The true joy of cycling still exists in France, far beyond the busy roads of Galibier and L'Alpe d'Huez.
Cyclists have always been drawn to the mountains of Europe and the famous passes of Alpe d'Huez, Passo Stelvio, col du Galibier and the Sella Ronda are ridden by tens of thousands of cyclists during the summer months of June, July and August. So is it still possible to have a truly pure climbing experience on the high passes of France? The answer is un-equivocally, yes, provided you know where to look.
When I first climbed the Alpe d'Huez and col du Galibier in 1989, I saw very few other cyclists and what I remember is the raw beauty of the mountains, solitude, grand glaciers and more marmottes than people. The feeling was all about connection and escape, just writing about it today gives me tingles. Since 2013 I have had the pleasure of guiding cyclists through France, Italy, Spain, Austria and Switzerland and almost without exception, the most cherished moments are those spent far from the iconic passes. These are the days where one gets a sense of what Galibier was like in 1989.
There are literally thousands of mountain passes in France alone and many can still be experienced in relative quiet where your ride will most likely be shared with just a few local club riders. These are the roads for the purist and travellers more inspired by beauty, wonder & the adventurous spirit than ticking a box on a list.
Far from missing out, riding the less travelled passes will give you everything the famous roads do, and so much more. Full blown high definition cycling with incomparable scenery and grand scale, shared with just a few others, an opportunity to immerse yourself in an almost spiritual journey from valley to summit and back again.
For many years the col de Sarenne (behind Alpe d'Huez) was favoured by locals as the much more beautiful alternate road to the famous ski resort. These days, the Sarenne is also busy, so the delightful small road to Villard Notre Dame and Villard Reynard is the "new Sarenne" of the Oisans. France is full of "Sarennes", the trick is knowing where to find them or at least travel with someone who does.
Regions such as the Maritime Alps, Southern Alps, Jura, Vosges, Massif Centrale and the Pyrenees are all places in France where hordes of cyclists, motor bikes, cars and buses can be largely avoided. Simplicity and purity are restored as you tune in to the sounds of nature, your own breathing and allow the spell of cycling in the high mountains to be cast over you. Experiencing the magic of these places makes many want to sing, some swear audibly for loss of superlatives and others are quiet, smiling & laughing more on the inside. One thing is certain, it is a feeling that will stay with you for a lifetime.
If you are looking for something different for your next cycling adventure, something that is not just about bucket lists, but is more special, personal and unique, please get in touch, as we are heading to some of these very passes in June and July this year. Or, perhaps you would just like some advice or assistance in planning your own trip, well I can help with that too, firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian "Bubba" Cooke
Brian Bubba Cooke
Lifelong (almost) cyclist, exercise physiologist and above-all-else just love riding my bike. Been lucky enough to ride some of the world's most epic roads and now live on the beautiful Gold Coast, hidden gem of Australian cycling.