World's Best Cycling Routes: Classic Alpine Loop

Quite possibly the greatest one day loop in the world. Where else could you find four legendary climbs, all steeped in so much Tour de France history, in one ride. This is also one of the most fun rides with some amazing descents, changes in scenery and some great food stop options (that's always critical!). The ride starts & finishes in Alpe d'Huez and heads over the Col du Glandon, the Telegraph / Galibier double before finishing with the long descent down the Lauteret and the 21 hairpins back up to the resort at Alpe d'Huez. Each one of the climbs is stunning and different and would be the highlight of a ride normally.

The route goes over 2,000m twice, the first time at the summit of the first climb (peaking at 2,067m) and then again on the mighty Galibier at a full 2,645m. It is not unusual to be very hot and chilly on this ride and an extra layer for the descent off the Galibier is highly recommended. This mighty climb was used the first time the Tour went to the Alps in 1911 and is one of those legendary climbs that everyone needs to experience. Including all four climbs in one day makes for a tough ride, 187km with over 5,000m of climbing. It can be ridden on the original and still one of the best sportives in the world, La Marmotte. This is a good way to ride this route as you can benefit from the feed stations, rolling road closures and mechanical support. Either way, if you are fit enough, this is an absolute must ride!

In Summary

Start - Alpe d'Huez, France

Finish - Alpe d'Huez, France

Distance - 187km

Elevation - 5,180m

Key Climbs - Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraph, Col du Galibier, Alpe d'Huez

The Ride

For all of us except the very elite, this is a long, hard day requiring an early start so the first descent of the day is a chilly one. As you will discover at the end of the day, Alpe d'Huez is not the most beautiful climb in the world but it is great - each corner labelled with a winner of a stage here and the hairpins are so regular you get more and more confidence on the descent as you carve better and better lines round the corners. From the bottom in Bourg d'Oisans, we catch a rare bit of flat terrain on the way to the start of the first climb of the day. This is a very pretty part of the Alps and riding on the valley floor on a sunny morning is glorious. The road can be busy but the bike lane is wide and we turn pretty quickly off and onto a quieter road taking us past a lake and onto the first of todays challenges, 24km of the Col du Glandon. 

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The Glandon is a challenging climb to find a rhythm as it keeps changing from steep to flat. After a short gentle introduction, one of the hardest sections is near the start with some 10% gradients on long, straight ramps. Even early in the morning the temperatures can be high in the summer and this section can feel hot. The views begin to get spectacular early with big vistas down the valley and then before you know it, the gradient has flattened out and then you are descending, not what you want when you know the climb averages 5% and you will pay for it later. The payback comes quick as you hit an 11% section straight out of the descent, out of the saddle stuff past a couple of switchbacks. The climb is now in the high Alps and a long saddle road feels like you are in the Sound of Music with lush green pastures, sheep and the noise of cowbells battling for your senses. The gradients here are mostly 6-8% and this is one of our favourite points on the ride. The road then splits with a left turn which could take you to the Col du Glandon or the right which we take to the Col du Croix de Fer, a short 3km gentle climb to over 2,000m. The summit can be cool so no time to celebrate, straight over the top we go on the fast, fun and long descent all the way down to St Etienne de Cuines. The first part of the descent is particularly quick and we are back down in the next valley in no time.

From here, we have the second and final flat section of the day, around 20km of a gentle drag to the bottom of the Telegraph with the main highway never far from our sight. It is a welcome feeling to be back climbing and the 12km of the Col du Telegraph is the least known of today's ascents but an absolute cracker. It is not far off the difficulty level of Alpe d'Huez averaging over 7% but unlike the Glandon, it gives a very consistent gradient, rarely too steep but always challenging, so you can find your gear and spin all the way. The views are lovely, a wall of mountains in front of you to start and as the road snakes up to Valloire you are offered great views down to where you have been.

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Valloire is a nice place to stop for some lunch, two climbs and over 100kms into the ride. The mountain air and views make this one of our favourite towns in the Alps. Straight out of town, we hit the big one - the Col du Galibier. The first 5km gets us out of town and into the wild, and then the climb proper begins. Again the gradients are nice and consistent, between 6 and 8% most of the way. We follow the river up a fairly windy valley road and then cross a small bridge where the road becomes slightly steeper and full of hairpins. The views back down the valley are amazing and you can see the top from far away as the road curves up over 2,500m. The steepest section is left for the final kilometre. After 17km, the 10% gradient is not kind but with the top in view a quick push out of the saddle gets you to the top quickly. 

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Going over the top of the summit opens up the other side of the mountain and views down into the next valley. The first part of the descent is steep and windy with some great views all the way to the bottom. There can be slow traffic here in the summer as campervans and Sunday drivers come here for the views. After a short but fast descent, we turn right onto the main road and the Col du Lauteret. This is a 34km descent at a gentle gradient meaning you absolutely fly often under your own pedal power. The road was closed for a couple of years due to a rockslide and there are some long, dark tunnels to navigate so mae sure you bring lights. This is one of the most thrilling descents in the world and quick as a flash we are at the bottom of Alpe d'Huez. 

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The road doesnt go into the centre of Bourg d'Oisans so you the roadside cafes and garages are the last chance to fill up your bidons and grab a snack. Straight onto Alpe d'Huez the 8% gradients are tough on the legs after such a long day. While the whole climb is very consistent, the first few hairpins are the hardest. The corners are nice and flat so getting a wide line around these gives you the chance to get speed and cadence up for the next steep straight. And so it continues up the first few hairpins until you get to the small village of Huez. After this the road opens up and you can see the resort early. The psychological high of seeing the finish makes the last few kms easier and as you pass hairpin one, there is just one steep, straight section to finish. There is a finish line at the top where people time their climbs - under an hour is very solid, after 175km anything under 1hr20 is very good. 

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After the finish, Alpe d'Huez is a good place to celebrate or relax. There are some good spas in town, a nice outdoor pool and some good bars & restaurants. Anyone that conquers this ultimate Alpine Loop certainly deserves a good celebration.