Alpe D’Huez - on a bike not a chairlift!
Well, that was a nice little thing to tick-off the bucket list without me even realising that it should have been on there all along! Why wasn’t it? I love cycling. I watch the Tours and yet it never struck me that one day I’d like to complete the Alpe D’Huez Climb and I’d pop a little satisfying ‘tick’ next to it.
I must admit, my quest for adventure might not be supersized these days due to raising my little ‘cherubs’ and having less free time. And with that, I realise that my bucket list aspirations have been a little underwhelming lately. Gone are the days of ticking off Scuba diving in Dubai, adventuring through the Rockies in a campervan, riding the highest rollercoaster in the world, Canoeing through the Ardeche and swimming with wild dolphins in New Zealand.
Nowadays my adventures are smaller; more modest opportunities that appear when trying to give the family nice experiences. They aren’t meticulously planned but loosely based around suggestions of ‘while we are there, we could…….’
So this year our trip to France in the touring caravan was the perfect chance to take a bike and get up into the Alps. What for it!…………’While we are there, we could cycle Alpe D’Huez!’
Now Alpe d’Huez hardly needs an introduction. Fausto Coppi won the first Tour de France stage finishing at the summit in 1952 and ever since, the climb’s name has been on the lips of everyone, who has fallen in love with cycling. It propelled the sport into a new, modern era and instantly achieved legendary status. In the 80s and 90s, Alpe d’Huez was included in pretty much every edition of the Tour.
Prior to arriving in Alps, we’d travelled and cycled around the beautiful region of Annecy with its winding roads and lumpy hills. This very much felt like my ‘tasse du thé.’
For the Alps, we’d planned 5 days on the outskirts of the village of Bourg D’Oisan. For the initiated mountain pass riders, you may have been here. This region has cyclists of all nationalities, looking lean and swanning about in kit as ‘cool as cucumbers.’ As it was, with ‘Covid’ currently living her best life, the number of cyclists compared to usual was apparently thin on the ground. It didn’t seem that way, so I can only imagine it’s usually swarming with cyclists.
My husband suggests, ‘Before Alpe D’huez, let’s do a couple of Cols?’
So that evening, after a full-on day with the kids, 35 degrees heat and a stomach full of chilli, we decided to squeeze in a local Col.
Col d’Oulles sounded like a nice little leg-spin - even though we couldn’t say it……. Do less, D’oulay, that Col that starts with an ‘O’, that Col over there’ *points. Our Franglaise was rubbish.
Well, that was a wake-up call if ever there was one. This climb was relentless and hot; even at seven o’clock in the evening, it was 28 degrees. To experience the heights that you quickly achieve riding up these passes, is something I’ve never really felt in the UK. I’d never felt vertigo on my bike before. With a bit of huffing and puffing we made it up 6.3km with an average gradient of 9.7%. On the way down, we looked over the edge and took photos. Were we on a mountain pass or were we looking out of an aeroplane window? You have to see these things to believe them.
Back to the caravan for a well-earned Stella Artois and debrief. I’d decided that this ride made me a little bit worried as the Alpe D’Huez climb was 3 miles longer. It also brought to light that we needed to do it during a cooler part of the day and perhaps not stuffed with dinner. I was assured that Oulles was steeper and I just needed to cycle for a bit longer by comparison.
Just for good measure, and thinking that a recce might help, we went up and down it in the car to take the kids on the luge at the top. Towards the top third, the cyclists seem to be pedalling squares and you get the impulse to shout, ‘Awesome, keep going!’ and give them a clap out of the window. You cannot imagine what 21 hairpin bends looks like until going up them. They don’t even fit in any photos! – Well, maybe one taken from space!
If it doesn’t scare you going up, it definitely scares you coming down. I’m pressing an imaginary brake in the passenger footwell as the husband drove the car down a little too excitably for my liking. It might have been pedestrian for the French who can, and do overtake in a heartbeat! Setting of from Allemont, we made our way to the bottom of the climb and posed for the iconic photo at the ‘Depart, 0 Kms done’ tombstone.
Each bend has a number decreasing to zero at the very top. For the first 6 bends (Base to La Garde) we decided on an ‘easy does it’ approach as bite off more than you can chew at this stage, and the rest will get the better of you. These are the toughest of the mountain bends, averaging around 11% gradient.
Very quickly you start to give yourself little pep talks after each bend. ‘Hurray, we’ve done 7 already’. I constantly did the maths: 21 – n = number of bends left to go.
From La Garde, (middle 10 bends, bends 15 to 6) it’s up past bend 14 where there’s a monument dedicated to Joachim Agostinho, a Portuguese rider who cycled in the Tour de France 13 times, winning it on the Col in 1979 and sadly died in a cycling accident at 41. You then cycle a string of corners before you reach the church of Saint-Ferréol. Gradients in this section are still a hefty old 8-9% but they’ll feel easier than the first bends.
I was excited about seeing Dutch Corner at bend 7 – an iconic scene on TV often adorned with orange-clad Dutch. I was hoping a Dutch person might spring out into the road, offering a can of lager (as I’d once seen on YouTube) but not today! Not an orange garment in sight, no chaos, no frivolity and no beer either. (What I wanted V’s reality 😊)
Time for a quick on-the-move photo, then onwards and upwards and I do believe the temperature dropped by a degree or two. There are some welcome shaded parts on the road but in late July you are always going to feel the heat.
The concrete wall on the right-hand side of the road had some sort of magnetism. I constantly tried to get away from the edge of it where I could see a shear drop down the mountainside. Curiously, I noticed little droppings on the walls on the way up. Some berry eating animals that weren’t phased by the dizzying heights on the other side. This ‘spot more droppings’ obsession helped in someway to stop me from thinking about the continuous climb ahead and took the attention off the flying juggernauts that make your internal organs squeeze as they pass by. There is a cruel spot where you hit the village of Huez and you think it’s over. There is another 5 km of climbing at that point! Thank goodness for the prior recce. I was prepared for the series of stinging bends which are as difficult as the first. It’s only in the last three kilometres that you find some respite with average gradients of 5-6%.
Now, one might be feeling a bit tired at this stage but there’s no time to look dishevelled. Get your smile on and look like you can ride a bike because the professional photographers jump into action and give you the paparazzi treatment.
The last few pedal turns and the excitement of finishing is palpable as you enter the oasis of the mountain village. A feeling of achievement makes you appreciative of being able to cycle and to know the freedom of riding a bike. The realisation of how high you are, and how much you’d like to drink coffee only comes second to, ‘Where’s that podium? I need to prove I’ve been up here’.
It’s not the longest, steepest or highest climb in the world, but Alpe d’Huez is called iconic for a reason. The going gets tough from kilometre zero and the relentless slopes don’t ease off until the final 3km. For just over 13km long, maximum gradient is 13% while the average is just above 8% and deserves every cyclist’s respect.
If you have a remote chance of doing it, make sure that you do. You will be reminded of it every year when you watch the Tour de France and you can announce to everyone, ‘I did that!’; I know I will be.
Now, what’s next for the bucket list?
Update – My cyclist buddy looked at my memento socks and pointed out the little Marmott on the back. Ah, the penny drops. The little bundles of fruit stones left on the walls are from the Marmots. Cute!