On the northern end of the Aravis mountain range, at an altitude of 1613 m, the col links the town of Cluses to the north-east with Le Grand-Bornand and La Clusaz to the south-west.
Climbing the Col de la Colombière
The Col de la Colombière is shorter and less steep when climbed from Le Grand Bornand than from Scionzier, the village on the other side. “Only” 11.7 kilometres from Le Grand Bornand with an average gradient of 5.9%, it is is 16.3 km from Scionzier, with a deceptive average grade of 6.8%. In our Alpine Cols week we climb it twice, once from Scionzier on Tuesday and once from Le Grand Bornand on Thursday.
From Le Grand Bornand
This relatively easy climb begins in Le Grand Bornand, an Alpine village with lots of character. The climb is in two parts with an easy section in the middle through the ski village of Chinaillon. The first part varies little in gradient, mostly between 5% and 6%, with several wide, open switchbacks which are a delight to descend.
The road is pretty straight for a long stretch through Chinaillon, then switches back and forth in a couple of hairpin bends before it reaches the head of the valley. The gradient is again fairly steady between 5% and 6%. The road curves around, hairpins again and then climbs steeply to the summit in front of impressive rocky cliffs. The last 3 kilometres are the hardest, with the final one at 9%.
The views from the summit are splendid, and there is a restaurant and a parking area for hikers.
Scionzier is in the Arve valley, next to the better-known Cluses. Although some say the Col de la Colombière starts in Cluses, the real climbing starts at the exit from Scionzier. There are two distinct sections to this long and tough climb, above and below the village of Reposoir (the “resting place”).
The first section is in the forest, climbing along the flank of a valley and gaining almost 400 m over 6 km. The grade increases steadily, first 3.5%, then 4.5%, then 7%, to finish with 2 km at 8.5% before the road levels out to a gentle 2% – 3% on the intermediate plateau.
From Reposoir the sharply steeper road takes a few loops to gain height quickly, and then clings to the NW side of the valley, climbing steadily. With 3 km to go it rounds a shoulder and the vista opens up to reveal the distant summit. The chalet is clearly visible as you climb in low gear up the interminable final section, where the gradient reaches 11%.
The landscape is rocky and mountainous, and it is with a real sense of achievement that you finally arrive at the summit.
The Col de la Colombière in the Tour de France
The Col de la Colombière has been crossed 20 times in the Tour, 14 times from Le Grand Bornand (usually on the way to Morzine via the Col de Joux Plane) and 6 times from Scionzier. The first person over was the Spaniard Fernando Manzeneque in 1960 from Aix-les-Bains to Thonon-les-Bains. The second time saw British cyclist Barry Hoban first over on his way to win the 19th stage from Grenoble to Sallanches-Cordon in 1968. Famous climbers to be first over the Col include Luis Herrera in 1985, Richard Virenque in 1997 and Marco Pantani in 2000. Floyd Landis was first over on the infamous 2006 stage where he regained the yellow jersey, only to be tested positive for testosterone and thrown out of the race.
The Tour crossed the Colombière in 2010, when Christophe Moreau was first on the 9th stage. The lead changed several times as riders attacked during the climbs to the Aravis, the Saisies and the Madeleine. The stage was won by Sandy Casar, and Andy Schleck took the yellow jersey. Schleck wore the jersey until the 15th stage, from Pamiers to Bagnères de Luchon in the Pyrenees, where he lost it to Contador after a controversial mechanical incident with his chain. 18 months later Contador was disqualified for his test for clenbuterol, and Schleck was declared winner of the 2010 Tour.
David Millar writes movingly in his book Racing through the Dark about his battles on this epic 2010 stage. He had been injured in a series of crashes earlier in the race, but after a rest day decided he was better and didn’t need to take any more pain killers. As he writes,
“This turned out to be a mistake … From the lowest slopes of the Colombière, I was adrift, unable to stop my rapid slide out of the back of the bunch and into the convoy of following cars. Worse, every time I lifted myself out of the saddle to try to pedal a bit harder, my back began to spasm and there were stabbing pains from my ribs … I was dropped on my own – the first rider to go. There were just under 180 km remaining in the stage and four mountains to climb. I was unequivocally, irredeemably, f***ed.”
After an astonishing show of determination, climbing the Colombière, the Aravis, the Saisies and the Madeleine all alone, Millar made the finish line just before the cut-off, going on to finish the Tour in Paris.
Tour de France 2016
The Tour crossed the col de la Colombière for the 21st time on July 24, 2016 during the 20th stage from Megève to Morzine. The stage was 146km long, and passed over four major cols, the col des Aravis, the col de la Colombière, the col de la Ramaz and the col de Joux Plane. This same stage was used for the Etape du Tour. It was pouring with rain for most of the day. Little of note happened and the stage was won by Ion Izagirre (Movistar). Chris Froome kept his yellow jersey, with Romain Bardet in second place at 04′ 05″ and Nairo Quintana a few seconds behind.