Heading into the Alps, it was raining.
Allemont, a sleepy little village at the base of Lac du Verney just up the road from Rochetaillée
We rode from
Rochetaillée towards Bourg d'Oisans before taking the left turn on the bypass that leads to the base of the climb. As we rounded the last dead-pan flat corner we could see the road ramp up at a climb similar to Clay Bank outside Great Broughton in North Yorkshire.
I rode with Suzanne along the climbs for each of the hairpin bends, it was deliberately gently a pace she'd set, because we had no idea what was ahead of us and wanted to make it to the top. We stopped regularly for water and to take photographs of the views. The start of the climb was the hardest section really, probably the first 1.5km are about 10%. Early nerves led Suzanne to wonder if she could make it the whole way, but it is worth knowing that the first part is the hardest and once you are past that the rest of the ride is easier.
Early steeper section.
Unlike British hairpins, which seem to be fashioned at the steepest parts of a climb, these alpine hairpins were the flatest sections, the road bends slightly away from the hairpin to create a nice wide flat area and then loops back on itself. These are good opportunities to drink and ease the pressure of constant climbing.
As the gradient eased I took the camera from Suzanne and started snapping away. As the views unfolded to the side of us it was hard not to be impressed with how far we had climbed, but of course every section brought more height and even more vast views.
Bourg d'Oisans in the valley below
A note on the place name... Boor Dwah-zã. "ã" represents the nasalized "a". In Southern France, "an" would be pronounced more like the English "ang". The final "g" in Bourg is usually silent.
Flat hairpins - recovery space!
We made several stops on the climb, one of my favourite places to rest was at L'église Saint Ferréol where we had our first view of Huez village and the resort at L'Alpe d'Huez.
View towards Huez along Gorge de la Sarenne.
I think the climb can be divided into three sections, the climb to L'église Saint Ferréol with views out towards Bourg d'Oisans, followed by the section to Huez village which is now quite easy, and finally the section after the village where you can clearly see the road zig-zagging up to the resort and you know exactly how much further you need to climb.
The section to Huez village is by far the easiest as the gradient has dropped but once you see the village itself the road climbs through it a little more steeply to reach the final section with straight sections bounded by hairpins. Reading the numbered hairpins and famous cyclist names leads you to thinking about the pace that the Tour riders come up here, which is staggering. Marco Pantani holds the record of 35 minutes and 37 seconds in 1997 which Lance Armstrong came within one second of in 2004. (Wikipedia reference)
We were not racing, but plenty of people were. Our first ride on Alpe d'Huez coincided with the "Wednesday Timed Climb Club", so we were being passed at great speed by skinny riders in club clothing. It was brilliant how fast some of these guys shot past us.
We stopped for another rest just before the final effort up to the resort, Suzanne was now confident she could complete the climb and we were looking forward to a celebratory drink in one of the resort bars.
So, one final effort and we rounded hairpin number 1 onto the last, and unfairly quite steep section into the resort to see the crowds of successful cyclists of all shapes and sizes cheering each other on, clapping, drinking or just collapsed across their bicycles. The resort is full of cycling shops, all very expensive decked throughout with replica team gear, Assos clothing and trophy tops. There are a couple of Huez cycling jerseys on sale, and had I brought any money I might have been tempted by this one...
After Suzanne and I celebrated with drinks - her a full sugar cola and I had a Leffe - we started our descent. I'm not a fan of using brakes much and I think the best way to descend is to allow the bicycle to take you down to a bend, brake in time and quite hard, ease off before the corner and roll round with the center of gravity as low as possible. The smooth road surface made this one of the safest descents I've ever done. Unlike British roads with potholes, uneven surface, gravel, blind bends and oncoming cars, the descent from Alpe d'Huez was like a fairground ride with a wonderful rhythm of accelerate, brake, corner, accelerate, brake, corner... We got to the bottom in no time at all, with whopping great grins.
Overall we hadn't set out to do anything other than ride Alpe d'Huez and we'd done exactly that - we cycled home for a campsite cooked dinner of pasta and to share our perspective of the experience. I love this route and profile picture too - it really looks like a mountain!