#2 Up the Alpe
Alpe d’Huez | Col de Sarenne
Total Distance: 58 km / 36 miles with 1,602 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 3 hours 24 minutes
Average Speed: 17.1 km/h
Group size: 6
Weather in a word or two: Hot, hot, hot
I awoke feeling relatively decent after the previous days privations and joined my chalet mates in a breakfast of pain au chocolat and cafe au lait. Very continental. There was then a period of frenzied activity as we unpacked and assembled our bikes. Oddly, I seemed not to have packed my set of allen keys so had to borrow the two different types I needed from Goose. Naturally the errant tools turned up, hiding in plain sight as soon as I opened the box to pack the bike away 3 days later.
There was then a short detour to the supermarket to collect some water, bottles were filled and then we could put off the inevitable no longer. We rode back past the campsite entrance and the Hammer took a flyer and disappeared around the corner. The other five of us followed in a tight knot, at a more sedate pace, freewheeling around the bend to find ourselves straight onto the climb of l’Alpe d’Huez.
There was no preparation, no anticipation, no sense of looking ahead to the mountain louring down from above us, no gentle introduction to warm the legs up. One second the road was flat, the next it was rising, up and up, through the first of the famous 21-hairpin bends and it would continue rising without relief for the next 14 kilometres.
There was a frenzy of clicking from our group as chains were coaxed up cassettes in anticipation of the first hairpin, then my right-hand brake lever hit the stop and could be pushed inwards no more. “Oops,” I complained, “I’m out of gears.”
I rose out of the saddle and pushed my weight through the pedals, cutting in tight around the first corner. I remembered Crazy Legs and Steadfast saying the first few ramps were the steepest, but I’d shred my legs if I had to keep climbing like this. I plonked myself down in the saddle again, flicked the left-hand STI lever and dropped my chain onto the granny ring. It provided instant relief, but there was nowhere else for me to go now and my chain would now stay resolutely as far left as it could possibly go until I reached the very top of the climb and started to descend back down to the village of l’Alpe d’Huez.
I spun up the gear until I found a comfortable cadence and settled in for the long haul. Our group became strung out and I found myself climbing with Captain Black and Steadfast, while all the while the opening lines from the Comsat Angels song Birdman got stuck on repeat and continuously ran through my brain like a mantra: gravity is my enemy … gravity is my enemy
Once I’d settled into a sustainable rhythm, I started to take more notice of my surroundings. I wish I could say I was paying enough attention to give a detailed account of every bend in the road and every ramp, but all I actually recall are a series of fleeting impressions:
Numbered signs marked each hairpin, counting down from 21 to 1, and each sign carried not only the elevation but the names of one or two previous Alpe d’Huez winners, but the signs were disappointingly small and nondescript. They seemed to be not exactly a grand statement and fitting homage to extraordinary sporting feats, but more of an afterthought and they were very much an anti-climax. I noticed maybe half of them and most of these were too small and too far away for me to read, let alone absorb.
Given that in most instances there was a massive, blank cliff face framing the signs, I felt they could have made a much greater statement – a grand gesture if you like.
If they’ve done a poor job of showcasing the history of the climb, you’d have to say that the French engineers have done a remarkable job of actually constructing the road. As you exit every hairpin pedalling suddenly eases and you get a tiny kick of speed, as if you’ve hit a sudden downhill section, even though the route still winds resolutely upwards. How do they do that?
The road itself was surprisingly smooth and well-maintained – a nice contrast to the climb to the Col de Sarenne that we would complete later in the day, which was rough, gravel strewn and almost as lumpy as anything in the wilds of Northumbria.
The surface of l’Alpe was liberally daubed with paint, names and inspirational messages, but the majority of these seemed to be celebrating your every day, Joe the Cyclist, rather than elite professionals. Not that I have any kind of problem with that – everyone tackling this beast needs all the encouragement they can get. I missed the “May the Force be with you” sign splashed across the tarmac and being English and incredibly immature, I couldn’t help feel that a massive cock and balls was the only thing missing and would have been the perfect piece de resistance.
The climb is almost all south facing and the exposed sections were baking hot. We found ourselves hugging the cliff face and trying to spend as much time in its shade as possible. An occasional stream frothed and gurgled down from the slopes above, before diving into a culvert to pass under the road, and whenever we rode past these there was a welcome draught of chill, damp air to provide instantaneous, but too brief cooling.
We overhauled a few riders and one or two passed us, but this was all done in extreme slow motion as no one was moving at great speed relative to anyone else. You’d start catching a rider up ahead and have them in your sights for maybe 10 or 15 minutes before you caught their back wheeled and dragged yourself around them, and then they hang there for an age until, inch by inch you’d slowly leave them behind.
At hairpin 7, named for Gianni Bugno (1990) the air was heavy with the resinous scent from a small copse of mountain pine, while at hairpin 6, also named for Gianni Bugno, (but this time his 1991 win) it stank of noxious burning clutch or brakes, left trailing in the wake of a car that disagreed with the descent.
In the valley, we’d noticed a group of well-drilled, colour co-ordinated, club riders, maybe Dutch or German all in matching blue kit, except for one rider bedecked in the glorious yellow of the maillot jaune. We passed him about halfway up the climb, sitting on the wall by the side of the road next to his “team van” and apparently having abandoned. I couldn’t help thinking that if you’re going to wear the yellow jersey, you should really put on a better show than that. We then caught and passed this erstwhile leaders team, strung out in a long line and evidently struggling in the heat, most of the had taken their helmets off and they swung loosely from the handlebars as the riders plugged away, ever upwards.
At one point, we passed a photographer and I managed to give him a big cheesy grin and very cheery wave which Captain Black instantly dubbed my swan moment – where I looked to be calm and serene, gliding across the surface of the water, but underneath my legs were thrashing at twenty to the dozen and my heartbeat was off the scale. I actually felt quite comfortable and was still riding within myself as we pressed on.
Toward the top the road straightened with two last, massive zig-zagging dogs legs before disappearing around the corner into the village of L’Alpe d’Huez. The Captain applied a bit more pressure to the pedals and he slowly and inexorably pulled away from me, rounded the bend and was lost from sight.
A bit further on and I could feel the backs of my thighs tightening up and the first indications of cramp, so I dropped back the pace a little as I pushed into the village. The place was mobbed, with bikes and cyclists everywhere and I slowed even further and spent a few anxious moments scanning the crowds to see if I could find the Hammer or Captain Black already safely ensconced in one of the café’s and sinking a celebratory grand biere.
I had to circumnavigate a massive Pyrenean Mountain Dog that wandered aimlessly into the road and as I straightened saw an underpass in front of me and recalled that the official Tour de France finish wasn’t in the village centre, but a bit further up the mountain.
I’d already passed a sort of official finish line set up outside one of the cafés and I wondered how many riders it had duped into quitting within reach of the true end of the climb?
I ducked through the underpass I vaguely recalled from those frenetic last few hundred metres of Tours stages and kept on climbing, choosing roads more or less at random and uncertain if I was on the right route or not. The road finally looped around a group of chalets and headed back down the mountain, so I cut through a massive empty car park and followed it down.
I was just picking up speed when, rather fortuitously, I passed Crazy Legs, working his way up the other side of the road, so I stopped, swung round and started climbing after him. In this way I was finally able to find everyone else clustered around the official finish sign, which I’d unwittingly managed to sail past once already.
I stopped and very slowly and very stiffly somehow managed to clamber off the bike. The backs of my thighs felt as taut as piano strings and hurt like hell. I hobbled down to where everyone was clustered around the finish sign and Crazy Legs co-opted a French Raphalite from Annecy into taking a photo for us.
I had to squeeze onto the end of the line, pushed off the kerb and into the road and giving everyone else a distinct height advantage. Crazy Legs found this highly amusing and he hoped a bit of forced perspective meant I would look like a hobbit in the commemorative picture.
There was then only time for Goose to engage in a bit of unseemly, dry-humping with the road (he pretended it was for a bad back) and we descended to the village for a hard-earned cup of coffee and to discuss what to do next.
Strava would later reveal it had taken me 1 hour 14 minutes and 37 seconds to climb the Alpe, apparently good enough for the 1,355th best time so far this year. That doesn’t sound too bad to me – anyway I’ve no intention of going back to try and improve it.
I’d also learned some valuable lessons and in particular that during over-long, sustained efforts like this I needed to occasionally stand out of the saddle, not so much to make climbing any easier, but just to change position and spread the workload and blood flow around different muscles.
We dropped back down into the village centre and took a seat in one of the cafés adjacent to the first finish line I’d noticed on the way up. The café was marked by what seemed to be a damaged, giant inflatable cyclist in the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey. There was obviously a leak in one of the arms and every time the generator cycled, the figures hand popped in and out with a loud crack. Maybe it was just me, but this sounded like the most sarcastic, slow hand-clap of all time, waiting to greet each new rider as they reached the village.
We quickly placed our order – a coke for Steadfast, cafe au lait for Crazy Legs and the Hammer and Americano’s for Captain Black, Goose and me. It was here that the Goose started to reveal his deep grasp of the French language and the nuances of foreign cuisine.
“There’s no milk in my coffee.” Goose complained.
“Didn’t you order an Americano?” Crazy Legs queried.
“Yes, but there’s no milk in it.”
“If you wanted milk, you should have asked for a cafe au lait.” Crazy Legs explained patiently.
“No, I wanted an Americano,” Goose countered, “With milk.”
“Olé, Olé” he started shouting, like a drunken Spanish bull-fighter with Tourette’s, until finally the waitress took pity on him and brought out some milk, rolling her eyes at the mad Englishmen in her midst. (I suspected she’d seen it all before.)
Finally able to relax, we discussed next moves and agreed by a vote of 5 to 1 to press on to the Col de Sarenne, rather than descend straight back down the Alpe.
On leaving the café, Crazy Legs had a chat with an English rider hoping he’d reached the end of the climb and horribly disappointed to learn he still had to work his way through the underpass and further uphill to reach the official Tour de France finish. We’re not sure if he pressed on or not, he certainly didn’t seem very enthusiastic.
There was then only time for Goose to engage in some more, dramatic dry-humping with the road, top up our bottles from the public drinking fountain and wince at the tacky podium set up for “epic” photo opportunities and we were on our way. We picked our way out of the village, past the heliport and giant stationery ski lift stations and then out onto the road to the Col de Sarenne.
The top of the Col de Sarenne lies about 9km beyond l’Alpe D’Huez and involved more climbing, but nothing worse than we’d previously encountered. There was a long, fast descent in the middle and then a lengthy drag up to the summit, our highest point of the day, at just under 2,000 metres.
The road itself feels very remote and is narrow, twisty and broken up in places, with loose gravel strewn across the corners and adorned with lots of “Yates You Can” messages splashed across its surface. The mountainside would occasionally fall dramatically away from the edge, engendering what my eldest daughter refers to as a “shaky bottom” moment, but luckily it was much quieter than the Alpe and we were able to keep well to the left and away from the vertiginous drops. We encountered only one or two other riders and no cars that I can recall.
Once at the top of the Col de Sarenne there is a huge technical switchback descent down to the barrage at Lac du Chambon at the foot of Les Deux Alpes. Crazy Legs took off down the descent like a bat out of hell and I followed, rather more cautiously and circumspectly with the rest strung out behind. The descent was good fun and not too technical and while it occasionally looked like the corners were gravel strewn, the surface was fissured but actually largely intact.
We regrouped at the bottom and endured an anxious wait for the Hammer. He finally appeared after a few moments, having had the rear of his hire bike step out from under him, forcing him to back off until he became accustomed to its handling characteristics.
We tied to find somewhere for lunch in Mizoën, but everywhere seemed closed to so we pushed on to the lake at the bottom of the hill. Here we had an enforced stop as Crazy Legs punctured and we had to change the tyre in the broiling sun, with no shade to be found anywhere. Investigation of the tyre revealed no damage, despite the long gash in the tube, so we suspected the heat generated by braking had caused it to blow. Luckily the tube had lasted until we were on the wider, straighter and better surfaced roads.
We decided to head straight back to the campsite without further stops to try and find ravitaillement, a fairly fast trip involving a bit of tunnel-surfing and duelling with lumbering cement trucks. We made good time, until Crazy Legs dropped off the back, worried that he didn’t have enough pressure in his tyre and it was in danger of rolling off the rim, possibly as the heat had made it more pliable than usual.
Captain Black dropped back to escort him in, earning himself the accolade of a true gentleman, while we were all branded as bastards for riding on ahead – something we’d only done, I hasten to add, after checking that everything was ok with Crazy Legs and being waved away.
Happy to have survived day one and feeling much better than the previous night, we showered and got changed and wandered into Bourg d’Oisan for some beer and food. Once again in the restaurant, Goose endeared himself to the staff and proved his mastery of the native tongue when smoothly counting out the beer order: “Un-deux-trois … five!” he declared loudly, holding up a hand with all the fingers spread wide to emphasise his order.
This became a bit of a catchphrase that would haunt him for the rest of the trip and we even had it handily translated into different languages, just in case we all decide to embark on another foreign adventure elsewhere:
Uno-dos-tres … five!
Eins-zwei-drei … five!
Uno-due-tre … five!
The quite remarkable Goose then declared that what was needed was a proper book written for beginner cyclists with such helpful tips as don’t wear underpants with your cycling shorts and that you can actually rest your hands on top of the brake hoods and still operate the brakes. This, Crazy Legs suggested had been an absolute revelation to Goose, which he’d only discovered after seeing someone doing it two years after he’d begun cycling seriously!
We then tried to define a cycle of acceptance for rides that went though a host of different phases – shock, disbelief, disorientation, denial, blame, disconnect, fear, anger, confusion, depression, despair, pleading and finally acceptance and hope.
Little did we know we were going to be subjected to each and every one of these emotions on the ride tomorrow.
YTD Totals: 3,651 km / 2,269 miles with 40,220 metres of climbing