Cycling in the Southern French Alps
Col de Salèse, 2031 m: A rough track continues on from where the D89 dies about 3 km past Le Boréon, 11 km from St. Martin Vésubie, over the Col de Salèse and down the Western side to the village of Mollières, and eventually comes out on the D2205 about 8 km south of Isola. THIS PASS IS STRONGLY NOT RECOMMENDED FOR CYCLISTS! The Eastern side is ok, (and legal to ride), being just a stony landrover track, and you can ride as far as Mollières, but after this the path is just a single pedestrian path for about 5 km. Especially in the first 1-2 km from Mollières, a lot of it is unrideable, even with an unladen mountain bike. In addition, the col is in the Mercantour National Park, and as such bikes are banned. This is no idle threat: After lugging our bikes for half an hour from the village, we stopped for lunch and were busted by a couple of park wardens. They were very nice, but wanted us to carry our bikes back up to Mollières as we were nearer that end of the path! As well as blowing away a whole day of our trip, it would have been backbreaking (as well as soul-destroying) work. We eventually negotiated that they "escort" us down the path, and they also let us off the fine we were supposed to pay, but it was a close one. Don't use this as a pass basically, if you're on a bike. Arse to the Rough Stuff Fellowship for recommending this as an "easy" off-road pass on their website.
Col de la Bonette, 2715 m, and Cime de la Bonette, 2802 m: Much more what we had come to the Alps for. A great climb up to Europe's highest road pass, and a sneaky little half a mile at 10% to the road below the summit. The extra is worth it for the great view of the Southern side of the pass. We had heard that the Northern side of the pass was gravelly and in very bad condition because it is maintained by a different council who don't really care about it, but it has been done up and is now a fantastic, snooker-table-smooth stretch of road offering a brilliant descent. No facilities (e.g. water) once you start the climb proper.
Col de Vars, 2109 m: A very beautiful col, and a tough one, with 4 km of 10% near the top (on the South side). A tourist kiosk at the top sells cokes and so on.
Col de l'Izoard, 2360 m: A very spectacular col, with a great view of the Riviere valley as you get higher and start the hairpins. But the real gem is the Casse Deserte, a little below the top (Southern side) where the monument to Fausto Coppi and Louis Bobet is. This is unlike the rest of the climb (unlike the rest of the Alps we saw, for that matter), arid and with fantastic needles of rock sticking up. Again, not much in the way of water once the last village (Brunissard) is passed, but there is a tourist kiosk at the top selling boissons of cold drinks. There is also a tiny museum of cycling at the top, and half the people up there must be cyclists-the place has a real bike culture.
Col de Lauteret, 2058 m: For us, a pretty miserable attempt at a col as it was a cold and rainy morning with the long climb from Briançon to Lauteret along the busy N91. Only compensation was the café so we could warm up a bit. If you go up the Galibier, as we did, it's not even a real pass: at the top the road just turns right and that's when the climbing really begins.
Col du Galibier, 2646 m: Another brilliant col. Even the rain we'd suffered on the Lauteret had cleared by the time we reached the top. Fantastic views, and a thrilling descent to Valloire on the north side. You can get food about a km below the summit (Southern side) from the tourist's shop and restaurant.
Col de la Croix de Fer, 2067 m: Probably the toughest col of the ones listed here. There is climbing, some steep, most of the 32km from St. Jean-de-Maurienne to the top of the pass, but with a couple of bits where you lose altitude and have to make it back up. The steep hairpin climb out of the Arvan valley is one example. It is very impressive scenery though. There is also very little in the way of villages with fountains where you can get water on this stretch-make sure your bottles are full at St. Jean-de-Maurienne. The final climb proper from St. Sorlin-d'Arves is great though, and again gets steep at the top. Brilliant descent, but again not climb-free.
Col d'Ornon, 1371 m: Going South from le Bourg-d'Oisans and l'Alpe-d'Huez, this col is quite a bit lower, pretty rather than impressive, and fairly mellow. Won't give you any trouble.
Col de Parquetout, 1398 m: We turned off the D526 about 3 km after where the D117 joins, onto the D212f through the village of les Angelas. This col is not even marked on the Michelin 1:200,000 Rhône-Alpes map (#244) that we were using, but I can assure you it's there. It's higher than the Col d'Ornon, and averages 10% for several kilometres. A roasting hot day, but the road is so quiet that we could get away with riding on the wrong side of the road where necessary to stay in the shade of the trees. The nicest place to stop for lunch is not at the top, but about 200 m down the Southern side, where there is an open place with a picnic table.
Col de l'Holme, 1207 m: Not a col on the descent from the col de Parquetout, even though this one is marked on the map.
Col Bayard, 1248 m: 8 km north of Gap on the N85. Pretty dull col, but it's worth noting that the N85 to Gap wasn't too bad even though it is a route nationale. A very fast descent into the town: I recorded 49.7 mph, just a hair's breadth under 80 km/hr.
Col de la Cayolle, 2326 m: Impressively beautiful col, lots of vegetation almost all the way to the top, and the Gorges de Bachelard leading to the col is lovely as well. We saw marmots near the top. A shallow gradient means that even though it is high, it's an easy climb. The refuge about a km below the top (Northern side, at 2266 m) is well recommended. The D900 from just south of Gap to Barcelonette, where we turned off for the col, even though marked as a "red road" on the map, was not too busy with traffic yet is big enough to make good time.
Col de Valberg, 1672 m: Quite steep in places. Voted "most savoury col" of the trip by Tom, because of the constant assault of fruits, herbs, nuts etc on the senses. The town of Valberg is at the top and makes a good lunch stop.
Col de Cuillole, 1678 m: Although almost as high as the Valberg, just next door, the ascent is only a couple of hundred metres from the West side making this one pretty easy. Quiet road.
A Couple of Accomodation Recommendations
Obviously, this section is in no way comprehensive-buy a Lonely Planet, cheapskate! What can be recommended though is the gîte d'etape system the French have-fantastic. We should definitely have something similar in the UK. Simple but comfortable accommodation, hot showers, three course dinner with wine, and breakfast all for about E27 (~£20)-how can you go wrong? Honourable mentions to the refuge just below the top of the Col de la Cayolle, Bruno who runs the gîte just below Vars, and the gîtes at La Vachette and Les Alberts (both just outside Briançon), and at Le Vert on the outskirts of Le Bourg d'Oisans.
Gap: We stayed at the 2-star "La Paix" hotel. French charm, not much more than a gîte (about E36) for a two-bed room with en suite bathroom, right on the edge of the pedestrian zone where the restaurants are, and right on the road to Barcelonette so handy when we set off the following morning.
Nice: We stayed at the Imperial Hotel one night as the friend we were crashing with was marooned in Italy. Fantastic: about E65 for a two bed room with en suite bathroom, so more than we paid any other time, but the faded granduer of the place (built in 1896) more than made up for it-ceiling murals, huge carved marble fireplace in the room, impressive mirrored dining room, etc. An experience. Breakfast was good value at E5.
Bike: The roads are so good, pretty much anything will do. I took my touring bike, which was fine. The only reservation was that the wheels and tyres were complete overkill for this trip-road racing wheels and tyres would be the best in this part of the world. Didn't make much of a difference, except that I was slower on the descents. I would strongly recommend a triple chainset-even though the hills are not as steep as those of the UK, they are very long and it's much easier to spin up at 7 mph than grind up at 7 mph. I overtook more than a dozen roadies on my climb of l'Alpe-d'Huez, furiously twiddling my 24 tooth inner ring at over 100 rpm.
Luggage: Kept to a minimum to save weight. We took just a flysheet and a nylon groundsheet as a tent, and basically two sets of cycling kit (one on, one in the wash) and a set of "civilian" clothes. Next time I probably wouldn't bother with a tent at all, just take a (silk) sheet sleeping bag liner for gîtes and that would knock total luggage weight down to about 5-6 kg. Our stove was confiscated at Edinburgh airport in the interests of officious tossiness. Wasn't too much of a problem though; we bought a clone gas stove for about 8 quid and used that, giving it to our friend when we returned to the UK. The standard #190 Camping Gaz cartridge is available everywhere, and even the stoves are available in many supermarkets.
Medical: No problem. Get an E111 and travel insurance. Only medical kit I took (or needed) was a few paracetomol tablets for headaches after cycling in the heat for a long time.