This page provides a summary for cycling and climbing by bike the top climbs in France including the top bike ascents in the French Alps and French Pyrenees. Biking up some of the greatest climbs in the world including Mont Ventoux - Bedoin, Cime de la Bonette - St. Etienne, Col de la Madeleine (South), Cols du Télégraphe & Galibier, Col de la Croix de Fer North, Col du Tourmalet East, Col Agnel Hautacam, Col d'Aubisque - Argelès-Gazost, Col de Peyresourde - Arreau, Col de Portet (#1 France) and many more.
Col du Tourmalet (Luz Saint Sauveur)
There is no place on this earth with as much cycling history and lore as the French Pyrenees and Alps. Three of the most famous bike climbs in the world are in France: Alpe d’Huez, Col du Tourmalet and Mont Ventoux. Two of the world’s greatest climbing areas, Argeles Gazost (Pyrenees) and Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne are in France. Climbing in the Alps and Pyrenees is a safe, fun, scenic and overall must-do experience.
Our favorite French bike climbs -- other than “All of them,” which is truly how we feel about cycling in France -- are the following:
COL DU TOURMALET, LUZ SAINT SAUVEUR
FEATURED 86 TIMES IN THE TOUR DE FRANCE
Why is Tourmalet our top pick out of all the magnificent cycling climbs in France?
Octave Lapize -- the first rider (or should we say hiker?) over Tourmalet, 1910.
Eugène Christophe repairing his bike in Campan, 1913 (Image from Jean Durry).
YouTube summary of Christophe’s 1913 bad luck.
In 1919, Eugène Christophe became the first man to wear the yellow jersey.
THE MOST FAMOUS BIKE CLIMB IN THE WORLD
Of the hundreds of climbs we have documented for PJAMM Cycling, Alpe d’Huez needs the least introduction -- everyone has heard of this most famous of all World Climbs! The finish is inauspicious (other than during the TdF of course), but it is the 21 well-known switchbacks and its rich TdF history that makes this ride “The One”!
Bernard Hinault sealed his 5th Tour victory on Alpe d’Huez 1985
Alpe d’Huez has become “the summit of the modern era,” and no other stage of the Tour de France has such presence. With its 21 bends, steep ramps, and massive crowds, it has become the “Hollywood climb,” according to the ride’s official historian, Jacques Augendre. Each year that this climb is included in the TdF, thousands of spectators flock to the area. The massive crowds create what some participants in the ride have described as a feeling of both fear and exhilaration, and as French journalist Philippe Brunel described the look of the road during Marco Pantani’s victorious ascent in the 1995 race, “that thin ribbon of burning asphalt, covered in graffiti, between two deafening walls of spectators, which threaded between his wheels.” Alpe d’Huez has been included in the Tour de France 29 times between its first appearance in 1952 (including two appearances in 1979 and 2013). Each of the 21 hairpins of this climb has been named after one or more of the winners of the 29 Tour de France stages to finish here. Of note, the first stage up this exceptional climb was fittingly won by the incomparable climber Fausto Coppi. Only three cyclists have won the Alpe d’Huez stage more than once: Marco Pantani (1995, 1997), Gianni Bugno (1990, 1991), and Hennie Kuiper (1977, 1978).
Fausto Coppi became the first stage winner of Alpe d’Huez -- Stage 10 1952 TdF
Photo: dw.com - 10 most memorable moments on Alpe d’Huez.
The Look, Alpe d’Huez Stage 10, 2001 Tour de France
Photo from J Barber and F Ruggeri as published in Masculine Heart.
Representing PJAMM Cycling on this awesome climb.
THE MOST ICONIC BIKE CLIMB
One of the “Big Four,” in our estimation, Mont Ventoux is on the same world renowned footing as Alpe d’Huez (although no climbs can match the fame of 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.
Speaking to the shear difficulty of this climb, an old provincial proverb says, “It is not necessary to be crazy to climb Mont Ventoux. But you have to be crazy to go back there.” Many cyclists have suffered terribly on Mt. Ventoux, perhaps more here than any other climb in the Tour. The greatest tragedy in TdF history occurred on Mont Ventoux July 13, 1967. Read more about this tragedy here.
Tom Simpson, Mont Ventoux, July 13, 1967
Photo: Sport Vintage.
Memorial for cyclist Tom Simpson -- radio tower in background.
THE HARDEST CLIMB IN FRANCE
This climb is located in the Pyrenees Mountain Range which divides France from Spain. This bike climb is a World 100 (#78) and rightly so. We ride 16.4 km gaining 1,599 m to an elevation of 2,209m at a challenging 8.6% average grade. Along a one kilometer stretch after the giant hairpin at km 1.5 we have a sheer cliff to our left -- not so bad on a bike but terrifying in a car (at least for me . . . 😟).
Climb begins in Vignec, France -- population 189 (1999), elevation 821 m.
The first 7.5 km of Col de Portet overlap with the more well known Pla d’Adet (included in 10 Tours de France as of 2019).
First 7.5 km of Pla d’Adet overlap Col de Portet.
OUR FAVORITE CYCLING SEGMENT OF MOUNTAIN ROAD IN FRANCE
The Col d’Aubisque bike climb is one of the most famous of climbs in the French Pyrenees and France. Aubisque first appeared in the Tour de France in 1910 and has been included 92 times in all (as of 2019) and 48 times between 1947 and 2012 (it has been ignored for the past seven years as the publication of this page February 2019). The climb was included 12 years straight after its post-war inauguration in 1947 and has been a stage finish three times, which is fairly significant for a pass. For the 24 years between 1947-1970, the Aubisque was included in the Tour all but three years. The pass was also included once (2016) in the Vuelta a Espan֘a.
Stage 10 TdF 1911. Photo: bikeraceinfo.com (an exceptional resource for all Grand Tours).
We rode this route in 2011 and 2018 . . . guess what . . . still the same. 👍
Same cliff, same mountain, same tunnel, over 100 years later.
Aubisque is our choice for Top TdF Nostalgic Climb.
The descent from Eaux Bonnes (western approach) towards Col du Soulor was and is a dangerous route -- a narrow road with sheer cliffs. On Stage 13, July 17, 1951, this hazardous stretch of road was the scene of one of the most horrific and famous crashes in Tour history. The unlikely leader on this day was the pleasant and good natured Dutchman Wim van Est. This Tour included pure and true cycling legends Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, and Louison Bobet. While van Est was an accomplished pursuit racer, he was never expected to compete for the overall classification in the greatest of the Grand Tours. Nonetheless, on July 26 during stage 12, Van Est, who started the day over nine minutes behind leader Roger Levêque, broke away, won the stage and found himself in the yellow jersey by :02:29.
A deadly road.
However, winning the flat Stage 12 by using his specialty sprint to gain time on the peloton is one thing, but a sprinter holding a slim lead over the Aubisque would be quite another. And so it was that Van Est had lost his lead as he summited the mighty Aubisque and set about to regain some of what he had lost. However, the narrow and windy road descending from Col d’Aubisque towards Col du Soulor is a poor choice for downhill heroics. And so it was that fell and tumbled 70 meters down and nearly sheer mountainside. It was not just the fall that remains in our memories from this day, but the way Van Est was extricated from his predicament: that he was still alive and able to climb up the mountain back to the road under his own power.
THE CENTER OF CYCLING IN THE FRENCH ALPS
If the genie in the bottle granted you one cycling wish, choose Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne because it HAS IT ALL! This area is abundant in fame, beauty and challenge. Hmmm, have you ever heard of Alpe d’Huez, Galibier,Télégraphe, The Iron Cross, Madeleine, I’Zoard, Glandon and Lacets de Montvernier?
THE GREATEST CYCLING AREA IN THE PYRENEES
The Col de Tentes bike climb is at the crossroads of greatness -- the starting point
for this magnificent ride can also be used to climb Tourmalet and/or Luz Ardiden.
We have climbed by bike out of this area twice and it is a world class cycling area -- no doubt about it! Tourmalet, Aubisque, Col de Portet, Hautacam, Ardiden, Tentes, Soulor, Peyresourde, Spandalles, Marie Blanque, Aspin -- you CANNOT GO WRONG! And, double that number because each has two routes to the top (Aubisque actually has three), other than Hautacam and Aspin which end at ski resorts.