Alpe D’Huez is on most cyclists’ bucket list. The mere mention of Galibier is enough to make some cycling tragics weak in the knees and a bit misty eyed. Could a mug like me do both in one day??
From our base in Grave, we headed down a spectacular valley. A few years ago, this road was the favourite haunt of a machine known as US Postal, who famously charged down the lower slopes at 60 km/hr to deliver Lance to Le Bourg-d”Oisans, the small village at the base of Alpe D’Huez.
The route also has a special place in Australian cycling history – it was here in 2011 that Cadel made an extraordinary unassisted effort to make some valuable time on his rivals. He wasn’t first up Alpe D’Huez that year, but his ride down from the Lautaret that day was one of the keys to his success that year.
The group left at a sensible pace, given the day ahead. Then Jerard took off. I don’t know what possessed him, maybe he thought he was on the US Postal team, but suddenly it was on. He did a really long turn. I sat back for quite a while. Then, I thought, if he can be an idiot, why can’t I? So I sped past him and set the pace. For about 30 seconds, I was strong. Then I was cooked. OK, peel off, I settled in behind Steve, who was next in the line, ‘for a rest’.
Steve Cunningham, our tour leader, is one of the most humble, unassuming men I have ever met. He also happens to be an ex-professional cyclist and is still in very good shape. He has tolerated our various foibles on this trip with remarkable equanimity. He has guided us at very respectable pace throughout the week. But, if we wanted to play, he was quite happy to join in. I was on his wheel for a few minutes. I am pretty sure he was only in tempo mode but I found myself struggling to get my breath back. I braved a glance down at my Garmin and saw I was churning out 380 watts in his slipstream. Whooo, boy, time to ease off – this isn’t my league. I fell off the back. We still had a lot of cycling to do.
Alpe D’Huez is a ski resort. It isn’t extraordinarily high (1,860 m) and the climb isn’t particular long by the standards of this region (13.8 km @ 8.1% average). Those who watched the stage in last year’s race would realise that the village isn’t even at the top of the mountain – the Col du Sarenne is a further 8 km and 228 vertical metres up the road. The main reason it has iconic status as a Tour climb is the fact that it is one of the few locations in France that has the infrastructure to host an uphill finish. On race day, its slopes host hundreds of thousands of spectators, some camping out for days in order to obtain their favourite vantage point. The hill has become the people’s favourite.
We had been warned not to overcommit on the lower slopes, in particular to save our legs for the final few km, where there a few pitches of 10 – 12%. I headed up the hill, counting down the 22 numbered corners. I tried to maintain a steady tempo, keeping my power within 10-15 watts of an output that I knew I could sustain for an hour. Surprisingly, Jerard stayed in my sight. He looked uncomfortable – his upper body was swaying, his rhythm was off, it was obvious he was having a bad day. Later he was to discover that his back brake was rubbing slightly, but neither of us knew it at the time (I honestly swear that the 5 minutes I spent with his bike at the coffee break was spent looking at the geometric aspects of the frame….).
Three quarters of the way up the climb I was feeling good enough to pull my phone out and took a quick snap of the valley below. It wasn’t too long before we were at the outskirts of the village. We rode through the souvenir shops that are clustered around the false finish, Jerard less than 50 metres ahead of me. I had followed him all the way up the hill but had ignored the temptation to catch him for a number of reasons, not the least being the likelihood that I would blow up if I tried. We were on a relaxing holiday, a cycling tour, not a race. My aim was to maintain my tempo, my own pace until the finish.
But we were on the upper slopes of Alpe D’Huez.
And there was a Dome boy, looking slightly vulnerable, just ahead.
Not long after the final switchback I bridged and we rode together under the tunnel. The actual TDF finish line is surprisingly difficult to find. Predictably, Dome-boy missed the right hander shortly after the tunnel. I was really tempted to hit him then but chivalry got the better of me so I waited while Steve guided him back casino onto the course. Due to some administrative blunder this section of the road was still open to the public, so, ushered by Steve, we took the first roundabout on the straight section slowly. The second and final roundabout beckoned, the finishing line 250 m up a gradual slope to the left.
It was almost time to attack. Dome-boy isn’t renowned for his bravery around difficult turns and the previous morning I had a master-class in cornering from Steve, a guy who has mixed it with the best in the sport.
Time to go.
I smashed the corner (after first checking for on-coming traffic, Robyn) and charged up the hill, the finishing line on Alpe D’Huez in my sights.
The crowds were going wild, the noise was deafening. I had 2 bike lengths on Dome-boy when the 100 metre sign flashed by. He isn’t a strong sprinter. The stage was mine!
My head became giddy – the podium, the champagne, the fame. Would they rename one of the switchbacks after me? Years on the circuit have ensured that I am fluent in French & Italian of course, but my Spanish, Dutch & German are rudimentary at best – would they provide an interpreter when I faced the international press??
There was one small, technical hitch.
On a scale of sprinting prowess that scores Jerard as ‘not strong’, I would be classified as ‘not even pathetic’. There was a whoosh – he was gone. Game over.
I limped across the line. No kisses from the podium girls for me.
We regrouped and had lunch. ½ the tour group headed back down the hill, the rest of us rode on up to the Col du Sarenne. For me, this was the most enjoyable part of the day. The road past the resort was relatively free of cyclists (unlike the lower slopes) and the higher reaches offered amazing views in all directions. Sarenne means ‘serene’ and it is aptly named.
The road was narrow but in good condition up to the Col. Unfortunately, the descent was a bit like riding on a goat track. The tarmac was pot-holed and we had as a bonus recently laid tar (still sticky) with loose gravel around it. I think our descent times were similar to our climbing times – Mark Schneider, not known as the most fearless of descenders, was actually first to the bottom. It wasn’t much fun at all.
Back on good road and it was a long slow haul back up the valley, through Grave and up the Col du Lautaret (a route that will be ridden on stage 14 of this year”s tour). From here it was only eight kilometres to Galibier. We had originally planned to ride the pass via the classic route that incorporates the Col du Telegraph but weather conditions the previous day meant that the program had to be rearranged and we were thus on the less travelled but equally challenging southern approach.
Eight kilometres isn’t far – I ride further than that to work each day.
I gulped when I was shown a tiny speck, impossibly high, and was told it was a car just about to reach the Col. There was no thought of turning back, though, having come this far. We all refuelled and headed up the mountain.
My legs were getting tired but all I knew I had to do was tap out a steady rhythm and I would get there. I was really appreciative of the 29 tooth cassette that I had bought after suffering on the Col D’Agnel. However, despite maintaining what I felt was a constant effort, I noticed my power output slowly falling. I tapped the headset a few times, hoping it might have been due a sticky dial, but no difference. I think the altitude, the long day, the long week, finally caught up with me.
Jerard and I were together till 3 kilometres from the pass. He sat in front for a while and then gradually started pulling away. When he saw me off the back he kindly offered to wait so we could finish the climb together but I waved him on – it would have been great way to end the ride but I couldn’t lift my speed and I was worried he would seize up if he sat up – 3 kilometres was still a long way on that road at that altitude.
We both made it to the top of Galibier, tired but happy, a real sense of achievement. Our reward, again, was magnificent views. It was bitterly cold up at the top so I was grateful to be able to hop in the van and put on my warm clothes before posing for a picture.
The descent was challenging. Despite wearing two pairs of gloves, within a couple of minutes my fingers were numb and gripping the brakes was quite difficult. It was late in the day but the skies were clear and the breeze was slight, conditions infinitely better than encountered by the pros coming off Stelvio at the Giro this year – I have no idea how they managed to stay on their bikes in such freezing weather, I couldn’t have done it.
As I got lower in the valley I started to get some circulation back and the last few kilometres back to Grave were memorable – clear views, smooth roads, 5% gradient and home not too far away.
Kudos again to Steve, Michelle and the team at procyclingtours for facilitating the ride. Tasked with shepherding a very disparate group of cyclists, they managed to get all riders up Alpe D’Huez and, with the judicious usage of a van shuffle or two, all but two of the group up the Galibier. A very impressive effort.
Numbers-wise, the six of us who rode the full route managed 128 km with about 3,280 m of climbing. Alpe D’Huez took me 1:03, Jerry a bit less. We were a long, long way off the pros’ times but still pretty happy with our efforts.
Another fantastic day of cycling.
The beer tasted good that night.