Whether you’re keen to conquer La Marmotte or just looking for leisurely lakeside pedal, cycling in the French Alps is no longer the preserve of the professionals.

We’ve tyre-tested a variety of routes across three major Alpine destinations, covering everything from simple shoreline glides in Haute-Savoie to thigh-torturing switchbacks in Savoie, with off-road and off the beaten track options as well. Bonne route!

From thigh-torturing ascents to gentle lakeside rides, the French Alps offer a full range of two-wheeled adventures © visuall2 / Shutterstock
From thigh-torturing ascents to gentle lakeside rides, the French Alps offer a full range of two-wheeled adventures © visuall2 / Shutterstock

Annecy

With narrow medieval alleys, 16th-century castles and the shimmering reflection of pastel-painted shopfronts in its canals, Annecy glows in its own splendour. But the true allure of the ‘Venice of the Alps’ is its diamond-cut lake and crown of snow-sieved alpine peaks. Rising above the lightly lapping shore are steep mountains with rugged roads to test the legs, though flatter alternatives cater for cyclists who prefer to admire their massifs from below.

Route one: Beside Lake Annecy

Route: Easy. Bike: road or hybrid. Distance: 20/30km. Hills: none.

This relaxed ride is ideal for beginners or families. Heading away from the lullabying sways of the boats moored at Annecy’s Quai de la Tournett, a piste cyclable (cycle track) winds along the lake’s west shore, past yacht clubs and people-peppered beaches, and onto a landscape of quiet parks, sleepy villages and fields of idly grazing cattle.

The route follows a former railway, so gradients are minor, but there are plenty of opportunities to divert from the path. Just before the tunnel near the village of Duingt you can leave the route to discover the fairy-tale wisps of Château Ruphy. Some of the former train stations are now cafes, so refuel and turnaround at Coup de Pompe (10km out) or Loisirs du Bout du Lac (15km) for an easier tootle back to Annecy.

Make it harder

For a more moderate route, complete a low-level circuit of the lake. Follow the piste cyclable along the west shore from Annecy, before indulging in a mixture of main roads, cycle track and quiet streets along the east shore (with one hill at Talloires) until you’re back to where you started, a total of 40km.

Route two: Semnoz and Forclaz

Route: hard. Bike: road. Distance: 80km. Hills: two major climbs.

Grappling mountains that have defeated Tour de France riders, this circuit of Lake Annecy is for serious cyclists only. From Quai de la Tournett, take the D41 road to Semnoz, where the gradient immediately rears up, setting the thigh-burning tone for the next 17km.

It’s not the severity of the climb that gets you but its utter relentlessness: continuous bends weave through thick pine forest before breaking out into alpine meadows at the summit of Semnoz. Efforts are rewarded with spectacular views across neighbouring peaks and down to the distant glistening waters of Lake Annecy.

Descend around sweeping switchbacks to St Jorioz, before following the piste cyclable along the west shore of Lake Annecy to reach the D42 near Vesonne. Here you’ll meet the Col de la Forclaz, a demanding ascent with tight hairpin bends and some very steep sections that will have you straining on the pedals. Pause for a breather at the col and admire the paragliders launching from the sheer cliffs above. Then it’s a technical descent to the main road and onto Annecy for well-deserved celebratory ice cream.

Make it easier

Peak-bagging roadies can reduce their sweat by choosing either Semnoz or Forclaz and combining it with the easy lakeshore roads to make a bespoke Tour du Lac.

Bike rental

In Annecy, Roul’ ma Poul (annecy-location-velo.com) has a massive fleet of hybrids. For road bikes, visit nearby Sévrier where Cycles Toinet (cycles-annick-toinet.fr) and Sévrier Sports (location-velo-annecy.com) each have a small selection.

The view of Lake Annecy from Col de la Forclaz. Image © David Else / Lonely Planet
The view of Lake Annecy from Col de la Forclaz © David Else / Lonely Planet

Chamonix

Even with the snow gone and the skis packed away, the mesmeric might of Mont Blanc still holds court at lofty Chamonix. In the warmer months, when the traffic-free streets are bedecked with flowers and pavement cafes cool beneath glacier-flanked peaks, its wild meadows and craggy rock routes beckon off-road adventurers. Chamonix also has plenty of tremendous tarmac to try out as well.

Route three: Les Petits Balcons

Route: medium. Bike: mountain bike. Distance: 20km. Hills: constant up and down.

Numerous off-road bike trails start at the Richard Bozon Sports Center and are graded green to black for difficulty, just like ski runs. Follow the red arrows to reach the tiny village of Le Lavancher, where traditional wooden chalets sit among golden hay fields. Here you’ll meet the Petit Balcon Nord, a narrow rocky trial that grinds northward up the valley.

About 10km on, the trail descends to the little town of Argentière. Pause for a performance enhancing espresso and climb the other side of the valley before following Petit Balcon Sud back to Chamonix. As you pedal southwards, the snow-covered peaks surrounding Mont Blanc are visible through gaps in the trees, but with steep technical drops to the left, make sure you stop to admire the views.

There are plenty of off-road mountain biking routes in Chamonix. Image © David Else / Lonely Planet
There are plenty of off-road mountain biking routes in Chamonix © David Else / Lonely Planet

Route four: the Chamonix triple climb

Route: hard. Bike: road bike: Distance: 85 km; Hills: three (the clue is in the name).

Don’t be fooled: the first few flat kilometres are just for limbering up - this route is strictly for grimpeurs (cyclists that love hills). Leave Chamonix on the D1506 and continue through Argentière, where the gradient gets steeper as you pedal up the Col des Montets, a muscle-melting hors d'oeuvres on this menu of mountains.

Descend through Vallorcine to cross over the border into Switzerland where you’ll encounter the Col de la Forclaz (not to be confused with the eponymous place near Annecy). This entrée will have you chewing the handlebars as you push up the final few bends to reach the highest point. Rest and admire the views towards Martigny where the crumpled, snow-wreathed peaks of the Swiss Alps stretch endlessly beyond.

Retrace from Forclaz, turning right to reach Finhault for the serious sweat-soaking climb up to Émosson Dam. Forget meandering to the summit, this road arrows to the top with the gradient rarely dropping below 10%. If your knees begin to tremble, remember you’re riding in the wheel-tracks of heroes: the Tour de France crossed Forclaz on the way to a summit finish at Émosson in July 2016. Enjoy your own moment of glory at the top, then retrace to Chamonix to complete a tough but spectacular ride.

Make it easier

You can save your legs from the triple climb by tackling just two ascents. Less energetic mountain-bikers should follow the easy trails through Les Bois, east of Chamonix, or visit the Balme downhill area where a chairlift takes riders to the top.

Bike rental

Slash Chamonix (slashchamonix.com) has well-maintained road and mountain bikes, plus a shop for spares and supplies, and friendly English-speaking staff.

The Col des Montets summit near Chamonix. Image © David Else / Lonely Planet
The Col des Montets summit near Chamonix © David Else / Lonely Planet

Alpe d’Huez

From the glorious heights of Alpe d’Huez, over a fifth of France unravels in front of you: an ornamental collection of crisp, chiselled mountains, glacier-iced lakes, and endless green pasture coloured with wildflowers. From the saddle, you are in the realm of fantasy, because this iconic Tour de France battleground is a cycling pilgrimage of teeth-gritting, shirt-soaking, vertigo-inducing melodrama.

Route five: La Marmotte

Route: very hard. Bike: road bike: Distance: 160km. Hills: four major climbs.

La Marmotte is a major annual cycling event which tackles three brutal Alpine cols before confronting Alpe d’Huez. The route described here follows the same roads and can be done on any day (legs and weather permitting). Start early from Bourg-d'Oisans and head to Allermond to appreciate the cool of the pines as you ride the road up to the Col du Glandon. After 10km you’ll break free from the trees and cruise past the glistening waters of Lac de Grand Maison. The route then climbs through high alpine meadows to reach its highest point, which is marked in traditional fashion by a signpost, a car park and a buvette (wooden shed selling drinks).

The next big ascent is the Col du Telegraph, which is tough enough when attempted as a standalone adventure, but is merely a preamble to the Col du Galibier on this route. This monstrous mountain pass is a frequent backdrop for the Tour de France’s notorious alpine duels. So prepare to suffer as you haul your way up this long, grinding road that cuts high above the treeline and into a lunar landscape of bare rock and thin air.

Mercifully the next 30km is mostly downhill before you reach the Alpe d’Huez climb - a final crusade up gruelling gradients via 21 famous hairpin bends. Make no mistake, the La Marmotte route is a seriously hard day on the bike, but when you finish and look out across mountains in all directions, you’ll feel like you’ve conquered the world.

Alpe d'Huez cyclists on Col de Sarenne. Image © David Else / Lonely Planet
Alpe d'Huez cyclists on Col de Sarenne © David Else / Lonely Planet

Make it easier

A scenic loop from Bourg-d'Oisans tackles the lower bends of the main Alpe d’Huez road and takes the narrow D211A that clings to the precipitous valley side. You drop to Freney-d’Osians, then up through Mizoen to climb the remote and tranquil Col de Sarenne, before finally descending into the Alpe d’Huez resort.

Bike rental

Various shops in Bourg-d'Oisans have road bikes available, but the best fleet in Alpe d’Huez is at Sarenne Sports (sarenne-sports.com).

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