Col de la Madeleine: A (very) Brief History
The Col de la Madeleine is a true great in the collection of Alpine passes in the Savoie in France, with the Madeleine connecting La Chambre in Maurienne with La Léchère in Tarentaise.
The Col de la Madeleine was known as Col de la Colombe until the 18th Century but was renamed after the little chapel was dedicated to St Madeleine.
The Col de la Madeleine Distance
Let’s get to it. The Col de la Madeleine is tough, seriously tough. At over 25 kilometres in length and climbing up to 2,000 metres in elevation, you do not need any help working out this is one where you will suffer, and suffer you do.
Despite its relentless length, you will find a rewarding sense of satisfaction, especially as you near the top. It is one of the very few climbs where it makes you feel like you have been on a real journey, climbing up through forest greens giving shade and respite, past cascading waterfalls, over bridges, and passing Chalets before the wide expanse on the final stretch.
We undertook this giant via the northern approach from Feissons-Sur-Isère (through La Léchère), where the climb is 25.3km long, gaining 1,585m at an average gradient of 6.2%.
Tour History of the Col de la Madeleine
It had featured on the Tour 25 times since its first year in 1969 when Spain’s Andrés Gandarias had the honor of christening it as the first rider to the top, while Herman Van Springel of Belgium went on to win the stage.
A strange fact is that for the 2012 Tour de France, the height at the summit is shown as 2,000 m., whereas in previous years, it has been shown as 1,993m. I don’t know of any cyclist who will argue about being given a few extra metres in elevation, so we’ll take it.
David Millar versus Col de la Madeleine
There is some great history of this climb throughout the Tour. For this writer, I recall David Millar’s history on the Madeleine and his fight in 2010, where he was 35 minutes behind the peloton, seeking to finish ahead of the cut-off; he was accompanied by just a lone gendarme motorbike outrider and the crowds who pushed him on.
He left the Madeleine and got to Saint Jean de Maurienne 42 minutes and 45 seconds behind the stage winner but ahead of the cut-off. Look up after you’ve climbed it, and you will appreciate his effort.
Cycling Up the Col de la Madeleine
Riding the Lower Section
On both sides of the Col de la Madeleine, there are milestones every kilometre. These show the distance to the summit, the current height, and the average slope in the next kilometre, and they do nothing but cause you pain and anxiety until you get to the final few km. As a rider will know, when your first km marker states 25km at the bottom, this will be a very long day.
The first 7km, you’re climbing almost immediately, up through a series of switchbacks on a lush, tree-lined forest road, and it very quickly feels like you’re in for a good test.
From the Middle Onwards
The next 5 km ride takes you over stone bridges and cascading waterfalls. From Bonneval, the gradients relax for a 5km section which includes 3km of flat and downhill. Take this opportunity to ease off the legs as the next section is a tough final 12 kilometres.
The last half of the climb is unrelenting but bear in mind, if you’re coming back down this way, this will be a slight incline.
When you reach around the 12km mark through to around 18km, you will ride over small stone bridges and through the hamlets of La Thuile and Celliers. Not only will it be pretty, but you’re on a 7.5% average gradient, and some sections feel a lot more, a lot more. On our day, in the heat, it felt like our tires had melted into the tar.
The reward? If there is one. You get a short brief respite for a kilometre or two after that, with gradients back down to under 6%.
The Final Push and the Punishing Gradients
It’s back to 9 and 10% for the last five kilometres to the summit. Towards the top, the road becomes exposed, and there’s little shelter. Check the weather before setting out. We started in the high 20c, and it was less than half that when we topped out. You’ll need a Gilet/Jacket for the descent.
Reaching the Summit of the Col de la Madeleine
As mentioned at the outset, make no mistake; it’s a challenging ride, but the satisfaction of conquering it makes the journey worth it. On a clear day, you are surrounded by views of the snowy peaks of Mont Blanc and the surrounding Alpine climbs; it does feel like you’re on top of the world.
There’s a deep sense of satisfaction as you stand at 2,000m and look back across the valley floor to the ribbon of road weaving back to the deep green valley of Feissons, even if the ride is full of motorbikes giving their throttle a good twist to let you know they are always behind you.
It is popular here, with many groups, for different reasons. You’ll see why. If you’re looking for a bar or restaurant at the Col de la Madeleine summit, Le Banquoise 2000 serves drinks and light food. You’ll deserve it.