While out on a local ride with Phil, back in June 2017, he threw out the idea of climbing some proper mountains. This was something he had not done before and I suggested that it could easily be done, and the seed of an idea was planted.We decided to run the idea past a few friends who we ride with regularly and see if they were up for the challenge.
The invites went out and we eventually had a team of four, as Michiel and Mark signed up. We chose the French town of Le Bourg d’Oisans as the base, because it is at the foot of Alpe d’huez, surrounded by some well known climbs, and regarded as a cycling hotspot. An email to Helen at More than 21 Bends secured four beds for six nights at the end of May, when we hoped there would still be evidence of snow.
After a team meeting in January we decided it would be a great to turn the journey in to a 780 mile road trip, all the way to the mountains. Mark kindly offered the use of his VW van, but this would mean leaving Market Harborough at about 20:30 after everyone finished work, then driving through the night, to hopefully arrive mid day.
We made it to Folkestone in time for the 01:30 train and, being a man of leisure, I was probably the most rested, so took the graveyard shift from Calais. This leg started at 02:50 local time and lasted through until 05:30, leaving us close the Reims, ready for the next driver to take over. It really was the “graveyard shift” dark, raining, and foggy most of the way. Thankfully Michiel kept me alert and on the right track.
Sure enough, we made it to Bourg by 12:30.
The accommodation turns out to be perfect, with bike storage, tools, cleaning kit, cosy rooms and great breakfasts, plus good advise on local routes.
We were to be joined by Michiel’s brother Derk for a few days, as he had made the journey from Holland to test himself on the mountains.
With a quick unload, unpack and bike check, then we were out on the bikes by 15:45 for a much needed leg stretch after such a long drive. We made a plan to ride down the valley to Allemond, have a look at the reservoir, then loop back to Le Bourg d’Oisans in time for dinner.
As we approached the roundabout near the base of Alpe d’Huez, a lady on a bike told us about a new bike trail, which kept us off the main road, thankfully as it was covered in road works, and it takes you out along the river, La Romanche, all the way to Allemont.
Once in Allemont we took the signs for the start of the Croix de Fer and start up the D526, round the right hand side of the reservoir and on to a handy 1Km climb of between 10% and 16%. That got the legs working! Once over the climb, a left turn and we roll down the back of the water and in to Allemont again.
Once back on the bike trail we push along nicely and get back to base quite quickly.
We wake up on Friday to glorious sunshine, the perfect conditions to do our first big climb, Alpe d’Huez.
There’s not much to say about this climb that hasn’t been said a million times, it’s such an icon in cycle racing. All the guides tell you the first 4km are steep and should be taken steadily. What the fail to tell you is that the remaining 8km is also steep and painful, but truly stunning as you get closer to the top. As with all climbs, we all have our own pace, so we regroup for a quick refuel in Huez and share tales of our individual journey up.
The view from the first bend down from the visitors centre stops you in your tracks, as you see Le Bourg in the valley and some of the 21 bends. We then roll down six or seven bends and take the road to Villard-Reculas, a stunning village perched on the top of the mountain.
This road takes us through a beautiful descent all the way back to the reservoir at Allemont again. This would be a nice challenging alternative route to the top of Alpe d’Huez.
Once in Allemont we head for lunch in the restaurant actually built out on the water. A truly idyllic location.
After lunch we headed back to Bourg, down the cycle track along the edge of the river. Suddenly some post-lunch enthusiasm kicks in as we think we can get the KOM for the flat stretch. We all take a pull on the front until Michiel, the “steam train”, comes through and we all get on his wheel. The punch line is that Mark and I get the KOM, but Michiel, who did all the work doesn’t even have the segment on his Strava, let alone the KOM.
You have to laugh….don’t you?
When we hit the main road we take a right and head up the D526, heading for Ornon, then we take a left on to the D210 in the direction of Villard Reymond. The road climbs up through a series of cracking switchbacks for about 10Km, with gradients of around 10% to 12%. We don’t go all the way to the top as we know that the return over the other side of the mountain has tunnels that require lights and we want to save that route for later in the week.
Total 68Km and 1800m of accents.
Saturday morning and we had promised ourselves another good climb. The weather was a bit overcast, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm.
The plan was to ride up the Col de la Croix de Fer, then drop back to the Col du Glandon. We knew Glandon was shut as a through road, but we should be able to reach the summit.
Croix de Fer has some real bite to it, climbing as soon as you leave Allemont, with ramps up to 13% until you reach Le Rivier d’Allemont. The road then takes a sudden downward tilt at 13%+ for a couple of kilometres before throwing you at a wall of 13%. Once over tge wall it levels, a bit, after 2Km then starts a continuous pull for 16Km to the top, past the dam and on to the summit, with only a 1km downhill section to rest the legs.
Just as I approach the top, a handful of large snow boulders crash down the bank at the side and splatter all over the road. I keep an eye open for more, but get lucky.
Mark is waiting at the top, sheltering in front of the closed café, so we wait a while for others to catch up. Phil is next at which point we decide to drop to Glandon, hopefully catching Michiel and Derk to let them know where we are going. We pass them on the way down and head for Glandon.
Down at Glandon, skiers are loading up their backpacks and heading up to the peaks to the top of the remaining snow, then skiing back to their vehicles and having BBQ’s.
We see that the sky is starting to close in and this is quite a steep descent, so Mark and I head off and tell Phil that we are going to stop in the café at Le Rivier d’Allemont for lunch.
The descent is a blast and we get our heads down and fly all the way to the dip prior the lunch stop. We drag up the 2Km climb and pile in to the café just as the heavens open. Phil is not far behind and we tuck in to lunch, Michiel and Derk heading back to Bourg as Derk has to be out of his hotel by 15:00.
The service in the restaurant was awful, but when there is no competition, “what ya gonna do?”
We leave and drop back in to Allemont, take the cycle route down the edge of the river and head for the Café de Paris, where we meet Michiel and Derk and grab a brew. We say our goodbyes to Derk and head home.
Total 79Km and 1800m of accents.
Sunday morning and it’s a little overcast, but promises to clear. Derk has now left us and is on his way home to Holland. Phil has chosen to have a day off the bike to sight see and chill in Bourg. That leaves me with the two fast guys, Mark and Michiel, so it could be a lonely day 😁.
The idea is to climb the Col du Lautaret, heading out on the D1091 and keep going until your head hits the ceiling. Within about 3km the asphalt starts to ramp up, gently at first, then a big tilt until it reaches about 10Km, then drops in to the village of Le Freney d’Oisans. Once through the village you cross the dam at the end of Lac du Chambon and the climb becomes steady and very picturesque.
After about 90 minutes and 30Km we reach La Grave and stop for a coffee in a typical village café, “a local café for local people”.
Fuelled up, we head off for the final 10Km to the Col, not overly steep, just constant, with stunning views and the trace of a head wind. I keep a steady tempo, which I think is too slow for the others, so with 5Km to go, I suggest they crack on and we regroup at the top. As we continue to climb we lose the tree cover and it is just exposed mountains now. At that point that head wind makes me wish I had just connected a rope to Mark and Michiel instead of letting them go.
I slowly winch my way to the top, probably 10 minutes behind them, but giving them time to find somewhere for a well deserved lunch.
Lunch is great, but, after that last 3Km anything would taste good!
We check out the road to Le Galibier, but it is still closed and you can see the snow overhanging the road as it disappears round the headland. Unfinished business I think and an excuse to come back again.
All that is left now is to descend back to Le Freney d’Oisans, where we can decide which way back to go. The descent is fast, broken up by one photo opportunity after another. It really is stunning, especially when you don’t have to pedal.
At Le Freney d’Oisans we decide to take a right through the village and take the road in the direction of Auris. As we set off we can see where the road goes, right up over the ridge, and for the next 8Km we climb, mainly between 9% and 15%, until we meet the turn for Auris ski station.
We ride on and the road leads in to Les Balcons d’Auris. From the balconies you get the most spectacular view of the valley as you pass beneath the concrete snow shelters dotted along the route. When we hit La Garde the heavens open, so we shelter under the eaves of a house for 5 minutes. From La Garde we roll along to the D211, Alpe d’Huez climb, coming out at bend 16, just five from the bottom. Thankfully only five, because the rain has made the road a bit shiny, so we take care as we mix with cars and motorbikes, all in a hurry to get in to the valley.
A quick sprint through town and we are back at base and get chance to clean and check the bikes.
Phil has spend a good part of the day reading a book on the high passes in Europe, and making a note of those he wants to do. That’s another one hooked!
Total 87Km and 1965m of accents.
On Monday we decide to climb up the opposite side of the valley to Les Balcons d’Auris, which we understand offers a great view of the Alpe d’Huez climb.
The morning is overcast, but still warm as we roll out of town for a short warm up before the climb bites. We have been warned that we need lights as there are several tunnels on the climb, some with bends in and therefore pitch black. The road ramps up to 13% and we soon find out how dark “dark” is. When the pitch is 13% a 500m tunnel in the dark feels like it takes an eternity, but as you round the bend light floods in and you can see the valley sides again.
The climb continues for around 10Km, hairpin after hairpin, ramp after ramp, as we pass through the tunnels. It is a tough climb averaging 9%, but ramping much higher. We only meet two vehicles coming down and are surprised that they would choose to use this road. We find out why later.
Once we top out on this part of the climb we arrive at Villard-Notre-Dame, a small village with a café overlooking the valley floor. Not surprisingly we are her only customers and as we sit outside it starts to rain, not heavy enough to worry about.
After the break we continue a gentle climb for another 3Km, but now the road has turned in to a gravel path, hence the traffic we saw on the ascent. The barrier wall has also now disappeared and the path is no more than a metre wide, covered on boulders with sections where it just drops away. We reach the point where we are opposite Huez and if the weather had been good, it would have been spectacular.
As we crest this final part of the climb there is a holiday village, Villard-Reymond, and the road starts to become surfaced again, just in time for the descent. We are now at the top of the climb we started on day 2, after we rode Alpe d’Huez, so we know it is steep and we need to be careful as it is damp under the trees.
Despite that, we average 30 kph to the bottom and pop out at Ornon, where we regroup. A left turn takes us in the direction of the Col d’Ornon, 6km and 340m of ascent. The sun has now come out, which has made it more pleasant, but reaching in to my pocket I realise I have not loaded any bars, and I am starting to get hungry. As we get on the climb Mark and Michiel slowly pull away, leaving Phil and I to keep each other company. I am a getting a bit grumpy, so I know I am getting hungry and it takes everything I have to hang on Phil’s wheel.
The restaurant at the top of the Col is empty and we ask if they can make us some sandwiches. They look doubtful, but when they come out it is as if someone had put on a banquet. Amazing bread, cheese and ham, a recommended stop for anyone and for me, it was just in time.
Rested and fed, we set of back down back to base. I still felt a little “out of it”, so took a very gentle trip down the descent, watching the others zoom off in to the distance. I finally start feeling normal, well as normal as I get, with a few Km to go, so my pace picks back up again, collecting Michiel by the time we reached Ornon.
Shortly afterwards, we hit the junction with the D1091 back to Bourg, Mark and Phil were just down the road, spotted us and got a gallop on, expecting Michiel to “get on it” and chase them down…..he did not disappoint. I on the other hand, strolled back in at my own pace.
Total 45Km and 1400m of accents.
We are already on our final day, the sun is shining and we are all agreed that we should have a sight seeing day out to La Bérarde, in the Encrin national park.
We retrace our route towards The Col du Lautaret, but take a right turn at the 5Km point, signposted La Bérarde. The road is beautiful as soon as you enter it, with green mountain sides and snow capped peaks. We really did pick a good time to visit this area of France.
We crack on for an hour ramping up to 10%, then levelling off, then ramping up again. We spot a café on the right with old bikes outside, inviting us in. It would have been rude not to. To the rear of the café is a stunning waterfall, which makes a great backdrop as we take our break.
About 10 minutes up the road from the cafe I spot a road high up the mountain side and it dawns on us, that is our road. Just as I point it out to the guys we hit a hairpin with a water sport adventure business on it, and the road swings round and, you guessed it…up, steep up.
We now climb for the next hour, hour and a half, stopping for photos and just blown away by the views. We pass through a natural “gateway”, which opens up to a beautiful valley, with patches of snow, waterfalls from snow melt and a massive snow capped peak at the end of it, with clouds wafting over the peak. Just stunning!
We have reached a section where perspective shifts as you loose reference points, so unless you look at you Garmin, you don’t know if it’s flat up hill or downhill, and because you have been on 11% pitches, 2% climbs kinda feel flat anyway. This is even more noticeable on the way back.
At the end of the road is a nice café on the edge of the river, under a waterfall. Again, top marks on the sandwich front, enhanced by the surroundings.
All that is left now is the ride back to Bourg, the first part of which is the confusing uphill/downhill/flat part. Once through the natural gateway again and it all breaks loose as gravity takes over, and Mark and I have a rush of blood to the head.
We regroup in Venosc, 700m below lunch, having put brakes and tyres to the test……both passed 😁.
We roll out as a group on to the D1091, heading for Bourg d’Oisans, when some kind of Team Time Trial kicks off and I find myself doing over 60kph. I realise this is the last part of the trip and excuse myself in order to enjoy the final kilometres.
When I roll in to town, the horses are tied up outside Café de Paris, and drinks are being ordered. I push the boat out and order hot chocolate, while the others order a beer. The waiter asks if I am ill 😁.
Total 66Km and 1200m of accents.
All of the above routes can be found in the great booklet which most shops and hotels give away, or downloaded here.
We left Bourg d’Oisans at 08:30 on the Wednesday morning after an early breakfast and hit the autoroute, and the only real snarl up in France was when I started to drove near Dijon, and I also took a wrong turn on to the ring road. The less said about that the better.
With Phil and Michiel’s help we arrived at Calais in time to catch an early train, getting us in tot he UK at around 20:30. Mark took over in the UK and all went smooth, until we got to the A14 turn at Huntingdon. We were routed out to he A1 junction, as normal, then when we hit the roundabout for the A1/A14, all the exits were shut, apart from the road we had just come in on. There had been no signage saying it was closed, so we had to return to the A14/A1M link and head towards Peterborough, then loop down some of the sketchiest backroads in the dark.
Still, we all got back safe and sound by midnight after a great mini adventure in to Europe. Great work guys, I enjoyed every minute of it.