Col de L'Iseran

The highest paved mountain pass in the Alps, Col de l’Iseran tops out at 2770 m above sea level. It was opened to fanfare by the French president, Albert Lubrun in July 1937 and hailed as a great social and commercial triumph, because it allowed the towns of Val d’Isere and Tignes to remain viable when the exodus of people from the Isère valley in the mid-20th century had put this in doubt.

The following year the Tour de France took on the Col de l’Iseran for the first time, in a stage from Digne to Briancon. The Belgian Felicien Vervaecke was first over the rocky summit, though the legendary Italian racer Gino Bartali took the stage victory on the descent. A year later, the Grand Boucle returned for the first ever mountain time trial, won by Belgian Sylvere Maes who went on to victory in the Tour de France. Since then the Tour has visited only a handful of times, with climbers like Chiappucci and Virenque battling the mountain. Curiously, it has never quite captured the imagination in the way that other giant cols have. In 1996, Col de l’Iseran was due to be included in the Tour, but snow meant the stage had to be re-routed.

The Climb in Detail

“One of the iconic passes it may not be, but the Iseran is the quiet achiever of the Alpine class. Out of sight and out of mind, it is also, still up and out on its own - the very highest mountain pass anywhere in the Alps” - Mountain High


The Ascents

The two ascents, from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to the north and Bonneval to the south, are dramatically different: the latter, through the Vanoise National Park, is only 13.4 km in length with a 977 m gain in altitude; the former is a hefty 48 km with 2000 m of ascent. Neither climb is preposterously difficult, though the altitude is a factor. The shorter climb from Bonneval is slightly tougher, and with its switchbacks winding up the mountain, arguably the more scenic. 

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How High?

It seems that for centuries the communities clinging to the northern and southern flanks of Col de l’Iseran didn’t even know it existed. In 1811, a colonel in the French army climbed the pass and somehow measured the altitude at 4045 m. Nearly a century later, a famed British mountaineer with rather better equipment scrambled to the same spot and deduced the height to be closer to 2700 m. Today, Col de l’Iseran is part of the Espace Killy ski area in winter and easily accessed by ski lifts.

It’s place at the Tour de France

The Col de l’Iseran made its debut at the Grand Boucle in 1938 on a stage from Digne to Briancon, there it was witness to Belgian Felicien Vervaecke being first over the summit and legendary Italian racer Gino Bartali taking the victory after the descent. A year later the Tour would return for a mountain time trial taken by Belgian Sylvere Maes who would go on to Tour de France victory. Since then the Tour has visited only a hand full of times with climbers such as Chiappucci and Virenque battling the mountain but it has yet to have captured the imagination of the other giant mountains of the Alps like the Bonette and the Stelvio.  

"The first mountain time trial was introduced to the Tour in 1939. It went over the Col d'Iseran from Bonneval-sur-Arc to Bourg-Saint-Maurice and was won by Sylvere Maes" 

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