Cycling the Col de la Croix de Fer from La Chambre, via the Col du Glandon (2067m)

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Sunday 17 September 2017

Cycling the Col de la Croix de Fer from La Chambre, via the Col du Glandon (2067m)

The Alps and Pyrenees are full of beautiful cols to drive or cycle over, many of which we've done and many of which we haven't. There are so many to choose from. Yet in terms of sheer scenic spectacle the Croix de Fer is definitely up there in my top 3 and in terms of physical demand this climb from La Chambre is no slouch either. Rising from 450m altitude in the valley floor at La Chambre a 1600m ascent to 2067metres over 22.5km gives this climb a fearsome 7.3% average gradient, and since the final few kilometres are some of the easiest of the lot the climbing is pretty hard from the outset.

Starting out from the river in La Chambre the road tracks a fairly direct route with relatively few hairpin switchbacks as it heads up the Valley des Villards towards the Col du Glandon (1960 metres) which marks the high point of the direct mountain road between La Chambre and Bourg d'Oisans. The Glandon is, obviously, a fearsome climb in itself at 20km and 7.5% average gradient and this particular route towards the Croix du Fer is mostly made up by the ascent of the Col du Glandon, hence why it is the Col du Glandon which is named on the ever present altitude and gradient markers along the wayside every kilometre.

As with most of these very high climbs in the Alps, the lower altitude portions ascend along tree lined slopes before emerging onto more sparse and rugged open terrain which happens to be more than usually stunningly beautiful in this case. Along the way various villages are passed, the largest of which seems to be St Colombin des Villards at around 10km from the Col du Glandon which is also the last major portion of civilisation before the top aside from a few small Alpages here and there.

Aside from one noticeable flattish portion around St Colombin the gradient on both the opening part of the climb and especially the final 10km to Col du Glandon is steep, by which I mean more than 7%. A couple of 9% portions lower down are definitely felt in the legs, but it is the final approach to the Glandon where the real work has to be done. After several more 9% portions in the final 6 or 7 kilometres the final 3 kilometres weigh in it 10%, 11% and 10% respectively, making those final pedal strokes a real punisher, but thankfully the view is ample reward for the effort in my opinion.

From about 5km away from the Col du Glandon the road is no longer really just winding its way up the side of a valley, but veering and bending in the shadow of exposed cliffs and towering summits that are constantly changing with each passing metre. This is real Alpine mountain scenery at it's finest and not just looking up and ahead, but looking back down the valley the sharp, green 'V' of the hillsides frames a stunning view directly towards snow topped Mont Blanc dominating the sky. When, upon finally reaching the Col du Glandon after the final 3 leg busting kilometres of switchbacks, the panorama opens up even more majestically to take a huge swathe of peaks and hanging valleys dotted with grazing cows and lakes.


The final 2.5km to the Col de la Croix de Fer from the Col du Glandon is almost a gentle reward in comparison, rising at just 4 or 5% along one of those green and lush hanging valleys heading eastwards towards the slightly higher col. Hard to believe then that the view could be even better on arriving! It's only my opinion of course, but looking south east from the Col de Croix de Fer into the snow topped, dark summits of the nearby Ecrins national park is one of my favourite views of all the alpine cols we've crossed.

Descent wise, for those wishing to go straight back down, there are three options. You can retrace your route all the way back to La Chambre, you could head back to the Col du Glandon but then turn left towards Bourg d'Oisans instead, or you can continue over the Croix de Fer and head down towards St Jean de Maurienne and then back along the valley floor to La Chambre for a sizeable loop (perhaps taking in the Col du Mollard - 1638m - on the way if you really feel like a challenge).

Personally though we took option 4, deciding that the Col de la Croix de Fer was far too beautiful to leave so soon after we arrived so we elected to spend the night there as well. The pictures say much more than I can by waffling about it. We were even considering spending several nights up there to take advantage of the many hiking routes heading off the col to even high trails, but the snowy blizzard that blew in the next day (September weather) encouraged us to try just a short, 1 hour running loop before the thermometer dipped below 0 and we headed down towards St Jean du Maurienne ourselves ready for the next big ascent.

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