Col de L’Iseran, is the highest paved pass in Europe (2770m) and has been included several times in the Tour de France. 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, Colombière , Sassel, Galibier, d’Izoard, and Bonette.
When I started the route from Thonon-Les-Bains I wasn’t really ready to climb Iseran from that side, one of the longest climbs I have ever done, however when we cycle with the explorer spirit, with a positive and open attitude, overcome our limits is possible and it is something that you learn on the route, km after km, col after col.
In the morning when I dismantled and packed my tent, after a long night of rain, I was telling myself, I could split the climb in two and stop for a night in Val-d’lsere. I was afraid about how long would have taken to me to climb the full way up to the summit with my fully loaded bicycle.
The pass is crossed by the D902 roadway. On both sides of the Col de l’Iseran mountain pass, cycling milestones mark the distance to the summit, the current altitude, and the average slope in the following kilometre; which is a really good reference for who is cycling a long route and needs to manage energies, food & water supply. Starting from Bourg Saint Maurice, the climb to Col de l’Iseran is 50 km. Over this distance, the road (D 902) ascends 1,955m, at an average grade of 4.1%. The last 15 km from Val d’Isère and climbs 895 m at a consistent average of 6% with sections in excess of 8/10% in the last couple of kilometres.
The first part from Bourg Saint Maurice it has been easy, the fresh air of the early morning helped. The road was going up and down at the beginning, but after a while, I was really starting to climb a mountain. When I reached Lac du Chevril five km before Val-d’lsere the road was going thought the mountain with long tunnels and a lot of open construction sites that narrowed the road, some parts was a bit scarring especially because I was distracted by the beauty of the lake.
Val-d’lsere is a mountain village, the main road goes across it. I stopped for a moment to eat one of my bananas and get some freshwater. That was the moment I had to decide what to do, go up towards the pass or stop there for the night, no doubts I wanted to climb the full length in a day, I wanted to prove myself that even if I was going very slow I could reach the summit in a day, pedaling for about 50km uphill.
I left Val-d’lsere and there in front of me there was the big monster, from the valley I could look up and see the first 6 hairpin bends, the landscape changed entirely after the village, no more trees or wide field, a bare mountain. I started my climb, few cyclists who overtook me were going fast with rental e-bikes, a lady who overtook me a couple of times because she stopped for pictures every now and again once told me with a big smile: “c’est plus facile avec ce vélo électrique”. Yep, sure, nice.. I was there with my heavy bike and nothing would have stopped me from achieving my goal.
The impression that emerges, rather like the stunning vistas of the Chalanson and Albaron glaciers is the great road that was also in part a vanity project, you can tell that the track is the real stardom. It has been tough, I was counting the meters for the last 2 km, it was not the difficulty to make it hard, but the hours that I spent to complete the climb. I couldn’t find the last milestone, so I arrived at the final slop without knowing it was the last, but from there I could see the sign where others were smiling and taking photos. I did it, I climbed for hours, but I reached the summit of the highest col of my holiday and of Europe. I cannot explain the emotion, I felt I could cry. It was a long day, long hours, a slow climb that required not only fair training but also a strong mind.
I was queuing for the usual “must” picture, when after a short while clouds covered the sky, I put on my jacket and I was ready to downhill and look at the other side of the col, even though I knew my favourite side would have remained the one I climbed. In Bonneval-sur-Arc was raining, I carried on until the camp-site, happy like a kid, light like a leaf.