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Classic climb: Col de la Croix de Fer

In-depth
9 Apr 2021
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The Col de la Croix de Fer is often overlooked in favour of its Alpine neighbours – which is a big mistake

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

There would be every temptation to the think of the Col de la Croix de Fer as second tier in the ranks of Classic Climbs. The Strava segment for our assault from the southwest suggests an underwhelming average gradient o just over 5% for the 24.3km. The summit of the climb crests 2,000m, but only just – 2,067m.

What’s more, it has not only never hosted a summit finish in the Tour de France, it has never even been the final climb, only ever the softener before an ascent of nearby Alpe d’Huez or La Toussuire. It’s not even the grandest route to the bottom of the Alpe as it is often side-stepped in favour of the more glamorous Col du Galibier.

Yet to overlook the Croix de Fer (as Strava suggests many do: 21,000 assaults on the KoM compared to 53,000 for the Galibier and 165,000 for Alpe d’Huez) is akin to walking straight past Caravaggio’s Death Of The Virgin simply to get to the Mona Lisa when you visit the Louvre. You are missing out on a masterpiece in its own right.

Electric cowboys

The climb begins next to the first of the ascent’s two huge dams, the Barrage du Verney. A couple of hairpins lead up the face of the dam and then the road runs along the very top of it before turning left and bridging the beautiful body of water that lies behind it.

At the northern end of this aquamarine reservoir you are greeted by an imposing, brutalist, Bond villain-style building, and the air hums and crackles menacingly as you pass thanks to the wires that are attached to the concrete masts outside. Welcome to France’s largest hydroelectric power station.

The D526 circles round behind the EDF-esque building, descends briefly, then heads roughly due north for the next 7km. This section of the climb is reminiscent of the middle portion of Mont Ventoux from Saint-Estève to Chalet Reynard in that you climb through trees and the road meanders, without any true switchbacks to break things up.

It gets harder too, the gradient creeping up insidiously from around 6% initially to over 9%. It’s like wading out to sea from the beach: initially the waves present little resistance but the deeper you go the harder each stride gets.

It was here among the trees that Alberto Contador bounced away from the main peloton in familiar style during Stage 17 of the 2017 Tour de France. This, if you remember, was El Pistolero’s final season as a pro and he seemed to spend the Tour (and the Vuelta that followed) trying to go out in an attacking blaze of glory.

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It was a tactic that didn’t garner many results (in the end he was well beaten by Primož Roglič on Stage 17) but even when he fired blanks it did spice up the action for those watching.

Anyway, just at the point where this first portion of the Croix de Fer is in danger of teetering from testing to tedious, there’s a blissful easing of the incline. A whole kilometre of flat road rewards you for you efforts thus far. What could be better? Well, how about a descent?

As the road dips down you can see across to where the climb continues up through steep sided valleys but first, for 1.5km and four delightful hairpins, you drop down to a small bridge over the Eau d’Olle, a tributary of the Rhône via the Romanche.

Rolling with the punches

At this point I’d like to offer some advice. As you cross the small bridge, revelling in the cool breeze afforded by the speed of your gravity-assisted plummet, change down gears. Possibly all the way down, because in the blink of an eye you go from merrily freewheeling to standing up on the pedals, heaving on the handlebars as you lean into a gradient in the mid-teens.

The contrast between descent and ascent means you will smash into the steepest part of the Croix de Fer like you’ve hit a wall. If you haven’t changed down in anticipation, neither your chain nor your legs will thank you.

The gradient stays in double digits for the next 2km, the road threading along a vertiginous and winding valley. It feels like you’re riding through a set of huge geological helical gears attempting to mesh over millennia. After a while the road throws in a couple of hairpins for the sake of variety and after another couple of kilometres it opens out to reveal the second dam of the day.

Constructed between 1978 and 1985 (perhaps explaining the Croix de Fer’s reappearance in the 1986 Tour de France after a 20-year absence), this is the Grand’Maison Dam, an embankment dam standing 140m high and designed to hold back the 140 million cubic metres of water that the Lac de Grand Maison can store.

Another pair of hairpins brings you up level with the top of the structure and then you’re treated to the most wonderful run along the left bank of the lake. The gradient is pleasant to non-existent and the view is magnificent. It’s as if a miniature fjord has been trapped high in the Alps, such is the way that the steep slopes angle into the water.

The climb’s second descent lasts the same 1.5km as the first but is different in character, swapping switchbacks for a succession of shallow bends that can be taken at speed. Incidentally, the start of the descent marks the otherwise imperceptible point where you cross from the Isère region to the Savoie region and the road changes from the D526 to the D926.

From here to the top is just over 5km and the gradient averages 6.5%, which allows you to admire your sumptuous surroundings. The road to the summit of the Col du Glandon (D927) will appear on your left, next to a building with a dilapidated Wes Andersen vibe, but push on instead along the road that you can see clinging to the left-hand side of the majestic grassy valley ahead.

It is a beautiful final few kilometres, the mountains feeling friendly rather than frightening, yet still imposing and impressive.

And then you see it. It’s smaller and more delicate than you might imagine, perched atop a roughly carved, or perhaps just weathered, stone column. Somehow fragile in among all the vast jagged peaks: the iron cross.

The summit is neither deserted nor bustling with commerce, but there is a remoteness to it, as there should be with a mountain pass. Then there are the views. With the jagged Aiguilles d’Arves standing proud on the horizon ahead and the softer vista of the vast valley behind you there is variety as well as pure grandeur.

In fact the variety is perhaps the most pleasing thing about the whole climb; the ups and downs, hard and easy, the confined and the expansive, the yins making you appreciate the yangs.

It’s this constantly captivating contrast that means there is nothing second tier about the experience of climbing the Croix de Fer.