The Grand Loop

The climb up the Col d’Allos was largely forested.

When I was last in the Maritime Alps, roughly ten years ago, I did a ride that has remained on my list of all-time greats. That loop, starting and finishing in Barcelonette, was included in the tour I’m doing now. Indeed, it was one of the features that attracted me to this tour.

In broad strokes, the ride heads south from Barcelonette. A few kilometers out of town you turn right and begin climbing the Col d’Allos. It’s a 19km Category 1 climb and reaches 2247 meters. You descend until you reach the left turn that begins the climb up the 12km ascent of the Col de Champs. It tops out at 2045 meters. Then you descend to the left turn that leads to the climb up the Col de la Cayolle. The ascent of the Cayolle is 20km and reaches a height of 2326 meters; as such it is an hors categorie climb. From there you drop back to Barcelonette. Easy peasy, provided you think of 75 miles and 10,500 feet of elevation gain as easy.

Less than 5km to go on the Allos.

I know the jump between feet and meters can be a bit confusing; sorry for that. I’m pulling data from multiple sources and there’s a bit of a culture clash, and, frankly, it’s all I can do to get this post done tonight.

Unlike the climbs we did in the northern Alps, the gradient was more consistent with each of these climbs. My legs say it was generally between five and seven percent, though there were exceptions.

We encountered a herd of sheep while descending the Allos.

The descents off of each of these climbs were to adult fun what Disney Land was to childhood fun. To do three descents of such variety, beauty and fun on a single day hardly seems possible. I commented to another rider when we stopped for a photo that I was having a “pinch me” moment. I just needed to make sure I really was there, really was having that much fun. Honestly, though, my dreams are never this good.

Near the pass on the Col de Champs.

Were someone to compile a bucket list of great rides, this is a sleeper that should make everyone’s list. The climbs aren’t super-famous, but they each share a rich history and should rightfully be given their due respect. I’ll do another post that comments on some of the history of the climbs I’ve done on this trip. On two occasions today I actually stopped on descents for photos just because I couldn’t believe how beautiful the scenery was and the fact that the roads winding through these landscapes had an elegant line, sweeping and looping like a Bach melody.

The completion of one descent was immediately followed by the next climb.

Even if I lived here this isn’t a loop I could do weekly. It’s extraordinarily difficult, but the reward that comes from looking out at the Alps from those passes, threading those descents and rolling back to the hotel gives a satisfaction that most races I competed in could never match. Years from now when I’m too old to ride, today is a day I’ll recall and that will suffice for what I can no longer achieve.

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  1. Jim

    So in addition to having fun, are you thinking about ‘cross season and what kind of a base you’re building on this tour? It sounds like a superb training camp, even if your emphasis is riding for fun.

  2. Alex

    I can say that I know exactly what you´re feeling, Padraig. I´ve just returned from a similar tour through the Pyrenees and I felt this same “there´s just something about these mountains, roads and villages”, as I call it.

    It´s special, not only the scenery is amazing everywhere but the whole experience is precious. I found myself marveling at every sight and wishing I could capture this special something in pictures, but I´m just happy to carry the emotions and memories forever. And of course I hope and look forward to know the Alps as well.

    So I won´t wish you a good ride (again) ´cos I know there´s no way it will be short of life-altering and spirit-elevating (if you know what I mean).

    Thanks for sharing in such vivid words!

    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Champs: Yes, it’s a climb and descent just for you. Honestly, I’ve thought of that road every time I see your handle.

      Jim: ‘Cross season … yeah, I’m not thinking that far ahead. I’m supposed to do this nutso ride called the Son of the Death Ride two weeks after I’m back and honestly, I’m not sure I see the point. Provided I finish this thing, I’m not convinced I have anything I need to demonstrate fitness-wise. I’ll probably go for no reason other than to enjoy the time with friends.

      Alex: Drop us a note with a bit about your itinerary. I’d love to know more. I’m very in touch with the emotions you describe. I wish I could bring back more than just pictures.

  3. donncha

    I didn’t realise that loop was on the Grande Route, so I figured you’d be doing Vars, then Bonnette and carry on to Nice. I rode the exact same loop, though in reverse, at the beginning of June and it was fantastic. We arrived at the summit of Col d’Allos at 8pm and as a result there was zero traffic, and so began the greatest descent I’ve yet done.

    Descending on that narrow road, in parts with hard cliff on one side and a sheer drop on the other, was really enjoyable. We’d driven over Col d’Allos a few days previously to get to Barcelonnette and, looking at those drops out of the passenger window, I instinctively tried to will us away from the edge. Three days later on the bike, they never even entered my mind as I was solely focused on speed and choosing lines into the turns. A perfect end to a long day in the saddle.

    Great fun! (photos here:

  4. Randomactsofcycling

    Good lord I am so envious. I spent a life altering two weeks in the south of France after a relationship breakup some 13 years ago. No bike back then but the places (closer to Nice) have tugged at my heartstrings ever since. I yearn to head back there with my bike and my wife.
    Drink it up.

  5. Mark

    Wonderfully written. I’m in a similar space to Alex, though my riding was in the Swiss alps and Italian Dolomites but thank you for finding words that resonate really well with some of my own experiences.

  6. Alex

    “I wish I could bring back more than just pictures.”

    Oh you will, you sure will! A lot more 😉

    As for me, our group basically spent the week prior to L´Ètape touring the small villages and cruising the main cols of the Pyrenees. Some of those we climbed from both sides, which was really cool (and bloody hard!). After the race we rode more to watch the Tour, I was 200m from the place where Andy dropped his chain and was dropped by Contador – though I didn´t know what happened at the time, of course.

    We tackled the Peyresourde, Bales, Soulour, Marie Blanc, Aubisque, Portillon, Portet d´Aspet, Pla d´Adet, Hautacam, etc. either during those daily rides, the race or any ride to watch the Tour passing. Reading your posts I can almost re-live those experiences, I know exactly what you´re feeling when you´re descending those smooth lines and perfect asphalt, contemplating the spectacular views (I´m just not as good as you to put it on words hehehe…).

    We enjoyed great weather (mostly) and were favoured by the whole pre-Tour atmosphere. Now that´s something apart. The relationship of the French with their racing is special, deep and intense. And as such, hard to describe. But I could literally feel the excitation and anticipation in the air as we crossed the villages or climbed the mountains. I´ve only seen something like that in Italy, but then I´ve never been to Belgium (lol).

    Campers had already started to park on the roadside – and the Tour was still a week away! Most roads and towns were lined with ycling enthusiasts cheering you on the climbs; restaurants and hotels decorated with cycling themes… it was overwhelming. Luchon had these street lamp cords with Tour jersey kites and flags, pretty amazing. I had lunch beside Sean Kelly one day, he´s such a nice fella and we chatted a bit about his times racing on the same team of the only brazilian rider to ever win a Tour stage. Pretty cool to say the least.

    Not to mention the incredible number of riders of all ages, styles and nationalities riding their bikes everywhere. I got really, really inspired by the number of skinny, tanned 70 and even 80 year olds on steel Pinarellos climbing like kids I came across. I´m not joking, I couldn´t tell their age coming from behind, I had to look on their faces. Pretty cool. I just wish I can reach that age with such disposition and health, but it seemed like commonplace over there ´cos they were everywhere.

    Finally, the camaraderie of our group (comprised mostly of friends), the amazing food and relaxed mood of vacations compounded to one of the most memorable weeks I´ve ever had, anywhere. I had a wonderfull time, I´m sure you are having one too so keep the posts coming!!!

  7. Author

    Donncha: Technically, this loop isn’t part of the Route des Grandes Alpes. We did go over the Col de Vars and then followed it with the Bonette before doubling back to town. We did the Grand Loop (as I call it) the next day. The Route des Grandes Alpes then leaves Barcelonette by the Col de la Cayolle. Similarly, when we added the Col de la Madeleine and the Col d’Agnel, neither of those were part of the Route, but they were fun additions.

    Randomactsofcycling: Big trips have a wonderful way of washing away pain. I wish you a return.

    Mark: Thanks. I hope to make that real estate one of my next excursions.

    Alex: Not much to be said to that other than WORD. Even as the scenery changes the experience is universal.

    Get out there my friends!

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