Cycling the Col du Galibier (2642m) from St Jean du Maurienne via Col du Telegraphe (1566m)

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Monday 18 September 2017

Cycling the Col du Galibier (2642m) from St Jean du Maurienne via Col du Telegraphe (1566m)

Having waxed lyrical about the climb of the Col du Glandon/Col de la Croix de Fer being scenically magnificent, I was reminded today during the mammoth ascent of this northern approach to the Col du Galibier just why I consider it the most beautiful of all the Tour de France climbs we've ever done.  Twice before we had approached the Galibier from the southern side from Briancon via the Col du Lauteret and marvelled at the snow capped peaks of the Ecrins and sweeping panoramas of the Alps that that route provides. Well it turns out the northern approach is no less spectacular, especially the final 9 or 10 kilometres, as well as being physically harder as well.

Strictly speaking the complete ascent of the Col du Galibier from St Jean du Maurienne is two climbs, the first being that 12km, 7.3% climb of the Col de Telegraphe that rises 856 metres from 710 to 1566 metres from the valley floor. The ascent of the Col de Telegraphe is then followed by a 5km descent into the ski town of Valloire which sees the road losing almost 200 metres in altitude before the 17km ascent of the Col du Galibier proper begins. This ascent then takes the road from 1401 metres up to 2642 metres, an extra 1200 metres at 7.3% average all over again. This means that, discounting the 5km of descending, the overall climbing portion is made up of 29km of uphill rising over 2000 metres. Phew!

However, as interesting as the overall climbing stats might be, unlike our previous ascent of the Col de la Croix de Fer/Col du Glandon which felt like one big climb of the Glandon with a little extra added on to reach the Croix de Fer, on the road this is definitely two distinct climbs. The first being the multiple switchback, tree lined ascent of the Telegraphe and the second being the open, cold and windswept tundra of the Galibier, all joined together by a chilling descent into Valloire. I elected to take on these two climbs as one long ride with a day off to follow, while Esther elected to take them on one at a time.

Climbing out of St Jean du Maurienne the opening few kilometres of the route up the Col de Telegraphe are some of the steepest of this climb, hovering at around 8% on switchbacks before a few, gentler 6% portions on longer straights appear at around the halfway mark before the road kicks up ever so slightly again for the final approach to the col. View-wise, looking uphill there is little to see but trees and it's hard to make out exactly which little notch in the tree-line is the final destination unless you know what you are looking for as the road zigzags upwards. Looking downhill, on a clear day at least, the view to the valley floor and across to the southern slopes is pleasant enough although still largely dominated by the grey snake that is the main road heading up the valley.

Arriving at the Col du Telepgraphe it was fun to be greeted by a giant, straw cyclist decorated in polka dots that was a fun reminder that a couple of months earlier the 2017 Tour de France had raced its way up this very road. They probably didn't top to take photos though!

Heading downhill into Valloire is not a challenging descent with very few turns that require braking. The main enemy, for me anyway, was the cold After a drizzly start to the day and having been told that it was sub-zero on top of the Galibier, I knew from driving the motorhome up here after Esther (who had ridden to the Telegraphe first and from where I'd gone back to the valley floor to start my own attempt while Esther had taken the motorhome onward to Valloire) that the temperature at the Telegraphe was already down in single figures and after a stiff hour of climbing I was damp enough to feel the chill keenly. At least it was over quickly. After a brief pause to wave at the furry family in our motorhome, parked expertly just on the outskirt of Valloire and meaning that I also now wouldn't have to retrace that particular 5km 'climb' to get home later on ("woohoo"), I carried on up.

A steep opening kilometre (9%) gave way to two much gentler ones and then, with the markers saying 14km to go the climb of the Galibier got tough in a way that would continue for most of the rest of the way. To say that the landscape was different compared to the Telegraphe would be an understatement. Gone were the trees and green summits and in were the scree slopes and bare rocky mountain tops. From 14km down to 8km to go the road wound up the valley following the course of the river Valloirette down on the right side, with one particularly marvellous view into a side valley that shot off at right angles to the road that looked more like the high, bare slopes we had grown used to in the Swiss rather than the French Alps.

With 8km of climbing still to go the 'end' of the valley loomed into sight. It was not really the 'end' of the valley of course, but only the point at which to carry on upwards would involved much more steep gradients than any sensible road builder would consider, although the hiking trails I could see zig-zagging on up looked very enticing. The road veers a sharp right here and continues climbing on the northern face of the valley side in a series of magnificent switchbacks that give a fantastic view back down the valley along the route the road has just taken.

From here on out the gradient does not give any quarter, it's 8 and 9% all the way to the top, but wow what a place to be riding a bike. The final 5km especially, with the Col du Galibier now visible as a still alarmingly high, tiny notch in the rocky ridgeline ahead, is like being in another world altogether. Dark, black rocks make up the summits here with tufty green grass clinging on as high as possible, although even this is left behind in the final kilometre. Looking up and ahead is like looking into an alpine postcard while looking back reveals a twisting, thin grey line that can only be the road falling away surprising fast below.

Crikey it was cold though, which is perhaps not unexpected at over 2500 metres in the Alps, but with wind chill factored in the temperature was definitely tickling sub zero figures which the snow patches by the road side kept at the forefront of my mind.

Eventually, after 3 hours after leaving the valley floor, I reach the col, a small patch of relative flatness dotted with cyclists, drivers and motorcyclists separating the twisting road I'd just cycled up with the twisting road going down the other side. Yet, even despite the cold and the necessity to hastily throw on as many layers as my back pockets had allowed me to bring, it was still the view that I always take back down with me. This was my third visit to the Col du Galibier and it is a stunning place to stand and breathe in a sense of wild, forbidding, unforgiving and yet beautiful mountain scenery with snowy peaks falling sharply into twisted rocky cliffs and down further into green valleys. As usual, the pictures are better at describing it than me, but in this case even they can't do it justice

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