Saturday, July 14, 2012

Alpe D'Huez

How was your Friday the 13th? Me, I spent it riding my bike up to Alpe D'Huez. It was fun, in a kind of dream-come-true way.

View Alpe D'Huez in a larger map

When I planned this trip back in the dark days of early winter, riding up to Alpe D'Huez was always the centerpiece. Since then other parts of the trip, especially the less tangible parts, have increased in importance. Like, for example, just being here. But this climb has been special to me for a long time, since Greg LeMond's exploits got me interested in the Tour de France. When I finally realized that it's not that much more difficult than some of the climbs I've been doing back home, actually riding the thing became a very important goal for me.

But it was raining yesterday, so I skipped it. Not really, but the absurd thought crossed my mind.

After breakfast it was still threatening, but not actually raining, so I headed out. And by out, I mean down. Down the Route de Maronne toward D211a... and then just before the junction I had a flat. There was a distinct hole in the tire, but whatever had intruded was gone. I normally ride with one spare tube and a patch kit; the first flat gets the tube, and any subsequent flats test my spotty patching skills. Rain means more likelihood of flats (or is that just my superstition?), so I decided that job #1 was to get another tube, just in case.

After dropping 600 feet on the Route de Morenne, I took D211a and immediately dropped another 700-800 feet to La Garde. That's sobering; I'd have to come back up this hill later.

Bourg D'Oisans
At La Garde, D211a meets up with D211, the road that climbs to Alpe D'Huez. The Road, in caps, in this context. I intimidated myself by descending the rest of the way into Bourg D'Oisans, the town at the foot of Alpe D'Huez. I passed by dozens of riders on the way down, and then dozens more in the charming little town. I saw a bit more of the town than I might have otherwise because I had to make several stops before I found any tubes. Eventually was properly equipped, so there was nothing to do but start up the hill.

The start of the road to Alpe D'Huez
Alpe D'Huez is certainly unique. At the base of the climb many riders were milling about, and there was a palpable sense of event. An American rider was filming himself declaring his modest goals for the ride, groups of similarly-liveried riders were coming past, shouting "Depart!" in excitement as they passed the sign. Cyclotour vans were common, and there were at least two movies being filmed. This isn't just another bike ride.

The climb has numbered signs on each of the hairpin turns, but does not have climb markers every kilometer like Galibier does. I missed that. The hairpin signs note the altitude, and famously the name of a Tour de France stage winner (or two), but don't tell you the grade of the following section.

As I passed the first couple of signs I realized that the altimeter on my Garmin 500 was way off, reading some 150 meters too low. It was correctly set when I started off, darn it.

The road up to Alpe D'Huez, in the lower,
cliff-climbing section

Climbing to Alpe D'Huez
The road was very busy, obviously with cyclists but also with cars. And while it's not especially skinny, it doesn't have bike lanes or any other special accommodation for the river of bikes heading up (until the top-most section, anyway). But as usual, the drivers were attentive, cyclists slightly less so, and I saw no incidents.

There was, as one might expect, a variety of riders. There were certainly plenty of skinny young cyclists blowing by. There were lots of big, strong, fitness-oriented athletes. A surprisingly large number of (apparent) couples. Several young children. And there were one or two riders even slower and fatter than me.

I think the climb has three distinct parts. First, there's a set of very steep runs up the rocky face of the mountain. This section is characterized by severe rock faces covered with wire mesh to contain falling rocks. At an elevation of about 1000 meters you get to the tiny village of La Garde, and somewhere along here the road becomes much more pleasant, with trees, babbling brooks and grass. And yet it's still steep. Finally, after you pass by the town of Huez at an elevation of perhaps 1500 meters, you have the resort of Alpe D'Huez in your sights most of the time, and the terrain itself becomes much less steep. The road's still steep, but it's now climbing a hill, not a cliff face. The first section is full of harsh, unforgiving sights, but the other two sections are really quite beautiful.

The next section of road rises at an
intimidating angle
For most of the climb, you can see the upcoming sections of road. I've always found that a road viewed from a distance never seems very steep, but the opposite was true here; you see the next section of road angling up at an impossible grade, not to mention height, and wonder how you would possibly get yourself up there.

Adding to the event quality of the climb, there were two photographers taking action shots of riders as they passed by. One was just after Huez and the other around hairpin number 2 or 3, near the top. In one case you can view and purchase images online, and in the other you have to go to a store in Bourg D'Oisans. I can reliably report that the on-line version is wildly overpriced, and yet I bought a copy anyway. I visited the shop this morning to see the other pictures, but they were excruciatingly... well, accurate.

Mission accomplished!
The TdF stage finish is 2 KM further on
As you get into the resort itself, there are a few opportunities to screw up. First, there's a turn in the road. It actually heads for the finish, but it's not the correct route. Second, there's a banner indicating the end of the climb. It's in a convenient location, right next to bars and restaurants, but as other signs tell you, the Tour de France stage continues for another 2 kilometers.

It's a little tricky to follow those two kilometers. On Friday, for example, I had to wind through a street market. Later, after you pass hairpin number zero, there's a turn that has you descend for a bit before you hit the final 300 meter climb, with its finish very near the ski lifts at the top of the town.

There were a few people at this second line, including representatives from Trek Tours. I asked someone to take my picture next to the "Arrivee" sign, chatted with a fellow rider about Mont Ventoux, then went back down to the more popular finish to have a sandwich and a coffee (it was quite cold).

The church in Huez
Eventually it was time head back to reality. This is a good descending road, whose only problem is the traffic, both bikes and cars. I was in no hurry, but felt comfortable at any speed.

On the way down I took the opportunity to slowly coast through the town of Huez. It's a cute, tightly packed mountainside town. If you forget to set your parking brake in Huez, you're definitely shopping for a new car.

D211a, looking east. The Route de Maronne
turnoff is just ahead.
Eventually I got back down to La Garde, where my hotel (nominally) is. I headed back up D211a, then back up the Route de Maronne. This part of the ride felt very difficult, partly because the skies were now clear and it was immediately hot, and also because it actually was difficult. This climb, from the La Garde intersection to my hotel, was nearly half as long as the Alpe D'Huez climb, and only slightly less steep!

The Route de Maronne, approaching the hotel

Approximate elevation profile. I lost 600 feet
somewhere early, but the relative numbers on the
climbs are correct.
This ride was only about 27 miles, with 5000 feet of climbing. The most difficult kilometer was the first one on the Alpe D'Huez climb.

So, what did I do today, Bastille Day? Same exact thing. Had an absolute blast.

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