Cycling the Route des Grandes Alpes
By Giles Belbin
Published by Cicerone Press 2022
Size 17.2 x 11.6 x 1.2cm
Reviewed by Steve Dyster
The Route des Grandes Alpes has a long history, commencing as a tourist promotion venture by the Touring Club of France in 1909. Note, touring of all kinds – not cycle touring. Of course, in those days you were more likely to see bicycles than cars on the road. In any case, some of the higher passes were not paved until much later. The author outlines this history, but this is very much an up to date guide, full of advice that should be digested. There’s no need to be frightened of the Route des Grandes Alpes, but being sensible and well-prepared will make all the difference.
Cicerone guides follow a standard format. All the usual features are here. However, familiarity should not be allowed to breed contempt. If you’ve only ever looked at the cycling guides, you may feel, especially if you are an experienced cyclist, that some of the advice is mainly common sense – that is not a negative comment as these guides are for cyclists of all abilities, ambitions, and experience – but I, for one, tend to go straight to the routes when leafing through a guide such as that to Cycling in the Lake District. The introductory material here reads a bit more like the guides to mountain walking: take note. Mountain weather can change at the drop of a hat; height and long descents means colder temperatures; remote country makes food and shelter harder to find, mechanical failure will make roadside repairs necessary, and long, winding descents require care and concentration.
Enough to put you off? Well, Giles Belbin has the antidote to the fearsome barrage of climbs. Despite the need to check routes, weather, go at the right time of year, and be ready for touring motorcyclists and car-drivers, not to mention the raw statistics for ascent, this is, he points out a route that can be done by moderately fit cyclists – especially with the advent of the e.bike and the growth in the number of charging stations. Mind you, an e.bike is not a necessity – just take your time and plan intelligently. Interestingly, he carried out much of his research on an e.bike and found there to be little advantage on some of the climbs. He also learned to carefully monitor the charge!
Starting at Thonon-les-Bains on Lake Leman (Lausanne) the route heads over many of the most famous Alpine passes, often ones with Tour de France associations, on its way to Nice. You’d expect there to be plenty of ascent along the way, but interestingly, the section profiles show that the raw altitudes are misleading. Check them out – one thousand metres plus is still a lot of up, but it is manageable. Add to this that many of the passes are relatively well-graded, if very long. Cycling in the big mountains requires patience, pacing, and self-awareness. Unless you are very fit, forget associations with the Tour de France and just enjoy the ride. I’ve always found the long descents, especially steep hairpins, more of a test of nerve. Seven days for the very fit challenge seeker, is the suggestion. For mere mortals, such as me, I’d just take in the scenery and enjoy the cafes.
The main route is described in detail, although .gpx files are available for download, too. Alternative routes are provided for some sections, should the passes be closed for any reason – and that can happen at any time of year with landslides. Details of how to check the status of each pass are given, as are sources for up-to-date weather conditions. Alternative routes are suggested for some sections. These may help if passes are closed at short notice, or may appeal to mountain-maniacs as some offer truly awe-inspiring ascents.
When reading advice on cycle touring most of us can find something to disagree with, even if it something as personal as the most appropriate design of handlebars. I found the advice and guidance on all aspects of this trip to be amongst the soundest I have come across. For such a challenging route, it is a source of encouragement, as are the enticing images of cyclists and scenery. Likewise, the sensible suggestions for stages and the charts of accommodation, distance, daily climbs and descents, that make planning easy. The latter features are typical of Cicerone guides. As ever, there’s enough history, natural history, geology and so on to satisfy or whet the appetite.
The bare facts; 719.75 kilometres; 19125 metres ascent; 19548 metres descent (ok, technically a downhill trend, but don’t get carried away). Suggestions for 7, 10, and 14 day itineraries, plenty of info to plan your own, with charts and maps aplenty.
Yet another enticement to travel.