With a first day of great climbing behind us, we enjoy a quiet night in Bonneval-sur-Arc, a rustic mountain village in the upper reaches of the Maurienne Valley. That’s where Jérôme and Julien plot their second day of climbing—and there’s no question where they will start their itinerary: on the mythic Col du Galibier.
Words/Images: James Startt
To most cyclists riding in the Alps, the Galibier is like an old friend. Its 2,645-meter (8,678-foot) summit is often the high point of the Tour de France and it’s been crossed regularly since the Tour’s first foray into these mountains in 1911. The Galibier—which separates the Savoie region from that of the Hautes-Alpes at the beginning of the southern French Alps—is on the bucket list of any self-respecting cyclist.
While riders often climb the southern face from the alpine town of Briançon or from Bourg d’Oisans, at the foot of L’Alpe d’Huez, there’s no question that our weekend warriors want to attack the Galibier from the north. “When you ride the Galibier you have to do the northern face. It’s longer and just more mythic,” says Jérôme, a longtime mountain guide in the region. “There are false flats mixed with steep pitches and the scenery changes all the time. There is so much variety.”
Before leaving the Maurienne Valley, one must first cross the Col du Télégraphe, a 1,566-meter (5,138-foot) pass that some consider a northern extension of the Galibier. And on this autumn morning, it not only provides an ideal warm-up, but also a final glimpse of the fall colors, because most of the Télégraphe ascends through the trees with their colorful, ever-changing leaves.
Descending into the picturesque ski town of Valloire, we stop at a fountain in the center and refill our bottles before making our way up the long river valley toward the Galibier itself. But while the road climbs only gently for the first few kilometers we’re soon surrounded by imposing mountain peaks like the Massif des Cerces, a hint of things to come. And suddenly, as we turn right at Plan Lachat across the Valloirette river, the real climbing begins.
There’s still 8 kilometers of climbing to come, mostly at a 9-percent grade. The pitches instantly increase and are mixed with a series of switchbacks. Soon, rocks replace the last vestiges of greenery; we are at one with nature, climbing all the time. And after passing La Ferme du Galibier, which still actively produces cheeses from its cows and sheep, we get our first real view of the Galibier summit.
“When you start the real climb, you are quickly transported into a completely different universe,” Julien says. “It’s just so totally unique!”
While the road levels off slightly as we climb through fields of rocks, the daunting final switchbacks can be seen several kilometers away. Arriving finally at the narrow tunnel that allows traffic to avoid the technical road to the summit, Jérôme and Julien quickly turn left. They, of course, want to savor the final pitches and make their way to the true cime [summit]. It’s perhaps here where one feels the presence of the Tour de France the strongest, where we see the names of famous pros painted on the pavement from the race’s most recent visits, including this past July.
Finally arriving at the top, Jérôme and Julien stop momentarily to take in the views, because, from the remote Galibier summit, one gets a distinctly on-top-of-the-world feeling. Julien, who has climbed in his distinctive Gore Bike Wear Power 2.0 Thermo jersey, now pulls out his Gore-Tex Shakedry jacket and zips it up for the eye-tearing descent, where the temperatures quickly drop and the winds increase in the thin mountain air. “Its ability to cut the wind and transmit the heat of the sun are incredible,” he says.
And, soon enough, the two are bombing around the first hairpins on their way down, only to stop off at the imposing Henri Desgrange monument to pay their respects to the founder of the Tour de France, before making their way toward their one final climb in this weekend of alpine adventure.