It rains everyday in the French Alps. It seems that way to us, at least. Each day after our arrival from the south of France, the weather in Les Deux Alpes was, as the weatherperson says, “rain, heavy at times accompanied with dense fog.” On our first full day, squeezed in between the blocks of squalls rolling over the alpine peaks, we managed a “short” Category One climb of the road to Les Deux Alpes. But the following day the cold alpine rain was non-stop. By our third full day, we were feeling
cooped up. The weather forecast for the coming week was unchanged. Had the predictors just mimeographed the weather forecast from a wretched original? “Rain and cold,” it was the same for every day of the coming week. There wasn’t even an attempt to mix up the style with an occasional “heavy precipitation and near freezing temperatures.” From what we could see from the forecast, the rains might possibly end in a month or so. We would have long since moved away from the Alps by then. On Wednesday, our third day, with riding still out of the question, we moved down the valley for a day trip to Grenoble and contemplated an early exit from the Alps.
Finally, on our fourth day, the weather at Les Deux Alpes lightened. Yes, it was still raining, but it was a light misty rain. And, after some confusion, we carefully consulted a color chart. Indeed, it was true. That unusual color peaking out amongst the clouds in the sky was actually blue. We had almost forgotten what it looked like. With the bikes loaded into the Kangoo we headed over to nearby Alpe d’Huez. This would be our day to attempt the legendary climb.
Made famous by the near yearly visits of the Tour de France, the climb to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez is daunting. With twenty-one switchbacks, 8.6 miles of smooth French road, 3,600 feet of climbing, 7.9% average gradient, and a final altitude near 6,100 feet, it would not be easy to make it to the top. The cycling federations designate the climb of Alpe d’Huez as HC or hors catégorie (beyond categorization).
Parking near the base of the climb, we assembled the bikes and our gear and headed on the road to the base of the climb. L’Aple d’Huez is well labeled. There is no doubt where the climb starts. A “Chrono” sign designates the beginning. Not that a sign is needed. The otherwise nearly level road turns upward instantaneously with a slope greater than 10%. With the other big climbs we have done, there was always a little foreplay. The slope starts gentle, maybe 5 or 6%, before the pain begins in earnest. For Alpe d’Huez, the start of the climb is not so romantic. A grade of over 10% introduces the rider to the Alps. You are climbing Alpe d’Huez. There is no doubt. Only after a brutal, quad bursting two and a half kilometers does the road grade drop from 10% to 8%. Now the steep 8% climb seems almost friendly.
Aerial pictures seem to show the road to Alpe d’Huez meandering up a gently sloping hill. Pictures are deceiving. The road switchbacks up the steep sides of a glacier cut valley ladder-style in another pristine piece of European road building. From twenty-one down to one, each corner is marked with a sign counting down the switchbacks. On the signs are the names of the participants in the Tour de France who have won a stage up L’Alpe d’Huez. As you grind by the turns, the history of the climb unfolds.
There are a couple of things about the signs, though. Yes, there are 21 switchbacks before you reach the mountain village but there are two more switchbacks in the town and before the “official” Tour de France finish. Just when you think you are finished with the switchbacks two more appear.
The other thing about the signs is the altitude. They list your current altitude in meters, which is good. But each sign also lists three other altitudes, “1450-1860-3330 m.” You can spend most of the ride trying to figure out what those numbers mean. I figured that 3300 m (close to 11,000 feet) must be a peak. Anyway, I knew that there was no way I could climb that far and high on a bike. Who knew what 1450 m was for? (It was the altitude of a village along the road.) So, with considerable effort, my last two functioning brain cells, suffering from exercise induced dyslexia, collaborated in deciding that “1680” meters must be the finish of the climb. Between the heavy breaths, “1860” had somehow became “1680” meters. And yes, it is true; the dyslexic misinterpretation of a clearly marked altitude really can’t be blamed on the signs. But it did mean that there was 600 feet of vertical and two switchbacks left that I hadn’t budgeted for. At least I didn’t go into my “big sprint” finish when the sign marked switchback one, the “last” switchback. The energy for the “big sprint” had been left somewhere far, far below on the lower slopes. Even my two remaining brain cells could figure that there would be no “big sprint” on this ride.
Not surprisingly, we’ve always seen other riders on the classic climbs we’ve done in France. The climb to Alpe d’Huez might have had the most riders that we’ve seen. Cyclists were everywhere. In fact, it was so popular that we even passed some other riders on the way up, even on our 30 lbs full suspension “all-mountain” bikes. Unfortunately for us, it always seemed that the riders we passed had better excuses than we did. Who is psychotic enough to think that climbing the road to Alpe d’Huez with a touring bike and loaded panniers is a good idea? (Is it a bad sign when you judge your own sanity by the lunacy of others around you?)
Alpe d’Huez is a hard, hard climb. Switchback comes after switchback. It is relentless. There is no break. Perhaps the climb to Alpe d’Huez is not as viscous as the road to Col du Tourmalet, but the two hors catégorie climbs are close sadistic relatives on the same branch a particularly perverse family tree.
Near the top, there were a couple of photographers taking pictures that you could later purchase online.
“Are you OK?” asked the last photographer using her well-practiced English phrase.
I would have preferred the much more traditional, “Allez.” Somehow I doubt that Lance ever heard, “Are you OK?” at this stage of the climb.
After a pause I nodded yes and said, “Non merci,” to the offered card with the picture ordering information.
I was just being polite. I really wanted to say, “No, I’m not fucking OK. How would you feel three kilometers from the top of fucking Alpe d’Huez after pedaling a thirty pound full suspension mountain bike with a dragging disk brake rotor up some godforsaken hors catégorie climb?”
But the words did not leave my mouth. There was no diatribe left in me. The diatribe was left in a heap along the road not far from where the “big sprint” had oozed from my body way, way down the hill somewhere not far from the bottom.
Besides, “Are you OK” might have really meant, if the photographer’s English was better, “Are you right in the head? Who the hell pedals a full suspension mountain up Alpe d’Huez? Jesus, you might as well be pedaling a touring bike with loaded panniers.”
I might be a bit sensitive. Lower on the climb a descending roadie actually laughed when she saw my bike. At least I think, I hope, she was laughing at my bike.
Fortunately, soon after the last photographer, the humiliation faded. The final kilometer of the climb of Alpe d’Huez has a gradient of less than 4% as the route meanders through the ski village. I could up shift and put distance on an approaching middle-aged and even more out of shape Flemish roadie. And finally, as the souvenir shops, condominiums, bars, and restaurants thinned, the finish line appeared. I had made it. And hey, at the finish line I even felt “good.” I’m sure I could have climbed another four or five hundred feet before I dissolved into a fetid puddle of protoplasm alongside the road.
Soon after, Becky arrived at the finished. She looked ready for some more climbing. I suspect she didn’t look like she was on the edge of death when she passed the last photographer.
Along with the other riders at the finish, we took our traditional celebratory pictures and posed under the polka dot banner. We didn’t linger long, though. There was no beer at the top. The cold French Alp rains that we had somehow avoided during the climb had returned. The pelting rain threatened to turn the road down into a blast chiller.
We were on our bikes and back through the rather unattractive ski town. Now we watched the switchback numbers quickly increase. Flat out and out of gears, we were getting cold fast in the increasing rain. It wasn’t long before the geography of area came to our aid. We rounded a knoll and suddenly the air temperature increased and the rain slackened. A knoll had broken the weather.
The rest of the ear popping descent went by in blur of passed cars and riders. We weren’t going to be caught on the downhill. Not a chance. Nobody was laughing at our bikes now though I suspect a few of the riders climbing the road were keeping an eye out for our shuttle vehicle. A car with empty racks surely must be following us down. How else would we get mountain bikes to the top? Nobody would climb to Alpe d’Huez on those bikes. We had to have been driven up.
How fast were we? Let’s just say that we crushed Armstrong and Pantani’s times. It wasn’t close. Alpe d’Huez took us around 20 minutes. At 37 minutes and 30 odd seconds, Lance and Marco took much longer. There is just one small minor technical difference. Armstrong and Pantani averaged nearly 14 mph on the 7.9% climb; we averaged a little more than 25 mph on the descent.
The cold rain at the top again reached us as we were loading the bikes into the Kangoo. We just managed to squeeze the ride in between the rains.
We were quiet and spent on the drive back to Les Deux Alpes. Even Homer was silent. We’d granted the GPS a sabbatical leave lest he try to direct us up another death defying alpine road super glued to the side of a high cliff. Our driving was too unsteady to attempt Homer’s Road on the way back.
Our evening finished with a walk through the town and past the BMXers practicing their jumps into an enormous airbag. We went first to edge of town, leaned over and peered down to see Venosc, 2,000 feet below. Venosc is a village near Les Deux that is most easily accessed by a steep, switchbacking trail or a ski lift. The proper road from Les Deux Alpes to Vensoc goes around the mountain and takes much longer. The weather had been so bad that we had not even realized that Venosc was so close.
Our walk ended at Chalet Mounier. We had a particularly satisfying meal and a fine bottle of Pomerol at Mounier’s restaurant. Chalet Mounier’s restaurant has one Michelin star. We would not have raised an eyebrow if we had been told that it had two stars. The food was very good, a modern reflection of French Haute Cuisine.
At dinner we reflected on the rides we had done so far on this trip. All three of the hors catégorie climbs were killers. These are definitely not the roads you want to have in front of you if you have to get to school in a hurry. It seemed to us, correcting for how we felt on the particular days, that Col du Tourmalet was the most difficult. Tourmalet also seemed to be harder to us than Mont Ventoux, which we had ridden on ride bikes on an earlier trip.
Lingering behind the musings about what climb was the hardest were thoughts of the truly “big” climb looming in our future. In a few weeks, we intend to try the 15-mile climb of Passo dello Stelvio. Passo dello Stelvio starts easily, with plenty of foreplay, but it builds quickly with the last 9 miles averaging over 8% including 8 separate kilometer-long segments that individually average over 8.5%. With 6,200 feet of climbing and a final altitude over 9,000 feet (one of the highest passes in Europe), Passo delle Stelvio is on paper a much harder climb than we have done. Today we barely survived L’Alpe d’Huez. Would we be able to make the big one? Would Passo delle Stelvio crush us and leave our individual squishy parts oozing back down the hill?