Climbing Up Like a Spider – Alpine Echoes – Part 2.

Climbing Up Like a Spider – Alpine Echoes – Part 2.

Total Distance:59 km/37 miles with 1,752 m of climbing
Riding Time:3 hours 12 minutes
Average Speed:18.4km/h
Temperature: 17℃

Route & Ride Profile

L’Alpe d’Wheeze

I wake hale and hearty after a reasonable night’s sleep, much to everyone’s consternation as, based on past experience, they were expecting a shambling, pallid, hollowed out, shell of a man to emerge after a night of intense sickness.

I cram down a cereal bar and set to work re-assembling the bike. It seems to have survived its passage through three airports unscathed. The same can’t be said of the bike bag, which bears a large rip across the bottom. It’s more cosmetic than crucial, but annoying nonetheless.

It takes half an hour or so to build the bike up and then I’m good to go. (Lying to the British Airways baggage handler and assuring him my tyres were deflated helped. Contrary to popular myth, they didn’t explode in the hold and I’d read that keeping them inflated could help protect your rims, so that’s what I did. )

My cabin companions are not so lucky. Kermit finds his headset cap is missing, or more precisely, he suspects it isn’t missing, it just hasn’t travelled with him and is sitting proudly on display, in the middle of his kitchen table at home.

Even worse, he then discovers he’s forgotten to pack his pedals.

Meanwhile, Biden Fecht has assembled his bike, but his rear derailleur seems askew and is making his chain rattle like a rusty anchor dropping through a ships scupper.

An urgent trip is scheduled to the bike shops in Bourg d’Oisans, to be there as soon as they open. The van is loaded up with the bikes and away they go.

While we wait, after about seven years of riding with me, Crazy Legs finally notices how stupidly long my stem is. I explain it’s a consequence of having gibbon-like arms and I immediately become Mr. Tickle to Crazy Legs. Oh well, it keeps him tickled while we wait.

Then, Buster determines his derailleur is playing up. Shifting up the cassette is a decidedly hit-and-miss affair and then, after a bit of (supposedly) remedial fiddling, just a miss affair. Climbing the Alpe under the best of circumstances is a daunting prospect, doing it without leg-friendly, climbing gears sounds like utter madness, so Buster too departs for the local bike shops.

The rest of us are ready to go by the time Biden Fecht and Kermit return. Their trip has been a success, but they’ve still got a degree of fettling, preparation, essential male grooming and breakfasting to do. Crazy Legs suggest the rest of us make a start, while he hangs back to wait for Buster, Kermit and Biden Fecht and then they’ll follow in a second group.

It seems like a reasonable plan, so the rest of us saddle up, clip in and ride out.

At the entrance to the campsite we’re passed by a camper van trailing the unmistakable odour of burning clutch. Ah, the traditional smell I’ve learned to associate with l’Alpe d’Huez. I’m confused when we turn left onto the main road though, heading away from the climb and out into the town.

This diversion, it turns out is our warm up, a quick blast through town, an equally quick turnaround and then we’re heading for the Alpe. Ah OK, guess that makes sense, but I’m not sure it was all that effective as a warm up. We pass the entrance to the campsite and almost immediately begin to climb.



The first few ramps are by far the hardest and a shock to the system. It’s no surprise to hear a chorus of clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk-fuck! as everyone quickly finds they’ve run out of gears. The Hammer starts to open up a lead and I follow at a more relaxed pace, with Ovis and Steadfast in close attendance. The Big Yin and, more surprisingly, Caracol are hanging back.

Approaching the third hairpin and our way is blocked by a cyclist and what appears to be his support car. Neither of them are travelling all that fast, as the cyclist takes the longest sticky bottle hand-off I have ever seen. I’m talking minutes here. If the riders already struggling this much, I’m not sure how he’ll cope with the remaining hour plus he’ll need to climb the mountain.

We finally forge a way past the cyclist and support car and settle into a steady rhythm. It’s cool, the roads are wet and the air damp. I seemed to have found a pace that’s comfortable for Ovis and Steadfast and the three of us form a tight knot as we push upwards, occasionally swapping turns on the front.

At some point in the early stages of the climb Caracol glides past and slowly disappears up the road, en route to a sub-hour ascent.

I remember to occasionally rise out of the saddle, just so I don’t get locked in to one posture, and I count down the hairpins, once again squinting at the tiny signs to try read the TdF stage winners. I find a sign commemorating Joop Zoetemelk’s win, but its for his 1979 triumph on the mountain, not the ’76 version, where he had the temerity to beat Van Impe.

Armstrong’s still up there (#boohiss) but then again, so is Pantani (#boohisstoo). I quite easily spot those for the most recent winners (perhaps they’re a bit shinier?) – Turbo Peanut (as a website has fabulously nicknamed one of the two, great French hope’s for the Tour) and Geraint Thomas, the very first Brit (or Welshman if you prefer) to win a TdF stage on the Alpe. Still, I miss more of the signs and their associated names than I actually see.

It’s cold, overcast and a little rainy, but there’s never a point when I actually feel cool and the backwash of chilled air from the few streams that tumble down the hillside before ducking under the road, provides brief, welcome relief.



Names and messages of encouragement disappear under my wheels at regular intervals, scrawled across the road surface in spidery, mostly white lines. The majority seem to be aimed at everyday club riders, rather than the pro’s. None of them make much of an impression.

We’re too early in the morning for the first of the photographers, but the second one gets a few shots of our compact trio and I get complaints as I’m on the front and supposedly hogging the limelight. I don’t know … what do these people expect to happen when they choose to ride alongside someone so obviously charismatic and photogenic?



Meanwhile, back in reality, we’re onto the last, long and straight drag up to the village of Huez itself. We turn the corner and drive across the unofficial-official finish line, opposite the bars already busy with cyclists. Then of course we keep going, because, despite the finish line and the flags and bunting and the photo-podium, we know this isn’t actually the finish of the climb.

We head through the underpass, made famous by all those TV broadcasts of the Tour and continue to climb upwards. I took a wrong turn the last time and ended up completing a circuit of an immense empty coach park, right next to where the last few ski chalets petered out. I then had to drop downhill until I met Crazy Legs climbing up the other way, turn around again and follow him to the official finish.

This time I’m glad to have Steadfast in tow, assured he knows the right route. I’m also forearmed with instructions from Crazy Legs to turn right at the big boulders … except the boulders appear to have been removed and even Steadfast seems unsure of the way.

We zig and we zag our way across the mountainside, until we find what we think is the right road. In our defence, all of them, including the “right” one, look remarkably bland, characterless, municipal and indistinguishable from each other. We spot Caracol and the Hammer waiting, know we’re on the right track, so I kick hard and jump away from my two companions to finish with a bit of a flourish.

I needn’t have bothered, for whatever reason, but most probably operator error, my Garmin covered an entire 1 second of my ride from the campsite to the summit, so Steadfast had to “tag” me onto his Strava file and I shared the same time as him.

The actual finish is marked by the smallest, most easily overlooked, tattiest and most unprepossessing of signs. Perhaps it’s no wonder most people stop in the village, it’s certainly not worth the extra effort to get up here and see.



Inadequate signage seems to be a recurring theme in France-land. They’re not big on signs and what signs they do have are not big. I mean, I’m not asking for some of the visual graffiti you find in other urban landscapes, but there’s a fine line between discrete and invisible. A case in point, it’s not until we actually start to head back down to the village that I see a few “Route de Tour” signs directing you to the official finish. They’re small and blend so seamlessly into their surroundings that no one else in our group even seems to notice them.

I complained last time about the signs naming the hairpins on the Alpe being paltry and utterly underwhelming – they’re really difficult to read when riding up (and obviously impossible to read when swooping down). I still feel the same way – and personally think these near mythic rides and riders deserve celebrating with a grand gesture, not an afterthought.

Once we ‘ve all arrived safely, we press gang an innocent bystander into taking the obligatory group photo …



And then we head back to Huez to join the other cyclists in the cafe for some well-earned refreshments and to wait for the rest of our crew to appear.

The first through is Kermit, looking mildly startled by the sudden burst of cheering and applause that erupts from the side of the rode as he scoots past, failing to spot us. He’s followed in close order by Biden Fecht, Buster and Crazy Legs, all crossing the “finish line” in a burst of wild cheering and applause, before disappearing through the underpass and away.

It isn’t too long before they’re back and we’re a united group again. We order lunch and another round of drinks, the sun breaks out and we can sit back and relax for a while, watching all the coming and going’s and admiring some of the glossy, sleek bikes lined up in the racks at the side of the road.

We learn that all the local bike shops in Bourg d’Oisans are good, helpful and friendly. They’d fixed all our bikes and happily sold Kermit a brand new pair of pedals, that perfectly match the over-looked pair from home that he finally rediscovers in his bag later that day.

Buster’s problems were caused by a badly frayed gear cable, which could have snapped at any time, including halfway up a mountain. The mechanic also insists on changing out his worn brake blocks, which seems sensible as, I think even Biden Fecht might blanch at descending l’Alpe D’Huez without brakes, despite his past experience with such things.

As we’re sitting there, some sprightly, older feller, with a strong Central European accent, asks if he can borrow the posh, shiny and expensive-looking Cannondale hanging on the rack in front of us, apparently so he can be photographed with it. It seems like a harmless, but strange request. We explain it’s not our bike and he wanders off, before returning again, with the same odd enquiry.

“I’m sponsored by Cannondale,” he explains, “but I’m riding my Pinerello today.”

What? Yeah, right. Get-away …

We reiterate that it’s not our bike. He takes it anyway. Too weird.

We start to discuss our options, with no one in favour of a direct return to the campsite. We could continue on to the Col de Sarenne, which we did last time, or, the Hammer suggests we could descend almost to the bottom of the Alpe, to the village of La Garde and then take the road that clings to the side of the mountain, the Balcon d’Auris.

A Road By Any Other Name

The quartet who did the Sarenne last time all feel it wasn’t that great a route, so we agree on the balcony ride. It became a route whose name seemed to change every time we talked about it, until it became a bit of a running joke and was referred to variously as the balcony ride, the ledge ride, the mantelpiece ride, the pelmet ride, the shelf ride, the terrace ride and even, at one point, the skirting board ride.

It would add another 25km, or so to our total, heading along the “Route de la Roche” as we climbed from just over 700 to almost 1,600 metres, with a maximum gradient of 13%.

This road clings precariously to the side of the mountain, with a low, stone parapet the only thing shielding you from a long, vertical drop and doing nothing to restrict brilliant views right across the valley floor. In places the road narrows to about a cars width, but thankfully, on the day we rode it, is mostly traffic free. I think we only encountered one car on our great traverse, although even this produced a modicum of uncomfortable tension as it squeezed past.

Things were going well until just before the village of Le Cert, where we ran into a roadblock and route barrée signs. For once these signs were quite prominent and unmissable. Here we paused for a rest and to assess our options.



Should we ignore the signs and press-on, hoping that whatever disruption there was we could get through, or walk around, or should we follow the suggested diversion that could take us well out of our way and potentially lead back up the mountain.

One option discussed was to send Kermit on ahead, to see if he could get through, “our canary in a mine” as Crazy Legs put it. In the end we just bit the bullet and followed the diversion. Looking at the map afterwards, it seemed to add a kilometre or so to our journey and just a touch more climbing, before we were back on track and on the long snaking descent down to Le Frency d’Oisans.

Here, we took a wrong turn, up toward Lac de Chambon, but quickly realised our mistake and we turned back again, eventually rolling down into the valley of La Romanche, from where it was a straightforward run, following the river to the camp.

Back to “that Dutch bar” that evening, we spread across a couple of tables, while the owner desperately tried to persuade us to sit inside, where he had a criminally underused table that would actually seat ten together. We explained that we were British, so never got a chance to sit out at home and wouldn’t give up the option now.

As we ate, other packs of feral-looking Englishmen with lean looks, hungry eyes and odd tan lines circulated, or shuffled into the seats around us. It wasn’t as busy as a couple of years ago, but there were still plenty of cyclists in town.

We spent a good few minutes counting the hairpins on the Alpe, handily depicted on the restaurant place mats, concluding there were more than 21, before conversation turned to plans for tomorrow.

Along with the Hammer and Steadfast, I was happy to accompany any of the others brave (or foolish enough) to attempt the Circle of Death, a monster loop which is basically the Marmotte route minus the final ascent of l’Alpe D’Huez, yet still ran over 100 miles and with 4,000 metres of climbing.

From past experience this was going to be 9 hours of riding, plus re-fuelling and rest stops and first time we’d done it had been a struggle to get home before daylight ran out. We determined to have a little more discipline in planning and executing the stops and I pushed for as early a start as possible. We agreed to meet and ride out at 7.30. Ulp!

Crazy Legs and Buster decided to go on a shorter ride, to the Croix de Fer and back, with a few additional bits tagged on. They only mentioned a dozen or so times that they were looking forward to a long lie-in and much more relaxed start. Bastards… did they think they were on holiday or something?

That’s tomorrow sorted then.

Oh dear, remind me why am I doing this again?


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There and Back Again

There and Back Again

Day#3  L’Alpe d’Huez

Total Distance:                                25 km / 16 miles with 1,033 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                         1 hours 50 minutes

Average Speed:                                13.6 km/h

Group size:                                         3

Temperature:                                    31°C

Weather in a word or two:           Hotter


 

taba

The Ride


I awoke rather groggily to find someone had broken in during the night and filled my legs full of concrete and it took me a while to get moving. When I did, I found Crazy Legs busily flitting around and dressed to ride.

“Whassup?”

“I’m going to ride up the Alpe.”

I needed to ride to try and rediscover where my legs were.

“Wait, I’m coming.”

“How long do you need?”

“15 minutes.”

“Ok.”

As we reached agreement, Captain Black emerged, blinking and yawning. Rest had obviously done him good and Twatty MacTwat Face had reverted back to being Old Faithful. I told him the plan and he hauled his ass into gear too – 3 for the Alpe!

It wasn’t much longer than 15 minutes later and we turned right out of the campsite, pushed the pedals around half a dozen times and found ourselves once again on the first ramp up the mountain to L’Alpe d’Huez.

I took the first couple of hairpins out of the saddle and turning a modestly large gear, until feeling returned to my lower extremities and the stiffness stated to dissipate. I then dropped onto the granny ring, and plonked myself down to spin slowly upwards.

Behind me Captain Black got half way round the first hairpin and was shocked to find just how hard it was. Just before he turned round to head back, thinking he obviously hadn’t recovered from the day before, he finally looked down and realised he was still on the big ring. There was a sudden, resounding, clunking, wince-inducing clang of stressed and tortured metal that reverberated around the mountains, as he changed down under intense pressure and finally found instant relief and his climbing form.

The three of us worked our way slowly up the mountain, pausing frequently at various shady vista’s and viewpoints, picking out the past winners signs on the corners, taking photos and chatting with other cyclists.

The signs were a roll-call, highlighting some of cycling’s great and good (and occasionally villainous) – both past and present, ranging from the imperious, il campionissimo, Fausto Coppi in 1952, right up to Thibaut Pinot in 2015.

I found signs commemorating wins by Bernard Hinaut, Gianni Bugno, Stephen Rooks, Frank Schleck, Pierre Rolland, Carlos Sastre, Andy Hampsten and Hennie Kuiper among the more famous and celebrated of the winners.

Lance Armstrong’s name is still up there (twice) despite having his Tour victories annulled, along with two for the equally dubious and questionable Marco Pantani, who still holds the record for the fastest ascent of the mountain in an astonishing – no doubt rocket-fuelled, but still astonishing time of under 38 minutes.

I have to admit though, that even taking time to hunt them out and read the signs, I still missed one or two, including Joop Zoetemelk’s 1976 sign which I’d vowed to desecrate in honour of Lucien Van Impe. (Only kidding, nice Dutch folk!)

As previously mentioned, I found the signs totally underwhelming – so much so that I didn’t even bother photographing any of them – but here’s one I prepared earlier (or pinched from the Internet anyway).


huezs


As we were making our way around one hairpin, our bête noire from Saturday made a reappearance, as a bumbling Harley Davidson blatted loudly up the road and awkwardly around the bend, leaving a trail of greasy exhaust fumes in its wake.

“Your bike’s shit!” an indignant Crazy Legs shouted after the motorcycle, unfortunately just as another rider pulled up alongside him. This rider gave him a long, quizzical look before deciding he was in the presence of a sun-touched Englishman and he didn’t need to defend the honour of his Cannondale SuperSix. Just to be sure, he accelerated smartly away to avoid further insult to his bike and Crazy Legs can at least take a little credit for spurring one rider on to set a good time.

At the village of La Grade we stopped in a welcome patch of shade, where an elderly rider and his support-vehicle-driving wife were sitting enjoying the views. Our talk turned to decomposition rates as Captain Black enjoyed a belated breakfast banana and Crazy Legs described in intimate detail how the discarded skins turned black, slimy and wizened along the way. “Speaking of black, slimy and wizened,” he declared, starting to reach down the front of his shorts, “My knackers could do with a bit of relief.”

“Hey, nice day, isn’t it?” the support-vehicle-driving wife drawled, stepping in with a nice bit of deflection.

“Oh, hello,” Crazy Legs responded, quickly withdrawing his probing digits and thinking fast, “I thought you were Dutch …”

It turned out they were American, from California, on holiday so the husband could enjoy a second-crack at riding the Alps. We then had a brief chat which concluded rather awkwardly when the wife offered sympathy over the “terrible, tragic things” in the UK and we had to ask whether she meant the terror attacks, the Grenfell Tower fire, or being lumbered with lame-duck, Prime Minister who would sell her own mother cling to power.

She meant the tower fire, which is obviously a cataclysmic tragedy, but not something we were ever likely to be personally invested in and it seemed an odd, discordant thing to bring up with total strangers on a bright sunny day, half-way up a mountain in France.

We kept going and stopped again at what we think was Dutch Corner, afforded the opportunity to look down and appreciate how far we’d climbed, the vista opening out to show the road below, twisting and turning sinuously through multiple hairpins as it snaked up the mountain. Crazy Legs recalled watching the Dauphine from this vantage point in 2010 as a rampant Alberto Contador made multiple impressive attacks before breaking clear to win the stage.


alpe
Reg in repose © Clive Rae


As we pushed on the other two slowly drew ahead and I was happy to trundle along at my own pace, slowing down and swinging right across the road to peer myopically at the signs on the hairpins and try to pick out past Tour stage winners.

More snaps from the photographers, the long drag upwards, a sarcastic slow-hand clap from the inflatable King of the Mountains and I was across the finish line and taking a seat next to Crazy Legs and Captain Black in the same café we’d stopped at the first time up the Alpe. Captain Black won the race to first beer of the day.


me
© Griffe Photos


And then we spaced ourselves well out for the fun of the descent. It was to be this, more than anything, which gave me an appreciation of just how big a task cycling up a mountain actually is – it took almost 15 minutes to whirr down to the bottom and every hairpin I thought was the last one was followed by another and then another. Looking back around the corners was also the first time I appreciated just how steep some of the ramps actually were, it’s not something you get a good impression of while struggling up them.


alpdown
Captain Black assures me that tiny speck in the road is me descending the Alpe © Anthony Jackson


And then, sadly it was over, we were done and back at the campsite and climbing off for the last time.

By this time my legs no longer felt like concrete, maybe more like hard cheese – a Cheshire or a Red Leicester perhaps. Either way an improvement of sorts. We broke the bikes down and packed them up, then picked up Steadfast and wondered into town for a few drinks and a late lunch.

The patron of the bar was apparently quite upset she couldn’t offer us any food, “Je suis desole!” but we were happy with baguettes and cornets des frites to accompany the beer. The Hammer joined us, fresh from a ride up to Allemont and then finally Goose appeared after a day alternatively spent walking and lazing by the pool. A few beers and we wandered up to the Dutch restaurant for the last supper.

All this time we talked an unending stream of nonsense (as usual): how Pierre Latour somehow acquired the name Roger, the immorality of any sport that needs judges to decide a winner, Tyneside legend Dave the Dwarf, once spotted drinking in the incongruous company of towering Scottish lock forward Doddie Weir. This led to an attempt to calculate how many dwarves you could reasonably expect in China’s 1.4 billion population and serious concerns about where all the Chinese dwarves are hiding.

We learned that Goose had been inspired by tales of a granny who was arrested for pointing a hairdryer at speeding cars in her village during a (seemingly hugely successful) attempt to get them to slow down. He revealed he had then taken this as inspiration for his own brand of traffic vigilantism, patrolling the streets around his home and leaping unexpectedly out at any motorist he suspects of speeding, arm raised, hand out while intoning a very simple, authoritative and stentorian: “No!”

We managed to calculate bills and work out a way where no one (hopefully) felt out of pocket and discussed doing something similar next year, or the following, although Crazy Legs declared he’s more or less done with the Alps, so we thought up a few alternatives such as Spain – the Pyrenees or Basque region, Tuscany, or perhaps, radically even somewhere flat like the Netherlands.

And then we wandered back, packed and slept, woke and showered, loaded the van, endured an unfriendly chalet inspection, settled our bills, waved off the Hammer and set out for home.

Swiss custom officials were strangely no happier to see us go than they had been to see us arrive and Heathrow customs officials managed to outdo them in terms of inertia, apathy and glowering disaffection.

We bade “bon voyage” to Steadfast, returning to his home along the south coast and the Goose wandered off in search of the best deals he could find on Toblerone. While we waited for our connecting flight, Captain Black stood us a round of coffee’s and had to double-check the price several times before he realised he wasn’t in Geneva airport and didn’t need to take out a second mortgage to pay for them.

The “barista” asked for his name and he momentarily confused me by saying Ant rather than Captain Black, or just the Captain. He obviously confused the barista even more as the coffee’s arrived with “Hans” carefully scribed on every cup.


hans
©Anthony Jackson


“Oh no,” I suggested to Crazy Legs, “That makes you Knees and me Boomps-a-Daisy.”

We then sat around discussing the worlds woes and how to correct them, until Crazy Legs looked at the flight board and realised our gate was closing in 10 minutes and we were in real danger of being left behind!

A quick, power-walk through the terminal had us tagging onto the very back of the queue, before clambering aboard our connecting flight to Newcastle and home.

At the other end we kept an intent and anxious watch on the baggage carousel, waiting for the arrival of bike bags and boxes and getting a little concerned as time dragged on, the crowd started to thin and the conveyor belt slowly emptied. Then Goose took a step backwards and fell over our bikes which the ninja baggage handlers had delivered by hand and stealthily dropped off right behind us.

Home, safe and sound and largely intact.

So, two days of travelling, Thursday 15th June and Monday 19th June bookended 3 days of riding, the Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Over the three days we were out on the bikes for 22½ hours, rode 251 kilometres or 156 miles in around 14 hours with almost 6,900 metres of climbing including, L’Alpe d’Huez (twice), the Sarenne, Lauterat, Glandon, Croix de Fer, Télégraph and mighty Galibier.

BA Flights form Newcastle to Geneva via Heathrow cost £160 each.

Budget Car van hire, plus fuel was £478.24, or £95.65 per person (5 people)

Two chalets at the Cascades Campsite, Bourg d’Oisans, cost £698.41, or £116.40 per person (6 people)

The total cost for my trip was around £372, plus meals, food and drinks.

Having been back a couple of weeks now, I can honestly say if someone offered me the exact same trip, with the exact same rides (even including all the pain and misery of the Circle of Death) I wouldn’t hesitate and I’d sign up immediately.


YTD Totals: 3,844 km / 2,304 miles with 46,068 metres of climbing

 

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

#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

Temperature:                                    31°C

Weather in a word or two:          Hot, hot, hot


LADH
The Ride


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


NOVATEK CAMERA


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?


NOVATEK CAMERA


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.


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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.


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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.


top alpe


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