Col de l'Iseran  (Val-d'Isere) Bike Climb - PJAMM Cycling

6.9
FIETS
10.1 mi
DISTANCE
3,038 ft
GAINED
5.7 %
AVG. GRADE

FULL CLIMB STATS

Page Contributor(s): Ard Oostra, Switzerland

INTRO

Cycling Col de L'Iseran - one of the highest and most beautiful of passes in the Alps. The climb from the north begins in one of the most famous ski resorts in the world, Val d'Isère. There are two primary routes up what is the “true” highest paved pass in Europe, one approach from the south and one from the north.

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CLIMB SUMMARY

bike parked against stone fixture atop rocks at climb summit, sharp mountains in back, blue sky and white clouds in distance

Col de L'Iseran - one of the most spectacular cycling climbs in the world.

Ride 16.2 kilometers gaining 929 meters at 5.7% average grade.

From either direction, Col de L’Iseran is one of the most scenic and epic bike climbs in all of France.  The approach from Val d'Isère is the most epic and mountainous, while the approach from Bonneval-sur-Arc is the more scenic and challenging. From Val d'Isère we ride past ski slopes up to magnificent mountain formations above tree line to (depending on the time of year and weather) Lac de l’Ouillette (the lake could be frozen).

photo collage, PJAMM Cyclist John Johnson stands with bike in front of road sign for Col de L'Iseran; bike parked against street sign for Col de L'Iseran; cyclist climbs up roadway with epic views of mountains behind him

Col de L’Iseran is located in France’s Graian Alps, within the Savoie department, and close to France’s boarder with Italy.  The col is part of the Route des Grandes Alpes, and connects the Isère Valley with the Arc River (Maurienne) Valley.  Along the route is the Tignes-Val d'Isère ski resort, part of the reason this is a popular attraction in the right seasons.  Also of note is that this col is home to the highest point on the long-distance trail, the Alpine GR 5, which connects Lake Geneva to Nice.  Along the steep descent visitors can expect to see many waterfalls, as the col enters the Vanoise National Park.

Bicycle ride of Col de L’Iseran from Val d'Isère - buildings in town and start of climb

Climb begins in Val d'Isère.

Val d'Isère is on the border of the Vanoise National Park (est. 1963; 534 square kilometers/131,954 acres).  Val d'Isère ski resort is quite famous, having hosted the 1992 Winter Olympic men’s downhill race and 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.

photo collage shows vies along the middle and upper portions of the climb, above the town of Val d'Isere; pockets of snow dotting landscape, long narrow mountain road snakes its way up mountain

Views along the middle to upper portion of climb, above Val d'Isère.

photo collage shows PJAMM Cyclist making his way up Col de L'Iseran climb, sharp mountains in background, pockets of snow lining the roadway

photo collage shows yellow and white km markers along route

There are kilometer markers at most km points along the climb. 

photo collage shows yellow and white km markers along route

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.

large white and blue Geodesic survey marker reading Touring Club De France

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 drone view looking down on Col de L'Iseran

Aerial view of Col de L'Iseran

Photo: Carreteras Peligrosas

You may wonder: Is Col de L'Iseran truly the highest paved pass in Europe?

The answer is yes.  While Pico de Veleta (Spain), is the higher “road” at 3,357 m/11,013’, it ends in a deadend 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.”

small stone building, Chapel Notre-Dame de Toute Prudence

Chapel Notre-Dame de Toute Prudence.

One of highest climbs in Europe, Col de L’Iseran from Bonneval-sur-Arc - summit; PJAMM Cyclist stands with bike at climb summit

Finish.

Tour de France History

TOP 10 MOST FREQUENT CLIMBS OF THE TOUR DE FRANCE

AND 10 FAMOUS ONES AFTER THAT

Climb name

Mountain Range

Times Featured in Tour de France

Most recent

First included

Col du Tourmalet

Pyrenees

88

2021

1910

Col d'Aspin

Pyrenees

73

2022

1910

Col d'Aubisque

Pyrenees

73

2022

1910

Col de Peyresourde

Pyrenees

68

2021

1910

Col du Galibier

Alps

63

2022

1911

Col de Portet d'Aspet

Pyrenees

58

2021

1910

Col des Aravis

Alps

41

2020

1911

Col d'Izoard

Alps

36

2019

1922

Col de Vars

Alps

35

2019

1922

Col d'Allos

Alps

34

2015

1911

Alpe d'Huez

Alps

32

2022

1952

Col du Télégraphe

Alps

31

2022

1911

Col de la Madeleine

Alps

29

2020

1969

Col de la Croix de Fer

Alps

21

2022

1947

Mont Ventoux

Alps

18

2021

1951

Col du Soulor

Pyrenees

16

2019

1912

Col du Glandon

Alps

14

2015

1947

Puy de Dome

Massif Central

12

1988

1952

Luz Ardiden

Pyrenees

9

2021

1985

Col de l'Iseran

Alps

8

2019

1938

As of 2022 Col de L’Iseran has been featured eight times in the TdF.

Each time it has been featured, it has also been the highest point in that year’s TdF.

©  PJAMMCycing.com

© Climb name

Elevation (meters)

Times highest point of TdF (as of 2022)

Mountain Range

Times Featured in Tour de France

Most recent

First included

Cime de la Bonette

2,802m

4

Alps

4

2008

1962

Col de l'Iseran

2,770m

8

Alps

8

2019

1938

Col Agnel

2,744m

1

Alps

2

2011

2008

Col du Galibier

2,642m

50

Alps

63

2022

1911

Col du Granon

2,413m

0

Alps

2

2022

1986

Col de L’lseran has been the highest point in the TdF eight times.

Also see Top 10 Highest Points of the TdF.

Col de L'Iseran has only been included in the Tour de France eight times in the 84 years between 1938 and 2022.  The Tour 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 Partali, Tour de France 1938

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.

Photo:  LearningHistory.com

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, 1959 Tour de France

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 organizers, 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.

1963 Tour de France

Col de L'Iseran -- Stage 16, Tour de France July 9, 1963.

Photo:  innrng.com

Tour de France cyclists ride through tunnel in 1963

Near the summit of L'Iseran TdF 1963

Photo:  innrng.com

Likely the most famous of the eight 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)

Claudio Chiapucci (KOM jersey) and Miguel Indurain (leader’s jersey).  Indurain is the 1991 & 1992 TdF

mountain classification winner.

Photo:  cyclingweekly.com

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