The top five cycling climbs in France

June 03, 2024 4 min read

The top five cycling climbs in France

Me (in white cricket hat) at the top of the Col du Télégraphin 1992. 

Simon hand picks the best five routes for you to tick off from 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs of the Tour du France.

1. Col du Télégraph

My first mountain. In 1992 I joined a coach trip to chase around after that year’s Tour de France for a week, to see my idols in the flesh and more importantly to ride the famous mountains I’d been watching them battle on since I fell in love with the sport. Unpacking my bike in Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, in the shadow of giant peaks either side I can remember the experience of setting off as if it were yesterday. The Col du Télégraph is the ideal climbs on which to loose you big mountain virginity. Average length, a moderate yet testing gradient, packed to the gills with hairpins and boasting epic views out across the valley. I’ll never forget the first time the tree cover broke and we got to see how high we had climbed. It simply stopped me dead. Until this opening I’d been weaving back and forth, hidden in the trees but suddenly, there was this view, the sort you normally have to be in a aeroplane to see. I was just transfixed, it was AMAZING and from that moment I knew I was hooked for life. 

Alpe d ‘Huez on race day.

2. Alpe d’Huez. 

Not the longest, not the hardest and far from the prettiest. In fact a lot of it is downright ugly but there is no getting away from it – nothing quite compares to THE Alpe. The first time I visited was in 1990 when my dad drove us up on the way down to a holiday in Italy. I didn’t have a bike with me, that would be rented later in the trip, so I had to make do with taking photos of my heroes names on the road. Daubed in giant letters were Bugno, Indurain and Lemond. This was indeed holy ground. It would be a couple more years before I first got to ride it on the trip following the Tour in the summer of 1992 but that day I never made it all the way as the crowds got too deep. My first full ascent didn’t actually come until 2007 but from then on I rode it once a year for ten years and each time I tried to set a new PB. It’s the mountain I have ridden the most; the mountain I have suffered on the most. I know every bend, every change in gradient and where to change gear like the back of my hand. The Alpe is part of me.


Me at the top of Mont Ventoux.

3. Mont Ventoux

Ask 100 people to list their five favourite French climbs and I guarantee all 100 will have this monster in that list. The Mont Ventoux, the ‘Giant of Provence' is a simply astonishing place to ride a bike. Laced with history both heroic and tragic, the bald mountain features three ways to the summit but it’s the route from Bedoin that, if you have time for just one, you must ride. The first time I took on the challenge of this great road I left my wife and young daughter at the bottom and said I’d be back in a couple of hours. True to my word I was but instead of heading off to the next town, I got them in the car and drove right back up. They HAD to see what I’d witnessed; it is mind blowing. Those last few kilometres, across the alien, barren landscape, battered by the wind, high above the tree line to the weather station and its brutalist tower are without doubt one of the most sensational places you will ever visit. 

Triumpant at the top of the Port de Pailheres.

4. Port de Pailheres.

At the end of a gruelling ten-day odyssey across the Pyrenees this was the last climb I rode in France before making my way to Andorra, and what a way to finish. It is hill climbing, hairpin heaven. Never in my life had I ridden so many switchbacks so closely packed together. It was enough to make you dizzy – dizzy with sheer happiness. Back and forth and back and forth it twists and turns and sometimes as steep as 20% as it rises from the depth of the valley to just peak over the magic 2,000m mark. This is what I rode a bike for; this is what I dream of at night. 

The barren slopes of the Cime de la Bonette.

5. The Cime de la Bonette.

My favourite and hands down the greatest climb in France. Riding it for the first time one August morning at day break I rolled out of Jausiers ready to ride higher and climb further than I ever had before. The Bonette is an absolute giant, so high that at the top not even grass grows in the rarefied air. Peaking out at 2,802m the absolute summit of this road is the highest in France and you will go though a lifetime of emotions on your way up. When I rode that first time the road was empty as I made may way though the solitude of the Southern Alps, higher and higher across the boulder strewn landscape in search of the famous peak. The actual ‘Col’, the summit of the pass, sits at 2,715m altitude, but, to claim the prize of the highest road in France, the local authority built an axillary loop around the nearby conical profusion to gain the extra altitude needed to take the title. The air is thin; the sun ferocious and the views, well, it’s as if you can see the whole of France.