Words/images: Paolo Ciaberta
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When the Tour de France first ventured into the Alps more than a century ago the mountain passes were little more than goat tracks; it would be decades before highway engineers created roads with wide turns and smooth pavement. Most of those old dirt roads were abandoned and disappeared from the map, but one of the few that remains is the Ancienne Route du Galibier. Yes, the mighty Col du Galibier still features long sections of the road first crossed by Tour de France riders in 1911.
I planned to include that original route on a two-part cycling weekend: first climbing from the south on the old gravel pathway and then from the north on a modern winding ribbon of tarmac. I like versatility. I think it’s important in many areas, and I look for it also in the bike—and what better way to try it by reaching the same summit on two different roads, two different styles, two different ways of life?
Over the decades, the Galibier has established itself as one of the Tour’s most prestigious climbs and a must-ride destination for cyclists from all over the world. In the heroic era, the early Tour riders faced the mountain’s grueling ascent on bicycles weighing up to 15 kilograms [33 pounds] on single gears. The first to cross the Galibier summit in 1911 were the French riders Émile Georget, Paul Duboc and Gustave Garrigou—who were also the only ones able to ride the complete climb without dismounting. And it came toward the end of a gigantic mountain stage of 366 kilometers that took them almost 14 hours to complete.
In the following years, the road underwent frequent modifications, but the mountain’s mythical halo has remained intact, revitalized by legendary challenges from the likes of Coppi and Gaul, Bahamontes and Anquetil, Merckx and Poulidor, Pantani and Ullrich, right up to Froome and Urán.
Exploiting the versatility of the gravel bike, I decided to first face the climb by bikepacking up the old road. Starting from the little village of Le Lauzet, I faced a demanding tour of the Galibier massif: a terrific 39-kilometer circular loop with almost 2,000 meters of elevation gain. I first ascended a wide valley toward the Col du Lautaret before crossing the main road to begin the gravel path used by the Tour’s pioneers. It’s totally unpaved, ascending though an expansive landscape, where the only traffic I encountered were a few cows. It was both exciting and relaxing at the same time—exciting for the views of snowcapped mountains and relaxing when I could look down on motor vehicles far below (and in the summertime those tarmac roads can get very busy). After crossing the Galibier summit and descending awhile, my magical ring around the peaks continued to the east on wilderness trails with some short “portage” sections before a long descent with short technical challenges through a panorama of incomparable beauty back to Le Lauzet. In the summertime those tarmac roads can get very busy).
“NEAR THE TOP, WHERE THE AIR WAS THINNER, THE SCENERY WAS MAJESTIC–THOUGH THERE WAS NO SIGN OF THE HIGH SNOW BANKS THAT GEORGET AND DUBOC PEDALED PAST IN 1911.”
My advice to off-road lovers taking this loop: use wide tires and ultra-low gears because parts of the route require you to get off the bike, though those with more experience might ride all the way—just like Georget and company back in 1911.
In the bar at my campsite in Briançon hung some sepia prints of Tour riders who won stages in this alpine town, including Julien Vervaecke (1927), Gino Bartali (1938) and Sylvère Maes (1939), so I understood that this is a land where people breathe cycling, retaining a deep passion for the sport. Those pictures also stoked me for the second part of my weekend adventure: tackling the Galibier from the north via the Maurienne valley.
This northern passage opens with the Col du Télégraphe, a respectable but not remarkably difficult climb of just under 12 kilometers, which has a steady 7-percent grade. But knowing that the Galibier immediately follows makes the Télégraphe more demanding than it appears on paper, and dissipating energy on these first ramps can jeopardize your whole ascent. But after experiencing the rigors of gravel roads, pedaling on perfect tarmac is soft on the legs and I’d recovered nicely before making the 17-kilometer-long trek to the 2,556-meter (8.385-foot) summit. On this summer day, the Galibier was immersed in green, making the whole landscape so sweet.
Near the top, where the air was thinner, the scenery was majestic—though there was no sign of the high snow banks that Georget and Duboc pedaled past in 1911. But it’s impossible to ride over the Galibier without thinking of all the champions who have pushed their way through all types of climatic conditions in the past 106 years. Indeed, I could still make out the fans’ painted words from last year’s Tour: “Va Va Froome” … “Go Rigo Go” … “W Aru” … and the cryptic “No Sagan, No Party.”
With just one final downhill, my double-filled weekend was complete, each ride so different but equally enjoyable. There are plenty of challenging mountains to ride in the Alps but monuments like the Galibier throw you into the sport’s history, providing emotions that few other places can equal.
Pm Follow Ciaberta on Instagram: @PaoloCiaberta