Paul Henderson, author of Cycling in the French Alps, has this guide to help you decide when to cycle the French sections of Europe’s most famous mountain range, the Alps.
The cycling season in the Alps runs from the middle of April to the middle of October for areas below 1,500m, and from the middle of May to the end of September for higher areas. The winter months, from November to March, are usually too cold for enjoyable cycling in the mountains.
Many mountain passes are closed during the winter. As a general rule, passes that are lower than 2,000m are closed from November to April/May, passes at altitudes of between 2,000m and 2,500m are closed from late October to late May/early June, and passes above 2,500m are closed from mid-October to early/mid June.
Actual closure dates vary according to the height of the pass and the harshness of the winter. Information about which passes are open and which are closed can be obtained at www.bisonfute.equipement.gouv.fr in the section ‘accés aux cols’.
The following websites provide more detailed information (also in French):
Alpes-de-Haute Provence: www.cg04.fr
If you need more precise information, contact the tourist office nearest to the pass you are interested in.
Weather in the French Alps
Another major consideration when planning a cycling trip is the weather. Though mountain weather is very variable, both from day to day and from year to year, it is still possible to make a few general comments.
a) In most areas, the driest months of the year are July and August.
b) Rainfall during the summer is often in the form of violent but short-lived afternoon storms. A typical summer day starts with clear blue skies, but cloud starts to build up towards the end of the morning. Generally, the weather does not become too threatening until the middle of the afternoon. Storms usually do not break until at least 3pm and only last a few hours.
c) September is often an excellent month for cycling, although the temperatures are a little cooler, especially at altitude.
d) Changes in the weather can be very sudden and quite brusque. Temperature variations of up to 10°C from one day to the next are not uncommon.
The average adiabatic lapse rate is 6.5°C per 1,000m, so for every 1,000m increase in altitude, the temperature falls by 6.5°C. The lapse rate is often greater than this and there can be a much bigger difference in temperature between the valleys and the high passes than expected. For example, if it is 30°C in the shade at Bourg St Maurice (800m), it might only be 10°C at the Col de l’Iseran (2,770m), not the 17°C you would expect. If there is a breeze, wind chill will also add to the feeling of cold. Above 2,000m snow is not uncommon, even in July and August, although it generally won’t last for long. Be prepared.
There are numerous websites that give weather forecasts for the Alps. Sites that I have used include:
www.meteo.fr, www.meteoconsult.com and www.met-office.gov.uk. Many tourist office websites also give weather forecasts. The Chamonix site gives a particularly good mountain forecast: www.chamonix.com. When you are in France, weather forecasts can be obtained from most tourist offices.
Traffic in the French Alps
When planning your trip, another factor to consider is traffic. The Alps are a very popular holiday destination and the busiest time of year is from the beginning of the second week in July to the end of the third week in August. Although the tours avoid busy roads wherever possible, there is always a certain amount of traffic on the roads up to the highest and most famous passes. The best time to do the tours of the Chablais–Aravis, Mont Blanc, Ecrins and Grandes Rousses and the Grand Traverse is before the middle of July or after the middle of August. In the less touristy areas, such as the Ain and the Chartreuse–Bauges, you are unlikely to encounter heavy traffic even in the middle of the summer holidays.
The is an extract from Cycling in the French Alps written by Paul Henderson and published by Cicerone.
Accommodation for cycling holidays in the French Alps
Cycling holidays in the French Alps - guided and self-guided tours
There are many companies offering self-guided and guided cycling holidays in the French Alps, particularly around Morzine, Chamonix and near top Tour de France cols like Alpe d'Huez and Col de la Croix de Fer. Consider also the Maurienne Valley, the Vercors and the Drome areas. To narrow down your options, try searching our organised tours section.
Books on cycling in the French Alps
Tour Climbs: The Complete Guide to Every Tour de France Mountain (UK, US) by Chris Sidwells covers all the climbs discussed here, and many more. There is also Ride a Stage of the Tour De France: The Legendary Climbs and How to Ride Them by Kristian Bauer.
For bicycle touring in the Alps, see Cycling in the French Alps by Paul Henderson (the author of this article).
French Alps maps
French publisher IGN has a full range of maps covering the entire Alps, including the detailed Série Bleue range of 1:25,000 maps. They also have multi-packs available which include a selection of four maps covering varous parts of the same area. Their maps are also available for GPS.
More articles on cycling in the Alps
Cycling in the French Alps: Tough Tour Climbs
Cycling in the Maurienne Valley
The Drome, Rhone-Alpes
Cycling in Morzine
Climbing Col de la Croix de Fer
Mountain biking in Morzine
A guide to the Vercors
Cycling Alpe d'Huez
Cycling Ventoux from Crillon le Brave
Cycling Ventoux: 10 Top Tips