Crossing the Alps in Gravel

La traversée des Alpes en Gravel

The Route des Grandes Alpes allows all cycling lovers to cross the French Alps, from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean. Like the mythical GR5 intended for hikers, this circuit is perfectly marked and will offer sublime mountainous landscapes as well as a good bowl of oxygen to whoever dares to confront this rather demanding, but so rewarding route. If many choose to do it by mountain bike or VTC, we offer you an equally interesting and rather original alternative: the Gravel. This bike has many advantages that are certainly worth the detour. Our team has embarked on this extraordinary adventure and it must be said that there is no shortage of positive opinions and anecdotes. We'll explain everything in this article, including why we chose Gravel for our crossing of the Alps. We will also look at the course of this mythical route as well as the variants that exist for those who have a little more time, or on the contrary, for those who are sorely lacking!


Why choose Gravel?

Before we focus on the Road itself, a question deserves to be asked: why did we choose Gravel? The Route des Grandes Alpes is usually frequented by road bikes, mountain bikes or electric bikes. But since the 2000s, Gravel has managed to make its way into the world of cycling, and more particularly into that of cycle tourism. As we like to try new things, it seemed interesting to test this bike and discover its capabilities during long mountain expeditions. And we can say that it is certainly an excellent companion for long distance trips. What, exactly, makes it a good adventure bike?

First of all, it stands out for its robustness. Yes, we certainly wouldn't have advised you to tackle the biggest passes in France if this bike didn't hold up! Unlike the classic road bike, the Gravel can be used on all types of terrain: bitumen, gravel, dirt roads. Note also that his full name, Gravel Bike, literally means gravel bike in English. For road surfaces as varied as those of the Route des Grandes Alpes and its variants, Gravel is therefore ideal.

If it is particularly robust, this bike is rather light, unlike other heavier models. It therefore becomes more lively and more reactive. This feature will be appreciated on steep climbs, for example. And they are numerous in the mountains.

Its wide tires guarantee excellent grip and good road holding, essential qualities for a long expedition in mountainous terrain. Tires are easily changed and can be replaced with larger models as needed.

Finally, we will notice that the geometry of the Gravel is quite different from the other models. The handlebars are higher and curved, the bottom bracket is quite low and it has a disc brake. The position of the cyclist is thus somewhat different and will be more similar to the position that one can adopt on a city bike. The rider's back is slightly straighter and less parallel to the frame. This position is more comfortable in the long run. Be careful though, there are several frame shapes and materials. For an itinerant trip such as the Route des Grandes Alpes, we have opted for steel frames. These are very solid and provide good comfort to the cyclist.

We can therefore see that the advantages of Gravel are not lacking. Its versatility, its liveliness and its robustness make it an excellent travel bike in mountainous terrain. The negative point of this bike is its price, which is slightly higher than other types of bikes. But for an expedition like the Grande Routes des Alpes, it is better to have quality, solid equipment, and that obviously comes at a cost.


The Route des Grandes Alpes: the route

After explaining the reasons that led us to choose Gravel, it's time to get to the heart of the matter: the route of the Route des Grandes Alpes. This name alone already makes more than one cyclist dream and promises great moments of freedom and escape. And you would be right to think so. This road, 720 kilometers long, crosses wild landscapes dominated by majestic and imposing snow-capped peaks, pretty green valleys where cows and patou laze and small villages with typical mountain charm.

But not only. As you pedal south, the high mountains give way to more hilly landscapes, houses with Provencal colors and a much more luxuriant flora.

The Route des Grandes Alpes starts from Thonon-les-Bains and ends in Nice, facing the Mediterranean Sea. The route is rather difficult and is aimed at trained and physically fit Gravel cyclists. All the members of our team were athletic and used to go out in the mountains. On the other hand, it is not necessary to be a specialist in the discipline to embark on the adventure. But take care to train well the weeks before your departure. With 18,000 meters of elevation, we are far from the small Sunday outing.

90% of the route is on road, the rest alternating between dirt and gravel roads. This road crosses mythical passes such as the Iseran (2764m), the Galibier (2642m) or the Cime de la Bonette (2802m). It goes without saying that the Route des Grandes Alpes takes place in summer, between the months of June and September, to prevent the snow from hindering the route.

The route is divided into 15 "official" stages rated difficult to very difficult. Depending on the time you have and your physical abilities, it is quite possible to lengthen or shorten the proposed stages. Most cyclists do this route in 7 days, but do not hesitate to take your time, stop at the local cheese dairy, admire the beautiful views that are available to you.

Here are the recommended steps:

  • Thonon-les-Bains – Morzine-Avoriaz: 49.96 km
  • Morzine-Avoriaz – Cluses: 47.60 km
  • Cluses – Le Grand-Bornand: 30.30 km
  • Le Grand-Bornand – Beaufort-sur-Doron: 56.99 km
  • Beaufort-sur-Doron – Bourg-Saint-Maurice: 39.71 km
  • Bourg-Saint-Maurice – Val d’Isère: 34.41 km
  • Val d'Isere – Val-Cenis: 48.37 km
  • Val Cenis – Valloire: 57.32 km
  • Valloire – Briançon: 54.04 km
  • Briançon – Guillestre: 49.57 km
  • Guillestre-Barcelonnette: 50.18 km
  • Barcelonnette – Valberg: 76.19 km
  • Valberg – Saint-Martin Vésubie: 59.20 km
  • Saint-Martin Vésubie – Sospel: 51.22 km
  • Sospel - Nice: 52.28 km

This route is generally very well indicated and marked. You will find signposts along the route. With a map or a book on the subject, you can't get lost! It is just as easy to find accommodation and find something to eat. There are many lodges, hotels, or apartments that welcome cyclists and their mounts for a night. Remember to book well in advance because you will certainly not be alone on the roads this summer. For the more adventurous, the camping option is possible. Be careful, however, to find out about the possibility of pitching your tent in certain protected places.

The Route des Grandes Alpes and its 17 mountain passes is a classic of cycling expeditions and undoubtedly reserves unforgettable moments and encounters for any self-respecting Gravel cyclist.


The variants of this gravel trip in the Alps 

The proposed itinerary is far from fixed. If you have the time or want to discover certain places at all costs, nothing prevents a small detour or a variation. The official website of the Route des Grandes Alpes also offers several.

We are not going to name them all, but the variant via Alpe-d’Huez is the most popular. Not only does it allow you to avoid the national road between Bourg d'Oisans and Lac de Chambon, but in addition, it takes you to conquer the 21 bends of the climb to Alpe d'Huez. It only takes a few spectators along the road to feel like a Tour de France rider! More luggage and less competition.

Another variant well appreciated by cyclists is that between Val-Cenis and Oulx. Be careful, it is classified as very difficult and is rather long with its 72 km, but it offers sumptuous landscapes and a very pleasant excursion in Italy. If the desire for a good dish of pasta takes you, don't hesitate to take a look.

Further south, the variant in Guillestre and Barcelonnette via the Lac de Serre-Ponçon will allow you to enjoy a few hours or a few days of idleness between swimming in the lake or kayaking trips.

Finally, if the 6 passes over 2000 meters scare you or if you are not trained enough, a total variant of the Route des Grandes Alpes is to be considered. Les P'tites Routes du Soleil, a charming name with lilting accents, also joins Thonon-les-Bains to Nice, but they bypass the Alps to the west, crossing pre-Alpine massifs such as the Chartreuse, the Vercors or the pretty Baronies. The passes do not exceed 1400 meters in altitude, but be careful, all combined, the route still has 17,000 meters of altitude difference! So don't go lightly. However, this course remains much more affordable than the other, for a Gravel expedition with the family, for example.


The Greenways for those in a hurry

For those who don't have the physical shape or the time to embark on an expedition of this magnitude, there are countless possibilities to enjoy its Gravel in mountainous terrain. Some lanes are even intended for cyclists and pedestrians only. Perfect if you are reluctant to share your path with cars.

The French Alps have a large number of Greenways and they are constantly developing. The department of Haute-Savoie is also planning up to 350 kilometers of cycle routes in the long term. On the scale of the entire Alps, there will be thousands of kilometers of trails reserved for cyclists. The Grande Route des Alpes has several greenways in its surroundings.

  • The Greenway between Bourg-Saint-Maurice and Aime:

This Greenway is common to one of the variants of the Route des Grandes Alpes between Bourg-Saint-Maurice and Saint-François-Longchamps. It allows you to cross the Haute Tarantaise on a pleasant path, without major difficulty and well shaded. The track runs along the Isère which serves as a playground for many kayakers.

  • The Oisans Greenway

This route, very popular with locals and tourists alike, stretches from Allemond to Venosc. It also crosses the pretty village of Bourg-d'Oisans. 25 kilometers long, it allows you to discover the bottom of the Romanche Valley at your own pace or to warm up your calves for a possible climb of the Alpe d'Huez hairpin bends. The track is overlooked by the magnificent surrounding peaks. Be careful though because you will be far from alone! This Greenway is open to all non-motorized thermal vehicles or means of transport and there are many of them: bicycles, rollerblades, strollers, horses, etc. So don't launch your Gravel at full speed, but slow down the pace and enjoy the landscapes around you.

  • The Via Vercors

The Via Vercors is a great alternative to the P’tites Routes du Soleil that we have described to you above. With a length of 50 kilometers, it joins Engin to Corrençon-en-Vercors. This is perhaps the most suitable route for Gravel as the majority of the route is covered in gravel. It crosses the main towns and villages in the north of the Vercors: Lans-en-Vercors, Méaudre and Villard-de-Lans where it is good to stop for a few hours. The route is not very steep and really well secured. This route therefore represents a great introduction to mountain biking, before tackling the most daring Route des Grandes Alpes.



Crossing the Alps in Gravel is certainly an extraordinary experience to live at least once in your life. It is difficult, demanding, but it takes the cyclist through breathtaking landscapes and promises beautiful encounters if you take your time. The Gravel, thanks to its robustness and lightness, turns out to be a formidable ally that will take you everywhere, even on the small dirt roads that will dot your detours. These detours and other alternatives are endless, and that, after all, is why we love bicycle travel so much: it offers unparalleled freedom. For those in a hurry and less fit, the Voies Vertes are great alternatives which, why not, will make you want to try the great adventure of the Route des Grandes Alpes soon. We came back delighted with our adventure and we can only recommend it to cyclists wishing to set themselves a great sporting challenge.