Col de L'Iseran - one of the most spectacular cycling climbs in the world.
Photo by PJAMM contributor Ard Oostra, Switzerland.
Col de L'Iseran, located in the French Alps, is a magnificent cycling climb.
This is the highest paved pass in Europe and has been included seven times in the Tour de France as of 2019.
Col de L'Iseran is part of the Route des Grandes Alpes, a tourist itinerary that begins in Thonon-les-Bains and travels over many of the most spectacular passes in France and Europe, including Col de L'Iseran, Galibier, d’Izoard, and Bonette; alternate route includes Croix de Fer and Madeleine.
Col de L'Iseran is #30 in Hugh Merrick’s book The Great Motor Highways of the Alps, in which he writes that “the impression that emerges, rather like the stunning vistas of the Chalanson and Albaron glaciers as one nears the summit from the southern side, is of a feat of road building that was also in part a vanity project.”
Aerial view of Col de L'Iseran
Photo: Carreteras Peligrosas
Is Col de L'Iseran truly the highest paved pass in Europe?
Yes. While Pico de Veleta, Spain, is the higher “road” at 3,357 m / 11,013’, it ends in a dead end so is not a pass. Even though Cima de la Bonette (2,685 m / 3,809’) is technically a pass, it is just a through road to the peak and not the functional “pass.” Thus, Col de L'Iseran, with its functional col/pass at 2,633 m / 8,638’ can truly claim “highest paved pass in Europe.”
How to Cycle Col de L'Iseran from Val d'Isère
Misfire #2 (to our disadvantage) - Northern Approach: We started much lower down the mountain than we should have. We recommend starting the climb in the famous ski resort town of Val-d-lsère which is an easier but much safer climb than starting at the bottom of the true ascent in Sainte-Foy Tarentaise. The climb from Val-d-Isè (Map) is what we chart on our website and is the most scenic part of the climb. For those who want the greatest challenge and can stomach narrow roads, big trucks and a half-mile tunnel can begin the climb another 13 miles down the hill to the north (Map), but we don’t recommend it. The shorter route is 10.1 miles/3,039’/6% while the longer route is 23.4/6,091/5.5%.
There are two tunnels on the longer route. While the lighting is
adequate in the tunnel, it has no shoulder and is hazardous.
Starting four miles down from Val-d’lsere gets you Lac du Chevril,
but there is a 0.2 mile tunnel just south of the lake.
Staying and starting in Val d’Isere seems to be the best option, in our opinion (from here one can “easily” climb both sides of the col in a day. Keep in mind that this is a high-end ski resort with many nice hotels, so it may put a strain on the pocket book. The resort was the start of Stage 9 to Briançon in the 2007 Tour de France.
Cycling the col from Val d'Isère.
Ski resort of Val d'Isère.
Looking back on Val d'Isère ski resort.
KM Markers lead us up the mountain from Val d'Isère.
Four kilometers to the top of Col de L'Iseran.
View a couple kilometers from the top looking down on Val d'Isère.
Near the top.
Val d'Isère is on the border of the Vanoise National Park which was established in 1963. Val d'Isère hosted the 1992 Winter Olympic men’s downhill race and has also been host to many World Cup alpine events. The ski areas of Val d'Isère and Tignes are named Espace Killy after three-time olympic champion Jean-Claude Killy who grew up in Val d'Isère. The ski resort was the start of Stage 9 to Briancon in the 2007 TdF (Wikipedia - Val-d’Isere).
Left: Chapel Notre-Dame de Toute Prudence.
Was Col de L'Iseran included in the Tour de France?
Col de L'Iseran first appeared in the TdF in 1938 and as of December 2020 had been included a total of eight times in the great race. Wikipedia provides a nice table of Tour appearances for this climb:
Tour de France History
Col de L'Iseran has only been included in the Tour de France seven times in the 80 years between 1938 and 2018. The TdF takes what is otherwise a somewhat eerie and desolate -- although quite scenic -- place, and turns it into a tourist attraction with a carnival atmosphere. First included in the Tour in 1938, Gino Bartali exclaimed that he won the race on his descent of Col de Vars, but saved it on the descent off the L'Iseran.
Gino Bartali, winner 1938 Tour de France
Bartali crossed L'Iseran in Stage 14
Down 00:01:05 at the beginning of the stage, after a heroic descent of L'Iseran he finished up 00:05:18.
Bartali (along with Federico Bahamontes) has more Grand Tour wins (9) than anyone in history and the TdF (1938, 1948), Giro (1936, 1937, 1946; mountain classification a record seven times, three more than anyone in history, Giro wasn’t held five years from 1941-1945), Milan-San Remo (4) and Giro di Lombardia (3).
It was on Col de L'Iseran that legendary cyclist Louison Bobet’s career ended. Bobet retired at the summit of L'Iseran on July 14, 1959, having been victorious in the TdF three years running from 1953-55. Bobet was the first rider to win the Tour de France in three consecutive years.
Louison Bobet on Col de L'Iseran 1959 Tour de France
Bobet retired on L'Iseran July 14, 1959 after three TdF victories.
Photo: Walter Vermeulen flicker
July 9, 1963 is notable more for the brutal conditions on the L'Iseran than for the race stage itself (won by undisputed King of the Mountains Fernando Manzaneque -- winner mountain classification TdF six times, Giro d’Italia once, and Vuelta de Espana twice). Due to impassable snow pack at the top of Col de L'Iseran, the tour came within a whisker of a tedious and long reroute around Albertville and Bourg Saint Maurice of the 202 km stage from Grenoble to the scheduled finish in Val d'Isère. However, the tour organisers, having more consideration for their business and schedule than the riders’ safety, maintained the original route which led the tour over the high pass along icy roads and a snow tunnel.
Col de L'Iseran -- Stage 16, Tour de France July 9, 1963.
Near the summit of L'Iseran TdF 1963
Likely the most famous of the seven crossings of the L'Iseran during the Tour de France involved the amazing solo 100 kilometer breakaway by Italy’s Claudio Chiapucci, a true Mountain King. Chiapucci has legendary mountain classification credentials -- one of only four men to win the TdF and Giro mountain classification in the same year (putting him in the enviable company of Fausto Coppi, Charly Gaul and Lucien Van Impe), and tied with Gino Bartali with the most Giro mountain classification wins (7). With 100 kilometers to go on July 18, 1992’s TdF Stage 13, Chiapucci did one of his signature (though sometimes ill-advised) breakaways. However, on this day the peloton mistakenly ignored Chiapucci who burned over seven cols, including the highest of them all, L'Iseran, on his way to a 00:01:34 stage win. Chiapuccu was second in that year’s Tour to Miguel Induran who won his second of an unbelievable five straight Tours de France.
Claudio Chiapucci (KOM jersey) and Miguel Indurain (leader’s jersey). Indurain is the 1991 & 1992 TdF
mountain classification winner.