Short tour of the Alps
In July 2014 I made a long anticipated tour of the Alps, with the intention to ride many of the great climbs. Unfortunately, after ten years of the weather treating me kindly, I had a poor week, with rain, low visibility and even snow above 2000m. If it wasn't quite the trip I was looking forward to, there were still plenty of memorable moments and beautiful places. I will certainly go back and hope for better luck next time.
I have included details of the route below, together with recommendations on the places I stayed and ate at.
I flew into Geneva, arriving late afternoon. I have tended over the years to leave my box at the airport but on this occasion I took it in a taxi into the city. One taxi driver refused to accommodate me but the next put the back seats down and fitted the box in easily. I stayed at the Ibis Hotel Nations, who allowed me to store the box there until my return. The hotel was quite reasonable for Geneva and the staff exceptionally helpful. They provided me with a free public transport pass, which allowed me to use the nearby tram to get to the waterfront and the old city. As a sign of things to come, it was raining heavily in the evening. Having reassembled my bike, I made my way to the old town and ate a small Italian restaurant called La Cittadella. It was very expensive for what it was.
Day 1 - Annecy to Bourg Saint Maurice - 103km - 1877m ascent
There is no direct train from Geneva to Annecy, so I cycled 9km through the city and across the border into France to the small town of Annemasse. Direct trains are infrequent but the one at 8.30am got me to Annecy in an hour.
From Annecy train station it is a short ride to the lakeside, where one can pick up the cycle route to Albertville. It is a well surfaced cycle way, separated from traffic, which for the first 17km pretty much hugs the lakeside. It was an easy and scenic start to the trip. From the bottom of the lake, the cycle way heads east for another 19km towards the small town of Ugine, dominated by a large factory. On this stretch I fell in with another cycle tourist, Joosd from Holland, who had been battling with the weather for days on end by that time. When I joined him, it duly began to rain, keeping up for much of the day. It was good in such conditions to have a little company.
We stopped for a sandwich and coffee in Ugine and then headed up the D67, a winding road which rises 500m over 7km. It was a rough surface and I was glad to be climbing rather than descending. There was virtually no traffic on the road. After a short descent, the road merges with the busier D925, which climbs gently to Beaufort. Beaufort is a very pretty mountain town and we again stopped for a drink and a pastry and some respite from the rain.
The proper climb to the Col de Roselend started - 20km, with a near 1300m ascent. It can, apparently, be very busy but the road was empty that day. Visibility was quite poor but it was good enough to know it was a spectacular road and the day fortunately cleared a little when we reached the lake. We had some hot chocoate and waffles in a wonderfully located hotel perched above the water, which had great views. Refuelled, we covered the last kilometers to the top a little more easily.
It was incredibly cold at the top. I dived into a shelter used to store rubbish and got an extra layer out of my bag, put on some glove liners and a pair of longs and a cap for the descent. Despite this, the first few kilometres of descent were very cold. In better conditions it would be a great ride and I even managed to enjoy that day. I parted from Joosd at the bottom. The day had been a good deal more pleasant for someone to talk to. We were both due to ride over the Iseran the next day but he was going to skip it because of the weather.
I stayed that evening at the Hotel Arolla. It is a pretty basic hotel, where you let yourself in and out using a passcode. The big upside was that they had a drying room. My socks, gloves and coat were sodden from the rain. My jacket, a Rapha raincoat, had been fantastic at keeping the rain out but my tops were wet from sweat. Thankfully it all dried out overnight.
I didn't see too much of the town but it seemed a thriving place. I ate at the Refuge Restaurant, which was very busy and had a good atmosphere. It served very large portions of Savoyard food, which seemed perfect after a hard day.
Day 2 - Bourg Saint Maurice to Modane - 78kms - 1375m ascent - distance ridden
Planned route 108kms - 2500m ascent
The next day was a drier, if still a cold day. The route to Iseran follows the D902, starting gently for the first 10kms and then kicking into a long climb. Col de Iseran is signposted as being 43kms away. The ride is fairly busy at the beginning, with some heavy vehicles but it thins a little as the road climbs higher. The road rises around 1000m over 25kms to Val d'Isere, passing through a series of tunnels. It began to rain again as I entered the resort, so I popped into a bar for a drink. By the time I'd finished my body had cooled and I realised that the weather outside at around 1850m was freezing. I was shivering. I spoke to the bar owner about the weather, who told me it was snowing on the tops. I decided it was not going to be possible for me to get though those conditions and asked whether I could get a taxi to take me over. Fortunately it is a resort with taxi drivers with plenty of experience of tricky conditions. A driver duly turned up, put my bike in the back and drove me over the Col d'Iseran down to Bonneval at a similar altitude on the other side. As predicted, it started to sleet when we were above 2000m and turned to snow as we went over the pass. It looked an incredible road from the seat of the car but I felt I'd made the right decision.
From Bonneval, which is an attractive village, I continued my journey, stopping at Bessans for a snack. The road descends much more gently on this side of the pass and is broad and sweeping but gets busier as one descends. At Sollieres Sardieres, I decided to come off the main route and follow a sign for a panaromic route to Modane, using the D83, which eventually merges into the D215. Having missed the Iseran, I still had plenty in my legs, so I climbed the 200m ascent over 6kms with relative ease. It was a lovely road, with very little traffic and some fine views and a much better alternative to the D1006.
The road came out very close to the train station, which I was staying opposite at the Hotel Commerce.
Modane hasn't too much to recommend it, other than as a convenient stop off. There is a ribbon of restaurants and hotels by the railway, where I spent my evening. The hotel was perfectly adequate. It isn't staffed overnight, so you have to let yourself in and out. I ate at Il Peppucio, the only restaurant which had many customers that evening. The food was not great but the atmosphere was good.
Day 3 - Modane - Saint Jean de Maurienne - 29km - 500m descent
Saint Jean de Maurienne - Croix de Fer - Glandon - Saint Jean de Maurienne - 64kms - 1670m ascent
The third day I had planned to do the most difficult ride of the trip - over the Telegraph and Galibier and then climbing the Sarenne, to stay at Alpe d'Huez. The forecast, however, was for snow on Galibier and the prospect of undertaking that ride in such poor conditions did not appeal. By travelling to Alpe d'Huez, I was also commiting myself to a very difficult ride the following day, with again little sign of change in the weather. I decided to cut my losses and do something more manageable.
I booked a hotel in Saint Jean de Maurienne and rode there quickly after breakfast. The road ran parallel to the motorway and was not much used but equally not very attractive. Having left my luggage at the Hotel St Georges, taking only some food and some layers with me, I set off to climb Croix de Fer. The route follows the D926 for 29kms. There are two sections at 4km and 12kms when the road flattens and from 15kms to 22kms it is fairly gentle. I had a pizza in a nice looking restaurant by the side of the road which sat heavily on my stomach. Combined with the increase gradient, the last 7kms felt tough. The road felt quite remote at times, so I was amazed at the size of the ski resort when I came across it.
At the top of the climb there were a fair few other cyclists who had come from different directions. It was cold with poor visibility again, so I was glad to have some extra layers to put on for the descent, whereas a number of them were going to freeze on the way down. From Croix de Fer it's about a 3km descent to Col de Glandon, from which I descended all the way to La Chambre, another 21kms below. The descent from Glandon is sharper and was, when the clouds cleared a little, very scenic.
I cycled back fast from La Chambre to the hotel on the D1006 - a poor choice, as it was a busy and unpleasant road - there is an alternative which I used the next day. The Hotel St George was a comfortable and welcoming hotel. Saint Jean de Maurienne was not particularly picturesque but it had more going for it than the previous two towns. I ate at a restaurant called La Gavroche, which had an excellent set price menu for 29 euro. It was by far the best meal of the week, with very friendly staff and a bustling atmosphere.
Day 4 - Saint Jean de Maurienne - Col de Madelain - Albertville - 76kms - 1549m ascent
Had I stuck to my original plan, this day would have started with climbing the Col de Glandon from Bourg d'Oisans. I was glad I had adjusted. The day began pretty brightly and for the first time in the whole ride I was able to ride in a a short sleeve top. Rather than follow the D1006 to La Chambre, I cut off onto the D74 and then the Route de Iles, both of which were traffic free and pleasant.
Just outside La Chambre, the 19km, 1500m ascent of the Col de Madeleine begins. It's tough, with the kilometer markers showing you that average gradients are as much as 11%, with long stretches at 8%. There were, for the first time, quite a lot of cyclists on the road doing the climb. It became colder as I ascended and by the time I reached the top, visibility was pretty poor.
I stopped at the restaurant and had some pasta, before putting on some more layers for the descent. Despite the conditions, it was a fine descent, I think more attractive on the northern side, than the ascent I had made.
At the bottom of the descent, I took the D66, which was an attractive road which went through a succession of small villages, before finally taking the D990 which brought me to my hotel on the outskirts of Albertville. I stayed at L'Auberge de Costaroche, which was pretty basic and not that convenient for the main centre. That said, it was a short walk from there to the medieval city of Conflans, which was a very charming place. The sun briefly shone for a late afternoon drink in the square. I returned later for a meal at L'Authentic, unfortunately inside, as it was raining again. The food was fine, if nothing special.
Day 5 - Albertville to Geneva - 100km - 800m ascent
I had intended to take a high route to Faverges along the D12 but in the morning there was low cloud and rain again, so I decided to use the Albertville Annecy cycle way. At Faverges, I picked up the D12 and began the climb to the Col du Marais. At just under 10km and rising 325m, with a downhill stretch in the middle, it is a relatively easy but pretty ascent. The road then descends a couple of hundred metres to the town of Thones, where I stopped for a sandwich. From there, I took the least pleasant road of the whole trip - the D909 towards La Clusaz. It was a very busy road and a stiff climb - it rises around 320m over 8km. It may be better to take minor roads parallel to it along the valley floor, although that would require a very steep climb to rejoin the road near Saint Jean de Sixt.
At Saint Jean de Sixt, I briefly joined the D4 and then rejoined the D12 towards Bonneville, a 22km descent along a quiet road in improved weather. The Gorges du Borne, towards the bottom of the descent is particularly attractive. In Saint Pierre en Faucigny I took the D19. The ride from here to Geneva, covering the last 30kms, was pretty flat. Whilst not in anyway spectacular, the road was quiet, as was the D2, which took me near to Annemasse. I rode the last few kilometres into Geneva and back to my hotel amazed at how little traffic there was on a Saturday afternoon. It seems to be a weekday city, which empties on the weekend.
In the evening I ate again in the Old Town. Thankfully the weather had improved and I could enjoy a meal outside for the first time on my trip at the Restaurant Hotel de Ville, which was expensive but had a good atmosphere.
I had the chance in the morning to have a look around Geneva at more leisure. The weather had improved and the sun was shining. For a good cheap lunch, I can recommend the Restaurant Chez ma Cousine, which just serves chicken with potatoes or salad, on the Place du Bourg-de-Four, which is a very pretty area.
Having packed my box the night before, the trip back to the airport and return were unhurried and straightforward.
There is no getting round the impact the weather had on this trip. This was a route built on the pleasures of cycling the high routes and the magnificent views that brings. In truth there was not too much to see. In the evenings, the towns I was staying in were pretty functional places on the whole and could not compensate. It would have been an entirely different story had the weather been good.
As it was, I had glimpses of the magnificent scenery. I think the route I chose was a good one. The adjustments I made were sensible and suited better the conditions and my ability than the one I had planned. I would recommend it and hope you have the weather to bring out the best of it. I'm sure I will return.