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Classic climbs: Col de la Madeleine

In-depth
10 Feb 2021
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It may look benign – even its name seems quite inviting – but the Col de la Madeleine in the French Alps is not to be trifled with

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

My first thought was, of course, of food. Was the climb named after a small, shell-like Génoise sponge cake? Certainly as you make your way up the 19km from the town of La Chambre you will need to take on sustenance, and a couple of little madeleines would fit nicely into a jersey pocket, so it would seem appropriate.

But no. The cakes are from the Lorraine region of France, a few hundred kilometres to the north. Which is a shame. In fact this climb originally went by a different name, the Col de la Colombe, which in old French means the pass of the dove (and, as a brief aside, helps explain why the Italian brand Columbus tubing has a dove on its badge). The modern name of Col de la Madeleine has two possible origins.

The first, and more likely, is that the col was named after the hospice established by the Cordeliers monks in La Chambre. Not that the hospice was named after Saint Madeleine (patron saint of school girls and only canonised as recently as 1925).

Nor was it thought that you might need a hospice after tackling the 8% average gradient. In fact Madeleine is posited as a corruption of maladerie, the old French word for hospice.

Harder than you think

All this will give you food for thought as you haul yourself up the D213, and you’ll need plenty to think about because it is a long climb. Frankly it is also not the most interesting climb, although that’s not to suggest it isn’t difficult, because it is.

The gradient, while never ramping up wildly, seems to drag at your legs interminably. The road is also wide, with a white line running confidently down its middle, which lessens the look of the incline and makes you feel like you ought to be making better progress.

Then there is the fact that from near the start you catch glimpses of the sunny uplands that you’re heading for at the summit. They look a dispiritingly long way away.

Better, then, to occupy your mind with distracting thoughts. Although I do recommend not troubling yourself with imagining what might be snuffling in the woods that line the road for the majority of the first 14km.

 

After seeing three boar heads mounted rustically on some planks outside a farmhouse I became irrationally anxious that I might end up being impaled on some angry tusks.

Luckily I didn’t know that there are also meant to be wolves and lynx in the Massif de la Lauzière, within which the Madeleine sits (although the last bear in Savoie was apparently killed here in 1921).

Maybe it’s the snuffling or maybe it’s because you can often glimpse the rooftops of La Chambre between the trees, or maybe it’s the wide, well-surfaced road, but despite there being relatively little traffic the Madeleine never feels remote and lonely like so many climbs into the mountains.

There is a sense that civilisation is never too far away. When you get the chance to look back down towards La Chambre you get a rather wonderful view across the majestic Maurienne Valley where, nestled in a partition in the mountains opposite, lies the start of the Col du Glandon.

After around 14km the trees thin and then disappear altogether as you reach the small ski town of Saint-François-Longchamp. It’s a typical collection of silent ski lifts and ugly flat-roofed buildings with balconies striping every side, but it is also the clear gateway between the lower and upper sections of the climb because once free of the artless architecture you find yourself in a totally different setting.

 

Quite suddenly you’re among alpages – the mountain pastures. These havens for wild flowers are carefully maintained, with the herds of cattle, sheep and goats limited in number.

If you like dairy products you’ll be interested to know that the cows (Abondance or ‘brown and white jobs’ depending on how technical you are with your bovine naming) that were grazing when Cyclist was there are some of those responsible for the region’s delicious hard cheese, Beaufort.

Taste of the Tour

The landscape in this section is exactly the sort of scenery that you associate with television pictures of the Tour de France, and sure enough the race has been over the col 25 times since its first appearance in 1969.

It is often spoken of in revered tones by professionals, yet it has never had the accolade of hosting a summit finish. It is therefore one of the Tour’s ultimate hurdles, standing in the way to sap strength and grind riders down on the way to a finish elsewhere, most often (eight times, ascending from the other side) and most recently (2018) on Alpe d’Huez.

 

The two riders that jointly hold the record for leading at the summit of the pass (three times each) are Lucien Van Impe and Richard Virenque, their pedigree as climbers rather cementing it as a real test of ascension.

And the summit is certainly something to be savoured. The final 200m to the crest of the road is arrow straight and as you crawl or sprint up it, depending on your energy levels and motivation, the sight that greets you on a clear day is truly magnificent.

Seemingly rising out of the tarmac with each centimetre in altitude gained is the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a better view of it, nor seen quite so clearly how its 4,808m summit towers over everything around it.

Talking of heights, the Madeleine used to be listed as 1,993m in height. But then the 2012 Tour rolled around and it was reset to 2,000m exactly, a figure with which my Wahoo concurred and that is perpetuated by the name of La Banquise 2000, the lone restaurant standing at the top.

 

All of which brings us neatly to that second possible origin of the assignation Madeleine (and you thought I’d forgotten), because the eatery at the top of the col is built on the site of a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene and Madeleine is the modern version of Magdalene.

I’m pretty sure they serve the small cakes in the restaurant too.

The stats

Summit height: 2,000m  
Altitude gain: 1,579m  
Length: 19.1km  
Average gradient: 8%  
Maximum gradient: 11%  
Current best Strava times: KoM Romain Bardet – 59:12  /  QoM Morgan Kostonovz – 1:19:11