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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Poole

Climbs: Col du Solude (from Bourg d'Oisans)

Location: Isère, France

Length (outbound): 12.56km

Maximum gradient: 16.8%

Average gradient: 7.6%

George's climb rating: 8/10

Let me put you in the picture

Let me show you what I mean

Alpe d'Huez is the messiah

But Solude, man, she's the Queen.

Borrowing the words of Ian Brown and The Stone Roses' classic 'Love Spreads' tune, what I am trying to tell you is this- if you are in the Alps to ride Alpe d'Huez, do not leave Bourg d'Oisans without having climbed the Col du Solude. Alpe d'Huez may well be the messiah of climbs in the Alps, but Col du Solude is pretty special in its own right. It astonished me last summer that having ridden both climbs on our first day in the Alps, hundreds of people had also clocked Strava times on Alpe d'Huez that day, but only four others had ridden Col du Solude. She really is the unknown climb. I am here to correct that. Settle in, open your mind to new ideas and let me guide you to one of the greatest unknown climbs in the Alps.

Whilst Alpe d'Huez has the allure and history of being a Tour de France giant, it also has the busy motor traffic and hundreds of other cyclists. Now, whilst that in no way diminishes the splendidness of the climb itself, if you are looking for a beautiful, almost spiritual challenge against the mountains, look no further than the peaceful Col du Solude. In 12.56km of climbing, the road will traverse across the valley, before unravelling into laced hairpins that hug the mountainside, guiding you to the final portion of the climb- no easy task in itself- that traverses back across the mountain along 3km of gravel road. As you can tell by now, this climb is an adventure and I haven't even mentioned the four unlit tunnels! Built by Joseph Paganon in 1939, the D219 road is carved into the mountain, creating a route that is both majestic and terrifying in equal measure.

The reason I keep mentioning Alpe d'Huez and Col du Solude in the same breath is because they lay parallel to one another. Whilst most climb Alpe d'Huez and gaze across at the mountains in view, they often fail to realise that sitting directly opposite them is a stunning climb in itself, the Col du Solude. If I may draw your attention to the picture below, you will see a view of the Solude, as taken from the upper slopes of Alpe d'Huez.

Glancing at the picture above, one can divide this ride into three sections:

  1. The initial paved road that traverses south and takes you away from Bourg d'Oisans. This is where the four tunnels lay, the longest being 365m. Remember your lights!

  2. The hairpins that offer gorgeous views and guide you to Villard Notre Dame, a picturesque little village that sits secluded on the mountainside.

  3. The gravel track that traverses north to the summit of Col du Solude (1,680m).

Let's get started, shall we? For most people, Col du Solude will be done in partnership with Alpe d'Huez, given the proximity to one another and given that cycling's 'Hollywood Climb' can been done inside an hour or two, depending on your fitness. Both climbs have the same entry point in the valley, Bourg d'Oisans. This town has everything you could wish for in a cycling base: bike shops, cafes, restaurants, supermarkets- you name it, it is here. With the town being your starting point in mind, may I first suggest that you pay a visit to a wonderful little bike shop/museum that sits in the middle of town, La Bicicletta. Run by a lovely old gentleman, inside you will find a range of retro clothing, bikes, signs... you can spend hours in here. The shop sits on the road that will take you from the town towards the start of the climb; make a couple of turns either way as you head south out of town and soon you will take the left turn that follows signs for Villard Notre Dame.

Ok, now let's actually get started on the climb, shall we?

But first, make sure you have remembered to bring your lights!

Ok... let us begin this captivating climb that will live long in the memory, perhaps even topping the messiah that lay opposite. The initial half a kilometre through the forest has some landslide-damaged roads, which are by no means dangerous, but certainly to be watched out for. Don't go puncturing here. Once beyond the small forest that gives you a warning of the encroaching tunnels, the real climb begins as you soon hug the cliff wall that will become your friend and in some ways, your life vest (do not let it venture far from hand).

Tunnel du Pontet is the first of the unlit tunnels, but is only 80m or so long, so your lights can stay turned off here. From here until the hairpins, the road takes on its defining characteristic as a cliff edge that traverses the mountain and travels at a 7-13% gradient, allowing a test for the legs but most importantly, a stunning climb that gives views over the valley. There is enough room for cars to pass you, but only just... with sporadic car passing spots dotted across the road. Saying that, the spots are fairly far apart and my jove, I would not want to reverse my car down here, let me tell you. I digress, before long the road will guide you noticeably off the valley floor and towards the azure skies above. Scared of heights? Me too. Just get your head down and crack on with it, it will be worth it.

The second of the unlit tunnels is the longest and will definitely require lights, so get them switched on because you are going to enter a 365m long tunnel that will have you thinking you're climbing the Passo Gavia. There is an eeriness to the tunnel as the cranking sounds of the bike echoes in the chamber, amplifying even your gasping for breath as you tackle the relentless gradient. Emergency markers dot the wall frequently, to let you know how far is left before breaking out into the sun once more. Do not worry about being ambushed by cars as the rumble of their engine will be deafening, giving you the impression of an aeroplane taking off! I always find tunnels such as this quite mesmeric, given that you are literally cycling through a mountain.

As you exit the Tunnel du Villard Notre Dame, the drop to your left has become noticebly steep and large, giving the nerves an unneeded jolt. Keep in mind the rocks and stones that have fallen onto the road from above, as these are often sharp and can be an enemy to any tyre. The road cut into the mountainside ensures you are about as exposed as you are likely to get on a bike, with only the small stone embankment offering a glimmer of security, not that I would like to test its effectiveness at stopping a swerving cyclist. The goosebumps and raised hairs are all part of the fun on Col du Solude. Whilst the goosebumps on Alpe d'Huez are raised by the heroes that have peddled this road before you, the goosebumps on Col du Solude are raised by the knowledge that your front wheel is only ever a metre or less away from almost certain death. There is something nostalgic about traversing a cliff road like this for myself, it harkens back to the great mountain climbers traversing across mountains as they aimed to reach never-before-summited peaks. By pedalling along this death-defying road cut into the mountain, one is invoking the spirit of bygone men and women that have travelled the lesser-trodden path. In some points, the cliff produces an overhang above the road, which serves as yet more stunning material for a photo. Soak it in, this climb is extraordinary, made even more sweeter by the knowledge that many fellow cyclists often miss this ride completely- bonkers!

Tunnel de la Gardette is next on the menu and at 132m long, it has a certain daunting feeling as you enter a cave to which there is no immediate exit point visible. It is certainly less engineered than the previous tunnel, with the roof hanging lower and the jagged rock forming an intimidating presence as you are soon engulfed. Upon exiting the tunnel, you get your first proper view of the oncoming forest and the mountains that lay beyond the Solude to the south.

Having yet to be mentioned, now would be an appropriate time to take note of what is opposite the road, on the other side of the valley. By this point you have travelled south away from Bourg d'Oisans and Alpe d'Huez; in doing so you follow the same path as the parallel road that trails off the Alpe. Look directly opposite and you will see an equally frightening balcony road that links the lower slopes of Alpe d'Huez to the lower slopes of Col de Sarenne. At La Garde, after the first five hairpins of Alpe d'Huez, there is a signed road to Auris, follow this and you will enjoy a stunning ride in itself, more on this to come in a subsequent article...

After 3.4 km of climbing and after passing through the Tunnel de Forissier (119m in length), the cliff road will soon turn wider and our intrepid adventurers will enter the forest, which whilst unrelenting and steep, offers a tranquil quietness that makes it appear like an entirely different climb altogether. From here to Villard Notre Dame, the road snakes in a series of hairpins as one ventures deeper and deeper into the green enclave. The kick-ups on the hairpins can be brutal, but the scenery to your left is increasingly stunning as the end of the Oisans valley results in an opening up of the landscape, to offer views of further mountain ranges in the distance. In the valley below is the Romanche River (78.3km long), that flows through Bourg d'Oisans, and the Barrage du Chambon, a hydroelectric dam that serves as the reservoir of Lake Chambon.

Briefly distracted by a butterfly before offering a view of the Romanche River and the Barrage du Chambon in the distance.

The wildlife is another feature of this climb which will live long in the memory. Whilst I have seen reports of flies being a problem through the forest, we never encountered such an issue and were actually presented with groups of butterflies interloping with our bodies as we ground our way up the mountain. It was a truly stunning experience as brightly coloured butterflies danced around us and offered moral support, as we toiled on our steel frames through the tough forest.

In contrast to the narrow paved road that hugged the cliff edge, the D219 now journeys ever deeper into the forest, often forming a cauldron of green flora that submerges you from the basking summer sun. These are the final tough knockings of the paved climb, requiring pacing from a rider, rather than a hell for leather approach. There is only one signposted location on this climb, other than Villard Notre Dame, that is Le Creux, a small hamlet home to only two or three visible houses. It is safe to say the communities up here are secluded in a beautiful paradise.

Following Le Creux and the thick overgrowth of forests that provide a tough test for any rider, the environment begins to open up once more and the sun is back to beat down onto the weary cyclist's back. There is one particular bend that has a wooden barrier to protect one from a severe fall, that opens up the landscape and offers views down the Vénéon Valley to the south east. On this bend, you are able to see a mountain range to the right which beholds Pic du Col d'Ornon (2,872m) on full display.

From here it is little over 1.5km of climbing until riders will reach Villard Notre Dame. The forest is thinning by now and the smooth road is often baked in the sun, leading you along a merry way to the Commune of the Ecrins National Park (Commune du Parc National des Ecrins). This represents the entry into Villard Notre Dame, which is one of the highest villages in France, standing at 1540m in altitude.

Villard Notre Dame is a glorious little village, with a population of only around 26 people. The views to the neighbouring mountains are resplendent and can be viewed from the road that climbs to the village. © Laurent Salino

In the beautiful Villard Notre Dame itself, there is a cafe-cum-bar, for those of you in need of well earned replenishment. The air is fresh and the mood is calm as villagers sit in front of their houses, some reading a book, some taking in the view. Each one says a pleasant "bonjour", whilst also sporting a look that says 'chapeau' to any rider that has reached this height. As ever, no matter how large or how small they are, this is yet another village with a war memorial to mark 'those children who died for France'. Cyprién Balmet, Julien Jouffrey, Laurent Brun and Alexis Balmet were all sons of Villard Notre Dame, all sons lost to the First World War.

Fountains are on hand in Villard Notre Dame, it is a welcome sight for any cyclist.

As the road sneaks out of Villard Notre Dame, the paved portion ends and the gravel track begins as you enter the final 3km. Follow the signposts for Villard Reymond, which is supposedly the second highest village in France, standing at 1,620m. Villard Reymond is situated just beyond the summit of Col du Solude and can be visited before descending into Bourg d'Oisans.

Dairy meadows are aplenty along the gravel track, with the odd bee hive being spotted in the fields. This track is classified as a hiking trail in some Michelin maps, but pay no heed to these reports and put pedal to the metal as you scorch across beautiful terrain that traverses north to the summit of Col du Solude. After an initial uphill (shown below), the track eventually deteriorates to loose gravel and rock, but it is passable by road bike. Make sure to bring spare tubes and a pump, but we were lucky enough to get away without puncturing.

Just to go on a slight tangent, it was after this video that news first broke of the UCI World Championships in Switzerland being cancelled last year (yes, there is phone signal up here). We weren't to know at the time if the event would go ahead in a different country, and thank goodness it did. But, it did get me thinking at the time as to how great a bike race would be up Col du Solude. Perhaps a couple of days in the Alps could be scheduled, with an Alpe d'Huez finish one day and a finish on Col du Solude the next. Though it is not the toughest of climbs, it could be a finish to a brutal day of climbing on the surrounding cols, serving as a unique spectacle to a Tour. Fans would most likely be banned from accumulating on the cliff road, for obvious safety reasons, but they could be accommodated on the lower and upper slopes of the climb. The balcony portion of the climb would serve as one almighty spectacle from the helicopter, before the hairpins add a more traditional Tour feeling and the gravel at the top would add the dynamism that La Planche des Belles Filles did so well in 2019. The climb has never featured on the Tour before and could really add a fresh twist to the usual summit finishes. The descent from Col du Solude links up with the Col d'Ornon, so perhaps a descent to the finish in Bourg d'Oisans could also work. Anyway, I digress, but it is certainly food for thought!

The next kilometre or so of riding (after the uphill shown in the video) is a mixture of short descents followed by sharp ascents, all whilst dodging avalanche debris. This stretch is a bucket load of fun, but take caution as the road once more features vertiginous drops to the Romanche Valley below. One tip from me is in regard to the short and steep uphills on the loose gravel: sit further back on the saddle and have all your weight over the back wheel, as if you were riding the Muur van Geraardsbergen, to maintain as much traction as possible.

There is a pièce de résistance to this climb that I am yet to seriously mention, but which becomes resplendent in all its glory as you traverse back along the mountainside to the summit of Col du Solude. The remarkable feature I am referring to is the view across to Alpe d'Huez. When one thinks of Alpe d'Huez, immediately the 21 hairpins come to mind, alongside the images from the helicopter that we are (pleasantly) bombarded with each time the Tour comes to town. These images show the Alpe's hairpins in all their splendour, laced onto the mountain in the manner that chocolate sauce is draped onto an ice cream. However, when one comes to ride Alpe d'Huez itself, and even from the town of Bourg d'Oisans, the proximity to the mountain ensures that this image of Alpe d'Huez never really materialises. The hairpins are not all visible, quite obviously. This is where the Col du Solude plays its trump card; the mountain recognises that every cyclist who visits the area is interested in climbing Alpe d'Huez, and therefore it has found its place as the picturesque climb that provides unrivalled views onto the Alpe, showing all 21 hairpins in helicopter-esque fashion. As one traverses towards the Col du Solude summit from Villard Notre Dame, the sight of Alpe d'Huez is unmissable to the right as the trees part and the view opens up. This is as good a view of Alpe d'Huez as you are likely to find. If, like myself, you have climbed Alpe d'Huez prior to Col du Solude, it offers a marvellous perspective on your recent achievement. For the geographers amongst you, also of note will be Pic Blanc, which at 3,300m, overlooks Alpe d'Huez and stars as the third highest peak of the Grandes Rousses Massif. Unfortunately in my picture below, Pic Blanc is covered by the withering tree, but you get the gist!

Alpe d'Huez stands to attention over my right shoulder. "Here's what I already conquered..."

Alongside the views of Alpe d'Huez, one does not need to look far to see the views down into the Romanche Valley. The final 300m once again skirts the fine line between adventure and peril, as the gravel path does not feature any form of barrier to the impending drop on your right. It is all part of the fun though... and the road is genuinely wide enough to get through this section without bother- do not let my hyperbole put you off summiting this majestic mountain.

One final hairpin awaits, taking you left and back on yourself as the road delivers one final nasty kick to the summit. After 12.56km of riding from the base of the climb, it is finally time to say you have ticked off another mountain. Upon summiting Col du Solude, you will find an open area of grass, which kindly plays host to a wooden bench. Make use of this bench because you shall be tired, for one. But also because it offers an astounding panoramic view of the Alps. Not only is Alpe d'Huez on show here, but also Col du Galibier in the distance to the east, amongst many other mountains that make up this breathtaking region of France. The Col du Solude is not 'boxed in' by other mountains directly to its side, ensuring you have a 360 degree view of the area. You can't beat this for a lunch spot.

At 1,680m in altitude, you have just conquered another tough European mountain, one that many fellow cyclists will not even think of doing. But you know better, you know that this is one climb that cannot be missed. The Col du Solude is three climbs packed into one amazing ride. The balcony road is a jaw dropping but euphoric experience, forcing many to face their fears and forcing all cyclists to test out their legs. There is little let up in the gradient here as the road snakes through four unlit tunnels which only add to the drama of this unheralded climb. Beyond the cliff face comes the forest and its hairpins, reminding that you are indeed climbing in the French Alps. I can only hope that you get a similar experience to me through the forest, as the mountain's most wonderful wildlife comes to play, clouding one's self in a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Of course, the beauty of the Col du Solude does not stop there, with the secluded Villard Notre Dame bringing you back to some form of civilisation, whilst offering a welcome refreshment break from tough climbing. Once the legs get motoring once more, an almost new climb emerges as the paved road turns to gravel, becoming looser as the trail unfolds. This is a throwback to days of yore when the greats of cycling would cross the unpaved roads that passed Europe's highest peaks. One of Europe's highest peaks, this is not, but one of its most beautiful- almost certainly.

Go and enjoy Alpe d'Huez everybody, but remember the golden rule- do not leave Bourg d'Oisans without having climbed Col du Solude. Trust me, it is well and truly worth it.

Let me put you in the picture

Let me show you what I mean

Alpe d'Huez is the messiah

But Solude, man, she's the Queen.

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