Posted by: Ian | June 30, 2013

Cycling up the Col d’Izoard

Yesterday morning I left home early, flew to Nice, picked up a hire car and headed into the Alps. I had decided, for no especially good reason, to cycle up Col d’Izoard, a Hors Categorie climb that has featured in many previous editions of both the Tour and the Giro, although not recently – the influx of wealth to the Côte d’Azur having made road closures much tougher to arrange. I had heard that the ride was pretty.

The mapping sites I looked at for a route by car all returned paths that were very circuitous. Impatiently, I decided to eschew every one of the proposed alternatives in favour of a direct route over the Alps. It was wonderful and, as there are so few roads, easy to plot and follow. Having failed to prepare, I picked out the roads from my ipad as I drove along, screen-shotting the relevant sections while I still had signal.

The French Alps are all that I had hoped: scenic twisty roads, rivers, forests and steady ascent. Somewhere around St Etienne de Tinee a convoy of 14 Ferraris passed me coming down the mountain. Despite the beauty, I can’t imagine it was great driving terrain for them: I did much of it in 2nd. Above the tree line came frequent hairpins and a far more open landscape of grassland, scree and eventually snow. Signs marked out the climb for cyclists at each kilometre up to the Col de la Bonette at 2,802 metres.


Near the top I saw separately four little critters scuttling around and diving into holes. I later learned that they were marmots.

It felt unreal to be somewhere so different by lunchtime of the day I’d left home.

I drove down the north side of La Bonette and then up and over the Col de Vars, reaching my hotel in Guillestre by late afternoon.

This morning I headed up to the Col d’Izoard after breakfast. Overnight Zoe had emailed me the write-up of the climb from the book Mountain High and it had made me a little apprehensive. The heavily dramatised account ended with a quotation from a former Tour director describing the route I had chosen to follow as on “the border of the difficult and the terrifying”.

Leaving Guillestre, I struck up a conversation with another cyclist who was also on his way up. Happily, he had, he told me, forgotten all of his English so I had my first opportunity for an extended conversation in French for a very long time. Also, he kept us at a good pace. I warmed to the guy and he was happy to answer all of my questions about bike climbs in the French Alps. He lives in the region and knows a lot. Today, he was going on to ride up the Galibier before dropping down to his home. He claimed that the ride up to Izoard was plus dur, which didn’t diminish my anxiety.

We rode together for many miles until we reached the hardest section of the climb at Arvieux. Then, keeping to my heart rate target – for fear of how hard the ride would become – I had to let him ride ahead. It didn’t become hard; it just continued for quite a while. When I reached the summit it caught me by surprise, even though I hadn’t missed any of the signs advertising the distance to the top (including the 1 km sign). Intrinsically, it isn’t that hard. No doubt it’s super hard if you race up at pro speed or if it’s the fifth such col you’ve done in your day’s circuit. But on its own it’s a walk in the park compared to, say, Day 3 of the Tour of Wessex.

The big old monument at the top is very rewarding. My congenial French friend was there too, asking if I wanted to carry on to Galibier. I really would have liked to but I had no appetite at all for the return trip from there. There were quite a few other cyclists milling around, most of whom had come by the (easier) route from the north. We had passed only about half a dozen on the way up and none had passed us. There were also many, many motorcyclists. I can see why they would take the trip – more so than the Ferrari drivers – but the number of them swarming around was unwelcome, especially on the descent.

I changed my original plan to loop round to Briancon in favour of returning down the col I came up so that I could check out some of the views I’d missed on the way up, such as the plaques commemorating Coppi and Bartoli, and take some photos.


Stopping frequently for snaps served a useful secondary purpose of expunging from my mind all thoughts of my Strava time for the descent. I try very hard to avoid getting carried away on the downhills but if you know you can post a time a dangerous irrationality is close at hand.

Before returning to Guillestre I headed off towards Italy. I thought I might reach the border but discovered that the journey is up another long col. I began the climb and enjoyed it but at 1:30, with 13 km still left to the summit, I passed a perfect little coke and pizza cafe and decided to have some lunch while I could. After a leisurely stop I swept back down the hills to the hotel taking many more snaps en route.




  1. I’m heading down to the Alps in 2 weeks and looking forward to it. Sounded great fun for you

    • Excellent. I can recommend the Izoard climb but there are so many.

  2. I think Izoard is the prettiest in that area, certainly not the hardest. I look forward to revisiting Izoard this autumn.

    • It is very pretty. If I could choose a climb that I could magically move close to my home it might well be this one.

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