Chevauchée des Alpes 3

Chevauchée des Alpes 3

Day#2 – Going off Grid

Breakfast of Champions

A decent night’s sleep was fortified by a sterling breakfast where our supremely attractive and very friendly waitress seemed to delight in adjusting her décolletage and pouting into the dining room mirrors solely for the edification of the hotel guests.

By 9:00 the Oberlanders were on the road in the bright sunshine and heading for our rendezvous at the foot of the Alpe. It was a pleasantly warm start on a day when the temperatures would soon climb into the very high twenties. Not quite as scorching as yesterday, but plenty hot enough for pale-skinned Northerners.

I was astonished to find we had a full house, our entire collective was up and ready to go and we were, very briefly, all together as we started to climb. The first few ramps soon took care of that and it wasn’t long before we were scattered all over the road. From this point on we wouldn’t be together again as a group until we sat down for our evening meal.

Big ring, inner ring, granny ring. I dropped down at the front, while the chain inexorably rode up the block at the back. It didn’t take long and then, that was it, I was out of gears. Most of the others stretched away as I settled down to the task of spinning upwards in my own time, knowing I had over an hour of work to do to reach the top.

Despite a full service and a brand new bottom bracket, the bike had developed an annoying creak whenever I put any power through the cranks, which would have been just one more excuse for my light-spinning approach. Or at least, it would have been if I felt I needed one. As it was, I contained the creak to the few moments when I stood out of the saddle, more to keep the blood flowing everywhere than out of any real necessity to climb faster. (The creak seems to have completely disappeared on return to the UK, which is rather confusing.)

Gianni Bugno Smells

The first few hairpins were pleasant, but the higher we climbed the more exposed the road became and the temperature was rising, probably at a faster rate than I was. Around the pair of Gianni Bugno hairpins (#6 and #7) the smell of burning brakes and clutch were unmistakable, although there was very little traffic to account for it.

Unfortunately, much of the traffic that there was, consisted of heavy, construction vehicles, as it looks like more ski accommodation is being thrown up right across the mountain. It made for some interesting overtaking manoeuvres that played out in extreme slow motion.

Steadfast was climbing at around the same pace as me, so was always in sight, but otherwise I don’t recall passing any serious cyclists and can only recall a handful passing me, it was a quiet day on the Alpe.

I was pleased to see the photographers, always camped out near the top, an indication that the end wasn’t too far off and judging by the number of (in)action shots they took of me, I think they were glad to see me too. I still couldn’t summon up a wave or a smile though.

All The Way to the Top

Up through the village, I scanned the cafe’s few occupants, hoping we’d decided to make this our official end point. No such luck, it looked like we were heading to the official Tour finish line higher up the mountain. I joined up with Steadfast going through the underpass and hoping he knew the route – I think I’ve been a different way every time.

His instincts proved right, we found the rest of the gang camped out at the display of past winners. That still wasn’t good enough for them though and they made me climb another 300 metres to the official sign, before we press-ganged a bystander into the obligatory group photo.

Dog Days

Other than Goose’s hilarious positioning and pose for the photo, the strangest sight on the day had to be the girl on a mountain-bike being towed up the climb by an indefatigable Jack Russell. We don’t know if it got a Strava PB, but the Big Yin claimed the pair had overtaken him quite easily.

As for the Big Yin, there was no sign of him. I took a can of cola (Coke to you and me, but maybe the French reserve that term for a certain white powder?) from the snack van and slumped on one of the picnic tables for a rest and to replenish liquids while we waited.

“Watch that doesn’t bite!” the Ticker warned me, pointing at a greenish-yellow insect that had landed on my knee. I flicked it away. Too late, a bright bead of blood bloomed on my skin. Guess the butterfly yesterday was just to lull me into a false sense of security.

Café Olé!

Drink consumed and with still no sign of the Big Yin, we rolled back to the cafe in the town, thinking he might have stopped there. Nope, not there either.

“Café au lait, si vous plait?” Crazy Legs asked the waitress.

“Un?” she enquired.

“Deux – trois – quatre – cinq – six – sept,” we all individually added our orders in turn and then she turned to Goose last of all. We waited … tension building … he opened his mouth …

“Huit!” he finally barked. Internally I gave a silent cheer, but then … “Gracias!”

We’re the Fuquari

By the time we’d finished our coffee and were ready to move on, there was still no sign of the Big Yin. I messaged him. He’d been through the village, past the cafe and was (supposedly) on the road to our next destination, the Col de Sarenne.

A little later we received a screenshot of a map location with a red dot in the middle of a featureless nowhere and a plaintive “where am I.” We had no idea either. It turns out that, as we headed east toward the Sarenne, the Big Yin was working his way ever northwards until he reached Lac Besson where a local confirmed that no, he wasn’t on the road to the Sarenne, or indeed anywhere near it.

Down by one, we pressed on. The road was much, much rougher, narrower and more gravel-strewn than I recall. It would have reminded me of home, except I don’t think the clartiest farm track in the outer wilds of Northumberland is quite as bad, or certainly not as consistently bad over such a long distance. Traction around the corners felt like a bit of a lottery demanding caution and I was just waiting for a puncture as we rattled and bounced over pots and fissures and cracks, but it was worth it as the scenery was utterly spectacular. Luckily the route was also quiet and we only encountered a single car and a handful of cyclists as we dropped down and then started the climb up to the col.

The climb split us up again, as everyone took it at the own pace, allowing the Hammer time to clamber up above the road and frame me in splendid isolation against an empty landscape in what he termed his epic Rapha shot.

Behind me, Crazy Legs had run out of energy and said he was climbing so slowly that a butterfly had do-si-doed its way through his spokes totally unscathed. He was delighted to finally reach the Col de Sarenne sign, doubly so when he noticed its height was given as 1,999 metres, so he could taunt the Ticker that he hadn’t managed a climb over 2,000 metres yet.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Ticker wandered away to check out some goats in a nearby enclosure and returned fully impressed with just how generously well-endowed they were(?) Meanwhile, in the silent, pale blue high above us, vultures and buzzards circled effortlessly around the peaks.

We didn’t take a group photo around the Col de Sarenne sign, but several shots were added to the collective pool, our favourite resembling the perfect album cover for some moody, mid-80’s synth band, (think Blancmange, or maybe China Crisis.)

Arrivée: Nominated in the category of UK best pop album, 1986

Braking Bad

Crazy Legs announced he was turning back, ostensibly because his legs were empty, but in reality just so he could enjoy the plush, super-smooth descent of the Alpe. In retrospect, we probably should have done the same. The descent off the Sarenne was awful, a steep, narrow and broken track with multiple tight switchbacks, each one swathed in an unstable delta of loose gravel and melting tarmac. There was no opportunity to let the bike run as I followed the Hammer and Ticker down, almost constantly on the brakes. By halfway I was shaking out my hands and trying to gain some relief from the pressure of pulling hard and long on the levers, while from both above and below me the descent was punctuated by continual warning shouts of “gravel!”

On one uncharacteristically long straight, the Hammer called out for space from a French rider who was grinding his way upwards, head down and on the wrong side of the road. The Hammer appeared to get a mouthful of abuse for his warning. I don’t know, maybe the road was so bad it just made everyone tetchy?

The hairpins eased toward the bottom and things became a little easier and almost enjoyable. Then thankfully we were down, although it took a while to finally regroup and recover. The next order of the day was finding somewhere for lunch, which wasn’t looking all that promising as we sped through a number of small, seemingly shuttered hamlets, before stumbling on Les Filles in Mizoën.

They managed to pull together a table for the seven of us inside and served us excellent and inexpensive quiche and salads along with copious drinks. Duly fortified, we had a fast, much more pleasant descent down to a stunning vista above the barrage at Lac Chambon, before clambering into the next valley and taking the road northwest and back to Bourg d’Oisans.

Bomb the Base

Salt-encrusted, sun-baked and empty-legged, most of us sought out a bar in the town for some liquid recovery, while Goose determined he needed more cycling and set off toward Le Riviere d’Allemont, as if drawn there by some strange, unspoken compulsion …

Sitting down in the shade with a well-deserved beer, I was astounded when Buster unzipped to reveal that even in the extreme heat he was wearing a base layer under his jersey. I expected him to claim some sort of scientific mumbo-jumbo about its benefit in wicking away sweat to maintain core temperature, but he admitted it was just so his chest hairs didn’t poke through his jersey in an unsightly manner. Has any man ever suffered more to try and look good on a bike?

Unmuzzled at La Muzzelle

With remarkable foresight, Goose had booked us into a restaurant in town for the night, La Muzzelle and managed to secure a table for all nine of us. It wasn’t positioned exactly to his liking, but he somehow managed to endear himself to the staff while re-arranging their seating in the middle of a busy dinner service.

He then stress-tested his own claim that everything he says passes through careful filters by declaring his dislike of tattoo’s in front of our heavily tattooed waitress and while completely ignorant of any indelible body art his dining companions might be sporting. He then followed up by positing that bald blokes are much more likely to have accidents where they bang their heads.

In amongst this deluge of “carefully filtered” observation and (rocket) fuelled by our waitress introducing us to the local liqueur, Génépi, we tried to come up with a plan for the next day.

We already knew the traditional Circle of Death (5 cols, 170km and 4,250 metres of climbing) was a no-go because the Galibier was closed for resurfacing prior to the Tour. This had been confirmed by the Collapsing Cyclist group from the previous night, who’d ridden it despite being told it was closed and had to force their way back down through the newly laid tarmac. For their troubles, they’d then said they’d spent hours chipping the dried bitumen from their wheels and tyres with multi-tools, not an exercise we were at all keen to indulge in.

The consensus seemed to be to follow our original plan and ride up to Riviere d’Allemont for ravitaillement, keeping both Crazy Legs and Goose happy, then take in the Glandon/Croix de Fer BOGOF. From there, depending on how people felt, we could split, with those wanting to head out further perhaps taking in Les Lacets de Montvernier before returning by more or less the same route.

Once again we had somehow cobbled together a plan, a rendezvous point and a start time. We were all set for the next day.

Day & Date:Friday 17th June
Time:3 hours 27 minutes
Distance:56km
Elevation:1,614 metres
Average Speed:16.1 km/h
Temperature:28℃

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.


NOVATEK CAMERA


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