Welcome to the diary of one would-be mountain biker - on a road bike - in the French Alps, what could possibly go wrong? By Jim Grace.
Jim, the unlikely roadie
We travelled with ease from Liverpool John Lennon airport, checking in and passing through security in what seemed like minutes. We took our seats in the bar and began discussing how we thought the weekend was going to pan out. A mixture of fear, given it was the intention to cycle some of the great alp routes, and excitement for the unknown. We landed in Geneva and the fun and games began as we tried to find the car hire desk...There was confusion as to whether we were following signs for the French or Swiss car hire and, as you can imagine, we got it wrong and had to head across to the other side of the airport to collect the car. A bit frustrating, especially as we knew that Geneva airport was set up in such a way straddling the French and Swiss border.
We located the car; fixed the sat nav (good idea Simon) and we were off. We put in a quick call to the advance party to see how the 1st day’s cycling had gone. Adrian answered in a sheepish voice. I had asked him how he was doing, 'I’m broken, Neil has broken me!'. I was neither surprised nor sympathetic, as he should have known better than to contemplate a solo ride with Neil. This is a man who has cycled Lands End to John O’Groats in under 5 days. He’s a machine!
They had managed a staggering 100 plus miles and over 4000m of ascent – a truly epic performance in this terrain. I was also quietly relieved and hoped the ride had quenched Neil and Adrian’s appetite for a massive ride and we (the 3 mountain bikers) could have a more relaxing time of it over the next couple of days.
We found the campsite without any fuss and were welcomed by Adrian and Neil with a pasta supper and a bottle of wine. Just what we needed given Alpe d’Huez was the plan for our first day’s ride.
It was an early-ish start. We hadn’t any provisions other than the welcome pack so we decided to head into Bourg d’Oisans, get the hire bikes*, grab some breakfast then hit the tarmac. The bike was set up perfectly for me. It’s hard to tell when you just sit on a bike in a shop whether it’s going to suit over a full day’s ride. It’s a bit like a pair of shoes, you need to have them on for a few hours to see if they are a good fit or not. The guys in the bike hire shop recommended a good café for coffee and cake, so by about 10.00 am we had run out of excuses; there was no more faffing to be done. It was time to tackle Alpe d’Huez.
I was surprised to get to the foot of the climb within just a minute’s riding. No time for a warm-up, I thought to myself. At least Neil and Adrian had cycled the 8km from the campsite to Bourg to meet us at the bike hire shop. The lack of warm up, for me, is an issue and if I don’t break myself in gently I usually end up suffering at the end of the day. No worries, time to get into the 'granny gear' and start pedaling, and pedaling, and pedaling for what turned out to be an hour and a half. Not bad, I thought to myself.
Andy had thrown me a bit of a bum steer by saying Huez was about half way up the ascent. All I can say is thank god it wasn’t because by the time I got to Huez I was penning my last will and testimony in my mind. Reaching the summit was a huge achievement. However, in true Neil-style we were onwards and upwards to Col de Sarenne with no time to spare. This climb had a real sting in the tail rising to just under 2000m. Once at the top there was time to gather ourselves, take on some food and admire the scenery, which was breathtaking. The sun was out and there had been no sign of rain all day.
After a brief photo shoot and a chat with a group of cyclists from Oxfordshire, we headed down the main road to Bourg d’Oisans, via Mizoën. The descent was fast and furious and true to form I managed a small crash. Well it was either that, or take a swim in a small stream! Thankfully no damage was done to the bike, so Simon’s cash deposit was safe.
We made it back to the site, stored the bikes in the van, showered and headed out for some food. We ate on site and the food was excellent.
I woke early, feeling the effects of the previous days ride. Nothing another 1300m ascent wouldn’t sort out!
Unlike the day before, there was an opportunity to have a warm up before we started the big climb, and boy, what a climb. It was longer and steeper in places than Alpe d’Huez but every bit as rewarding.
There was an opportunity to get some good pictures on the way up and whilst at the top, where there was also a small café for refuelling! We didn’t want to hang around at the top because it was forecast that the weather would close in later in the afternoon. We decided to get back before the roads got wet as we had the fast descent back to the site.
Literally flying back was amazing, topping out at nearly 50mph and overtaking vehicles on the way down! This isn’t really appropriate behaviour for someone who works as a health and safety professional but hey, what the heck, it’s a lot of fun! The route back simply re-traces the way up but you got a very different perspective zooming downhill.
The weather held off and we sat around in the sun on the decking outside the holiday home for an hour or so planning for our final day and trip home. We had to get the bikes back to the hire shop later in Bourg d’Oisans so there were some logistics that needed to be sorted. It was a good job we had the two cars as we all squeezed in with the bikes and set off to Bourg d’Oisans for food. By chance we hit on a great restaurant. It ended up being packed, mainly with what appeared to be groups of cyclists and the atmosphere was great. Full of steak and beer we headed back to the site.
Neil and Adrian were off cycling again, early! I don’t know how they do it. Having said that, if we had taken our own bikes we would certainly have been out with them. I had really got a taste for road cycling and I said to myself I must do more when I get home.
One of the big differences in my mind between cycling in the Alps and cycling back home is the motorist’s attitude to cyclists and I suppose the volume of traffic. Cycling on the roads at home, even in the rural areas where I live, just isn’t the same. There is still more traffic and at times you genuinely feel unsafe. This is one of the biggest reasons why I mountain bike. It gets rid of the cars. I recognise it introduces other dangers but they are more in my control.
In summary the long weekend road cycling trip was a huge success. The riding experience was what it was all about and it delivered in bucket loads.