Climbing Col de la Croix de Fer

Col de la Croix de Fer in the Rhône-Alpes is a beautiful beast of a mountain, usually tackled from the alpine town of Bourg d’Oisans. Steven Herrick, author of Baguettes and Bicycles, has this first-hand account of cycling Col de la Croix de Fer.

 Steven Herrick en route to the summit of Col de la Croix de Fer. Photo: Steven Herrick

Steven Herrick in front of Barrage de Grand'maison en route to the summit of Col de la Croix de Fer. Photo: Steven Herrick

The Col de la Croix de Fer is unlike any other climb in the French Alps. It goes up and down, the road winds through forest then open high meadows, the gradient changes from steep to relatively easy back to steep in the space of a few kilometres. In other words, it’s a temperamental bastard.

The Croix de Fer is a 'hors category' climb, 31 kilometres of trying to find a rhythm when the road varies so dramatically.

All this is good enough reason to indulge over breakfast. Anita, my host at Le Petit Catelan B&B in Le Bourg d’Oisans, obliges by loading the table with croissants and baguettes, home-made jams and local honey, all washed down with as much coffee as any tight fitting Lycra-clad bladder can hold. It’ll be my excuse for frequent stops today while climbing. Her husband, Jean-Louis wishes me ‘bonne chance’ as I cycle down the gravel driveway. The sky is cold blue as I cruise along the valley road, a quick wave to the folk at La Cascade, my preferred restaurant in Bourg. I’ll be reporting in there tonight for a few recurperative glasses and perhaps some exaggerated storytelling on how easy I found Croix de Fer.

The early kilometres

A few kilometres along the RN91, I turn onto the D526 in Rochetaillee, the road winding beside a snow-melt stream into Allemont. The boulangerie is open on the left, a woman behind the counter serves a long queue.

The road turns sharp right and folds over itself with two switchbacks, leading to the Barrage du Verney, the first of two dams I’ll encounter today. I climb steadily past a large hydro-electric power station, which also houses a museum charting the history of hydro in France.

The gradient increases to 7% and loops into a forest. I can hear the Eau d'Olle river below me, tumbling down the hill. The sight and sound of water is always a calming influence, even when pedalling up a steep incline. Occasionally a stream cascades under the road and plunges into the river on the other side. Ahead of me, the gradient ramps up a notch or two and there are enticing glimpses of snowy peaks.

After an hour, I reach the village of Rivier-d’Allemont. One cafe is just beginning to open, the waiter hoisting umbrellas over the outdoor tables. He waves as I pass, and looks up to the snow-capped mountains, as if encouraging me forward.

Up, up and away...

The road curls uphill into the forest again and then, as if emulating the ghost ride at a funfair, plunges back down into the valley. I lose one hundred metres in elevation in a few minutes of exhilarating descent. The road crosses the river and turns back left, the gradient changing from -10% to 11% in a few hundred metres. My muscles have cramped and gone cold on the furious downhill and now scream in complaint at the effort required to keep the wheels rolling. To my left is a gravel mountain slope with icebergs of snow clinging precariously. Patches of snow dot the roadside. My muscles warm and I try to gather a rhythm, lost on that worthless descent. This is why the Croix de Fer is so feared by cyclists. It doesn’t allow steady rhythmic climbing.

And then, as if a reward for the effort, the road leads to the second dam, the Barrage de Grand'maison, a wonderful vista of turquoise lake surrounded by mountain peaks. It takes me a few minutes to get my head around a lake at an altitude of 1,500 metres. I stop and have a swig of water, snapping a photo of the mountains reflected on the surface of the lake. On the far bank, two pyramid-shaped green hills are dwarfed by snowy mountains rearing behind them.

As I’m about to get on my bike, a tourist bus arrives and unloads a party of camera-happy snappers. One old man ignores the lake and scenery and walks towards me, his eyes fondling the sleek lines of my Italian bicycle, which I’ve nicknamed Monica B. He says something in Italian. I indicate I can’t speak the language. He smiles and offers to take my photo, with Monica B, in front of the postcard lake. I stand proud as he snaps. As I mount and slowly cycle onto the road, he applauds quietly, the way a football crowd farewells a player. From then on, I view tourist buses with much more tolerance.

Beauty and the beast

It’s hard to adequately describe the last section. It is too beautiful for words. The road winds alongside the lake for a kilometre and I’m pleased there’s little vehicle traffic as I’m wandering across the lane, my focus is on the lake and the mountains beyond. Two cyclists pass me and push themselves hard to get ahead. They are chatting as they cycle, but neither turns his head towards the lake. Perhaps this is a weekly ride for them, but even so, with that much beauty on offer?

At the end of the lake, I see the road curl enticely between green alpine meadows dotted with sheep and stone shepherd huts. Rushing streams, like blue veins, funnel down towards the barrage. My tempo slows as I relax into the most beautiful eight kilometres I’ve ever ridden. The pastures of green are sprinkled with wildflowers, the road seemingly cradled in an elongated bowl of steeply-pitched mountains. Imagine Lord of the Rings meets The Sound of Music.

I’m now cycling among the snowy peaks I’ve been yearning to for the past few hours. At any moment, I’m expecting a fairy to appear on my handlebars and sprinkle some more magic dust, so intoxicating is the view.The gradient doesn’t matter anymore, I’m in cycling nirvana. Patches of snow are within touching distance and a cafe appears at the turn-off for Col du Glandon, just 500 metres up that side road. I’ll visit on the way back. I can see the iron cross (Croix de Fer) a kilometre ahead.

The iron cross atop Col de la Croix de Fer. Photo: Steven Herrick

The iron cross atop Col de la Croix de Fer. Photo: Steven Herrick

Monica B responds by breezily cycling up the last kilometre, the road hugging the green hillside, a slight breeze pushing the wildflowers into a tentative bow at the achievement of we cyclists climbing this high. Too soon, I arrive at the mountain pass and slowly cruise into the car park. In front of me are 11, count them, 11 snow-capped mountains. Behind are seven more. Beside me, the ancient cross, and a cafe. A few cyclists are having their photo taken in front of the altitude sign. I wheel Monica B to the end of the car park and drink in that majestic view. I lean down and consider kissing her handlebars, but make do with a loving pat. I lean her carefully against a rock and sit down. I come from a land of arid dry plains as far as the eye can see and further than the rider can cycle. Our mountains are slight forested hills in the flattest, driest continent on Earth. This landscape rearing before me is as alien and awe-inspiring as a visit to Mars. To be able to ride this mountain once a week – imagine that?

Reward for effort

Monica B and I retire to the cafe, sitting outside in the bright sunshine. In all this beauty, I’d forgotten to check my time for the climb. From the Verney - two hours, twenty one minutes. The best recorded time on Strava - one hour, nineteen minutes. Can I blame all that beauty for slowing me down?

Reluctantly, I shrug into my jacket and begin the descent, but only for a few kilometres before veering right and climbing briefly to the Col du Glandon. In a few days, I’ll attempt the ascent of Glandon and Croix de Fer from La Chambre, the way of the Tour de France 2012. I look down the road I’ll be climbing. It is ferociously steep. Something to look forward to. Like a visit to the dentist.

But, for now, I graciously award Croix de Fer ‘the best kilometres I’ve cycled in my life award.’  I return to the main road and manage the downhill as slowly as possible, to enjoy it all over again.

The descent is chilling, with the short uphill to Rivier d’Allemont a grind of frozen muscles and sweating brow. The cafe waiter is now busy with customers, everyone enjoying the sun outside, watching the work of a few hardy cyclists. Into the forest, the only sound is of falling water and Monica’s cog whirring fast. I clock 60km/h and ease up on the brakes. When I was young, I wanted to descend hills as fast as possible. Now, I prefer to slowly savour the thrill, knowing my effort has earnt me the reward of this plunging joy.

The two switchbacks above Allemont take a minute and I pedal to the boulangerie. The same waitress from this morning takes my order of a mille-feuille. I ask if she has water for my bottle. She smiles and animatedly gestures outside to the cistern on the footpath, smiling, ‘l’eau de la montagne.’ As she wraps my cake, I go outside to fill my bottle. It's clear and cold, water of the Gods.

I sit on a seat in the square, eating my cake and drinking the entire contents of the bottle. A refill is in order. I look back up towards Croix de Fer, the sun glistens off the snow. As if the climb wasn’t gift enough, I fill my bottle and perform a toast to la montagne.

Climbing Croix de Fer: Top tips

From Bourg d’Oisans, Croix de Fer is a ‘hors category’ climb of 37 kilometres with an average gradient of 5.4%. Maximum gradient is 13%. Elevation gain is 1505 metres. Don’t think the average gradient makes Croix de Fer an easy climb. There are frequent steep sections and, even worse, a few descents mid-climb, that chill your muscles and force more climbing. Pace yourself in the early forest section and enjoy the last eight kilometres. For me, it's perhaps the greatest mountain section in the Alps. Leave Bourg d’Oisans early and have lunch at the café on the summit. There are also cafes in Rochetaillee and Rivier-d’Allemont.

There are three routes to the summit of Croix de Fer – Climb by Bike covers each of them.

Steven Herrick is an Australian author and poet. His books include Baguettes and Bicycles (UK, US, FR) which is based on 1200km bike ride across France. The book is available in hard copy and e-book formats. Steven's bike blog is an excellent insight into cycling in Australia (though it covers lots of other stuff too).

More information on cycling Croix de Fer

See how Croix de Fer stacks up against other Tour de France mountains. See also Stephen Lord's Freewheeling France guide to making climbing mountains that little bit easier. We have also climbed Ventoux and Alpe d'Huez.

Bike hire in Bourg d’Oisans

There are a number of options for bike hire in Bourg d’Oisans – see our Rhône-Alpes bike hire listings for details. 

Accommodation recommendation

Search our Where to stay section, in particular check out Chalet Saskia, Le Château d’Oz and Chalet Paulette, or browse the map below for accommodation for cyclists in the French Alps. See also here for more advice on finding accommodation in France. As with bike hire, book well ahead, especially in summer.

Cycling holidays in the French Alps

Check out our organised tours section for guided and self-guided rides that take in the great cols of the Tour de France.

Books and maps

Croix de Fer is in Maurienne Valley in the Isère department of the Rhône-Alpes region of France.

Michelin and IGN both have maps of the Isère department.

Cicerone publishes a Cycling in the French Alps guidebook by Paul Henderson, as well as the more specialist Mountain Adventures in the Maurienne by Andy Hodges – see his overview of the Maurienne Valley here.

There are a number of books that compare all the major Tour de France climbs. They include Tour Climbs: The Complete Guide to Every Tour de France Mountain by Chris Sidwells, Ascent: The Mountains of the Tour De France by Richard Yates, and Ride a Stage of the Tour de France: The Legendary Climbs and How to Ride Them by Kristian Bauer. There's also Mountain High: Europe's 50 Greatest Cycle Climbs by Daniel Friebe.

This climb is also covered in Baguettes and Bicycles, Steven Herrick's book based on his cycle ride across France.

For more Tour de France books, see here and here.


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