Roughstuff surrounded by the high Alps

Roughstuff surrounded by high alps at France's col de Galibier

Famous for its spectaular view of the southwestern Alps as well as its prominent place on the Tour de France, col de Galibier, for the rider working his way north by weaving thru the Alpes Maritimes from the medittereanean, is surely proof that the giants of that central European range are now at hand. On this particular tour my ascent had begun at Briancon, several hours and many kilometers below. The road ascends steadily but not steeply to the Col de Lauteret, where it splits. If you go straight you descend back into the valleys of the western French alps.

A right turn brings you to a fairly steep climb of nearly seven kilometers in length, as the valleys fall away, and the nearby snowcapped peaks emerge from being obscured by the surrounding hills and lesser mountains. The view from col de Galibier, augmented by a French table de orientation at the summit, spans from Mt. Viso on the Italian border to the east, across a broad panorama of the parc nationale des ecrins to the south. To the north, the deep valley of the Maurienne and its northern wall (which includes col de L'Iseran, also shown on this site) obscure the peaks surrounding Mt. Blanc.

I remember being intimidated by the cliffs on some of the hairpins up the pass; and i was weary from the many miles of climbing. It had been a tough morning, for my itinerary brings me into the French alps always in mid June, when late Spring snow squalls are not at all uncommon; and I had been hit by several on my way to col de Lauteret. But fate would have the pass be free and clear, except for a brisk, cool wind snaking thru. This picture, showing me in a t-shirt, shows you how powerful a heat engine the human body is under stress-- i was never chilled on the way up! The descent, as my other Galibier photo shows, was another matter.

I might add this upper photo illustrates the risk of having someone else take a picture for you: they always, always include too much sky.

The picture below, where i had swiftly changed into warmer clothing, illustrates a primary problem with descents from high points. The body, superheated from a climb, now descends several thousand feet with no effort, against a chill breeze, often into cool valleys. Change into dry clothing and bundle up!! If the conditions are rainy and the road is quite wet, you have a major challenge making sure your brakes bite on the soaked rims. On the other hand, if the conditions are hot in the late afternoon sun, you have a problem with overheating the rims if you do not pump the brakes and take frequent rest stops. (The third alternative, to barrel-ass down the hills, is not my style of riding)

By the way the descent into the Maurienne north of Galibier is not all downhill; there is, along the way, another minor climb to col de telegraphe. Thus, going from Briancon into St. Michel de Maurienne, as I did in one day, involves three passes.

The first site of the Maurienne is likely to frighten the cyclist--with heavy traffic from France going to Italy under the mountains thru the Mt. Cenis tunnel, it looks like New Jersey-- but please, please, be patient. When you reach the upper Maurienne, your efforts will be rewarded with spectacular scenery, regional cheeses, and very little traffic. 1