Four go cycling in the Alpes
In 2003, Keith, Mark and I cycled Lands End to John O’Groats (LEJOG). It was a fantastic experience and one we all really enjoyed. At the finish – beer involved probably – we talked about what we would like to do as a new challenge and tackling some of the classic Tour De France climbs you see those lycra clad nutters cycle over every July came up in conversation. This year is Keith’s 50th birthday so what better excuse do we need to put the talk into action.
Since LEJOG Neil has joined us on our annual long weekend cycle trips that tend to involve 3 days cycling and copious amounts of the aforementioned beer. Needless to say, we have had many adventures along the way and met many ‘interesting’ people that have provided material for anecdotes to keep our friends and families ‘amused’ on many a winter’s night.
So the time has come. Leave was negotiated with respective other half’s and Keith’s Mazda Bongo was fully prepared for the trip to the Alps. Keith was very disappointed with the fuel situation in France having to run the Bongo on diesel, instead of … ahem … ‘bio-diesel’ (or vegetable oil to you and me), as he normally does due to the expense of said product in French supermarkets.
Our initial destination was Saint Jean de Maurienne, SE of Chambery in the French Alps which happens to be hosting a Tour De France stage finish this year on July 13th. The municipal campsite, complete with secure cycle storage, provided a friendly and excellent base to start our Alp’s cycling experience.
Croix de Fer
Our first day and we chose to cycle the Col de la Croix de Fer, at a height of 2068m, via the Col du Glandon, a frequent point on the Tour de France which the aforementioned nutters climb over on their way to Paris. It quickly became apparent that although the hills weren’t as steep as some of the climbs in Devon and Cornwall, they just go up. No short flats or downs, just up and up and up until you reach the top providing no respite for the legs along the way. Helpfully every kilometre, just in case you needed reminding you were going up a mountain, an indicator by the roadside in the shape of what can only be described as a tombstone, indicates your height above sea level and the % gradient of the next kilometre. Thanks!
The 19km climb to Col du Glandon was breathtaking (and that’s not just because of the cycling), as the road snaked its way up the alpine valley. The legs and lungs coped well with only the occasional ‘photo stop’ required. On reaching the top we celebrated with a beer, (what else), before beginning the long descent, an event that we were all looking forward too. Unfortunately though it was some what disappointing as the road was not a good surface and it was by now raining, so we had to reign in the enthusiasm and apply brakes as we wanted to live to cycle another day. By the time the campsite was reached you could’ve fried an egg on the wheel rims.
Col du Galibier
The following day arrived and the Tour de France legend which is the Col du Galibier appeared on our cycle radar. The route began with a short 12km 700m climb up the Col du Telegraphe, which compared to our next Col on the route was a mere lump. Descending a short distance into Valloire we then hit the start of the 19km climb up to the Col de la Galibier standing at a huge 2645m above sea level.
The road wound its way relatively gently (only 6% gradient) up a beautiful alpine valley with steep cliffs and peaks either side, until a hairpin bend after about 10km signified the start of where it was going to get serious. By this time the temperature was dropping as we headed into the clouds, and despite the fact it was June, it started snowing. By the time we negotiated our way through the 3m high snow walls either side of the mountain road and got to the top it was, to coin a phrase, ‘bloody freezing’. But that was nothing compared to the descent as we headed back the way we came. The combination of height, snow, cold, wind and speed, meant that within minutes you couldn’t feel your fingers or much else for that matter. Stopping to regroup halfway down we were shaking violently with the cold and requests were being made for our Mummy’s. Back into the village of Valloire and a unanimous decision was made for hot chocolate to thaw out and a visit to the loo with a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass, before the short climb back up the Telegraphe and then the drop to the car.
Despite the cold the descent was superb. The drop off the Galibier we took slowly to start but once back to the valley the final km’s into Valloire were fairly straight meaning we could let off the brakes. The drop off the Telegraphe though had us all grinning from ear to ear as we switch-backed from hairpin to hairpin reaching speeds of up to 48mph. Crackin!
Next on the list was the The Tour fabled Alpe D’Huez. A short climb of 1100 metres over 12km including 21 hairpin bends. Many a battle has been fought in the Tour De France as the riders ascend this climb in as little as 39 minutes. I took ….1hr 30 mins. Suppose I better cancel my Tour de France entry then! Although in my defence it was snowing at the top. Having learnt from yesterday, Mark and Keith decided to buy some full fingered gloves. Rather than spend a fortune on specialist ‘lycra gore-tex climadry 100% waterproof airtex gloves’, they decided for the cheaper option. Out of the choice of oven gloves or marigolds, the marigolds won……. and worked a treat.
The mighty Ventoux
Our final day meant relocation to Provence to tackle the monster that is Mount Ventoux. Although only a tad under 2000m, it was a 1600m climb to the top from out campsite. Ventoux is fabled for its completely bare and arid upper flanks, its hard climb frequently in Mediterrainian heat, the Mistral wind, and also for the early death of British Tour de France rider Tommy Simpson who collapsed and died 1.8km from the top on the 1967 tour. His last words were reported as being ‘Put me back on my bike’ although this is probably a popular myth and in reality he was reported to have said ‘on on on’. His death was put down to his body being pushed to the limit by alcohol and amphetamines (a practise that seemed common place in 60’s cycling and who can blame him seeing how tough the Tour was and still is), with his heart giving up the ghost with a massive heart attack. A memorial now exists on or about the spot he died so we decided to pay homage on our way up.
An early start to avoid the Mistral that blows stronger as the day progresses meant we started to tackle the 21km climb at 7:45am. It ascends through a pine forest for 15km before poking out of the trees and the final 6km across the sun baked rocks to the summit. Passing Tommy’s memorial we stopped and cracked open a bottle of London Pride beer as a toast – we feel he would’ve approved. The final push for the summit and we joined the throngs of tourists at the top visiting the gift shop and taking in the amazing 360 degree view. After another beer to celebrate our last big summit of the week, it was finally perfect conditions for our final descent ……. and descend we did!
We averaged 54kph over the 21km descent, overtaking cyclists, motorbikes and cars as we went. It was a thrilling end to our week and pumped with adrenaline we arrived back at the Bongo in only 23 minutes, having taken about 2 and half hours to climb it. I can safely say we were the fastest people off the mountain that day.
A fitting end to our introduction to big classic Tour de France climbs . . . . . and descents! I can watch The Tour (July 3rd to 25th 2010) and really appreciate what incredible athletes those guys are.
Another great experience and we shall all remember and bore people with a new batch of anecdotes for many years to come. But what next? Its safe to say that we will be back with more cycling adventures as we all agree, cycling is a fantastic pastime so please …..
… put me back on my bike.
Our Cycle Route Maps
- Croix de Fer from St Jean de Maurienne – https://www.bikemap.net/en/r/559084
- Col du Galibier from St Michel de Maurienne (via Col de Telegraphe) https://www.bikemap.net/en/r/559111
- Alpe D’Huez https://www.bikemap.net/en/r/31505
- Mount Ventoux from Bedoin https://www.bikemap.net/en/r/607799