Col du Parpaillon, an adventure of a lifetime

Thursday 13 August 2020 by Frank Jansen

Right next to the Bonette lies the Col du Parpaillon. A col that I had often come across on the statistics page France on Cyclingcols. Number 2 in the profile index. Number 6 in terms of total elevation. Height of the top: number 5 (2637m). I want to climb this one come hell or high water. And this year, I finally did. A report of a wonderful adventure.

Picture: The end of the forest track.


The Parpaillon was once the highest col in France. The road was built between 1891 and 1911 by the French army "for strategic reasons". The road connects the valleys of l'Ubaye and Embrun, but is of no use at all. The road, of which the last 8 km are unpaved from both sides, is therefore hardly used. Seen from the south, there's a dark tunnel just below the highest point, which can be filled with water and even ice, even in summer.

Gravel bike

My preparation already starts in the Netherlands. On YouTube I find an old movie in which a group of Belgians are cycling the col on racing bikes with 25 mm tires. That makes me decide to take my gravel racer with 44 mm tyres, which I built up this year, with me to France. My bike buddy hires, sensibly afterwards, a hardtail MTB. We start our adventure at 6:00 from Jausiers. We skip the first 6 km paved part and immediately take the MTB trail. After some twists and turns we soon reach an old, paved road. That road stops after a few kilometers and turns into a steep MTB trail, that runs straight through a forest. We have to get going right away and my 40x42 gearing is barely enough. After 5 km we get out of the forest and are presented with a number of steep descents. It's a bit of tracking here, and some parts are so steep that we have to get off our bikes. We ride straight under an old ski lift. Suddenly we see the end of the paved road on our right. Now we get to the usual route, but we've been climbing it for 1.5 hours already. The first unpaved part from the ski station is still OK. We arrive at a parking place. From here, passenger cars are not allowed to go any further. By the way, that is also not possible, only with a 4x4 you can go to the top. After an easier section of gravel we come to a broken bridge. Luckily you can drive around it via the nearby stream (see movie below).

From here begins the long road to the top. The road is in terrible condition. The boulders are huge. The gradient is around 9-10%. Photos and movies don't show how bad the road is. But how beautiful it is here. A desolate, beautiful green valley with great views. We try to enjoy it, but that is difficult because of the sheer suffering. On top of that we drive in full sun. There seems to be no end to the first strip. Finally there is that hairpin. Now a few shorter section follow, followed by another very long one. I know around the corner, the summit awaits.

Picture: it's hard to see how bad the road is in the real world.

I'm overtaking a couple of French bikepackers riding 35 mm. They yell that my tire pressure is too high (2.5 rear, 2 front). Whatever. I want to go to the top, so I riding full gas here. Finally, there is the tunnel. I wait for my buddy. Together we ride through the tunnel, using my specially brought lamp. That is an adventure in itself, because at some point we have to cycle through 30 cm of water. After the obligatory picture on the other side, we take the same way back.

Picture: after the tunnel, north side. 

Picture: the tunnel from the south side. 


Now begins, at least for me, the hardest part. The descent. Would that be on a gravel bike without any kind of suspension? It doesn't turn out to be easy. With the brakes engaged I try to follow my buddy, who even has a hard time on his hardtail. A fully is strongly recommended! Finally we reach the paved road. From here it is full gas down to La Condamine Ch√Ętelard. There we regroup and quietly return to the car. With 50 km and 1750m on the clock, we are back at the car. It took us over 4 hours, my lowest average speed ever. But what an adventure. The Parpaillon is conquered and can be removed from the bucket list!

Pictures: Frank Jansen. Movie: Ruurd Bakker.

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