Cycling in the Maurienne Valley in the French Alps

Andy Hodges, author of Mountain Adventures in the Maurienne, has this overview of the Maurienne, a region with some of the most scenic and challenging cycle rides in France.

Lacets du Montvernier's 18 hairpin bends climb an impossible looking cliff. This is possibly the best kept secret in the Alps. Photo credit: Pierre Dompnier

Lacets du Montvernier's 18 hairpin bends climb an impossible looking cliff. This is possibly the best kept secret in the Alps. Photo credit: Pierre Dompnier

Every Tour de France rider and every tour supporter will know the mountains of the Maurienne. Many a champion has been made on these slopes. Just as many have also been vanquished and this year was no exception, just ask Cadel.

The mighty Galibier, the demure Madeleine, the iron hard Croix de Fer; they all stare dispassionately down upon any cyclist daring to challenge the mountains' slopes. Rarely will they pity any efforts to gain the summit. But once there the effort, the tireless struggle and the pain are worth it. Views to snow capped mountains as far as the eye can see. Far below mere mortals going about their everyday business whilst cyclists touch the sky and share the rewards of a labour tough enough to have challenged the mighty Heracles. It isn't difficult to understand why folklore believes that the high peaks are the domain of the gods. Today we join with gods of the cycling world; Jalabert, Rasmussen and Virenque, Kings of the Mountains indeed.

The road graffiti on the Telegraphe makes you feel like you're in the Tour itself. Photo: Andy Hodges

The road graffiti on the Telegraphe makes you feel like you're in the Tour itself. Photo: Andy Hodges

Surrounded by snow-capped peaks and cols that climb into rarefied air, the Maurienne valley is a cyclist’s heaven. At over 50 miles long, it swoops from the glacial heights of Col de l’Iseran, one of the most famous cols in the world of cycling climbs, to the lush lower pastures of the Arc river and the gateway to yet more world famous cols. Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne makes a perfect base for exploring the lower valley and its numerous cols.

But there are also tranquil routes along bubbling rivers and flower carpeted meadows to be enjoyed too. The magnificent mountains add a breathtaking backdrop to a lazy picnic with local cheeses, fruit, bread and wine. Food fit for the gods of cycling too.

The Maurienne Valley is fast becoming a Mecca for road cyclists. It is known as “World’s largest cycling area” and few could argue with that claim. A multitude of cols and climbs are scattered along the valley, enough for even the most hardened mountain-climber but within the grasp of regular cyclists too. Climbs of 15 or 20 kilometres abound; 1000m or more are common place. And how civilised, a café at the summit to replenish those hard burned calories! With small, friendly towns along the length of the valley, quiet roads, considerate motorists and encouraging road-graffiti en route it is a delight to explore on two wheels.

The views don't get much better, do they? Photo Andy Hodges

The views don't get much better, do they? Photo Andy Hodges

The towns of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and La Chambre are nestled between the starts of Col de la Madeleine and Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer. These sun-kissed towns serve as a fabulous base from which to explore the lower valley. Nearby are the Col du Télègraphe and its big brother, Col du Galibier.

The almost unheard of Lacets de Montvernier is a ladder of 18 hairpins stacked one upon the other and offer a spectacular, if all-too-short climb which can be extended over the Col du Chaussy. Further up the valley, Modane is the gateway to the upper valley, the Haute Maurienne Vanoise which hosts both the Col du Mont-Cenis and Col de l'Iseran. These towns will be familiar, Saint-Jean welcomed the Tour de France in 2010 whilst Modane was the starting point of the gruelling 19th stage of 2011's Tour, the beginning of the end for both Schleck and Contador's dreams of winning the Tour. 

How to get to the Maurienne Valley

From Calais, the road journey takes around 10 hours. The valley is surprisingly well served by public transport for a mountain valley. It has a good TGV link, meaning Modane is barely 4 hours from Paris. Turin, Lyon and Geneva airports are all about 2 hours away by car.

Col de l'Iseran: Got there! The highest road col in the Alps. Photo: Andy Hodges

Col de l'Iseran: Got there! The highest road col in the Alps.
Photo: Andy Hodges

Accommodation for cyclists in the Maurienne

There are numerous campsites and good value hotels throughout the valley. The main towns have good facilities, including banks, supermarkets, market days (a must-do for good local food), bike shops and doctors. We stayed at the two-star Hotel de l'Europe; how many hotels do you know of that have a specific cycle store area that will comfortably house a dozen or more bikes? Or a hotel owner who will willingly help with repairs and features in the local cycling brochure? And from the front door a road sign indicates 'Col de la Croix de Fer' and “Vallée de l’Arvan”. Fabulous local cuisine and wines round the day off nicely and after a monster day of col climbing a cheese fondue or Tartiflette is well earned!

Search also our cycle-friendly accommodation listings, or zoom in on the icons below for links to bike-friendly places to stay in the French Alps.

Bike rental in the Maurienne

See our Rhone Alps bike rental listings for bike hire shops in the Maurienne Valley.

Supported bike rides in the Alps

Many companies offer fully supported, fully guided bike rides that take in all the major cols of the Alps. It's also possible to book on to a self-guided ride that has luggage support and local advice on hand if you need it. Some of these rides are standalone itineraries that run throughout the warmer months, while others are tailored to tie in with the Tour de France or cyclosportive events. Quality road bike hire can also be arranged by most tour companies. You can search our organised tours section here.

More information

The excellent IGN maps are widely available in shops and supermarkets, or you can buy before you leave home from the IGN site in France or Cordee in the UK. The local tourist information offices also have a very useful booklet “Maurienne Cycling Map” for road cycling (in French and English) and a similar one for mountain biking (Velo Tout Terrain - VTT in French).

My own Mountain Adventures in the Maurienne, published by Cicerone, covers both road and off road cycling as well as offering walking, mountaineering and via ferrata routes for those seeking a range of outdoor sports whilst in the valley.

The tourist board also has a dedicated cycling website that features maps, suggested routes and accommodation.

On the blog

Velovation cycle tours

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