The starting slopes of the Madeleine winds its way gently through the houses of La Chambre at a still leisurely percentage of 6-7%.
Located in the heart of the Savoie department, 50km North East as the crow flies from Grenoble is the small town of La Chambre from where I decided to start this Alpine adventure. I wanted to tackle the mountain from its shorter southern side which starts in La Chambre and while it’s shorter than the northern ascension, at just over 19kms long and with an average gradient of 8% you could hardly call it short – nor easy! The first kilometer of the climb involves leaving the houses and density (relatively speaking of this town with its 1500 strong population) before climbing up into the true Alpine countryside.
My companion for this trip up the Madeleine was my long suffering friend Tim and Col de la Madeleine virgin who had come to France to visit me and my family – and do some riding of course. The day after his 24hour flight from Australia I took him on a 100km ride with some of my teammates in the hills of the Herault Valley, one week later I entered him in a Cat 1 race with me and now just 10 days after his arrival I had him riding up multiple HC mountains – what a friend!
Tim on the starting slopes of the Madeleine. Little did he know what was ahead of him nor how many times I would ask him to turn around and ride up that part again ‘just one more time’ so I could get a good photo.
Once you leave the streets of La Chambre behind you the gradient immediately increases to around the 8 – 9% mark but luckily at this early stage of the climb you don’t notice it too much as you’re still relatively fresh – depending upon where you started of course – but more importantly the views on this early part of the climb are already spectacular.
Whilst many climbs need you to pedal all the way to the top to get the best views the Madeleine is a climb that gives you great views from the very first kilometers upon leaving the village. With its positioning the climb of the Madeleine from the southern side in particular provides you with a nice panorama on the Lauzière massif throughout your ascension.
The views certainly make the climb much more enjoyable but it’s also the plethora of corners that keep the climb interesting and somewhat bearable for non-climbers. Nothing breaks up a climb better than a few corners and the Madeleine is a climb that twists and turns with the best of them. Switchbacks, gradual corners, long benders – this climb has them all as you climb your way up to the 2000m (6500 feet) altitude summit.
The constant procession of corners that you take on really helps the climb pass quickly and gives you something to look forward to on the way back down – if you choose to descend back down the same side of course. You could instead decide to descend down the Northern face to La Léchère for example which is a nice 25km long descent and then it’s only a short ride on to the climb of Valmorel which was raced for the very first time in the Dauphiné this year. (Ed’s note: Climbs raced in the Dauphiné are usually repeated a year or two later at Le Tour so watch for this one in an upcoming Tour – 12.7km @ 7%) Whichever way you choose to go after cresting the Madeleine though you’re sure to have a good descent.
That’s the thing about the Col de la Madeleine – it is an actual mountain pass used for going somewhere and not so much of a ‘dead end’ like some more famous mountains like Alpe d’Huez (although that changed this year with the Col de la Sarenne descent). I think because of this fact it has always been used as a ‘transition’ mountain instead of a summit finish or stage deciding climb. This year’s race for example crested the climb after just 83km of racing so the bigs of the peloton just cruised up the climb instead of having a full on battle that this mountain so deserves.
The profile of this year’s stage that took on the Madeleine.
The length, altitude and the constant corners could provide a spectacular race as a final climb on a stage but alas for the moment, despite the Tour taking on the climb 25 times since 1969 we’re yet to see a summit finish here.
Yet more corners and spectacular views as Tim approaches the half way mark.
So the Col de la Madeleine has Tour history behind it, magnificent scenery, beautiful corners and a difficult but manageable gradient, but what else does it have you may ask? Well villages are the answer. Small ones albeit but enough ‘life’ on the mountain to keep things interesting and somewhere to stop if the legs are giving out a little. If you’re looking for something to eat or drink though the best bet is either to get it down in La Chambre at the very bottom before you start the climb or ride all the way up to Longchamps at 1650m altitude. Longchamps is a large ski station village that has restaurants and a couple of kiosks/superettes open during the off season where you could find everything you want, plus some clean drinking water and public toilets which can always come in handy….
The other small villages en route from about the halfway point on though are mostly ski chalets and apartments that are rented out in the winter months so they’re relative ghost towns in the summer season and not many if any provisions are available to buy.
At the halfway point is the interestingly named commune of ‘Le Planet’, and no – the mountain doesn’t become other worldly like Mt Ventoux does after rounding the switchback leaving the village.
Tim leaving Le Planet and heading onwards and upwards…..
Le Planet. A pretty little commune but don’t go there for the shopping – there’s nothing!
Shortly after Le Planet the gradient kicks up to its worst as you approach the commune of L’Epalud with readings of up to 11.5%. Just as the town is quickly passed and forgotten though so are those nasty double digit gradients as the climb settles back into its 7- 8% gradients mixed with yet more corners and scenic views.
Next on the agenda is St Francois Longchamp and its clusterings of ski chalets that dot the mountainside on your left and right as you climb. The views from these chalets must be pretty amazing and I can only imagine what they’d be like in wintertime.
Now speaking of winter, that’s a perfect segue to talk about the best time to take on the Madeleine. Although the road is normally open from May to October we did this ride in June during the Criterium du Dauphiné and the road was still technically closed due to the bad weather that had been experienced for the first half of 2013. Bikes were allowed to get through, but it is something worth checking before you head off. In my opinion June or September are the best times to take on not just the Madeleine but all the French Alps as let’s face it, if you come to France you can’t do just one!
A June or September date should mean that the roads will be; a) open & b) not too busy from summer holiday tourists.
Speaking of traffic we saw very little traffic on our ascension but we did see this group of Aussie cyclists from Brisbane who were enjoying their climb of this magnificent mountain.
The next checkpoint to tick off is the large ski town of Longchamps. Unlike certain Alpine climbs like Alpe d’Huez or Chamrousse the sight of the town does not actually mean you’re at the summit and is an easy trap for novices to fall into. In fact the center of Longchamps is at 1650m altitude and there’s still 5km to climb to the summit from here.
Longchamps. Definitely not the summit but somewhere to stop relax and fuel up if necessary.
5kms to go Tim.
It was at this point that I let Tim go on up ahead to the sumit and I hung back taking some photos of Longchamps and the surrounds. Then, just like two days previously some Ag2r riders arrived on me at a completely ridiculous pace. They were there continuing their own personal Criterium du Dauphiné after their self suspension from the real race and on this day they were riding the entire Tour de France stage 19, one month before the race as a team.
John Gadret flying past me and seemingly doing it very easy.
I quickly did the calculations and I figured that Tim had continued on to the summit roughly five minutes before. Now with 5km to the summit from Longchamps where I saw the Ag2r guys meant that he could afford to lose one minute per kilometer over a charging Ag2r team to race to the summit before them. Could Tim win one for Pez in a race that he didn’t even know he was in? Or would he succumb to the same fate as Tejay Van Garderen on Alpe d’Huez and get mowed down by Riblon in the dying kilometers?
Go Tim go! Allez!
“I was approaching the summit of one of the longest climbs of my life when I spotted some riders absolutely flying up the road a few corners down from me. I managed to hold them off to the summit but was shocked at the speed that they were catching me and then I saw the Ag2r car and realised who they were. Still I beat them to the top……..even though they probably started 1/2 an hour after me!”
Two Ag2r riders arrive at the summit. After Tim of course!
Yes, Samuel Dumoulin really is that small in real life. And yes, the road was closed to traffic but the Ag2r car and a couple of others drove around the sign and disobeyed the rules…….this is France!
And what did our Col de la Madeleine virgin Tim have to say after he’d done the climb and before we headed back down into the valley to then take on the Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer combo?
“The Madeleine is breathtaking in every sense of the word. The climb lulls you into a false sense of security with a relatively easy first few kilometers. After this, the climb is constantly tough with steep sections which seem like they never let up. What really takes your breath away though is the amazing postcard scenery as you climb up from the valley. The small villages on the climb and the surrounding Alps make for some amazing views. As you climb above the treeline towards the top of the climb, you pass ski resorts and once you suffer through the final kms you are treated to a spectacular view of the Alps including Mt Blanc.
Definitely a climb to ride if you ever get the chance! For extra points, ride over the top and try the other side…”