In praise of Altigraph

Altigraph, a name that still makes my hairs stand on end.

la Berarde – col de Spandelles – Grand Ballon – col de la Schlucht

altigraph guideHow would you plan a cycling holiday in France? Perhaps you would plan it around gastronomy or viticulture; possibly around pragmatic considerations such as the availability of airports, campsites or gites; maybe you want to visit historical or cultural centres; or the Tour de France climbs. Given that France is such wonderful cycling destination one can easily succumb to the paralysis associated with a proliferation of uncontrolled and interacting variables.

If you share my love of the semi-vertical and many things French I have an answer, one which indulges my loves of statistics and visualisation, and even plays to my fascination with obscure technology:


Altigraph is more than a set of guides to cycling in the mountains of France, it is a system for selecting gearing and optimising cadence. The gearing calculation system system used to be available via minitel, the French pre-answer to the internet, making it a curiosity in itself, but is remarkably low-tech in its avoidance of power measurement devices or HRM data (all you need is a flat road, a speedometer and some scales to measure your body and bike weight), and is available in tabular form.

I used the profiles and the tables showing climbs within reach of towns and villages to choose the base locations for three remarkable holidays I took with my partner in France in the early 2000s: one in the Alpes, one in the Pyrenees and one the Vosges. This enabled us to select a holiday based on access to terrain, and introduced us to many fantastic climbs, some well-known, but others fairly obscure, like the one I chose to represent my twitter and WordPress identity. It also enabled us to plan days in the saddle without risking over- or under-estimation of our capabilities: the method allows you to estimate climbing difficulty and estimated duration of climbs in relation to your weight and power output. You can display tables for the nearest climbs to centers of habitation online, and these can also be derived from the printed guides (sadly the online table for the Alps is currently broken). For example, if you know you are going to be staying in Luz Saint Sauveur you can find back the following local climbs at this page.

In the days of GPS and electronic mapping Altigraph may seem like an anachronism, but the integration of mapping and attention to effective gearing and cadence are quite remarkable. Many of the books are still available direct or from French booksellers, buy them!

Merci, Jacques Roux – Altigraph, c’est magnifique.

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