Wednesday July 11:
I’ve been watching the Tour de France for decades and cycling since I can remember. The name “Alpe d’Huez” is ingrained in the imagination of any fan of cycling. It may not be the toughest climb on the Pro circuit, it may not be the longest, or the most scenic to ride, but the 21 hairpin bends over the 9 mile/13km ascent make it the most iconic I think.
The reason we are in Bourg d’Oisins, just South East of Grenoble, was a selfish one. I wanted to ride up Alpe d’Huez.
(Click for larger images)
Before we get to the climb it’s worth mentioning the overall scenery here. It’s truly epic, awesome (in the true meaning of the words). The mountains rise so abruptly out of town that you have to physically look up to see any sky.
Bourg d’Oisins would be a nice enough place to stay even without the scenery, it’s bustling (mainly with cyclists but presumably with skiers in winter as well) and has bars and restaurants.
We stayed at one of many campsites in town, Camping le Colporteur. It’s a really nice site, decent pitches and a bar/restaurant from where you can watch England being knocked out of the World Cup (although you need to wait 4 years for that experience). It’s a 10 minute stroll into the town centre.
Because the Tour de France was coming to town in exactly one week there were only 2 nights available. That was fine as we were coming to the end of our trip but, next year, if Bourg is used for the Tour de France, I’d like to book a spot and soak up the buzz of the TdF carnival.
Thursday July 12:
So, to the climb. I’d set my alarm for 6:30 for a 7:30 start. I’d planned to bring my “bling” Carbon Fibre road bike but, at the last minute, didn’t fancy having it on the back of Humberto for 3 weeks, just for this one morning. That left me with my trusty old 1996 Saracen “camping bike”. It’s heavy but it has big tyres and big brakes, not so good for the ascent but reassuring on the way down.
I got to the starting point, 1km from town, just over the river, and set off.
The climb is a series of 21 numbered hairpin bends and I had an unpleasant shock when I discovered it was a long, steep, climb just to get to #21. You basically count down the corners until you get to #1 from where you can see the finish. I stopped and took off a few layers of clothing as I was getting hot just getting to the first bend. I had a swig of water and set off for a few more bends.
To cut a long story short it took me the best part of 2 hours steady climbing to get to the top. That included stopping to take photos and videos. I think it’s a 1.5 hour climb for me if I ever decide to set a time on a decent bike. It’s relentless ascent though, the only brief respite from the gradient is at the hairpins themselves, where it flattens out for about 20 metres, and that’s only on the left-hand ones. The right-hand bends get steeper around the turn.
After about 90 minutes and with 4 bends to go the summit still seems impossibly high. I hadn’t had breakfast and I was starting to run on empty. It was a relief to “top out” at the cafes and shops for a Coffee and a delicious Tarte au Pomme.
The descent was fantastic. Is there anywhere in Britain where you can ride 9 miles without pedalling? The only advice I’d give about the descent is to make sure your brakes and cables are checked. If your brakes fail on the descent then you will end up in a whole heap of trouble and, presumably, pain. You pick up speed very quickly and then need to scrub-off that speed very quickly, 21 times. The phrase “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” sprung to mind several times on the way down.
Eventually I caught the local bus on its way down and I just followed it down. I saw maybe 50-100 cyclists coming back up at 10am. It’s clear that several tour companies bring customers in minibuses to the town, around 9am, and guide them up the climb. I didn’t envy them as the roads were in full sun at 10am and I wouldn’t have liked the additional difficulty of doing it in 27degC.
All in all it was the most spectacular breakfast ride I’ve ever done or will probably ever do. It’s a “must do” for any keen cyclist if you are in the area and there are 4 or 5 other big Tour de France climbs within 30 minutes drive of Bourg.
I was back at Humberto around 10am. After lunch in town we prepared to move on, Northward, and make space for the TdF party.
You can watch a video of my ride here. Please subscribe to Humberto’s Youtube channel if you enjoy such things.