Photography: Camille McMillan
Every road cyclist knows about Alpe d’Huez, the iconic climb that has been the sport’s benchmark since Tour de France first ascended it in 1952. Each year hundreds of thousands of amateur cyclists flock to this, the ultimate segment, to test their mettle… but what if there were other, more beautiful and equally challenging climbs just round the corner? Strava teamed up with Phil, a local guide, to go exploring.
1. Col de Sarenne
Alpe d’Huez is a dead-end road, right? Wrong. Carry on through the ski resort, climb a bit more, and you’ll reach the 1,999m Col de Sarenne. From there you can descend the other side back into the Oisans valley. It’s a road that, when the 2013 Tour de France announced it would climb Alpe d’Huez twice, many people did not know existed. The Tour riders that year complained about the descent almost as much as they complained about the double punishment up the climb – it was, they said, in poor repair, narrow and bumpy and dangerous. It is in truth pretty poorly maintained… so it’s much more fun to go up it. Start at the dam on the main route to the Col de Lauteret and head off into the wilderness. Stunning, deserted landscapes will open up and, unlike on Alpe d’Huez, you’ll likely have the road all to yourself.
In the winter the locals take this back route to the ski resort of Deux Alpes. In the summer it’s a beautiful rustic road through tall forests that leads on to a balcony road hacked out of a sheer cliff face. The early slopes are steep, but it levels out for an average of 7% over its 5.5km, taking you from 965 to 1,326m elevation.
3. Col du Solude
An absolute gem of a road, with a little bit of gravel riding thrown in. Take the back route out of Bourg d’Oisans and pass through four pitch-black tunnels (note: bike lights are a requirement in the French Alps because of tunnels like these). Then continue up on a breathtaking road under overhanging rocks to the village of Villard-Nôtre-Dame.
Above Villard, you’ll pass through dairy meadows and the road will deteriorate into a gravel track – perfectly passable on a road bike – that winds across the mountainside. There are beautiful views across to Alpe d’Huez itself, before a short final haul up to the col. It’s just above Villard-Reymond, at 1,620m the second-highest village in France, and extremely peaceful. The descent to the Col d’Ornon is twisty and steep and takes some concentration.
“This is my lunch ride,” says Phil, who is lead guide at local company More Than 21 Bends. Some lunch ride! Starting just outside Bourg d’Oisans on the Col d’Ornon, this tranquil segment averages 10%. First you ascend a series of stacked switchbacks, an incredible feat of engineering.
Peep over the edge to see the loops of road piled below you if you dare. Then the road heads up through the woods to a picturesque village. There’s a freshwater fountain just before the top where you can fill your bottles and quench your thirst.
5. Col du Sabot
The stunning Col du Sabot is a dead-end climb, but that’s not a problem because you get to see the amazing views twice. It’s a road that has everything: mountain vistas, switchbacks, Alpine meadows, waterfalls and a tough last kilometre – 11% – that takes you to an altitude of 2,108m.
The climb starts at Vaujany and you’ll ascend past a cable car station for skiers before reaching Le Collet (1,400m). After that, there’ll only be cows and sheep to appreciate the high Alpine valleys with you. It’s arguably more difficult than Alpe d’Huez, as the percentages stay high all the way up its 14km length.
6 & 7. Villard-Reculas climb and Villard-Reculas to Huez
The climb to Villard-Reculas starts by the Lac du Chambon, site of the brutal Alpe d’Huez Triathlon’s cold swimming course. From there it climbs easily for 8km or more up a wide, steady road. After the village (and a coffee stop perhaps) tackle one last rise towards Huez village on bend 5 of the Alpe d’Huez climb.
The Reculas to Huez segment is a stunning balcony road that gently takes you up and over the Pas de la Confession – the ‘Confession Pass’. From Huez village you can reccy around two-thirds of Alpe d’Huez as you descend.
8. Le Molard
A stunning, shady backwoods road through deep, fragrant pine forests. The village of Le Molard is tucked away at the top, and if you’re feeling adventurous there are trails to explore in the woods behind. The climb is a gentle, shady 2.6km at an average of 7%.
How well do you know your local area? Strava’s route builder functionality can help you find the road less travelled, even in areas you know well. Just turn the global heat map layer on within the settings of route builder to identify popular roads and trails you never knew existed. Go explore, find new challenges and spice up your training rides!