Ready for the 10 top cycling climbs in France? The hills of this Gallic country have been made famous by the most legendary race in the sport: The Tour de France. The TdF began in 1903, stopping only for the two World Wars. The 21 stage race is mostly held in mainland France and changes every year. Several climbs have been featured in the race multiple times. Worldwide attention has been turned to climbing routes such as: Mont Ventoux - Bedoin, Col du Tourmalet East, Cols du Télégraphe & Galibier and more.
The hardest bike climbs in France are spread throughout several parts of the country. Not surprisingly, seven of ten are in the French Alps (three are in the Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne climbing zone), one in the Pyrenees, and two of the three routes to Mont Ventoux summit round out the French Top 10 Bike Climbs list.
THE HARDEST BIKE CLIMB IN FRANCE
This top French bike climb is located in the Pyrenees Mountain Range which divides France from Spain. The climb is a World 100 (#79) and rightly so. We ride 16.4 km, gaining 1,599 m, to an elevation of 2,209 m 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 . . . 😟).
TdF sign at the beginning of the climb.
Col de Portet was the TdF Stage 17 finish on July 25, 2018, its first appearance in the Tour. While the stage was a very short 65 kilometers, 38 kilometers of that was uphill. The stage began in Bagnères-de-Luchon and first climbed col de Peyresourde, then Col de Val Louron-Azet, before reaching the much more challenging Col de Portet. On July 25, Nairo Quintana broke away early on Col de Portet and won the stage. On this day Chris Froome would lose more time (+1.35 v. .52) to Geraint Thomas, the ultimate winner of the 2018 Tour de France.
#2 AND THE MOST FAMOUS FRENCH TOP 10 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 that climb), Tourmalet, and Stelvio. The traditional route up Mont Ventoux from Bédoin is extremely challenging (a Top 100 World Climb and #2 France), scenic, and quite unique in the upper third of the climb with its barren limestone mountains looking more like desert than alps.
The Tour de France included Mont Ventoux in 17 stages between 1951 and 2016, and it has been the finish on 11 of those, most recently in 2016 (as the writing of this page in 2017). “Mont Ventoux has become legendary as the scene of one of the most grueling climbs in the Tour de France bicycle race, which has ascended the mountain fifteen times since 1951. The followed trail mostly passes through Bédoin. 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.
THE THIRD HARDEST BIKE CLIMB IN FRANCE
Cycling Col de la Madeleine.
Ride 18.8 kilometers gaining 1,477 meters to 1,957 meters at 8% average grade.
Included 24 times in the TdF between 1969-2018.
A tale of two routes -- the southern approach of Col de Madeleine is very strenuous and a Top 100 World Climb, while the northern route is less difficult but extraordinarily beautiful. Although each is a little more of one than the other, both climbs are considered challenging and beautiful. If one finds themselves in the French Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes Region and certainly in the Savoie Department of eastern France, this is simply a must-do set of climbs.
Col de Madeleine is one of the many exceptional HC climbs in the Saint Jean-de-Maurienne area (in our opinion one of the greatest climbing areas in the world -- Col du Galibier, Col du Télégraphe, Col de L’Iseran, Col de Glandon, Alpe d’Huez). Add that it has been featured in the Tour de France 26 times from 1969 (admittedly late on the scene) to 2018 (Stage 12 in 2018; and will be Stage 19 in 2019), and you have a true bucket list extraordinary climb!
Two cafes at the top.
THE FOURTH HARDEST BIKE CLIMB IN FRANCE
This is a wonderful and scenic climb near St Jean-de-Maurienne, which we consider to be the center of one of the great climbing areas of the world (Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne). There are three routes to the Col de la Croix de Fer (name meaning “Pass of the Cross”) and we have charted those in the “Routes in Area” selection for this Climb Page. The northern approach to this pass is by far the most difficult of the three. The climb is often featured in, and thus made famous by, the Tour de France.
Climb begins in Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines.
The northern approach to Croix de Fer overlaps the entirety of Col du Glandon East, which is 12.1 miles and 5,000’ (Croix de Fer continues on another 1.8 miles/492’/5.3% from Col du Glandon to its summit).
Overlap Col du Glandon for the first 12 km.
Final three km is strictly Croix de Fer.
THE FIFTH HARDEST BIKE CLIMB IN FRANCE
Cycling Col du Granon - #5 hardest road bike climb in France.
Ride 11.4 kilometers (7.1 miles) gaining 1,100 meters (3,611’) to 2,463 meters (8,082’) at 9.7%.
Col du Granon has been featured in the Tour de France only once, but wow, did it make a splash in 1986. It was on the Col du Granon that Greg Lemond worked with Swiss rider Urs Zimmermann to open a gap on his teammate, Bernard Hinault, and wrest the yellow jersey from him by finishing 3:21 ahead of Hinault. As we know, LeMond never gave the jersey up after that and became the first American to win the Tour de France in 1986.
Cafe at the top.
THE SIXTH HARDEST BIKE CLIMB IN FRANCE
Col du Galibier - one of the world’s epic cycling climbs.
One of the world’s great cycling climbs. Col du Galibier is located in one of the great climbing areas of the world and is a must if one is in or near France’s southeastern Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes Region or Savoie Department. Of course, a five to seven day climbing trip to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is an experience of a lifetime and would definitely include this exceptional Col.
Col du Galibier 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.
Emile Georget, Col du Galibier, 1911.
Photo: Emile Georget
Included 31 times in the TdF since 1947 (post war Tour era).
THE SEVENTH HARDEST BIKE CLIMB IN FRANCE
Cycling the mighty Bald Mountain from Malaucène.
Ride 21 kilometers (13.2 miles) gaining 1,522 meters (4,995’) at 7.2%.
There are three routes to the top of this mighty mountain (Map), although the route from Bédoin is by far the most popular and well known. The cycling climb of Mont Ventoux from Bédoin is also the most challenging of the climbs at 12.6 miles, 5,335 feet, and 7.75% average grade. Malaucene is not far behind in difficulty at 13 miles/5,230 feet/7.2%, while Sault is the “easiest” at 15 miles/4,779 feet/4.9%.
Northwesterly view of the radio tower - From Malaucene.
THE EIGHTH HARDEST AND THE HIGHEST TOP 10 FRENCH BIKE CLIMB
Often (incorrectly) considered the highest road in Europe, (Pico de Veleta in Spain holds that honor -- by a good stretch), this is the more challenging approach to Col de la and Cime Bonette at 23 km / 1,632 m / 6.9% from the north, versus 25.5 km / 1,553 m / 6.1% from the south. The pass itself (just below Cima Bonette) is the second highest in Europe, behind Col de L’Ieseran), but if we take the loop to Cima Bonette at the pass, we gain another 81 m which tops out above L’Iseran.
Col de Bonette 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 La Bonnette has been featured four times in the Tour de France as of 2019.
Federico Bahamontes was the first TdF cyclist over Col de La Bonette (1968, Stage 18).
Bahamontes was also first over Bonette in 1964, Stage 9.
Photo: Bettina Verbeek, Flickr.
THE NINTH HARDEST BIKE CLIMB IN FRANCE
Col du Glandon from the east and west overlap Col de la Croix de Fer: Croix de Fer West overlaps Glandon West entirely and then climbs another 2.7 km and 151 meters to its col. Croix de Fer North overlaps Glandon East entirely and then climbs 2.7 km and 151 meters to the Croix de Fer col. A map of the Glandon and Croix de Fer ascents is located here: Map of Glandon-Croix de Fer.
Col du Glandon has been included in the Tour de France 13 times since it was first introduced in 1947. After 1947, Glandon was not included until 1977, and has been included sparingly thereafter (averaging once every four years, 11 times in the 40 years between 1977 and 2017).
The Glandon climbs are in the bike climbing mecca of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne which, in addition to Glandon, includes Telegraphe, Galibier, Chaussy, Madeleine, Croix de Fer and the Granddaddy of them all, Alpe d’Huez!
The Col du Glandon eastern approach begins in Saint-Étienne-de-Cuines (population 1,198, 2014). The climb passes through several villages over its 20 kilometers until reaching the col at 1,924 m (6,312’). As with nearly all the climbs in this area, the roadway is generally one wide or two narrow lanes, but very safe for bike travel.
Cycling Col du Glandon East.
Ride 19.6 kilometers (12.2 miles) gaining 1,530 meters (5,020’) at 7.4%.
THE TENTH HARDEST BIKE CLIMB IN FRANCE
A top French climb beginning in the lovely little ski town of Isola, that winds its way through a canyon through a ski resort, up through wide open rangeland to the French/Italian border.
Start in the quaint Ski town of Isola.
 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.