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Riding up col de la Madeleine
by Philippe Baudoin


A classic of the Tour

The Col de la Madeleine connects the Maurienne and the Tarentaise valleys in Savoie. Classic of the Tour de France since its introduction in 1969, this unclassified pass (“hors-catégorie”) was climbed 22 times between 1969 and 2005 and will be part of the Big Loop in 2010 again. Perched at nearly 2,000 feet, its summit offers a stunning panorama on the Mont Blanc and Lauzière massifs. A difficult pass to be climbed absolutely.

History of a pass

The Col de la Madeleine is known since Roman times. In the 12th century, the monks of the abbey of Tamié in Tarentaise were practicing high mountain pasture with their base situated at the village of Cellars located a few kilometers away from the pass. In 1792, French troops of General Kellerman, hero of Valmy, climb the pass during the conquest of Savoie. It will be crossed several times by military troops in the early 19th. A road made of stone is built around 1938 by Spanish refugees. It connects Saint-François-Longchamp to the summit. Later on, as local authorities consider as strategic the opening of the pass to connect the valleys of the Maurienne and Tarentaise, the decision is taken in 1949 to build the current road. The inauguration takes place in 1969 followed shortly after, the same year, by the passage of the Tour de France. The col de la Madeleine is now a very popular pass frequented by cyclists and recognized as very hard even by well trained cyclists.

Col de la Madeleine and the Tour de France

Right after it had been opened the road to the Col de la Madeleine was passed by the Tour de France. The pass then became a favorite of the Tour, a choice explained by the fact it is the only road linking the valleys of the Maurienne and Tarentaise from the west.

The pass is unclassified for the difficulty of its slope on the Maurienne side. In the history of the Tour, two men take the lead and are three times victorious on the Madeleine : Lucien Van Impe in 1979, 1981 and 1983 and Richard Virenque in 1995, 1996, 1997. The Frenchman sets the speed record with an ascent from La Chambre in 56 minutes.

The col de la Madeleine is part of the itinerary planned for the Tour in 2010. It will be the 23rd time it is climbed since 1969.

Snow clearance

The Madeleine is usually opened from early June to late September.
Check its status on line.

Description of the climb by bike

The Col de la Madeleine is a mountain relatively difficult to climb, especially from La Chambre where the slope is steep and relentless. The northern approach from Aigueblanche is longer but with a lower slope and some passages where you can take some rest, in particular a three kilometers descent halfway through.

Ascent from La Chambre
The climb to Madeleine from La Chambre is 20 kilometers long with an average gradient of 8 % with bits at 11 %. It rises up rapidly by a road criss-crossing meadows and offering during its first kilometers a beautiful view over the valley. Saint-François-Longchamp station marks the beginning of the end with a peak at 4.5 kilometers and a few brief moments of rest. A beautiful and difficult climb. Consider 2-3 hours of climbing.
View the itinerary and description. 
Ascent from Aigueblanche
The climb from Aigueblanche (460 m) is rather long with 28 kilometers of road and a difference in altitude of 1550 meters (average gradient of 5.4 %). The pass is reached in three stages : a first stage of 13 kilometers relatively smooth with a slope of 7 % on average, a descent of 3 kilometers and a final climb, irregular but exhausting, of more than 12 kilometers at 7.4 % with passages up to 10 % and good opportunities to rest with 3 kilometers of slope at 4 %.


Profiles and photos

Photos of the col de la Madeleine Slope profiles


Departure towns

La Chambre

La Chambre has about 1200 inhabitants. It is located 500 meters above sea level in the heart of the Maurienne valley and at the foot of the Glandon and Madeleine passes. Its climate is the warmest and sunniest of Savoie. Note the church dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, erected in 1514 and restored in 1995. The town has a remarkable Romanesque portal. Do not miss the Maison de la Tour (Tower House) with its central part dating from the 17th and 18th centuries and the tower dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. Cheese amateurs can visit the cheese dairy cooperative that produces the famous Beaufort. Visits possible on request.


Aigueblanche is part of a district of four villages (Aigueblanche, Bellecombe, Grand-coeur and Villargerel) counting 2700 people.

The village owes its name to the whiteness of the brooks that cross the disctrict. The Romans called the town "aqua Bianca". The current name was adopted during the French revolution, "aigue" being the translation of "aqua" in Franco-Provencal, the dialect spoken in Savoie.

The baroque church of Saint Martin Villarguel dating from 1682 is one of the most beautiful in the Tarentaise and the only one with a greek cross plan.

Good to know

Cheese of Maurienne

If you go to Savoie, you must taste cheese, result of a preserved high mountain pasture and savoir-faire transmitted from generation to generation. Tomme de Savoie, Beaufort, Tamié, Tomme de Saint-Avre, etc. To know more about the Beaufort and its production, you can visit the dairy cooperative of La Chambre.

Montgellafrey and demoiselles coiffées

The cheminées des fées (fairy chimneys) also called demoiselles coiffées (coiffed maiden) is a natural curiosity of Montgellafrey near Saint-François. They consist in a large column topped with a crumbly rock more resistant to erosion. Over time, erosion caused by rain, wind and frost, digs in the weak rock to form these high columns of up to several tens of meters. The legend says that fairies had their home in those places in the old time when they were still visiting men. You can watch them from the road on the left side going up, right after the Epalud, a hamlet located just below Saint-François-Longchamp.



La Madeleine free of cars

In summer, the road between Saint-François-Longchamp and the pass is closed to motorized vehicles for half a day to give the room to an event celebrating the Madeleine with no cars. It annually attracts many fans traveling on foot, bicycle or using any other non-motorized vehicle.

Philippe Baudoin
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