What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Rides the Col Du Glandon

TOP RIDE: As part of my week riding the French Alps with Velo Classic Tours, we tackled the Hors Category Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer, climbing into the thin air above 2000 meters elevation.  The Glandon is 21.3 km long, and the Croix de Fer adds 2.5 km to that, for what took me about 2 hours of climbing in my 34×27.

The Glandon may not be as famous as the nearby Galibier, Alp d’Huez, or some of the other massive climbs in the region, but it’s got a long history as a Tour de France classic – first being crossed in 1947, and appearing 13 times since then, most recently in 2013 when Ryder Hesjedal was the first over the top.  And based on the number of riders we saw at the top, it’s certainly on many a cyclist’s ‘must do’ list.  In spite of it’s awesomeness, its never been used for a stage finish in the Tour – likely because there’s not really enough room to put all the vehicles and staging needed for such an undertaking.


Here’s how the Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer look on Strava.com


What You’re In For
It is an HC climb though and I gained a new and full appreciation for how tough it is, and how it’s placement in any stage would strike fear into the hearts and legs of many riders.  It really rides like three climbs in one – the bottom 11km that winds up from La Chambre though the forest, and gets really steep for the last couple of kms before you pop out at the town of Villard – where it’s thankfully flat for a couple of kms rest – and maybe grab a coffee at one of the local cafes, then the next section that leaves the forest behind and meanders up the valley while snow-capped peaks cast scornful looks down at you, then the last 2-3km pitch, which goes to 10% & 11% grades, switchbacking up a windswept face before finally spitting you out at the summit – where the wind blows even harder. Oh, and then there’s the extra 2.5km jaunt to the Croix de Fer – which is relatively easy after what you’ve just done – and may or may not count as a bonus climb. (You can decide.)


The ride starts from far down in the valley – this view is towards the Col de la Madeleine (across the valley from the Glandon), and those peaks are a looong way off.  Depending on how much of a warm up you want, there are starting points-a-plenty.


We chose a nice 12km warm up along the valley floor to get the legs moving, that rolled through picturesque French towns, farmland, and cattle country…


We rounded a curve on our warm up and came up right behind this herd trotting down the road – thankfully they turned off just past that house on the right.

The climb proper starts in the town of La Chambre, and the slopes kick up immediately.  The road more or less follows a river as it climbs through a forest – which even on a semi-warm day got muggy and humid inside.  The slopes of the Glandon mostly range between 8 – 11%, with a couple flat kms in the middle (km 10 & 11) that come in handy as a rest stop.


The slopes of the Glandon mostly range between 8 – 11%, with a couple flat kms in the middle (km 10 & 11).  The town of Villard-Martinan (aka St-Alban-des-Villards) comes in handy as a rest stop at the 10km in mark.


Once past the town of Le Perriere at 12km, the terrain changes as it leaves the forest and enters the high alpine, with trees giving way to meadows, and eventually the exposed rocky peaks at the top.


The second half of the climb leads up a long valley into a natural bowl, with majestic peaks and plenty to look at on all sides.


At around 7km to go, it occurred to me that I didn’t have a 7km climb left in my legs. Soon after though, I hatched a plan to ride 7 x 1km climbs, with stops as needed at each km marker – success was back within my grasp.



The views are stunning most of the way up the second half of the climb – and even more so when you take look back from whence you came…


The screw turns as the toughest grades are in the last two km – 11% and 10% to finish it off, and the wind blew into my face all the way to the Glandon summit. The fun doesn’t stop there though, as the summit you really want is the Croix de Fer – and other 2.5 km to the south. Luckily, the grades are in the 5-6% range enough that I was able to kick it into third gear and spin up some speed in the high ‘teens – and that wind blowing from behind let me actually feel good for just a few minutes of this brutal day.


The summit of the Glandon is a wind-blown, don’t stand around too long sort of place, where the road splits to either carry you onto the true cyclist’s summit of the Croix de Fer (and its hopefully open cafe), or take you down the valley in the direction of Bourg d’Oisans and Alpe d’Huez.


Summiting these climbs has a certain emotional aspect that may only be appreciated by cyclists like us – after grunting and sweating our way to the top in our bottom gear.  But once it’s over – it’s over, and you can truly revel in the satisfaction of a big accomplishment, and then look forward to a possibly even more rewarding descent back to the bottom.  And going down was as revelatory as going up – when I  saw again how far up I’d actually climbed – it pretty much added a couple exclamation points to an already bold-lettered day.


I highly recommend it.

Thanks to Velo Classic Tours for the top-notch day and handling all the logistics.

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