The Alps: ride the high country
by Richard Byatt, posted 11 September 2017
At a steady pace, three hairpins at a time, Richard ascends the high country of the Alps and makes it up Alpe d'Huez with some help from La Vie on Velo and a few friends
Angus (from La Vie on Velo and earlier stories) met us right outside arrivals with van and trailer and after a couple of hours’ driving we stopped in the small town of La Mure, about 20 miles south of Grenoble.
A quick change into bike gear, a bite to eat and by 3pm we were riding.
La Mure was the start town for Stage 17 of this year’s Tour de France. OK, we weren’t about to cycle 183 kilometres but we climbed over the Cat 2 Col d’Ornon [3,213ft with an average gradient of 6%] and enjoyed the wonderful, fast sweeping descent into Bourg d’Oisans.
What a great way to arrive in the Alps!
Over drinks on the terrace of the Hotel Edelweiss in La Grave we planned the next day. As the weather looked good we agreed to go for it - Alpe d’Huez!
We rode out of La Grave back towards Bourg d’Oisans, taking the scenic Route de Secours alongside Lac du Chambon. This back road was the only route through the valley since a tunnel collapse two years ago. There’s a suggestion that, once the tunnel is reopened, this will become the recommended bike route. It’s certainly a lovely rolling ride, with extensive views over the lake when you’re not looking out for collapsed sections of road or rock falls!
We left town, crossed the main road and began the ascent. Followers of bike racing will be familiar with this iconic climb - about 10 miles, 21 hairpin bends, 3,900ft with an average of 8% and a maximum of 13%.
For a group that really didn’t want to climb mountains, what an earth were we doing going up one of the toughest roads in Europe? This thought occurred to most of us more than once as we ticked off each bend. The temperature nudged 40C and there was very little shade. The only way to do it was slowly!
I was 'moving' on the bike for 1hr 35mins but the ascent actually took me 3hrs 17mins. As our fitness and nutrition guru Allan Brown said, it’s all about pacing, fuelling and hydration. I stopped on every third hairpin, looking for what shade I could find and emptying another water bottle. Angus followed us up, offering water and encouragement. Through sheer determination not to give in we made it up to enjoy beers and pizza, before the team photo-op.
Another brilliant, sunny day as we set off along the valley, east this time, climbing steadily up to Villar d’Arene and on to Col du Lautaret heading for the Col du Galibier.
This Col is a regular feature of Le Tour. The steepest ascent is from the north and the Tour peloton climbed it on Stage 17 after going up the Col d’Ornon, Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Telegraphe!
We would be riding from the south but that’s still almost 2,000ft at an average 7% and a maximum of 12%. The route to the top had only just been cleared. It was great to ride up with big walls of snow on either side. As we climbed higher the temperature dropped, the view opened up and we really knew we were in the Alps. Nearing the top we passed the giant monument to Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour de France.
Ducking under the barrier we cycled the last 200m or so to the top to take photographs in front of the famous road sign. We all agreed this was the best climb of the trip … so far. The route right over the top hadn’t been cleared so we dropped back down, put the bikes in the van and drove through the short one-way tunnel.
The reward for all the climbing was a thrilling descent to Valloire, initially through ice-cold meltwater streaming across the road and then the lovely valley of the River Valloirette.
The great advantage of having support is that we were driven back to the top of Galibier to enjoy the ride down and then the even longer descent all the way back to La Grave. For an Alpine cycling trip we spent a lot of time riding downhill!
After another good breakfast and with all the luggage loaded back in the van, we rode the Route de Secours towards Bourg d’Oisans again but this time Angus had a cunning plan for our last ride. We should have been suspicious when he was rather vague about distances, gradients, descents or any useful detail.
Turning off the main road at Le Freney-d’Oisans we hit the bottom of a very steep climb to Auris en Oisans. As with Alpe d’Huez it was hot but for some reason this felt harder. I climbed with Jonathan and we pretty much dragged each other up.
After a pause at the highest point, with spectacular views up and down the valley, we set off down the Route de la Roche d'Auris, a “balcony road” cut into the hillside. The road was narrow with a low wall on the left protecting you from a sheer drop and the rockface to our right. It went through several rockfall protection galleries - so caution and respect were needed. Even so, some all-time maximum speeds were recorded.
We emerged on bend six of the Alpe d’Huez road, now crowded with lots of atmosphere in advance of the next day's annual Dutch assault on the climb for charity. We sped down the road we’d laboured up on Saturday and rolled into Bourg d’Oisans feeling we’d had almost four days of really great cycling. We’d covered just 120 miles but over 16,000 feet of climbing.
My respect for professional bike riders went up several notches on this trip but we can say we’ve been there, we feel their pain but we also know what great fun it is.