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Col De L’iseran

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When it comes to high mountains, none are more recognizable in the sport of cycling than the Alps. After all, it is here where many of the greatest stories have been played out in two legendary grand tours: the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. And for Jérôme and Julien, two avid cyclists from the southern French city of Lyon, there could be no better way to celebrate the end of a long race season than with a weekend getaway in the Alps. On tap, we decide to tackle four very different climbs in two days. Simply put, it’s the perfect way to enjoy the autumn colors, reconnect with some epic climbs—and discover others. So, on this October weekend, we pack up our bikes and take off on an alpine adventure.

Words/images: James Startt

Our first stop is the Beaufort Valley and a spectacular climb over the Cormet de Roselend—a mountain that’s on next year’s Tour route—before snaking our way down to the Tarentaise Valley to the foot of the second climb of our first day: the mythic Col de l’Iseran. Despite being the highest paved road in this part of the French Alps, the Iseran is far from the most frequented when it comes to bike racing. Its remote location is in part responsible, as the 2,764-meter (9,068-foot) summit serves only to link the upper reaches of the Tarentaise Valley with the neighboring Maurienne Valley. But a road less traveled is always a great road to discover on a bike.

Arriving late in the day, we know that we will be losing the sun as we climb and at these high altitudes temperatures fall quickly.

Jérôme—a longtime cross-country ski instructor in Bessans, a village near the foot of the Iseran’s Maurienne side—knows this climb well. In fact, he says it’s his favorite alpine pass and that this late-season ride will provide the perfect opportunity to show it off to his friend Julien, who has never climbed the Iseran before.

“L’Iseran is definitely my favorite climb,” Jérôme explains. “It’s just a magical place. There are no barriers, which gives us a real sense of open space, and we are really close to some major glaciers somewhere between France and Italy. It’s a pure alpine environment.”

Leaving from the world-renowned ski resort of Val d’Isère, we climb gently at first along the narrow river valley until suddenly turning right over an aging stone bridge that locals know simply as the Pont Saint-Charles. Once crossed, we immediately attack the Iseran’s first real ramps. Already, by the time we hit our first hairpin turn, we feel the presence of the imposing, near-vertical mountainsides so typical of this rustic landscape.

Although it’s behind us, it’s simply impossible to ignore the rocky face of the Col de Galise, which leads hikers past its glacier toward the adjoining Aosta Valley in Italy. Matching it on our right is the Aiguille de la Grande Sassière, a mountain with one of the most impressive rock faces in the Alps that reaches an elevation of nearly 4,000 meters (13,000 feet).

The breathtaking views, combined with our own increasing shortness of breath, are nothing short of an overwhelming sensation. And it’s enhanced by the fact that we are virtually alone, far from the flow of any traffic. But while the glaciers and mountain faces welcome us into the upper reaches of the Iseran, we still ride past autumn tints for several kilometers.

“You see what I mean,” Jérôme said quickly. “This climb is like no other!”

Farther along we approach several dormant ski lifts, reminding us that, soon enough, these cliffs will be transformed into some of the most challenging ski runs of the high Alps.

As the road climbs, the sky turns steadily from blue to gray. And, as we edge above the tree line, we’re soon in another environment altogether, one where the rocky landscape cradles the chilly air.

“This climb is like no other!”Julien is quick to stop and find a momentary shelter at the Chalet des Autres (“Chalet of the Others”), a playful name for what is little more than a mountain shelter, but a shelter that’s ideally placed on this day to offer a moment’s reprieve from the increasingly biting winds. It’s also the perfect spot for him to add a layer of Gore-Tex socks over his shoes and pull out a pair of Road Windstopper Thermal Gloves.

Soon enough, Julian is off again as the summit is virtually in sight. Powering away, it’s clear that he’s excited to reach what some call the rooftop of Europe for the first time. Jérôme, who has climbed the Iseran dozens of times, rides at his own pace, content simply to be at one with such impressive forces of nature.

“Wow! That was amazing,” Julien says once we meet up at the summit. “Climbing out of Val d’Isère was just gorgeous. But when I got to the top as nightfall was approaching I was all alone with the wind and clouds. Wow, those were some crazy emotions! It’s just so dark, almost black. You really feel the power of the mountains.”

“Thanks, Jérôme,” he added. “What an amazing discovery!”

From issue 72. Buy it here.