Friday, July 13, 2012

Valloire to La Garde

Yesterday I rode from Valloire, over the Col du Galibier, to La Garde, near (but not too near) Alpe D'Huez.

View Valloire to La Garde (ish) in a larger map

The view from my balcony in Valloire.
The climb begins right here.
I wanted to get a reasonably early start on the climb, because I had visions of baking in the hot afternoon sun on the tree-less climb. I got going at about 9 AM, and was basically on the climb up Galibier as soon as I left my hotel.

The D902 road, which I had taken into Valloire and which forms the town's main drag, is the road up to the Col du Galibier. From Valloire it heads almost directly south, snaking among towering mountains through a valley presumably gouged by passing glaciers.

The first part of the climb to the Col du Galibier,
running south up the river valley
The climb up Galibier is normally considered 18 KM at an average grade of 6.9%, but the first climb marker I saw was at 16 KM. An 18 KM climb would indeed begin in Valliore, but there's a substantial flat section after a few kilometers. My analysis program decided the climb was really closer to 13.6 KM with an average grade of 7.6%.

Speaking of climb markers, I found them very helpful. They help you address the climb in small, manageable sections. And of course the fact they're metric means the math is simple. That helps, because when I'm climbing any math seems daunting.

Looking north from the bridge at which point the road
begins snaking up the mountainside.
Plan Lachat is the buildings to the right.
The structure of the Galibier climb is simple: the road heads almost straight south up a river valley until it reaches Plan Lachat at about 2000 meters elevation, at which point it zigzags up the neighboring mountain toward the southwest. Once it begins the zigzag section, large portions of the road are visible, both from below and from above. There are no trees to block the view, partly due to the tree line and mostly (I suspect) due to inhospitable soil.

Climbing up Galibier. The pass itself is barely
visible on the left side of the picture.
I was very worried that the altitude, combined with my heavy bag, was going to make this climb miserable. The heavy bag took its toll, but I don't think I ever noticed an elevation effect. I was also a little worried about baking in the sun with no shade to be had, but in the event it was quite cool.

This climb isn't part of this year's Tour de France, but echoes of earlier races can be seen with the names painted on the road. Most of the names seemed old; I saw Kloden a lot, and Levi, and then even Zabel! When I saw Riis I thought perhaps I had gone so slowly as to go back in time, but since Saxo Bank was written nearby I assume it was encouraging his team management, or perhaps driving, not his 1990s riding. More than any of that, however, were completely incomprehensible encouragements, mostly in German or Dutch.

The last kilometer, snaking up the hill past the tunnel.
Near the top of the road there's a tunnel for cars, and 1 KM more to climb for cyclists. Standing there, seeing all the switchbacks heading up, I wasn't as much intimidated by the grade as I was incredulous that it could be only one kilometer. That last kilometer is relatively steep, but for me the sign made it easy; no matter how hard it was, it was only 1000 meters.

The pass area, from the hill above
At the top there's the usual sign and a small parking lot. And a few dozen cyclists. I took the obligatory pictures and then walked around for quite a long time, taking in views the likes of which I've never seen before. I saw Mont Blanc. I saw glaciers, a first for me. Every one of the mountains I was seeing was larger than any I had ever seen before. I hiked up above the pass area itself to find an orientation map, identifying all the peaks. Absolutely amazing.

Eventually, and a little reluctantly, I put on my jacket and headed down the south side. I stopped briefly at the gift shop near the tunnel entrance (there's one on either side) and got a souvenir climb marker, then settled in for the long descent.

The glaciers above the Col du Lautaret
The D902 road ends at an intersection with D1091. This is the Col du Lautaret, which is a pass (ie col) connecting the Oisan area to Italy. It's the high point of that route, but since the road to Galibier continues up from here, it's not a distinct mountaintop. It does, however, have several nice little restaurants, and I stopped for a lovely omelette for lunch. From my table I could see the glacier called Lautaret, which might have explained why it was so cold.

The church in Villar D'Arene is
a major fixer-upper.
After lunch I settled into a long period of coasting into a stiff breeze that kept my speed quite slow. I stopped to take pictures of the ruined church at the Villar D'Arene, and enjoyed the amazing scenery.

Along this road I ran through my first tunnel, which was a pretty terrifying experience. Well, the first one was OK because I was closely following a car, and therefore I didn't feel like I was going to be collected by someone coming up from behind. But I couldn't see the road, regardless of my light. In one long tunnel there were sections without lights, and I could just barely detect my light on the road. But whenever a car passed in the other direction I lost my night vision, and was again blind for a few seconds. Luckily I was going downhill through these things, so I wasn't in them long.

Looking down at Bourg D'Oisans from D211A
I chose my hotel poorly. I wanted to be near Alpe D'Huez. I don't remember how wide my selection was, but I ended up choosing a place in La Garde. If you look on a map, you'll see that La Garde is partway up the Alpe D'Huez climb. Not too bad. But my hotel was not in the tiny little village itself; it has that address only because La Garde is the nearest village. In fact, my hotel was on the other side of a deep gorge, and 400 meters higher in altitude. This puts it 600 meters higher than Bourg D'Oisans, the town at the bottom of the Alpe D'Huez climb.

D211A hugging the ridge next to Bourg D'Oisans
I therefore left the D1091 road, which goes into Bourg D'Oisans, and took the D211A up the ridge toward my stop. The first part of this road was terribly steep, and in fact the most difficult kilometer of the day, a day that had included a climb up the Col du Galibier, was on this section of road.

After passing through some expensive residential areas, the road became more remote and ran along a steep ridge north of the Romanche river valley. I felt a little put-upon for having to climb so far to the hotel, but ultimately the views from this road were stunning, and worth it. In fact I had planned to ride the D219, a similar road on the other side of the valley, just to have this sort of experience. Maybe now I'll take an extra trip up Alpe D'Huez instead.

Finally, even this obscure road was too much, and I turned off onto the Route de Maronne, a road so tiny that it doesn't even warrant a number.

The Route de Maronne, heading through the
Foret de Maronne
This road reminded me very much of the one-lane roads through the Santa Cruz mountains back home. Its shade provided some welcome protection from the late afternoon's increasingly hot sun. I had to chuckle when I saw that some of the hairpins in the climb through the forest had been named, much like the more famous hairpins on the Alpe D'Huez climb.

I finally got to the hotel and, after a tremendously filling dinner, got to sleep.

Elevation profile
This ride was just 43 miles, with 6400 feet of climbing. I had worried about the Galibier, but in the end I think that on a good day I could manage the Telegraphe and the Galibier in one shot, like most riders do. I just need more reasonable accommodations on either side.

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