The Unicorn of Mountains - Alpe d'Huez
Mythical, Magical, Magnificent: The Alps.
Leaving Munster is always bittersweet. However, after a seven hour drive from Munster, I reached my reached my destination atop Alpe d’Huez, Hotel La Castillan.
Though the drive to the Alps was long, it served as a much needed rest day from previous (grueling) days on the bike and hey, I’m in France! The last 50 kilometres to the base of the mountain felt eerily reminiscent of rush hour on the Gardiner, leaving downtown Toronto at 3pm. A million people line the 13.8 kilometre climb, camper vans wedged together tightly with only a hair separating them and often a steep cliff behind them. Being surrounded by the Alps as I drive into Bourg d’Oisans is always very moving. God’s Country; the Alps are breathtaking, spectacular and although I’ve already seen them many times, they still dazzle – never disappoint.
Shortly after settling in at the hotel, I found myself sitting down at my favourite restaurant on the mountain, Au P’tit Creux for a very enjoyable meal, complete with one of many bottles of French wine. Upon returning from dinner I met a bicycle tour mechanic from Australia who was staying at the hotel with the rest of the group. We got to talking and he mentioned they were doing a ride in the morning and that I was welcome to join. Sounded like a good idea, ride with a large group and have access to a support vehicle in case my back presented a challenge as it recently has.
Morning comes and we gather out front of the hotel to ride. The tour leader, a former professional rider from Australia who’s ridden the Tour suggests I go with the ‘fast’ group. At this point I accept the challenge and nod my head, “okay”. I feel the need to remind those reading this post that I’ve ridden outside less than a dozen times since fall 2011 (also to remind myself because of what I’m about to write).
Kitted-up in our cycling gear, I listen carefully as the director provides the day’s course of events and route, which can be summed up in two words; ascend and descend. In summary, here’s what the day looks like – Col du Sarenne, Col du Lautaret, Col du Galibier AND Alpe d’Huez. That’s 2 more Cols than I’ve previously done on a single ride - tackling Galibier and Telegraph from the north with a descent to Valloire or the base of Alpe d’Huez (but never up afterward) or Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez. Either way, this route was sure to be a challenge made even more awesome with the rain and thunderstorms that were being forecast.
We, the ‘fast’ group climbed up Col du Sarenne and then the waiting began... I’ve never ridden with a tour group so stopping and waiting for everyone to re-join was unfamiliar to me and admittedly, not well aligned with my personality. Although the invitation was welcomed, I felt the need to carry on...solo. I’ve done plenty of descending in my day in France, Italy and Spain but plunging down the Col du Sarenne, was quite the experience. The road surface was unpredictable surface, bumpy, super narrow, no guardrails and above all else, technical (read: made for farming vehicles). Throw some light mist into the mix and you’ve got something exceptionally tricky to work with. Since descending is my “thing”, I went down with reckless abandon. I must confess, I now know why Tour riders were protesting this road. Keeping it brief, let’s say that Riblon did an exaggerated version of what I did (in the same place). I only found a foot of grass and was back on the road – he went hiking. I was curious about this corner during today’s stage. Unfortunately, Riblon also hit water when he was braking which didn’t help matters.
After the descent of Sarenne, I made the decision (in the absence of rain) to continue toward Col du Lautaret/Galibier where, I could at any point turn around and head back to the base of Alpe d’Huez. Seemed like a safe contingency – one that’s necessary in foreign countries when you can’t simply hail a taxi and ask them to take you home. Onward and upward I climbed, never before had I done this route in reverse so stuck it out for the challenge. Before long, I found myself amongst dozens of small groups riding up Lautaret so I was able to set small goals for myself and keep picking off riders in the distance. Finally reaching Lautaret, I was faced with 2 options: summit Galibier from the south, something I’d never done (read: risk), nor should I given my current fitness (or lack thereof) and especially given what lie ahead – Alpe d’Huez or turn around (read: safe option).
It started to mist heavily and what happened next surprised me – instead of turning around, I pulled down my arm warmers, unzipped my vest and began the windy, misty ascent in my 39x25. It is only a 9km climb from Lautaret which didn’t seem too bad as long as the weather held out – I’d deal with my shattered legs for the day’s last climb, later. Summiting Galibier from the south wasn’t as tough as from the north, mostly grades between 6-7.5% then, when you think it’s almost over, it kicks the last kilometre to 9%. Something about Galibier; either the air gets very thin at 2645m or my emotions take over. It never ceases to amaze me how the last 2km of this climb evokes a spiritual connection with a higher power.
Once I reached the top, there was only one way to go: down. Arm warmers on, vest fully-zipped, music queued and into the biggest gear I had (53x12) for a very long descent to the base of Alpe d’Huez. Again, playing my game of picking off riders as I descended the mountain(s), passing through tunnels (always a fun experience when they’re not lit) heading home as fast as I could to escape the rain that hadn’t yet started but threatened. I suppose I should clarify: when you’re descending, you’re not really resting. You’re either not pedaling; on edge of what’s coming up around the next corner or you’re pedaling in your biggest gear to keep your speed up. Needless to say, the base of Alpe d’Huez was coming fast and there wasn’t a lot of rest involved en route to make up for the fact that I’d already been in the saddle for a touch over 4 hours, pedaling 100km, having already ascended 1500m.
I found myself at the roundabout leading up to the hotel and knew full well what was in store for me. The sign read – Alpe d’Huez (with that poignant arrow that you wish didn’t exist). I’ve ridden up Alpe d’Huez many times in the past but only when coming down to turn around and go straight back up. This was definitely a case of mind over matter. Not for the faint of heart, or someone who’s out of shape and working with a 39x27, especially at the end of a “Col” day. Anyway, this was one of those days that I surely couldn’t re-write history if I got off my bike so I gritted my teeth for one last climb (surprised I have teeth after an hour of gritting). The first couple kilometers are the steepest, then the average grade settles somewhere around 8.5%. I counted each of the 21 hairpin turns as I rode the 13 kilometre, Hors Categorie climb to the hotel. Slowly found myself passing through ‘Dutch Corner’ and was astonished that I wasn’t doused with a super-soaker, garden hose or beer. Somehow, I managed to claw my way up the mountain, although the last 3 corners are a bit of a blur – must have been the super powers from the King of the Mountains polka dot bike I rode that took me to the finish line.
What I would have given to have been 15 years younger, in better shape or had a motor on my bike...