Col de la Croix de Fer.
On August 18th, 2016 I had the privilege to cycle this beautiful Alpine Col.
Following weeks and months of training and lengthy research, I was finally spinning my way towards it on a fresh and misty August morning. I was staying in Chamrousse, which is a ski resort on a mountain outside Grenoble, so I decided to cycle from the apartment. This would give me a good warm-up of 40km’s before hitting the climb at Allemont.
Having whizzed down the steep descent ( 10% average ) of Col Luitel to Sechillienne I was faced with 25km’s of a steady pull along the D1091 through La Grave and onto Allemont. It was definitely a little on the tough side for a warm-up but the Electric Blue waters of the Romanche river weaving its way alongside the road was a nice distraction.
It is a busy road, however much of what you read online is exaggerated. It is an important main road in the area with plenty of trucks and cars, but for 90% of it there is a hard shoulder / bike lane and from my experience all the heavy vehicles gave me plenty of room and respect. My local cycling route on The Ring of Kerry in Ireland is far busier and far narrower. This road in contrast was a pleasure.
On the D1091 you are surrounded on both sides by towering mountain ranges and staggering views and having crossed La Romanche, the pretty village of Allemont awaits. A welcoming Boulangerie provided some mid-morning snacks and a coffee across the street in a Cafe which overlooked a paved square & fountain, was exactly what I needed.
My yellow BMC Teammachine SLR03 outside the Boulangerie. It is a light bike that is absolutely rock solid on fast descents. It is so stitched to the road that you could descend at high speeds drinking an espresso with one hand !
A light mist had started as I passed the official climb starting point. If you had rented a TIMTOO chip for your bike it would kick in here but for me Strava was doing the job nicely.
The ramped road and switchbacks start immediately as you quickly climb up to the level of the reservoir Lac du Verney. Picturesque Allemont drops below you as you skirt along by the Lake to the Hydro Electric Station & Museum.
This is where the toughest section of climbing starts!
The next 6km’s are a real slog as you make your way up through pine forests and waterfalls. The rain started and I found this section very difficult and it was cold. At each turn of the road it seemed like the slope was going to ease off, it didn’t, and it was fairly relentless until I reached Le Rivier D’Allemont. Here with 50km’s in the legs I decided to stop and warm up with a lovely omelette and an espresso. As the rain fell some visitors called into the Café having driven over the summit, and word was, it was extremely cold at the top of the Col. Having worn my waterproof cape for the past 6km’s I still had dry arm warmers & a heavy gilet to call on, so I felt confident and continued on my way. Shortly after leaving the Café the rain cleared and it started warming up (a common occurrence in these parts) so capes were packed away, and I started drying out as the minutes went by.
After the village / commune there is a short 2km downhill (which I was prepared for as it is well mentioned in all articles about this route) and through some breaks in the trees I could see the snaking switchbacks & climb ahead. Some people have suggested that this downhill section is disheartening, however I found it a welcome break from climbing and it added some variety.
A short but steep section lay ahead and here the speed dropped enough to let a pack of friendly flies escort me up the switchbacks and road ahead. It was mid-morning at this stage and the temperature was rising into the mid 20’s, lovely ! This for me was the middle section of the climb and I was feeling stronger and more prepared for climbing. The switchbacks and twists and turns were a welcome distraction. I now witnessed the beauty of the landscape and road engineering as the Grand Maison Dam, with a small emerald lake at its base, book ended a panoramic valley. I had truly arrived and was cycling in the Alps.
What awaited me at the top was magical. The most serene and peaceful lake I had ever seen, L’Eau d’Olle. The road leveled and the speed increased as I spun along the lake-shore with my eyes transfixed on huge sweeping grass slopes falling down to the still water.
The road graffiti increased dramatically with the names of cycling legends painted on the smooth tarmac. Welcome to Glandon valley was plastered everywhere as the road now descended towards the road junction where you turn left for Col du Glandon or go straight on for le Croix de Fer. Today I went straight on!
Up ahead you could see the road winding its way to the summit. Birds soared on updrafts and cows with large bells around their necks provided an acoustic symphony which blended with the sweet smell of Summer Alpine meadows. At moments like this, you soon forget about the triviality of cycling and become grateful for the important things in life.
Your legs go into autopilot for the next 3km’s of climbing as excitement and anticipation of the summit takes over. Behind you, the valley and mountains form a stunning backdrop as you briefly throw some shapes for the professional photographer who snaps away and hands you his card. You can log on and find your pics online and decide if you want to purchase them as mementos. For me I hauled my GoPro, a tiny camera that felt like a huge broadcast camera as the climb drained my energy, up this climb and was happy with having it to capture the moment, and of course the linked video.
The top was calm and quiet, a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of Alpe D’Huez. This summit and climb epitomized the Alpine wilderness and scale. It was raw and I felt a great sense of achievement and even greater sense of escape. The Iron Cross is smaller than expected, but on top of the golden & weather etched stone pillar, it formed a fitting sculpture to admire in the fresh high altitude air. Its modesty was respectful to the vast and overwhelming beauty of the backdrop.
Some below average food and adequate coffee in the summit Café was a mere blip and didn’t dent my excitement as I prepared for the descent. It was all too brief as the mid climb drops now came back to bite hard. Having put on layers for descending you are now faced with, leaving them on and overheating, or taking them off for these sticky and short climbs near the L’Eau d’Olle, and later on near Le Rivier D’Allemont. I decided to pack the layers away and settled into the return trip to Bourg D’Oisans (to return my rented bike)
I was well behind schedule for the day and at this stage I was running a few hours late for a rendezvous with my family in Bourg D’Oisans. Cycling in the Alps is way slower than at home, so with my phone not having any coverage I borrowed a phone from some very obliging and friendly Dutch cyclists to send that vital text message ! Thanks Joost.. With that job done I made haste to my destination.
A cyclist enjoying the descent and the view !
Trying hard not to be distracted by the surroundings I zipped down through straights and hairpins. It was hard not to feel sorry for the cyclists battling up the climb, so some friendly head nodding was given in support. I lost concentration twice and needed heavy straight-line braking as I shot straight across two hairpins trying to stay upright. Long descents are not something we have in Ireland and it’s worth noting to take your time, as you are already tired from the climb, so it’s easy to lose focus. I took a short break to get myself in order and cruised the last 6km down through the woods into Allemont. It’s flat cycling all the way back to Borg D’Oisans and the chance to relax over a few coffees & beers.
As for all the data and gradient charts for the climb there are lots online and I don’t need to go over it here.
All I’ll say is that it is a complete climb, and like a great story has a strong start, ups and downs, twists and turns and an unforgettable finish.
My tips for Col de la Croix de Fer : ( there are lots more all over the net so Google them )
1: Prepare for the first 6km slog from Allemont to Le Rivier D’Allemont. It’s the hardest part of the day. Be well warmed up.
2: Bring two bottles of water and plenty to eat. There aren’t many places to re-load on the climb.
3: Bring a camera with you and capture the magnificent scenery. It is special.
4: Make sure you walk past the finish and over to the viewing area looking to the North. An amazing panorama awaits.
5: This can apply to all descents but don’t be rushing it. Relax and enjoy the spin down and don’t forget about those nasty mid-descent climbs.
6: Finally allow yourself plenty of time. I would reckon its up to 50% slower in the Alps than in Ireland or UK so if you think you’ll be back for lunch it will be more like 3-4pm !