Alpine Cycling Beginners’ Guide
All your questions answered:
If you can ride a bike, then you can embrace the epic adventure of cycling in the Alps. The key difference is that riding in the mountains involves sustained ascents and descents. The terrain itself dictates a minimum distance and vertical ascent for every ride. As such, you will need to have attained an appropriate level of cycle fitness before setting out on your Alpine adventure.
A handy rule of thumb is that one mile in the Alps is equivalent to two miles on the relative flat. When planning your Alpine cycling trip, it is crucial to undertake routes that reflect your level of ability.
Minimum fitness requirement
Assume that each day’s ride will be, at the minimum, 50km with 1000m ascent. Some days of your holiday will probably be tougher than this, even if you are following a very modest itinerary. The longest Alpine cols climb well over 1000m vertical in one go; as such, it is not uncommon for point-to-point tours to climb 2000-3000m each day.
I cycle competitively, and regularly ride long distances
If you race sportives or are used to 100km+ rides, then you will already have the base of fitness that you need for Alpine riding, and should be able to conquer one major col each day without any drama. Fit club riders will be looking at routes that typically take in 2 or 3 major cols in a single day. However even very fit experienced cyclists can be caught out by just how different, and tough, long Alpine ascents can be, compared to cycling in the UK. It is best not to be too ambitious if it is your first trip to serious mountains.
I’m fit, but not a regular cyclist
If you have a solid base of endurance fitness from another sport, then you are already most of the way there. However, whether you are a marathon runner, rugby player or a rower, you will get much more from your Alpine cycling holiday if you put in some miles on a bike beforehand, to condition your cycling muscles.
I love cycling, but I’m not sure if I’m fit enough to ride the Alps
If you are not used to riding long distances, but would like to take your fitness to the next level, then an Alpine cycling tour is a fantastic goal to train for.
As far as the cycling is concerned, there is not a great difference between the French Alps, Swiss Alps, Dolomites & Pyrenees; they all have very large hills to ride, as well as breath-taking scenery. The French Alps are home to many of the most famous cols, typically with very long hard ascents. The Pyrenees have a denser network of mountain roads, and thus less traffic and a wider route choice. Your choice of country will also infuse your trip with a taste of the home nation’s character and culture. Our choice of tours spans this full range of Alpine destinations.
Optimally pleasant cycling weather, in our book, has clear parameters, specifically between 15°C and 25°C and no rainfall: cooler than 15°C is getting a bit chilly, especially on long descents, and hotter than 25°C starts to become stifling. We have analysed climate data for a number of popular cycling locations with Alpine terrain, to give a guideline of what months of the year you can expect to have these ideal cycling weather conditions:
Northern Alps: June to mid-September
Southern Alps: mid-May to end September
Pyrenees: mid-April to end October
Mallorca: March to May, October & November
Corsica: April & May, mid-September to end November
Staying in a resort
There are many holiday resorts in the Alps, which are used for skiing during the winter months. Most of these are ghost towns in the summer, but some are bustling multi-activity resorts, including Morzine (our summer base), Chamonix & Bourg d’Oisans. Staying in a lively resort will typically give you access to facilities such as a swimming pool, supermarket, bars and shops. These resorts typically also give you ready access to hiking, mountain biking, and other adventure sports. A resort is the ideal base for rest days or if you plan to travel with non-riding partners or children.
For a fixed-base trip, make your base somewhere in the valley floor: low-lying accommodation is likely to give you far better route choice; high altitude accommodation, typically, means cycling up the same col to your hotel at the end of each day’s riding.
Alpe d’Huez, Ventoux, Tourmalet, Stelvio. These infamous climbs are all in different regions, and would not typically be ridden during the same trip (except for on our Legendary Cols Tour). You can effectively narrow down your destination options by focussing on a specific col (or cols) that you would like to conquer.
Alpe d’Huez is in the middle of the French Alps, surrounded by many of the sport’s most notoriously difficult climbs. Mt. Ventoux is not actually in the Alps; it stands alone, some 100km from any other notable peak. Tourmalet is in the heart of the Pyrenees, and the Stelvio Pass is in the Italian Alps near the Swiss border. There are many hundreds of notable cols to ride in Europe, only a few of which have been popularised by the Grand Tours.
You can either stay in the same accommodation for the duration of your trip, undertaking circular day-rides in the local area, or you can set out on tour, staying in different places each night. The tour-experience is perhaps more of an adventure, covering hundreds of kilometres along a known itinerary, whereas the fixed-base option gives the added comfort and convenience of retaining the same accommodation for the duration of your stay.
Fixed itinerary tours can be as short as a 3-day weekend, or last up to or beyond 2 weeks; most tours, however, are around a week long. Self-guided holidays, without a fixed-itinerary, can potentially be as long or short as you like.
Most of our holidays are point-to-point tours, in order to include a selection of the world's most iconic and outstanding climbs. Our self-guided holidays are based in Morzine, a spectacular mountain resort town that regularly hosts the Tour de France.
You are given map(s), and typically also set routes with GPS tracks to download, and you do the navigation yourself.
Some operators offer fixed-itinerary self-guided point-to-point tours, which may or may not include baggage transfer from hotel to hotel. If your trip is about self-sufficiency, you may feel that carrying all your essential items with you is part of the adventure. If this is not the purpose of your trip, however, heavy panniers are likely to be a big drag on the enjoyment of your Alpine cycling experience.
Other operators offer a selection of self-guided route options (or at least suggestions and advice) from a fixed base. If you choose a self-guided holiday, you should check what support is available in the event of physical or mechanical failure – are you on your own, or does your holiday provider offer some form of rescue service?
Compare our self-guided holidays.
Supported rides remove the worry of navigation with the benefit of a vehicle on hand to carry your overnight baggage. Supported tours are more expensive than self-guided trips, but also offer a significantly greater degree of comfort and security.
The support vehicle, typically, will carry spare kit, food, drinks, overnight bags (if on a point-to-point tour), and be on hand to help with any mechanical issues. In the event of extreme fatigue or injury, the support vehicle may also carry riders who are unable to ride part of the route. However, some tours do not have the capacity to carry all guests in their support vehicles, say in the event of severe weather.
Compare our supported tours.
If this is your first time cycling in the Alps, we strongly recommend travelling with a specialist cycling tour operator who can provide the support and expert guidance required to make your experience fluid and incident-free. Whether you are a solo traveller or part of a group, if the purpose of your holiday is primarily to cycle, then this is the best choice: a good operator will take care of all the logistics, overcome any language barrier, and provide you with expert local route knowledge, so you are free to focus on what you came for: the riding.
Trips organised by cycling tour operators will typically fall into one of three categories: Social Riding, Training Camps, and Race Experiences.
Social Riding holidays, like the ones we offer, are a great option for Alpine first-timers, allowing you to get used to riding long ascents on consecutive days, learning to pace yourself, and push yourself, to the degree that you are comfortable with. Fitter riders with a gung-ho attitude will no doubt be tempted to put in their debut Alpine performance by way of either a Training Camp or Race Experience-holiday. Our advice is to go with whatever inspires you, whilst also taking great care to choose a challenge that matches your ability.
These holidays offer non-competitive, challenging riding for the sheer joy and pleasure of the experience. There is opportunity to bask in the splendour of the Alpine environment, and fully appreciate the fresh air and stunning natural beauty of the surroundings. Coffee stops and convivial dinners are all part of the cycle experience on a Social Riding holiday.
Whilst some social riding holidays are ideal for cyclists who are relatively new to the sport, and are suitable to riders with a modest level of fitness, others follow a very demanding itinerary and are intended for experienced fit riders only. If in doubt, discuss this with your prospective holiday provider(s) to ascertain which trip is most suitable for you.
You ride with a coach, pushing yourself to the limit on major cols to improve your race performance. Alpine training camps are a fantastic way to boost your cycle fitness, and can be a worthy mid-season feature for performance-focused riders.
Most high Alpine cols are closed due to snow until late spring, so for a pre or early-season training camp in the mountains you will need to head further south. For training in the early months of the year, Mallorca is a firm favourite with both pros and amateurs alike.
Single or multi-day sportives (typically with 2000+m daily ascent).
There are dozens of single-day Alpine sportives to choose from, organised by groups in the native country. The most well-known and iconic one-day sportives are notoriously difficult and include the Marmotte in France and Maratona dles Dolomites in Italy.
A number of multi-day events have also sprung up in recent years, often following classic itineraries. Some of these multi-day sportives take the race experience one step further with rolling road-closures, support cars and motorcycle outriders. If your dream is to experience the Alps as if you were riding on the pro circuit, then an event like this is what to aim for, but be warned: these events are not cheap and the level of intensity and ability is typically very high. We strongly recommend gaining some prior Alpine cycling experience, as well as extensive training, before entering a multi-day Alpine sportive.
A selection of sportives in the French Alps
May - Grandfondo de Mont Ventoux
May - Challenge Vercors
June - La Morzine Haut Chablais
June - Le Grand Bornand
June - Time Megeve
June - La Vaujauny
July - Marmotte Grandfondo
Aug - Grandfondo Les 2 Alpes
If you choose to piece together your own Alpine cycling trip from scratch, it is highly recommended that you book your accommodation and plan your routes well ahead of time. Alpine towns are fairly spread out, and accommodation in many places is likely to book out in advance during the summer months; this is especially true when there are local events taking place.
Planning your Route
The first consideration must be to decide roughly how far you want to ride and how much ascent you want to tackle that day. For a well-balanced week, ensure you have a selection of easier as well as some demanding rides.
Due to the topography (lots of big mountains) the number of roads to choose from is likely to be much less than when you are planning a route at home. In some ways, this makes the route selection easier because there are fewer roads to choose from, but can make circular routes more difficult to create.
It’s always more fun to create a circular route than an out and back; having said this climbing a mountain is a totally different experience to descending back down the way you came. Minor roads are always more pleasant to ride than busier main roads. Beware however that, generally speaking, minor roads have more steep sections.
Planning a lunch or refreshment stop is vital. The Alps have plentiful bars and cafes along the roadside plus there are often water troughs (fresh mountain water – safe to drink unless marked ‘non potable’). In most cases (but not all) there is a café or restaurant at the top of each col. To make the route as scenic as possible, aim to visit viewpoints, as marked on your map.
There are many busy roads in the Alps in the summer that are best avoided, as well as stunning hidden gems with virtually no traffic at all. Without local knowledge, successful route planning will inevitably be part guesswork, but there are a number of useful resources to assist you:
If you are planning your routes use maps 1:100,000 (1cm =1km). Any smaller and there is insufficient detail for navigation, any larger and you will have a pocketful of maps. In France, IGN maps are ideal. Michelin also have a range of maps that cover most of the Alps.
GPS devices such as the Garmin 800/1000 series can be very useful, some units come with cycling friendly maps as standard. Uploading very detailed maps can make route following quite difficult and should be avoided.
There are over 100 sign-posted graded routes in the French Alps, which you can view online and order as a printed guide. You can also browse sign-posted cycle routes in Switzerland, with a selection of cycle route maps available to order.
You can source potential routes from sites such as Mapmyride.com, Ridewithgps.com, and Strava.com. The problem is choosing a good route from the hundreds that are available online. Routes that other people have uploaded can be a useful guide when planning your own itinerary, but they often contain roads that are not cycle-friendly, as well as wrong turns and unreliable ascent data.
Tourist office route guides
Many tourist offices produce their own road cycling route guides, centered on their specific resort within the Alps, which can be a useful reference point of local knowledge. Some tourist office route guides are well produced, and allow you to download the routes for GPS; others are drawn on too small a scale to be followed easily.
There is a wealth of inside knowledge of Alpine routes and cols on the Cycling Challenge blog, which is an excellent starting point for planning an independent Alpine cycling trip.
The ideal bike for road cycling in the Alps is a lightweight road bike, with gears low enough for the gradients involved: usually 5-10% but can include stretches of 15% i.e. as steep as you expect to meet on hilly UK minor roads – but very much longer (see section below on Gearing). Road bikes are designed to be light, and the pleasure of riding in the Alps will be greatly increased by having a light nimble bike, designed for use exclusively on the road.
A mountain bike or hybrid bike, fitted with slick tyres, can be a valid alternative, but using one of these bikes will mean that you are hauling a lot of unnecessary weight up the hills; they are much more hard work!
We recommend using a road bike, if at all possible. If you do not have your own, there are bike shops in holiday resorts and larger towns throughout the Alps, where you can rent a suitable machine. Some cycle tour operators have their own rental bikes; those that don’t should be able to recommend a suitable local hire shop that meets your needs.
Rent a bike or bring your own?
Bringing your own bike, that you know intimately and which fits you perfectly, is clearly an attractive option. Be aware that long descents do take their toll on the bike, especially on brakes and tyres; have your bike serviced before setting out on your Alpine adventure, and make sure that it is set up with suitably low gears. If you are travelling by plane, use a hard case bike box to minimise the chance of damage; newer re-inforced semi-rigid bike bags are lighter and are also an option. Soft, folding bags should be avoided because they offer insufficient protection against rough baggage handling.
Renting a bike allows you to travel light, with no need for a bike box, and also avoids airline surcharges. In the Alps, rental bikes are likely to be lightweight with appropriate gearing (but not necessarily, so be sure to check this before renting). The brakes will typically follow the European norm (front wheel, left-hand lever), the opposite way round to the UK standard. Rental costs in France are roughly €40-60/day, depending on specification; Easyjet bike carriage is £35 each way, but this does vary from airline to airline.
As a general rule the stronger & fitter you are the higher gears you can comfortably use, however even the pro peloton often use quite low gears when riding mountain roads; as an Alpine first timer, you can never have low enough gears.
When riding up hills in the UK, which are relatively short, you can get away with a higher than ideal gear by just putting in a short burst of extra effort. This does not apply in the Alps where climbs can typically take 1 to 2 hours or more and you just need to be able to keep spinning the pedals, no matter how slowly you are going, in order to maintain some forward momentum.
In order to have a sufficiently low first gear, your front chainwheel should be either a compact or a triple, with a maximum of 34 teeth on the smallest chainring. The largest sprocket of your rear cassette should be at least 28 teeth and preferably 30 or 32. This means that one turn of the pedals will turn the wheels just over one revolution. You can sustain a very slow steady speed on the climbs with this set up, whilst maintaining a reasonably high cadence, and a sustainable level of exertion.
Our two cents
No matter what your current level of fitness and experience is, we strongly advise that your pre-holiday training leaves you well practiced & confident riding the equivalent distances/ascents that you will be faced with when you are in the Alps. Remember the rule of thumb, that one mile in the Alps will typically feel similar to two miles ridden in relatively flat terrain.
The extent of the training you need to do is entirely dependent on your current fitness status. If you are already a cyclist then the prime requirement is to ensure that you have achieved a good level of endurance fitness. There is really only one way of doing this: complete longer rides of at least 2 or 3 hour duration. If you are not a cyclist then you need to train your cycling muscles; by doing some long rides you will achieve this plus enhance your endurance capability at the same time. Clearly the less fit you are the more riding you will need to do.
How to survive a climb video by ex Pro Marcel Wurst
Register with British Cycling for training tips and more
Specific training for climbing from Bikeradar
Training article from ‘Cycling Tips’ an Aussie online resource
Jo Friel’s “The Cyclist’s Training Bible” is an exceptional resource for a deeper understanding of effective training principles
Alpine accommodation comes in all shapes and sizes, and all levels of luxury. Large resorts will typically have everything from large 5* hotels, to cosy chalets, to studio apartments. Campsites are widespread in the Alps, but this option makes for a very different cycling holiday experience due to all the kit that has to be carried on the bike. Wherever you stay, it’s worth checking that there are secure bike storage facilities. In smaller towns accommodation choice is far more limited, and if you are booking your own accommodation, you should do so well in advance.
Note that, if you are booking accommodation directly with the local hotels, rather than as part of a cycle holiday package, communication and language can be an issue. Small hotels and B&Bs in the Alps do not necessarily reply to email as readily as we are used to in the UK.
In our experience, after a hard days riding, a hot shower and comfortable bed are really all that’s required… except for a hearty meal, that is. Check what food is included in your holiday package; some operators include everything, others include breakfast & lunch, others breakfast and dinner. You will be burning a lot of calories, so it is essential that you are well fed. Specialist cycling tour operators should be switched on to the food that you require, but local hotels that they use may not be.
For maximum endurance on the bike, eat foods that release their energy slowly such as oats, wholegrain bread, brown rice, quinoa and sweet potatoes. Have energy bars & gels available during the riding day, and be sure to keep hydrated at all times.
Travelling with a cycle tour operator, for half-board holidays in comfortable accommodation, with two people sharing a room, you can expect to pay £80-£120/night per person for self-guided trips, and £150-£500/night per person for supported trips. This will often include airport transfers, but not the flights themselves. Multi-day race experiences vary according to the package offered.
If you are travelling on a budget, and are prepared to plan your own routes, a self-catered apartment can be very cost-effective; the best deals are early season (May/ June) and late season (September/October), when there are far fewer holiday-makers in the Alps. You can also save money by travelling by car from the UK in a group; you will need at least three people in the car for driving costs (ferry, fuel & tolls) to work out less than flights & bike carriage.
As soon as you book any trip you need to protect yourself with suitable travel insurance. If you are taking your bike with you and /or entering a competitive event specialist cover is advisable. Most cycling tour operators will require you to be covered as a condition of booking. It is important to obtain the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) which provides reciprocal cover with the NHS. It does not include repatriation however. Also you will usually need to pay for your medical care first and reclaim it later so make certain you have a valid credit card with you at all times.
Velosure specialist cycle insurance
Holidaysafe specialist cycle insurance
British Cycling advice on travel, EHIC, etc.
Insurance advice from CTC
Many of the specialist cycling tour operators provide airport transfers, so you just need to fly to the nearest airport. For the Northern French Alps, this is Geneva; the Southern French Alps can be accessed from Geneva, Lyon or Grenoble; the Italian Alps and the Dolomites can be reached from the international airports: Verona, Milan, Munich and Venice.
Alternatively you can drive to the Alps from the UK. Calais to the Northern French Alps takes approximately 8-10 hours, and you should add on 2-4 hours if you are travelling to the Southern French Alps or the Dolomites, depending on your exact destination.
Aim to take kit for all conditions. Snow in the high mountains is always a possibility even in the summer. Rain if/when it comes can be heavy! A long sleeve gilet or light rain top is essential for the descents; you can become very cold on a 30km descent due to wind chill. Consider also taking long fingered gloves and leg warmers, especially if early or late season.
Use proper cycling shoes with cleats that fasten to your pedals, not basic trainers which make cycling much harder work. For the social cycling holidays where you may be stopping frequently for coffee/photo stops etc. the MTB type shoe is preferable - ideally road cycling shoes with recessed MTB type SPD cleats - as they are much easier to walk in. Also, just in case you can’t make a climb and need to dismount, pushing the bike up with racing shoes can be a nightmare. If you are very serious or entering an event it’s probably best to stick to your race shoes.
It goes without saying that you need to carry on the bike at least, pump, spare tubes, set of mini-tools.
Suntan lotion is vital, good sun glasses, insect repellent (particularly early in the season), and even a headband can be useful to stop the sweat rolling into your eyes.
If you are confident that you have, or will have, the appropriate level of fitness to take on the Alps in the summer, then your next step is to choose the trip that’s right for you:
- Do you want a race experience, training camp, or social riding holiday?
- Do you have a preferred country/location in mind?
- How long do you want to go for?
- What time of season do you want to go?
- Would you prefer to be self-guided or supported?
- Would you prefer to ride from a fixed base or on a point-to-point tour?
- What is your budget?
- What level of luxury and attention to detail do you require?
When you have answers to all these questions, you are ready to search for a specific tour or holiday provider that fits your criteria. Forever Cycle Tours specializes in social riding holidays and offers refined supported point-to-point tours as well as fixed-based self-guided holidays for a wide range of abilities in the most iconic cycling regions of the French Alps and Europe.