All things considered, France is the greatest cycling venue in the world.
Photos clockwise from upper left: (a) Champs-Élysées, (b) the Louvre,
(c) view of Champs-Élysées from top of Eiffel Tower, (d) and (e) Notre Dame Cathedral;
(f) Palace of Versailles (center).
Also visit our France Climb Page.
What makes a bike climb “epic”? Well, since this is a subjective issue, we will give you our thoughts on the topic, but by no means do we consider this an end-all list. And, while we can surely debate what are truly the most epic French bike climbs, we feel there is no reasonable debate that our Top 10 list clearly includes real-deal epic climbs - whether they are THE Top 10 most epic is of course always open to debate. We also welcome your thoughts on this category via our Contact Page.
Factors that we have taken into account in selecting our Top 10 Most Epic French Bike Climbs:
- How difficult is the climb;
- How famous is it;
- What is the scenery along the route;
- Is the road and its surroundings of interest (e.g. - terrifying . . . 😨); and
- The climb’s Tour de France history;
Epic used in our context means: extraordinary, exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime, bucket list, and “must do.” All of the climbs below pass our cleats-on-the-ground working definition of “epic bike climb”: At the finish of the climb you say to your riding partner with great enthusiasm “WOW, that was an EPIC climb!!!!”
#10 Col de la Madeleine north
Ride 24.4 kilometers gaining 1531 meters at 6.2% average grade.
Col de la Madeleine makes the list because of the extraordinary scenery along the climb, topped off by views of Mont Blanc from the Col. Its length and gradient also make it a very challenging bike climb.
Mont Blanc is photo center, but camouflaged by the clouds around it.
#9 Col de la Loze, Méribel
The hardest bike climb in France
Ride 22 kilometers gaining 1690 meters at 7.7% average grade.
We include this climb on our Top 10 France Epic Bike Climb list for a few reasons:
- It is the hardest bike climb in France;
- It has magnificent views along the climb;
- It is being discovered by the Tour de France (it will be included for the first time on Stage 17 July 15, 2020); and
- The last 6 kilometers is open only to cyclists and hikers (and service vehicles).
This magnificent climb is located in the heart of French Ski Country and in the Graian Alps subrange of the French Alps and was opened exclusively to cyclists in the summer of 2018. Col de la Loze is one of the best cycling experiences in Europe, since its last 6 kilometers are on a winter ski run that is during the off season dedicated exclusively to cyclists, and it is ranked the hardest bike climb in France.
Tour de France Director Christian Prudhomme’s Comments on Col de la Loze:
“Only a great champion will be able to win at the Col de la Loze! The stage profile invites the favourites of the Tour to be audacious. They don’t yet know the road that will take them on that day to the Col de la Madeleine and have no idea of what to expect once in the resort of Méribel. They’ll still have an extra 7 irregular kilometres to climb with several passages at over 20%.” LeTour.fr
#8 Cime de la Bonette - St. Etienne
25.5 km gaining 1,549 meters at 6.1%
Very hard, very beautiful and VERY high! The pass itself is the second highest in Europe (behind L'Iseran) but if we take the loop to Cima Bonette at the pass, we gain another 81m which tops out above L’Iseran.
#7 Col de L'Iseran, Bonneval-sur-Arc
Ride 13 kilometers gaining 2689 meters to the highest paved pass in France - 2770 meters.
We included L’Iseran as a Top 10 French epic bike climb because:
- It is an absolutely beautiful climb;
- It is challenging;
- There is a very narrow segment of the roadway with a sheer cliff to the left as we climb;
- It is the highest paved pass in France and Europe; and
- It has significant Tour de France history (featured 8 times since 1938 - most recently 2019 when the race was recorded as of Col de L’Iseran due to a hailstorm and adverse weather conditions on the descent to Tignes).
A very narrow and fun road 2 ½ to 3 ½ kilometers from the top.
#6 Col de la Croix de Fer East
Cycling Col d la Croix de Fer from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne
5th longest climb in France
28.5 kilometers gaining 1611 meters at 5.2%
This climb begins in one of the world’s greatest bike climbing centers, Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and is also one of the longest bike climbs in France at 28.5 kilometers. For almost the entire length of the climb we are surrounded by beautiful scenery. The eastern approach is one of, and the most scenic, of three routes to the Col de Croix de Fer. All routes end at the legendary Iron Cross.
Extraordinary beauty on this climb which has been featured in the Tour de France 19 times between 1947 and 2020.
#5 Col d'Aubisque from Argelès-Gazost
View from the top of Col d’Aubisque.
Col d’Aubisque from Argelès-Gazost
Ride 29 kilometers gaining 1560 meters at 4.2% average grade.
This climb makes the Top 10 because:
- It is often featured in the Tour de France, thus making it unavoidably famous;
- It is a cycling magnet, attested to at the top with many cycling-related displays;
- The segment between Col du Soulor and Col du Aubisque has one of the most extraordinary sections of roadway to cycle in Europe;
- One of the most epic events in Tour de France history occurred on this route.
1.2 kilometers beginning at km 22.4 (6.8 km from finish) are alone worth a trip to France 🚴👍
The photos above capture the same cliff, same mountain, same tunnel 100 years apart (photo top right is 1911 TdF photo). Aubisque is our choice for Top TdF Nostalgic Climb. It was in the location shown in the photo collage above on Stage 13 of the 1951 TdF that race leader Wim van Est went over the cliff while descending from the western approach to the Col (riding towards Argelès-Gazost). Van Est survived and the photo of him being pulled up the cliff to the roadway by bike tires linked together is one of the most memorable of all Tour de France historic photographs.
Col d’Aubisque is all about cycling.
#4 Col du Galibier from Valloire
There can be no doubt that Col du Galibier is a bucket list bike climb.
Col du Galibier is one of the outstanding road bike climbs in the cycling centers of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and Briancon.
- Stunning scenery - the last half of the climb is bordered by massive and rugged gray mountains;
- Its Tour de France history dates back to 1911 - it is one of the earliest significant mountain ascents in Tour history;
- The climb is very challenging - combined with Col Télégraphe it is the 7th hardest bike climb in France; and
- While not as famous as the Big Four, it is one of the most popular bike climbs in the world (53,447 Stava members have recorded the climb as of January, 2020 - Strava Leaderboard)
Emile Georget, Col du Galibier, 1911.
Photo: Emile Georget
Included 32 times in the TdF since 1947 (post war Tour era) through 2020.
#3 Alpe d’Huez
Undeniably the world’s most famous climb - 30 summit finishes in the TdF (1952-2020).
The question that will undoubtedly be raised with the #3 ranking is not that Alpe d’Huez is ranked high on the French Most Epic Climbs list, but that it was not made #1. We included both Mont Ventoux and Col du Tourmalet before Alpe d’Huez because they have the edge on challenge, unique surrounding terrain, stunning scenery and Tour de France history equal to or greater than Alpe d’Huez. If fame were our only criteria for the Most Epic List, Alpe d’Huez would be Number One by a great distance.
Known as the “Hollywood Climb” when included in the Tour de France (30 times [as of 2020] since it was first featured in 1976) it is always the stage finish. Alpe d’Huez is to cycling what the Indy 500 is to motor racing, St. Andrews to golf, Fenway to baseball, Wembley Stadium to football, Wimbledon is to tennis and so on. This could be the most famous and well known of any sporting venue and certainly the most famous in cycling.
Photo clockwise from top left:
Start; Turn 21 (first turn); Turn 1 (last turn); finish; Turn 1 (center).
It’s the turns, not the finish, that make this The Most Famous Climb in the World.
Hairpin 21 is the first hairpin on the climb and #1 is the last.
Dutch Corner is where cycling fans from the Netherlands congregate on the day the Tour de France comes to Alpe d’Huez for its inevitable exciting mountain top finish. On this day and at this hairpin, the air is filled with loud European music, the smell of barbeque, and sounds of some of the greatest cycling fans in the world. The tradition originates with Joop Zoetemeik who in 1976 became the first Dutchman to win the Alpe d’Huez stage. Thereafter, Dutch riders won the next seven of twelve Alpe d’Huez finishes, but have not done so since Gert-Jan Theunisse in 1989 (Joop Zoetemelk 1976, 1979; Hennie Kuiper 1977, 1978; Peter Winnen 1981, 1983; Steven Rooks 1988 and Gert-Jan Theunisse 1989).
#2 Mont Ventoux, Bedoin
One of the “Big Four,”, Mont Ventoux is on the same world renowned footing as Alpe d’Huez, Tourmalet and Stelvio. The traditional route up Mont Ventoux from Bédoin is extremely challenging (a Top 100 World Climb), scenic, and quite unique in the upper third of the climb with its barren limestone mountains looking more like desert than alps.
Well, they don’t call it the Bald Mountain for nothing . . .
Why did we select Mont Ventoux as France’s second most epic bike climb?
- It is one of the most famous road bike climbs in the world;
- It is one of the most popular bike climbs in the world (75,431 Strava members have ridden it as of January 27, 2020);
- It has been featured in the Tour de France 17 times as of 2020 (11 mountain top finishes);
- It has been the scene of some of most tragic events in Tour history;
- It has an iconic finish;
- The landscape is readily recognizable and unique;
- It is very challenging - a Top 100 World Bike Climb; and
- The scenery along the climb is outstanding.
ICONIC RADIO TOWER ATOP MONT VENTOUX
One of the features of cycling Mont Ventoux that separates it from many of the other exceptional French and European climbs is that its unique radio tower at the top is visible throughout the climb. At times it seems this tower just refuses to grow any bigger no matter how fast we pedal! SportActive.net explains that this distinctive red and white building, resembling a lighthouse, was built in 1968 and is used as a meteorological station as well as to broadcast television signals.
Iconic radio tower atop Venoux is visible as we ascend the mountain.
TOUR DE FRANCE
The Tour de France included Mont Ventoux in 17 stages from 1951 through 2020 , and it has been the finish on 11 of those, most recently in 2016. “Mont Ventoux has become legendary as the scene of one of the most grueling climbs in the Tour de France bicycle. Its fame as a scene of great Tour dramas has made it a magnet for cyclists around the world” (Wikipedia).
Charly Gaul Stage 18 1958
Photo: Cycling Passion - Charly Gaul on Mont Ventoux Tour de France 1958
There is a memorial honoring the great British rider, Tom Simpson 0.7 miles from the summit of Mont Ventoux -- this is the location where he perished at age 29 during the thirteenth stage of the 1967 Tour de France.
Memorial for cyclist Tom Simpson.- radio tower (finish) in background.
#1 Col du Tourmalet from Luz-Saint-Sauveur
The top of Col du Tourmalet
The incomparable Col du Tourmalet - unquestionably one of the World’s Most Famous Bike Climbs.
Why do we rank Tourmalet as the Most Epic Bike Climb in France?
- It is one of the world’s 4 most famous;
- It has been included in more Tour de France races than any other climb;
- It is legendary in Tour de France lore;
- It is challenging - one of the hardest 100 bike climbs in the world; and
- It is extremely scenic.
Along with Passo dello Stelvio, Tourmalet is our favorite climb finish in the world.
With Alpe d’Huez, Col du Tourmalet is a TdF and world legend. This is the highest pass in the Pyrenees and, as of 2020, has been included in the Tour de France a record 83 times between its first appearance in 1910 and 2019. From 1919 to 1939, Tourmalet was included in the TdF every year except in 1922, and then only because the tour rerouted due to heavy snow. Tourmalet has been a stage finish 3 times (1974, 2010 and 2019).
Photo: Clockwise from top left
Annual ritual delivering Géant au Col du Tourmalet the Col;
1913 Eugène Christophe repairing his bike in Campan after crashing on Tourmalet
First man over Tourmalet - 1910 TdF - here Octave Lapize utters his famous comment “Assassins.”
 Note that officially the TdF has featured Ventoux 16, not 17 times. This discrepancy is the result of Lance Armstrong being stripped of all TdF conquests, the 2012 TdF is removed from the books, including Mont Ventoux’s Stage 13 which was won by David Millar of Great Britain.