The big one....at 2645 metres high, cycling the Col du Galibier is the main goal of most cyclists visiting the area. From the Bourg D’Oisans (south) side the climb is 42km long so expect to be in the saddle for a while. It is mostly a question of stamina however, as for the majority of the ride the gradient doesn’t get over 6%. You need to keep a little in the tank however, as the last kilometer of climbing has sections at 12% - great for your sense of accomplishment when you finally reach the top.....
Col Du Galibier from the South
The climb of the Col du Galibier is accessed by first going over the Col du Lautaret, when approaching it from the direction of Bourg D’Oisans. The Col du Lautaret is a long climb but not steep, with an average slope of only 3.8%, but just under 35km. There are stunning views of the mountains in the Ecrins national park, which lies directly to the south.
Along the way there are a number of long tunnels, two of which are 750 metres long. They are lit, however it’s not uncommon for the lights in sections of the tunnels to be out, so rear lights are essential (and a front light if you are not comfortable riding in low light conditions). The village of La Grave, at just over the halfway point is a good place to take a break; both for the views and to get something to eat as there are a number of cafes, bars, or patisseries in the small ski resort.
After La Grave, the road steepens a little and the valley opens up. There can be a headwind along this section so the last part to the summit of the Lautaret can be tough. However you need to take it easy as the hardest part - the Galibier - is yet to come...
At the top of the Lautaret the road continues down towards Briancon, or you can take the turn to ride up the Col du Galibier (if you’ve got that far it would be rude not to!). From there the road steepens and switches over to the other side of the valley after a few kilometres. Once over the false summit you then arrive at a monument to Henri Desgrange, the founder of the Tour de France. Check this out if you are curious or just need a breather before the last km.
A tunnel cuts through the mountain for road traffic but the road continues up to the right for another 800 metres or so. It’s not a long way, but is the steepest section by far; just enough to get your lungs straining for air if they weren’t already! It also helps give you a great sense of accomplishment as you finally get to the summit. Congratulations!
It can be quite cold at the summit given the altitude, and can easily be 10 - 15 degrees celsius lower than the temperature in the valleys. As such you need to ensure you have at least a windproof layer for the descent on all but the hottest days.
Col du Galibier from the North
Climbing the Galibier from the north means that you have to tackle the Col du Telegraphe first. From Bourg D’Oisans, this means getting into the Maurienne valley to the north via either the Col du Glandon or the Col de la Croix de Fer. An alternative that some people prefer is to be dropped off at the top of the Glandon or Croix de Fer by car, leaving a slightly more manageable 2 Cols to complete before arriving back in Bourg D’Oisans.
If you do attempt the round trip of the Glandon, Telegraphe, and the Galibier however, and you (just!) add on a climb up to Alpe D’Huez, you’ll have completed the Marmotte route - the famous (and original) Alpine sportive, and you’ll be in a pretty exclusive cycling club! This a major day’s cycling however - perhaps up to 10 hours in the saddle, depending on your fitness, so not to be taken lightly. If you do decide to attempt a ride of this magnitude, make sure you take plenty of drinks/gels/food - you’ll be pushing your body to extremes and it will need a lot of fuel to be able to get you round this course, which is comparable to a Tour de France major mountain stage.
However you get there, once you have ridden over the Col du Telegraphe and down the other side, into Valloire, you still have 18 km and 1250 metres to climb to the summit - a major task in itself. Riding out of Valloire, after a kilometre or so there is a steeper section, before the gradient eases off and fairly gently follows the valley upwards. After this, it steepens again but with a variable gradient as you make your way to the main part of the climb (see photo left). After around 5 kilometres of this, and after passing a small restaurant in a place called Plan Lachat, the road crosses over to the other side of the valley and the climb begins in earnest.
From now on the gradient is a constant 8% with no let up. At this point, your legs are likely to be protesting, especially if this is your third Col of the day! This continues for the next 7km, with the mountainside becoming more rocky and barren as you continue to climb.
Up here you may be noticing the altitude - lungs working a little harder than you may expect for the effort level; heart rate too. Apart from high summer, there may well be snow on the mountain up here, and you’ll feel the rapid drop in air temperature if this is the case. Most of us will be working hard enough for it not be be a problem however! The bad news is that as you approach the final kilometre, the hardest is saved for last.
As you turn left (to avoid the road tunnel) at the restaurant, the gradient hits 10% or more, and any energy you have left is sucked out as you navigate the last handful of switchbacks.
Whichever direction you decide to take when tackling the Col du Galibier, it’s a climb you will not forget and the summit brings a great feeling of achievement; you have just conquered an Alpine legend!