Saturday, July 26, 2014

Col de l'Izoard

On July 10th I rode to Briançon, and took a side trip up to the Col de l'Izoard.

View Col de l'Izoard in a larger map

A few days ago, stage 14 of the 2014 Tour de France went from Grenoble to Briançon, up and over the Col de l'Izoard, then up to Risoul. On my trip I did much the same thing, except that what took the tour five hours took me two days, and I even skipped the last climb.
The road up toward the Col de Lautaret

I got my by-now-usual early start of this trip, enjoying a cool but dry morning. Shortly after leaving La Grave you pass through the little Villar d'Arène, and after that the valley is largely unpopulated as it rises toward the Col du Lautaret.

Both sides of the Col du Lautaret are long climbs with gentle grades. As I climbed, a cloud layer formed mid-way up the mountains, separating the snow-capped peaks from the lush valley below.

Looking back down the valley on the way
up to the Col du Lautaret.
I got to the top of the Col du Lautaret, which is marked by a couple of restaurants and a souvenir shop, a little too early for lunch. The elevation at the pass is just over 2000m, the high point of my tour so far, and it was correspondingly chilly and windy. I enjoyed a coffee before putting on all my newly-bought cold weather gear and heading down the other side.

The long, mostly straight roads heading down toward Briançon made for a fast descent. The speed isn't extraordinary, but it lasts for kilometers at a time.

As on the other side, the top part of road passes through a lovely empty valley, then starts passing through a few little ski-oriented towns. I spent a little quality time in Montier-Les-Bains while fixing a flat, which also marked a good time to strip down to normal riding clothes.

Kayaking through the middle of Briançon
I arrived in Briançon too early to check into the hotel, so that meant I would have to take my full, heavy bag all the way up the Col de l'Izoard. Oh well. I had a little lunch and headed down through town.

The road up to the Col de l'Izoard is D902, which starts at a traffic circle near the middle of town. It climbs past a few houses and, well, a dump, then actually descends for a little while before beginning the long climb toward the top.
Giant bikes on D902

Shortly before this trip I read French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France, in which the author described the Col de l'Izoard as a "ruined martian landscape." I was therefore surprised that the climb was absolutely lovely. It parallels a stream until it reaches the little village of Cervières. After that the road turns south and gradually enters the woods.

As the road climbed in hairpins through among the woods I passed by bucolic little picnic areas and, increasingly, caravans parked on the side of the road. This seemed a little mysterious until I realized that they
Four kilometers remaining
were already staking out space on the climb for when the Tour de France would pass by nine days hence. Spending more than a week somewhere just to see the race pass by? I'm a fan, but that seems excessive even to me.

On the whole, this climb didn't feel especially steep. The lower portions were a reasonable 5-6%, and while this section in the woods was the steepest it wasn't too bad. The most difficult kilometer of the ride was in this section, at a steep but reasonable 9.2%.

The last portion of the climb
With about 1.5 km to go, the trees thin out and the barren pass comes into view. At roughly the same time, not coincidentally, you start to feel the powerful, chilling wind.

The elevation at the pass is 2360m, which again marked a new high point for my tour.

At the top the wind was fierce, threatening to blow my bike over while I was trying to take pictures. I took refuge in the lee of the souvenir shop. It became clear that the combination of the effort and the cold was having an effect on me when I was unable to figure out which coins would pay for a celebratory nougat bar. That can't be good.

A fellow cyclist told me his friend, still climbing, was riding a tandem bike with a Lego man on the rear seat. Honest. He showed me a picture. Hmm... maybe my head was fogged more than I thought. I once again put on the cold-weather clothes and headed back down toward town.

The Col de l'Izoard
I checked into the hotel, watched André Greipel win the Tour de France stage into Riems, and did my laundry. Around dinner time I found that the hotel had no restaurant, and indeed all the decent places to eat were likely to be on the other side of town, near the start of the climb. Only a McDonald's was nearby, and that just couldn't be allowed. So: no dinner tonight.
Elevation profile
Today's ride was a little over 50 miles, with just under 5800 feet of climbing. The most difficult kilometer was in the middle of the climb up to the Col de l'Izoard, averaging 9.2%.

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