The Greatest Cycling Climbs – Col de L’Iseran

Written by Robyn Oppenheimer on 21st November, 2018

The lure of powdery ski slopes it not all that the Northern Alps has to offer, the winding tarmac leading to breathtaking vistas is a cyclists’ paradise.   

The Location

The Iseran is the highest paved pass in the Alps and heads through picture perfect Alpine scenery.  It is located in the Savoie region in France and just a hop to the border with Italy.  The pass connects the valley of the Isere and the valley of the Arc River between Val D’Isere in the north and Bonneval-sur-Arc in the south.

a lake near col de l'iseran in france

Why The Iseran

As France’s longest climb (riding the Iseran from Bourg Saint Maurice) and Europe’s highest mountain pass, the Col de l’Iseran is one of the greatest European climbs and a bucket list ride for many road cyclists.  The Iseran’s history with the Tour de France is impressive – it has been part of the Tour since 1938 when Felicien Vervaecke was the first rider over the summit, only to be taken by Gino Bartali on the descent.

an old photo of the col de l'iseran in 1938 during the Tour de france

The Stats

The start of the route is a gentle one, along a 9km flat until Viclaire where the gradient increases to around 5% until you turn off to Tignes.  You will then reach the impressive Tignes Dam also known as the ‘Lac du Chevril’.  The dam was built in the 1948 for the purpose of producing hydroelectric power. You will see the fresco of the Olympian figure Hercules on the dam’s face, which was painted in preparation for the 1992 Winter Olympics by Jean-Marie Pierret.

As you head towards Val d’Isere, you will ride through the notorious long, dark tunnels.  Be careful – motorcyclists love this road so take lights with you if you have them! As you ride into Val d’Isere the climb is not the prettiest, but as you leave the ski resort and head upwards you will soon realise why this route is so special. The busy tunnels and traffic at the bottom of the valley gives way to typical Alpine views with green pastures and snowy peaks. The initial incline is only 2.9%, allowing you to take in the beauty of this mountainous region.  The challenge really begins as you push up to the summit of the Iseran. The gradient may only average 4% but the climb from Bourg Saint Maurice is a massive 48km long making this an epic ride.

Off the Bike

There are a number of lovely bakeries and cafes situated in Bourg St Maurice if you need to refuel. If you are stopping there and feel like trying something different, there are a number of water sports and boat tours running in the summer months, including white water activities for those adrenaline seekers!

Col de lseran Signpost

If you have been inspired to cycle the Iseran, why not give our cycling specialists a call? Our specialists can help you build your perfect cycling holiday.  Whether you want to join a training camp, use an electric bike, or ride our GPX routes independently, we are able to tailor your trip to you.