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RCUK’s essential guide to road cycling in the Jura Mountains

The Pyrenees and Alps steal the limelight, but the Jura mountain range is home to some of France's toughest climbs

When we think of mountains in France, naturally we think of the Alps and Pyrenees – both crucibles of climactic action in the Tour de France. Look a little further, and it’s likely that the Massif Central will ring a bell or two, but what of the Jura Mountains?

The Jura Mountains are often mistaken for the lower Alps, but in fact it’s a distinct mountain range unto itself, running roughly along the France and Switzerland border, and separated from the Alpine range by an imaginary line drawn between the Swiss cities of Bern, Lausanne and Geneva. From any of those, if you face north and west, you’ll be looking at the Juras. Look the other way, and you’ll be facing the Alps.

The Jura Mountains represent an enticing and challenging area to explore, with some of the steepest climbs in France (Pic: Creative Commons)

In fact, the Jura Mountains hosted some of the most compelling action of the 2017 Tour de France, including the dramatic descent of Mont du Chat, where Richie Porte crashed out.  

– RCUK’s essential guide to road cycling in the French Alps –

Geography sorted, we think the Juras represent an enticing and challenging new area to explore that’s often overlooked by its big brothers. Tempted? Here’s what you need to know.

Destination guide

  1. French Alps
  2. Pyrenees
  3. Canary Islands
  4. Mallorca
  5. Girona
  6. Nice
  7. Jura Mountains

When should I go?

Visiting the Jura mountains is much like visiting the nearby Alps in this regard, in that the terrain is high enough (although not as high as the Alps) that snow is guaranteed during the winter. The best time-frame you can visit to have good access to the mountains is between May and October. Through the months of November to March, precipitation levels are high at an average of around 16 days per month and temperatures drop considerably.

The Jura may not offer as much elevation as the Alps, but the highest roads still experience plenty of snow in winter, making May to October the best time to visit (Pic: Creative Commons)

June, July and August represent the high season, with average highs of 23-26 degrees celcius, and lows that rarely dip below 15 degrees. Being in the mountains, the weather can still be changeable, although this time frame represents the fewest days of rain.

Where should I base myself?

Picking a location to base yourself in can be tricky in the Juras, just as it is in the Alps and Pyrenees, in that the mountain range is vast enough that it’s impossible to ride it all from one location.

– RCUK’s essential guide to road cycling in the Pyrenees –

That said, there are some standout locations that will offer good access to many of the climbs, and some others that may not ring a bell immediately but will serve you well.

Aix-les-Bains

Aix-les-Bains is a spa town on the Lac du Bourget in the Savoie region. It’s right on the border between the Juras in the west and Alps in the east, and easily accessible on the A41 (as is another tourist hotspot, Annecy), and A43 autoroutes from Geneva and Lyon respectively.

Perhaps more commonly used as a base for the Alps, the southern Juras, and Mont du Chat in particular, are also in easy reach on the other side of the lake, and there’s also plenty of flatter and rolling terrain between the Regional Natural Park of the Bauges and Jura range.

Being a lakeside spa town, Aix-les-Bains is a picturesque place to stay, with plenty of accommodation options and off-the-bike activities, including swimming, sailing and golf. You’ll also find thermal spas to rest weary legs.

The picturesque spa town of Aix-les-Bains borders the Jura Mountains and the Alps (Pic: Creative Commons)

Oyonnax

Situated in the Ain departement and located to the north of Aix-les-Bains, the town sits in a Jura valley, ensuring great access to climbs on all sides. It’s also close to the Jura Mountains Regional National Park, so secluded areas of natural beauty are never far away.

You can easily access the close-by Col du Sentier and Col de la Croix Serra among others, with a host of lakes in the region that can be visited.

Neuchâtel

In the north part of the Jura Mountains, and firmly within Switzerland, is the town of Neuchâtel, situated next to the lake bearing the same name.

Within the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Neuchâtel offers access to one of our highlighted climbs to the Chasseral radio transmitter, and is very close to the birthplace of Fabian Cancellara, Bern.

It’s an ideal spot for those who want a slice of quintessential Swiss lifestyle, with easy access to smaller climbs north of the Jura Mountains Regional National Park, as well as some flatter riding to the south of Neuchâtel lake.

Bourg-en-Bresse

Bourg-en-Bresse was visited by the Tour de France as recently as 2016 is a picturesque town with historic architecture.

For cyclists, the town’s location ensures a variety of riding, because it’s situated right on the western border of the Jura mountains. That means there’s plentiful mountain riding to the east in the lower Jura, while there are flatlands to the west.

Bourg-en-Bresse’s historic town and architecture saw the Tour de France visit in 2016 (Pic: Creative Commons)

This also means you can traverse north or south before entering the mountains, maximising the number of hilly roads you can access.

How to get there

The most obvious way to arrive at the Jura Mountains is to fly into Geneva. Often a gateway for the Alps to the south and south-east of the lake, you can head westwards towards our suggested bases of Bourg-en-Bresse and Oyonnax, or go south-west to Aix-les-Bains.

Lyon also offers a relatively convenient transfer to the western border of the Jura, including Bourg-en-Bresse. Otherwise, if you’re keen to explore the Swiss Jura, including our base suggestion of Neuchâtel, you will be better served flying to Lausanne or Bern, but Geneva is still within a 90-minute drive.

Highlights

Col du Grand Colombier

The Col du Grand Colombier is often considered one of the toughest climbs in France and is characterised by the four potential ascents that you can take: from Culoz, Anglefort, and two ascents from Artemare. The climb is distinct from the Col du Colombière in the Haute Alpes region, which we rode as part of the 2016 Etape du Tour.  

At 1,501m, the Col du Grand Colombier is one of the highest climbs in the Jura (Pic: Creative Commons)

Grand Colombier featured as part of stage nine of the 2017 Tour de France, along with the Col de la Biche and Mont du Chat (below), in what was the toughest Jura stage the race has ever taken on. 

If you choose to start in Artemare, you have two choices. Both routes follow the same start before the steepest ascent takes up a shortcut up the mountain, with gradients that hit 22 per cent for prolonged stretches.

Taking this route, the full climb from Artemare rises for 15.9km at an average of 7.9 per cent or, like the Tour, you can come via the Col de la Biche and skip the easy early kilometres by starting from Virieu-le-Petit for 8.5km at 9.9 per cent. That’s the Strava segment we’ve featured below – just take a look at the leaderboard.

Want an extra challenge? See if you can summit all four ascents in a single day.

Vital statistics (Tour de France ascent from Virieu-le-Petit)

Length: 8.5km
Average gradient: 8.9 per cent
Elevation gain: 830m

Mont du Chat

The Mont du Chat already had a reputation as being one of the hardest climbs to ever feature on the Tour de France, but with Richie Porte’s crash on the descent, which resulted in shoulder and pelvic fractures, it’s taken on a far riskier edge.

The Mont du Chat made its first appearance in the Tour de France in 2017 and is one of the toughest climbs in France (Pic: Alex Broadway/ASO)

Nevertheless, when climbed from Le Bourget-du-Lac, the gradient is eerily consistent despite the winding nature of the road. Nine per cent means nine per cent, so while it’s broken up by 11 switchbacks to help you rise up the mountainside, at least accurate pacing should be easy to achieve.

Vital statistics

Length: 12km
Average gradient: nine per cent
Elevation gain: 1,125m

Chasseral

Chasseral might be a bit of a wildcard entry – we could easily point you towards the Col de la Biche if you wanted to retrace the steps of the entire aforementioned Tour stage – but the 1,606m mountain showcases the eastern Jura and is characterised by the transmitter at the top, similar to what you’ll find on Mont Ventoux.

Chasseral offers panoramic views of the surrounding Swiss countryside (Pic: Creative Commons)

There are five distinct ascents possible of Le Chasseral, with the northern climb from Saint-Imier the most popular on Strava (details below). All bar one of the segments finishes at the top junction, with the final rise up to the transmitter acting as an additional challenge.

Well, you’ll have made it this far up; what’s a bit further?

Vital statistics

Length: approx. 10.8km
Average gradient: seven per cent
Elevation gain: 707m

Other climbs: Twann (to summit trasmitter); La Neuveville; Le LanderonVilliers (to Chasseral Hotel)

Package or DIY?

As ever, you can opt to have someone else put the legwork into organising a trip for you, or organise the details yourself.

The freedom afforded by organising your own accommodation arrangements can be liberating and allow you to tailor your cycling break according to your specific needs. You can opt for hotels, or go with private lets listed by the likes of Airbnb.

Bear in mind if you go with this option you’ll need to be completely self-sufficient, so it’s worth doing some research into your host town to make sure that there are relevant facilities, such as a bike shop, nearby.

There are plenty of options, whether you book through a tour operator or do it all yourself (Pic: Creative Commons)

If you book through a holiday company or tour operator, extras are likely to be covered, such as food, bike hire and support, as well as transfers.

The flip side is that there’s often an itinerary to follow, which may or may not suit your requirements depending on your cycling ability and how you generally like to enjoy your holidays.

Some specialists will be happy to customise packages for an additional cost, however, which will help in arriving at the perfect break for you.

Preparation

While the Jura Mountains aren’t the Alps or Pyrenees, it is certainly terrain that needs to be taken seriously because most of the climbs will trump anything on offer in the UK for both length and gradient. 

Ensure you’re prepared for your trip by having completed at least some specific training beforehand. You should also make sure your bike is appropriately geared to tackle the climbs, especially if you plan on tackling the steep ascents of the Col du Grand Colombier or Mont du Chat.

If you’re already sporting a compact chainset, or want to stick with the semi-compact 52-36t setup that comes as standard on many bikes, you can also consider increasing the range in your cassette, whether that’s by adding a 28-tooth sprocket or even increasing it to 11-30t or 11-32t, if your rear derailleur allows.

You should also go with lots of spares so that you can get yourself out of any sticky situations on the mountainside. That includes the usual things such as spare tubes, multi-tools, tyre levers and anything else you need to build your bike up again from the bike box it traveled in.

Increasing the range of your cassette will give you an extra gear if the climbing catches you out

It’s also worth packing chain lube – and don’t forget that Di2 charger if you’re planning a longer trip or haven’t recently topped up the juice on your electronic groupset.

While some still prefer planning routes by traditional maps and reputation, we think it’s wise to plan your routes on the likes of Strava, Garmin Connect or MapMyRide. This will give you the opportunity to scope out the length and gradients of climbs, as well as help you plot routes on popular roads best-suited to cycling.

Did you know?

If Chasseral sounds familiar, it may be because of the DT Swiss Mon Chasseral wheelset we’ve previously featured on RCUK. The mountain towers over the Swiss city of Biel, home to DT Swiss, so provided inspiration – and a testing ground – for the 1,205g carbon wheelset.

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