Guide to cycling Col de l'Iseran - Epic Road Rides Back to top
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The Ride Col de l’Iseran,
French Alps

Distance

Elevation gain

Difficulty

Epic rating

48 km (outbound)
2,250 m (outbound)
  
 

Distance

Elevation

48 km (outbound)
2,250 m (outbound) 

Difficulty

Epic rating

  
  

This is Europe’s highest mountain pass and France’s longest climb. It’s the King of the Alps. The last 17 km from Val d’Isère live up to this regal introduction. This is where the magic happens: the air is thin, the long views down the valley are spectacular, the summer pastures are green and (if you’re lucky) flowering.

The previous 30 traffic and tunnel filled kilometres are a distant memory…

Route map and profile

Route statistics

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Col de l'Iseran HIGHLIGHTS

The quiet 17 km above Val d’Isère to the summit. The traffic of the previous 30 kilometres melts away. Other than a few ski lifts, there’s little sign of human interference, and the views are magnificent: far-reaching vistas over snow-capped peaks. It’s made all the sweeter by what you’ve been through to get there.

RIDE LOG

1. Bourg Saint Maurice to Val d’Isère: 0-31 km

It’s a flat first 9km before the pitch ramps up just after Viclaire and hovers at around 5-5% for the next 15km until you reach the second turning to Tignes. Expect significant traffic, as you’ve got people on their way to the ski resorts that line the valley.

The Tignes crossroads brings mixed blessings. On the plus side, you come out of the narrow wooded valley. There’s the spectacular Lac du Chevril reservoir, with its huge dam wall, surrounded by jagged mountain summits. Plus the gradients ease off (and there’s even some gentle descent) as you head around the lake to Val d’Isère.

However… this is the section where you hit the long, poorly lit tunnels (one around 280m, the other about 750m). These are not much fun. The tunnels skirt the lake and feel claustrophobic for cyclists used to wide open spaces.  Coming into Val d’Isère is also no highlight: it’s not an attractive town, and it stretches along the road for a while.

Have patience though - the ride is about to take a dramatic turn for the better...

2. Val d’Isère to summit: 31-48 km

This 17km stretch is what makes this ride great. You leave the traffic and mess of Val d’Isère behind you and head upwards. This is the preserve of cyclists (and some motorcyclists too). The first kilometre out of Val d’Isère 1850 is a relaxed 2.9% which gives you the change to enjoy the circle of mountains that stretch up in front. At this kind of height, the tree line is long gone, and the views are expansive.

After that gentle warm up, the gradients begin to bite and then hover between around 5 and 8% (though at seven kilometres to go there’s a short downhill and the 5 km to go marker warns you of a nasty 10% average to come). You wind up the valley with switchbacks and tough straight runs. After the work you’ve done to get this far, hopefully, you’ve got the energy to admire the splendour of the Vanoise National Park around you: a beautiful stream, cliffs, shattered rock, scree slopes and glaciers.

There are a couple of sharp hairpins, and the summit, at a whopping 2,764m above sea level, is before you. You’ll find a small chapel, restaurant and gift shop.

3. Descent to Bourg Saint Maurice: 48-96 km

It’s tempting to carry on and descend the other side to Lanslebourg in the Maurienne Valley. But don’t. It’s a 240 km round trip back to Bourg Saint Maurice.

Enjoy the descent back to Bourg and savour the feeling of having conquered one of Europe’s highest roads.

Col de l'Iseran CAFé STOPS

It’s worth stocking up well in Bourg Saint Maurice before you leave; there are several good bakeries.

Val d’Isère has lots of options too, including a supermarket. It’s a good place to regroup before tackling the last 17km ascent.

At the top is a basic restaurant and gift shop (see the photo above). 

ACCOMMODATION

We stayed in a beautiful ski chalet called The Peak, in the Sainte Foy Tarentaise ski station. The accommodation and catering were all top notch. From Sainte Foy Tarentaise it’s 20km back down the valley into central Bourg Saint Maurice if you’re going to do this route by the book. Otherwise, you can cut off the first 14.5km grind and hit the main road at La Tuile.

Want to see some alternative options?

Take a look at the accommodation suggestions in our ultimate guide to the Col d’Iseran region.

TIPS

  • Don’t underestimate this ride. While the gradients don’t look too tough on paper, climbing for 48 km is no mean feat.
  • If you do the ride from Bourg Saint Maurice, you MUST take a light. The tunnels around the lake are long and poorly lit and going without a light is a recipe for disaster.
  • Pick a day when the weather looks favourable. If it rains, it’s a long wet ride back.
  • Iseran is on the Route des Grandes Alpes, which makes it a popular route for motorbikes, even when you leave the cars behind in Val d’Isère. Look out for the annual car-free days (last 17 km only). Riding  on one of those days would make it total bliss.
  • The Iseran has been included in The Tour seven times, most recently in 2007. In 1996 they had to abandon it due to unseasonable snow.
  • The road only opened in 1937, although it had existed for hundreds of years before that as a mule pass.
  • Read our tips for cycling in the Alps before you set out.

Found this guide useful?

(Banner photo credit: Marco Barone/Shutterstock.com)


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