I think there's wide variety of "tastes" among bicyclists for descents. I think lots of more skillful riders prefer steeper descents than I do. And some people like steep straight roads, so they can attain higher speeds. Those riders need to find a different list from mine.
Here's some descents that I've found interesting:
I usually like seeing interesting human constructions in all kinds of terrain: villages, cities, buildings. There's usually less of it in the mountains, and there's varieties of opinions among bicyclists about which kinds are positive or negative. Myself I like seeing colorful villages and buildings and railways; do not like big power transmission towers, and I'm more tolerant of ski lifts than many riders.
lack of human structures
Some people sometimes (but not me most times) prefer to ride where there's little or no sign of human presence (other than the nicely paved road or well-trodden gravel path).
especially domestic animals, but (non-violent) wild animals are interesting also.
favorite passes - with multiple strong features
Here's my favorites which combine multiple positive features:
favorite mountain loops - with multiple strong features
I love to ride loop routes that go over an interesting mountain pass and around thru an interesting valley, or over multiple high mountain passes. Here's some of my favorites:
other famous loops:
"les Marmottes" (Croix de Fer - Telegraphe - Galibier - Lauteret in France): a great challenge, and I really enjoy certain sections of it (e.g. the descent west from Lauteret, the upper north side of Galibier) but it doesn't make my list of favorites as a total loop, because of some uninteresting sections that go on for much too long, and somehow the lakes and other view features just don't quite come together enough for me like on the Grimsel - Furka - Susten loop. So I feel like I want to just "skim" the best from this area of France with up-and-back rides, rather than riding it as a complete loop.
connect from Sea thru Alps France > Switzerland > Italy
finished riding every kilometer from the Mediterranean Sea over the high
mountain passes of France + Switzerland + Italy to Cortina d'Ampezzo in the
Dolomites northeast Italy.
I didn't do it as a single continuous multi-day ride. Instead I rode most of is as single-day loop routes in different weeks and months over several years. So I rode over lots more passes and mountain roads than would be required to do it as a continuous tour -- something I'm glad for.
Even though I didn't ride it continuously, forcing myself to actually ride every kilometer in the same direction as if I did, exposed me to lots of wonderful roads that otherwise would not have tried.
France: My route started in Nice and Menton in France along the
Mediterranean Sea, then north thru France over high passes (including Restefond
/ Bonette) to Briancon, over Montgenevre into Italy (including going over Colle
della Finestre) to Susa, over Col du Mont Cenis and its big lake and back into
France. Next over Col de l'Iseran, highest paved road pass in Europe, and over
more high passes to Chamonix - Mont Blanc. Then over more passes into
Switzerland and down to the city of Martigny in the Rhone river valley. (I also
rode two different loops to connect with the north shore of Lac Leman / Lake
Geneva in France).
Switzerland: Unfortunately the famous high mountains of canton
Valais of Switzerland which are close east of Martigny do not have any high
passes to ride over, so instead my route went further north into the Simmental
region and east thru Gstaad to the Thunersee lake and the city of Interlaken.
Next over some great high passes going east thru Andermatt to the city of Chur
in the Rhein river valley, and then south to St Moritz and Pontresina in the
Engadin valley, and south over the Bernina pass toward Italy.
Italy: My route stayed high at first, east from the Bernina pass to
Bormio and a side trip to Stelvio pass (Stilfserjoch), second highest paved road
pass in Europe. Next south over Gavia pass, and east to the city of Bozen
(Bolzano) in the Adige river valley. Then climb up into the heart of the
Dolomite mountains and thru those to Cortina d'Ampezzo -- and a loop further
east thru more great Dolomite spires to Misurina.
opposite direction: Because most of my riding was loop routes, putting the other half of the loops together makes up a route in the opposite direction from the Dolomites of Italy thru Switerland and France to the Mediterranean Sea. Except there are two gaps: first between Tirano, Italy and Pontresina, Switzerland - (because I took the train instead. and the railroad follows a more spectacular route than riding the road). Second between Bourg St Maurice and Val d'Isere - (because I do not like the vehicle traffic on that road, so I don't want to ride it slowly going uphill).
ride it continuous someday? I don't think I'll ever ride the whole thing in a continuous multi-day route. It's just not my style. The only section I did in multiple days was Pontresina, Switzerland over Bernina + Livigno to Bormio, Italy (with side trip to Stelvio pass) and over Gavia + Aprica to Tirano, Italy -- which I was happy with. The two larger sections which I'd mostly likely consider for continuous multi-day routes would be:
It's hard for me to imagine doing a point-to-point route in northeast Italy, because the loop routes are so great both in the Dolomites and around Bormio, and because there's so much great hiking and climbing to do on non-bicycling days.
endlessride on the
pistehors.com Hike + Bike forum in response to my
variation, pointed out that ...
my reply on pistehors.com:
Yes those sound like very good ideas: riding over Joux Plane and Corbier. And much shorter distance than my alternate route. I’ll have to try riding those. Sounds like a simpler fix to the “flaw” I was feeling. I’ll put those ideas on my web-page report.
Regarding traffic thru Chamonix, thanks for drawing attention to that. I don’t have much problem with the non-primary roads thru Servoz + Vaudagne to Les Houches and then west of the main road going into Chamonix from the south. But then north thru Argentiere to the Col des Montets, I agree there’s more traffic on some road sections which are not wide (and possibly some limited visibility curves?). Something that might help with the final curves up to the Col des Montets is the opening of the Tunnel des Montets.
Continuing north thru Vallorcine + the frontier at Chatelard + over Col de la Forclaz, my memory is that the road seems a little wider—more like lots of other roads included in the Route des Grandes Alpes, though perhaps more drivers tend to drive it at higher speeds than lots of other mountain roads (though I doubt there’s a shortage of high-speed drivers on the road thru les Gets to Thonon-les-Bains). I might not want to ride it at a busy time, but mid-week on non-peak-holiday season seemed OK for me.
Between Chatelard and Martigny, the main road road can be avoided completely by riding (steep) up thru Gietroz to Finhaut, then the dirt road in the Gorges du Trient down to le Tretien and then (again paved) thru Salvan to Martigny.
And I take your point about the seriousness of climbing over the Col de Joux Plane. One report says it has a total vertical of 1000 meters, finishing with about 400 meters at steepness around 9-10% grade. Sounds at least as hard as any other climb on the normal Route des Grandes Alpes - (and I suspect harder than climbing thru Servoz + Vaudagne + Chamonix over Col des Montets).
my second reply on pistehors.com:
I’m not sure the views of Mont Blanc from Col de Joux Plane are going to satisfy me.
I took a further look at the map, and I’m measuring Joux Plane as around 32 km from Mont Blanc.
But I remember from riding other passes on the Route des Grandes Alpes that I had other views which were closer than that, and I wasn’t that satisfied. Like I remember seeing MB while climbing the southeast side of Col des Aravis, and I think that’s about 28 km from MB, and climbing from Hauteluce up the south side of Col des Saisies I remember seeing MB, and now I’m measuring that as only 25 km away, and I remember feeling that I really wished I were seeing it closer.
What was a satisfying view of Mont Blanc for me: riding on the Combloux road between Sallanches and Megeve—about 9 km away. also from Col du Joly—which I haven’t ridden over (yet—so far I’ve been deterred by the lack of asphalt).
On the other hand, seeing le Mont Buet close up sounds pretty good.
Maybe my problem is that I’ve just been “spoiled” by riding too much on spectacular roads.
These two climbs add substantial vertical and steepness of climbing over the official Route des Grandes Alpes thru les Gets to Thonon-les-Bains.
I've seen a report that the road up the north side of Col de Joux Plane from Samoens climbs about 1000 vertical meters, and finishes with about 400 vertical meters with steepness around 9-10% grade. And that the south side from Morzine climbs about 700 vertical meters, including two sections of about 200 vertical meters at around 10-11% grade, and other sections around 9-10%.
I've seen a report that the road up the northwest side of Col du Corbier from Seytroux thru le Biot climbs about 500 meters, including some sections of about 100 vertical meters each with steepness around 9-12% grade. And that the southeast side from la Solitude thru Bonnevaux climbs about 400 meters, including a section around 9-11% grade.
the grander Route of the Grand Alps of France, 08sept
see also the alternate simpler fix
About a year ago I first pointed out the deficiencies of the official Route des Grandes Alpes and proposed some "grander" high passes, especially in its northern sections. Now I'm even more convinced that the alternate northern section thru Chamonix and Martigny to finish in Evian-les-Bains on the shore of Lac Leman is grander and better -- because now I've ridden over those grander high passes, and connected every kilometer between them.
It's also much longer than the "official" route from Scionzier + Cluses over Col des Gets to Thonon-les-Bains. And instead of staying only in France, it goes thru Martigny and Monthey in Switzerland. But that's in order to include the grandest mountain roads with views of the highest peaks of France.
list of passes + towns
Here's the "grander" northern section which I've now finished riding through, starting from around Cluses and Scionzier:
optional side trips
how it's grander
Here are some ways the longer route to Lac Leman thru Switzerland is more spectacular than the "official" Route des Grandes Alpes over Col des Gets to Thonon-les-Bains.
Also this northern section is way "grander" than most of rest of the Route des Grandes Alpes south of Barcellonette. My feeling is that if the additional length of this grander northern section is a problem, then skip some of the southern sections to make time for it.
concerns along this section
Here's some concerns about riding from Sallanches thru Chamonix and Martigny to Evian-les-Bains:
Here's how I remember climbing from Monthey to Pas de Morgins: From center plaza of Monthey, go south on main street toward Choex, to and thru wood covered pedestrian bridge. Then at first climbing SSE toward Choex. turn R for Chenarlier + Outre Vieze (idea is to roughly follow SE side of Vieze creek), roughly W and S with a couple of zigzags, then steady SW, then down + curve sharp R, cross creek and climb NE a ways up to Troistorrents. turn L to climb SW toward Champery, cross railroad tracks, a little ways further then turn R at sign for Morgins, climb steeper -- with nice views E + SE across valley, and views close to Dents du Midi (highest summit is 3257m). Higher up road goes W thru woods -- no more views, but pleasant enough. All was on good pavement, except some erosion near the top. Rejoined main road and took that W up thru Morgins to Pas de Morgins, continued down other side to pretty lake in town of Chatel.
I have the whole way between Evian-les-Bains thru Martigny and Chamonix to Sallanches in both directions, and I liked it both ways. Here's some thoughts on how I might make ride it next time if I were going north-to-south:
What about making a loop between Cluses + Sallanches to the south and Thonon + Evian-les-Bains to the north? one side by the "official" route and the other by the "grander" route? Some thoughts:
anyway there's so many shorter sections that I'd gladly do again as loops (or up and back):
During 2008 I rode from Martigny to Monthey, and from Monthey over the Pas de Morgins to Evian-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 Gietroz (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 worthy alternative to Col de Vars (2108m) for including in "la plus grande Route des Grandes Alpes".
The Mont Blanc massif is really spectacular, and I'm glad I got to ride around it. I got to see lots of it on the non-southern sections, and I would gladly ride those again -- and next time check out some of the optional side trips on the west and north sides.
But in the southern sections the paved-road passes are too far from the Mont Blanc massif, so for most of those I would take some alternate strategy:
(a) time my tour to ride them when there's still some seasonal snow on the ground to make them more spectacular -- likely early season soon after the passes open (say in May or early June).
(b) skip the southern sections, instead start in Sallanches (or Megeve) and finish with the "side trip" from Aosta up thru Courmayeur into the (Italian) southern Val Ferret. (Instead perhaps "skim" the the best paved-road sections around the south side by making a "base camp" around Beaufort and riding Cormet Roselend and the side trips.)
(c) replace some of the paved-road passes with hiking over dirt-path passes (Col de la Seigne (very rough + possibly muddy) instead of Petit St Bernard) - (? Col du Joly instead of Saisies + Megeve | Aravis + Colombiere, but I haven't checked that at all ?).
list of passes + towns
Clockwise around Mont Blanc, starting from Italy:
I've also done a route in the counter-clockwise direction, but that included three or four passes with substantial sections on dirt: Gorges du Trient, Cormet d'Areches, Col de la Seigne, Col du Grand Ferret.
Sections I liked and would gladly to again:
concerns + changes
Here's some things I liked less, and might try to avoid next time:
Most of these problems are addressed by taking a different strategy for the southern sections -- see above under "overall". Basically my feeling about the southern side is that I like the paved-road sections (and side trips) around the upper part of Cormet de Roselend, and the rest I'd try to work around. Except that I like the Aravis mountains much better with seasonal snow on them -- but that's true of lots of mountain roads in Europe.
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