5 Tour de France climbs every serious cyclist needs to conquer

This is a guest feature from Epic Road Rides, the team that create independent guides to the world’s best road cycling destinations. Their website shares firsthand accounts of the top rides in each destination as well as free GPX downloads, tips on where to stay and bike hire. This article was originally published in July 2019 but we’ve refreshed it this year – these routes remain timeless icons of cycling!

It’s July, which for road cyclists means just one thing: the Tour de France. 

Every year, the most famous race of the professional cycling season takes over our TV screens and captures our imaginations. Of all the stunning footage to grace our screens, none is more iconic than that shot in the high mountains: we’d go so far as to say that the mountain stages are what the Tour de France is all about. The craggy peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees capture the Tour’s drama and it’s generally here that the race is won or lost.

Below, we share our top five legendary Tour de France mountain climbs and how you can ride them yourselves.

1. Col du Tourmalet

Col du Tourmalet, Copyright EpicRoadRides
The iconic peaks of Tourmalet (copyright Epic Road Rides)

The Col du Tourmalet is the most-visited climb in Tour de France history. The 2019 tour was the 82nd time it was featured in the Tour (assuming you count finishes at La Mongie, the ski station a few kilometres from the summit). 

At 2,115m, it’s the highest paved pass in the French Pyrenees and its dramatic peaks and the relatively narrow road to the summit, somehow encapsulate the excitement and drama of the Tour’s mountain stages. 

We particularly love the story of how the Col du Tourmalet first came to be used in the Tour. In 1910, Henri Desgrange, the race organiser, sent his colleague, Alphonse Steins, off on a recce. He drove 16km up the Tourmalet via the eastern side, before the car broke down. He decided to set out on foot alone and, having made it to the top with the help of a local shepherd, fell into an icy mountain stream on the way back down. Shortly before 3am, Steins was located by a rescue party, close to hypothermia. He was transported to Barèges, and from here Steins sent the immortal message: “Road over Tourmalet pass perfect; free of snow and undoubtedly driveable.”

Ride the climb yourself:

  • Start: The climb is popular from both directions. We rode it from Ste-Marie-de-Campan, in France’s Hautes-Pyrenees department.
  • Statistics: Length 17km, average gradient 8%.
  • Feel: The climb starts in a fairly relaxed fashion, but around the hamlet of Gripp, the gradient increases up to 8% and doesn’t show much mercy until the summit 12 kilometres later. Unlike L’Alpe d’Huez, don’t expect switchbacks…it’s all long, endless, straight sections.
  • Scenery: The Tourmalet has a wild, raw feel to it. The summit is perched on a knife edge – one minute you’re climbing at 8%, you turn a corner and find yourself plunging downwards! 
  • Top tip: Plan your trip to coincide with the first Saturday of June each year, when the huge iron Geant au Col du Tourmalet statue is installed for the summer, at the summit.
  • Epic Road Rides guide to the climb: here

2. L’Alpe d’Huez

The famous hairpin curves of Alpe d’Huez (copyright Kartouchken)

The notorious 21 hairpins of L’Alpe d’Huez take you to the top of cycling’s most famous mountain. It didn’t feature in the 2019 or 2020 editions of the race so expect it back soon: it’s rare for two editions of the race to go by without featuring the climb.

The reason for its fame? That much of recent Tour legend has taken place on its slopes. People say that whoever wins on Alpe d’Huez will win in Paris… Just look at Geraint Thomas’s victory on the mountain last year, and the result in Paris.

L’Alpe d’Huez is also nicknamed the Dutch Mountain, since six out of the first nine Tour de France stages at Alpe d’Huez were won by Dutch riders. If you’re looking for a party at the Tour de France, head to switchback 7 on Alpe d’Huez, where you’ll find orange-clad Dutch cycling fanatics living it up!

Ride the climb yourself: 

  • Start: Start just outside Bourg d’Oisans, in France’s Isère department.
  • Statistics: Length 14km, average gradient 8%.
  • Feel: The climb starts from the gun, with the opening kilometres averaging around 10% before “easing off” to around 8%. The hairpins come regularly and help break up the climb – but with gradients like this, you’ll still find yourself wondering if the summit is ever going to arrive!
  • Scenery: While it might be the most famous climb in the Tour, we don’t think it’s the most visually stunning. It’s fundamentally a climb to a ski resort and, while it’s surrounded by other impressive mountains, doesn’t have the same wow factor.
  • Top tip: Tackle it first thing in the morning to try and avoid some of the motorbikes that ply its slopes.
  • Epic Road Rides guide to the climb: here

3. Col de Galibier

Galibier – a climb of epic proportions (copyright Epic Road Rides)

The Galibier is a colossus of road cycling, its 2,642m summit is way up in the rarified air above the 2,000m mark. It’s one of the toughest Alpine cols out there and takes in some of the most impressive mountain scenery we’ve ever seen. 

The Col de Galibier is a longstanding favourite of the Tour, and was introduced in 1911.  When the Tour tackled the Galibier that year, Desgrange wrote: “Are these men not winged, who today climbed to heights where even eagles don’t go … they rose so high they seemed to dominate the world!”

The Galibier was Desgrange’s favourite mountain. He also said of it: “In front of this giant we can do nothing but take our hats off and bow”. There’s a monument to Desgrange on the southern side of the climb.

This 2019 Tour will tackled the Galibier from the Col du Lauteret side, finishing in Valloire, on stage 18 of the race. The summit of the Galibier was 189 kilometres into the race and rider s had already taken on the Vars and Izoard passes, each of them over 2,000 metres. A huge day by any standards! 

Ride the climb yourself:

  • Start: The classic way up this monster is via the northern side, starting in Valloire, in France’s Savoie department. However, given the Tour is approaching from the south, via the Col du Lauteret this year (and that’s the way we rode it too!), the information below is based on that route up.
  • Statistics: Length 9km, average gradient 7%.
  • Feel: Hairpin after hairpin weave their way up on a narrow, mountain road from the Col du Tourmalet, amidst jaw-dropping scenery. Dig deep for the last kilometre – as it rises steeply above the car tunnel.
  • Scenery: The scenery between the Col du Lautaret and Col du Galibier is immense. You find far-reaching views over wide, green valley bottoms, flanked by vertical grey jagged mountain ranges. 
  • Top Tip: The Galibier pass sits at a mighty 2,556m high. Above 2,000m your body can start to do strange things – at Galibier kind of heights you can easily get into trouble. Listen to your body.
  • Epic Road Rides guide to the climb: here

4. Mont Ventoux

Memorial for the cyclist Tom Simpson who died while climbing the Mont Ventoux during the Tour de France of 1967 (copyright Jehoede)

Mont Ventoux looms over the Provençal countryside, the only mountain for hundreds of miles around. If you’re a cyclist that loves their Tour history, it’s impossible to be in this part of the world and not heed the call to tackle its slopes.

Ventoux appeared in the Tour de France for the first time in 1951, one year earlier than Alpe d’Huez. It has featured 15 times since then. 

Its other-worldly scenery and infamous weather systems set it apart. It’s also forever connected with the tragic death of British rider Tom Simpson in 1967. Simpson was one of the best riders of his generation. He was also the first British rider to wear the yellow jersey and had a flamboyant, glamorous personality. On 13 July 1967 near the top of Ventoux, he collapsed and was pronounced dead a few hours later, a heady mix of intense heat, alcohol and amphetamines thought to be the cause.

Ride the climb yourself:

  • Start: There are three routes up Ventoux. The most famous of these starts at the village of Bédoin, in France’s Vaucluse department.
  • Statistics: Length 21km, average gradient 7%.
  • Feel: This is one beast of a climb. It’s considerably longer than both Alpe d’Huez and the Tourmalet, and while the average gradient is fractionally below the other two (7.4%), it won’t feel like that as the road writhes, mercilessly, through the forest.
  • Scenery: The interminable forest section is best forgotten. The star of the show is the last six kilometres through the lunar landscape to the summit. Due to this and the fact there are no other mountains around Ventoux, we think it’s the most memorable climb in our list purely based on scenery.
  • Top tip: Take time to pay your respects at the memorial to Tom Simpson, a few kilometres from the summit. It’s the place he lost his life and there’s a moving atmosphere in this bleak spot.
  • Epic Road Rides guide to the climb: here

5. Col de l’Iseran

The stunning scenery of Iseran (copyright Epic Road Rides)

The Col de l’Iseran is Europe’s highest pass at 2,770m and the upper reaches showcase the best of Alpine scenery. Yet, despite its height and staggering scenery, the Iseran is one of the less frequented climbs in the Tour. It has featured fewer than ten times – probably more a factor of the fact it’s quite far off the beaten track than its other credentials. 

The pass first featured in the Tour in 1938 on the stage from Briancon to Aix-les-Bains. It’s had a few memorable moments since then, including in 1949 when Fausto Coppi used it as a launchpad to win the first of his two Tour victories. In 1959 Louison Bobet got off his bike on the Iseran and quit the Tour, the race he’d won three times before.  And finally, in 1996, heavy snow fell and meant the Tour had to be diverted away from the climb.

Ride the climb yourself:

  • Start: Climb from the north (from Bourg Saint Maurice) to take on France’s longest climb. Climb from the south (from Bonneval Sur Arc) for a shorter but steeper climb on a quieter road. We rode from the north, so the information below is based on that route up.
  • Statistics: Length 48km, average gradient 4% 
  • Feel: Immensely long! You’re on a main road before Val d’Isere (at 31km in), but after that the traffic eases off and you find yourself in cycling paradise. 
  • Scenery: You start off cycling through a relatively narrow, wooded valley, before hitting the spectacular Lac du Chevril reservoir (but beware the tunnels on the road around it). After Val d’Isere, you’re in the heart of the unspoilt Vanoise National Park with a beautiful stream, cliffs, shattered rock, scree slopes and glaciers all around.
  • Top Tip: Don’t try and tackle this climb too early in the season – it’s so high that it often gets heavy snowfall, even in summer. 
  • Epic Road Rides guide to the climb: here

We hope our list leaves you feeling inspired to go out and conquer some cols! What’s on your bucket list? Let us know in the comments below!

Note: all climb statistics are estimates and are taken from ridewithgps.com data.