Neil’s view from the Col: cake, cycling, and more cake

Eurocamp Active - Road Cycling Diaries

6th September

The bike bag was packed and I’d slipped out of a meeting with some European engineers, which meant one thing: the holiday had started.

I met Adrian at Liverpool airport and it wasn’t long before the first coffee and cake break of the trip...Then all aboard a short flight on EasyJet and we landed in Geneva. I was in charge of collecting the bikes, whilst Adrian went to pick up the hire car.

Luckily we had a 5-door car, which was ideal for loading the bikes into, so we didn’t need to use the inflatable roof rack. If you’re departing the French side in Geneva, be sure to read the instructions that advise you to turn and go back through the border, rather than have a 45 minute detour on the French side of the border. You’ll then be racing along the motorway in no time, unlike us!

Once we arrived on parc, priority was to get pasta on, wine open and then to unpack the bikes. The bikes were spotless, just like the pasta plates some hours later and thanks to the third cake of the day, we were packed and ready for an early start.

Eurocamp Active - Road Cycling Diaries

7th September

We were up at 7am and tucked into French baguettes and jam for breakfast (I knew we should have brought more cakes). The route for the day was the Marmotte, Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier (103 miles and 4000m of ascent) minus the last hill, of Alpe d’Huez. I hadn’t realised how famous the Marmotte route is, with over 7000 trying it each year and many not succeeding. But how hard could 100 miles be?

We headed out of the campsite, took a right turn into a flat run up to the dam and then we were climbing...for a long time – I didn’t count! Cycling is very different in the UK, it is up or down and little in between. However, the French gradient was gentle, not more than 12% and generally 7%, and you could spin a compact with 28 comfortably (Adrian had a 30 and didn’t use it much). Part way up, we passed through Le Rivier d’Allemont and the surrounding villages before we caught sight of the first Col of the day.

At the summit of Col du Glandon (1924m) we stopped to take the obligatory pictures to instantly email home to those who didn’t come. A little more climbing and 2.5km later, we passed the second Col de la Croix de Fer at 2067m. No time to hang about, pictures taken of the Iron Cross and duly emailed to friends at home – funny the responses seem less than impressed.

We departed the Col with a 25+km descent ahead of us – and a speed of 45 mph! I even got used to the sweeping bends and passing cars that didn’t even seem to mind! Back down at 700m we decided to stop at Villargondran for lunch.

I was left in charge of the bikes (make sure you remember locks!), whilst Adrian took care of lunch. He returned fully laden, with water and orange juice and a sandwich: 'Where’s the cake?' 

I had my share in the shade at the front of the building, much to the amusement of the locals.

How hard can 100 miles be?

Eurocamp Active - Road Cycling Diaries

Before long, we were back on the bikes and heading down the busy stretch next to the motorway. We saw signs for the Col du Galibier, and took a right in St Michel de Maurienne, settling in for a 3 hour stint of climbing. The clouds drew over, which was great for the temperature and provided a slight tail wind. The Col du Telegraphe (1566m) soon passed - cue more photos and emails. Following a wee drop into the village of Valloire, we faced another 13km of ascent. We stopped for a break just before climbing out of the valley, and I had a drink but didn’t bother to eat: a big mistake. 30 minutes later and 3km from the top, I hit the wall and had to stop for food and drink. Adrian sailed straight by; I got back on the bike but didn’t meet up with him again until the top, where he had the video out to film my arrival after him! 2646m at the Col and the air definitely seemed thinner.

Realising that the climbing is over – for today at least – was a relief, with just 20 mile of downhill or flat roads ahead of us, dropping from 2600m to 700m at the campsite. The initial descent is crazy and I watched as Adrian struggled to hold the bike upright when a car stops dead in front of him as he rounds a bend. Panic over, I revived my wrists in the straights from the vibration. I followed Adrian for the rest of the way down, as he’s a more accomplished descender than me. The lightly wet roads scared me, but the rain passed and the roads stayed dry.

At the first decent café I spotted I insisted we go in for cake and coffee. It was great and offered a good view of the glaciers Meije and Girose above us; unfortunately the village was called Grave, but given that you’d die for its delicious cake, perhaps that’s how it got its name.

The remaining descent was glorious. The sun came out and the sweeping bend through the tunnel was magical. We sailed through Bourg d’Oisans on the way to the campsite to cook the meal for the 3 others joining us that evening. More cake whilst we waited for them to arrive.

Following a feast of pasta and meatballs from the local supermarket, we were ready to collapse (I don’t know who was more tired, us or those who had just driven from Geneva). 103 miles and approx 4000m was a testing ride as the first one in the Alps, but I was glad it was done. Plans for Alpe d’Huez were discussed over numerous beers...

8th September

After another comfortable night, we awoke to a misty day and more baguette and jam. Adrian and I cycled off to Bourg to meet up with the intrepid 3; we actually got to the hire shop* first and had a coffee whilst we waited for the bikes to be fitted for their new riders. The bikes were a good spec and had UK braking, so they were pleased.

At 10:00 am the sun had started to show through the mist and we headed off to the lower slopes of Alpe d’Huez. Two bends in and we broke into the sun. 4 bends in and we stopped to remove the layers and tweak the hire bikes. Once finished, it was every man for himself as we all found a speed that felt comfortable for the next hour of ascent.

Counting the 21 bends down is easy and avoiding the local photographers handing out their cards after they’ve taken a picture of your best grimace is straightforward. Despite this, we got lost in the village of Alpe d'Huez and ended up cycling back downhill past the official finish point!

After more photos, emailing and plenty of water, we were on the way to Col de Sarenne (1999m). A small, fast and twitchy descent was followed by a further climb to the Col. We took a well-earned rest at the top, during which we met a group of 4 cyclists from Oxford touring in the area and took the chance to swap cycling stories. Then we were off on our brilliant descent down a narrow road, with excellent views all the way down to the main road at the bottom. Back into Bourg we met the familiar sweeping descents and were greeted with horrendous weather...

Eurocamp Active - Road Cycling Diaries

9th September

It finally stopped raining at about 6 and the day started to look much more promising than the night had sounded. The plan for the day: retrace the first part of our trip on day one, with a 28km ride up to Col du Glandon. Adrian and I knew what were in for and promised the others an easier ride than Alpe d'Huez, which it is, but that’s without the climbing of the previous day still in your legs.

We rode out and stuck together for the flat section past the hydro station and then we hit the hill. From there, we were each to their own rhythm, and climbed away passing other cyclists, and in turn, were passed. Our first regroup was at the village before the steep drop, but unfortunately, no one was in the mood for cake. Onwards, we dropped down a bit and up the steepest section, and regrouped by the top dam before on to Col du Glandon (1924m). We celebrated at the top and took the obligatory photographs, before a quick return to Hotel du Glandon (about 300m from the top) for soup and cake.

There were about 20 other riders at the top and the ride up had taken its toll on a couple of people – fortunately they had vehicle support, so their bikes were loaded onto the car and they were driven back down. An exhilarating descent followed with the fastest speeds of the trip – with Adrian topped out at 49.5mph, and me, a mere 48.6mph.

4 hours after starting, we were back at the campsite and planning the evening’s entertainment: a night in Bourg it was. There was lots of restaurant choice on offer, but our decision was quickly made by the heavy rain.

10th September

We awoke to a clearing sky and Adrian and I were determined to use the morning for cycling; we choose a shorter and lower route to the Col d'Ornon (1367m). This is a great little climb with about 660m of ascent from the campsite, and can be completed there and back in less than 2 hours (including stops to enjoy the fantastic views). Each of the Cols we had completed had a different feel and this one was no exception. A much easier gradient, shorter and lower, but none the less dramatic in the vistas it offers with the road clinging to the side of the cliff. The ride done, we headed back to the site, quickly packed the car and took off to the airport.