A record of my cycling trips in Britain and abroad


Saturday: Alpe d’Huez

A discussion ensued late last night after our arrival at the campsite: over dinner we were trying to decide our cycling plans for today. The original plan had been to continue the drive towards Briancon, and to stop off en-route at the Alpe d’Huez. Alpe d’Huez is one of the most famous climbs on the Tour de France, drawing crowds of spectators; it’s just over 1000m of ascent and is rated a ‘hors categorie’ in the Tour’s mountain stage classification. This year, it forms the finish to Friday’s stage. Pre-climb nerves were starting to set in last night, and we were also considering that starting our week with an incredibly tough climb after sitting in a car for a day and half night not be the best plan! The alternative, inspired by the beautiful surrounding we have found ourselves in at this campsite, is to ride around here in the morning, and then drive straight to Briancon, possibly returning later in the week to do the Alpe d’Huez. However, we felt the draw of the mountains, and decided to eschew the beautiful scenery of the Burgundy vineyards for the attractions of the climb.

at_the_top_of_alp_d'huez.jpgAnother few hours drive and the rubik’s cube was almost done (with 3 blocks to go!). We had blazing sunshine on the way down and since Oli’s car’s airconditioning gave up a long time ago we were baking. Of course, the minute we stopped at the base of the Alp to unload the bikes in preparation, the clouds came over, and within a few minutes the first drops of rain were falling. However, by the time we’d put the wheels back on our bikes and sorted out other things we’d dismantled for the trip the shower had passed over.

at_the_top_of_alp_d'huez_2.jpgWe set off through the village of Bourg d’Oisans at the base, riding in formation. As we hit the hill we spread out, with Oli and Vince setting the pace at the front. We could smell the faint but pungent aroma of hot brakes at this point; this smell would stay with us - and grow a lot stronger - throughout the the climb, thanks to cars descending. Round the first hairpin and we hit the climb proper: the 1 in 4 gradient at the start began to take its toll, especially with no real idea of how to pace such a long ascent. However, it soon dropped off to a more gentle 1 in 8, and unlike most climbs the bends were flatter than the straights, providing welcome periods of comparative rest. Someone has very thoughtfully painted the percentage of the climb onto the road every 10%; I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, as each 10% increment seems to take an age to appear! Somewhere around halfway we came across a large contingent of crazy camper van-ers, waving a mix of UK, Belgian and German flags and pumping out 80s disco music. And there are still 6 days to go before the tour comes through! We came out of the forest just as the 80% marker came into view, with the village of Alpe d’Huez a welcome sight, though still 200m above us. A feeling of accomplishment washed over me as I saw the finish banner across the road just ahead; this and_on_the_way_down.jpgsoon vanished after I crossed the line and dismounted, giving way to intense cramp in my hamstrings; that’s what you get I suppose for spending 3 hours sat in a car and then going straight into such a difficult climb. It took 20 minutes and a pack of peanuts before I could stand and felt ready to tackle the descent (the peanuts weren’t just on a whim - salt is good for recovering from a cramp, apparently). The descent was pretty magical; it felt a bit like skiing, but in summer, and with the huge satisfaction of knowing we’d earned every bend, paid for in sweat on the way up. 12 km without a single pedal stroke is rather good fun! We didn’t take this one especially quickly, preferring instead to savour the moment and enjoy the spectacular scenery spread out below us and the view to the mountains opposite, some miles away across the valley.

After that, it was back in the car for the final couple of hours to Petit Parcher (near Briancon), where we’ll be staying for the week.