Tackling the Alpe d’Huez on a croissant

We invited Manchester cyclists Jim, Andy and Simon to test their cycling skills - and brakes - on some of France’s most famous climbs. In between refueling stops, Simon kept a cycling diary to let us know how they got on...

The gradient was a perfect match for the lowest gear on the hired road bike I was using to ascend one of the most famous and picturesque climbs on the Tour De France alpine stages. Just as long as it didn’t kick up I would be fine. Cue the next corner - it kicked up. Eurocamp were hosting us to pilot a road cycling package in the French Alps – that dulled the pain.

Eurocamp Active - Road Cycling Diaries

Gearing up

Jim, Andy and I had arrived at the parc near Bourg d’Oisans the evening before, following a flight from Liverpool to Geneva and a drive into the mountains. We assumed the convoluted route from Geneva airport to the Grenoble motorway was a result of a 9-year-old sat nav unit, brought from England and switched on without Swiss maps. It was, but the significance of this was to be revealed on the way home as we copped a 28 Euro vignette for 2km on a Swiss motorway! The learning is: stay in France.

Our cycling friends Neil and Adrian had arrived the day before, and already completed an epic 103 mile ride with 4000m of ascent in 3 climbs. I once did the Manchester 100 but it only had 40m of uphill. My thing is mountain biking, which is like interval training, with 100m uphill, 100m downhill repeated over and over. Trepidation set in. We arrived at the campsite to find Neil and Adrian in full carb-loading mode. Fortunately they had catered for us and we loaded for the epic rides ahead.

The holiday home was basic, but comfortable and quiet at night. We arose to sunshine and a warming day. The first task was to collect the hire bikes*, which had been pre-ordered by Eurocamp from a small cycle hire outfit in Bourg d’Oisans. The bikes were branded with the shop logo but they looked OK and had good quality components and carbon frames. The brakes seemed very good – and we needed them. As it turned out, Jim needed more brakes than were fitted!

The shop mechanic set the bikes up and we trundled into town for breakfast before heading up Alpe d’Huez. The others seemed to think a croissant and a coffee was sufficient breakfast for 90 minutes uphill cycling. I demurred and bought a banana from the market stall (a great Saturday feature in Bourg d’Oisans).

Eurocamp Active - Road Cycling Diaries

Sitting comfortably?

From Bourg d’Oisans, Alpe d’Huez doesn't introduce itself, being straight up from the town. The scenery as the ascent progresses is impressive and the views down into the mist-covered valley from the corners does compensate for the abruptness of the eruption into the near vertical (actually it isn’t that bad - UK climbs are short and nasty, but this is long and beautiful). My legs were fine all the way up but my back and the bit I sit on were not. Probably to be expected on a hire bike and saddle that aren’t your own, and this one was a little too long for me.

When I arrived at the top, I was pleased to discover that the others had only been there for 5 minutes (or so they said). Alpe d’Huez looked like what it was - a ski resort in low season. We set off for the Col de Sarenne. The Col is wild, in contrast to the resort-feel of Alpe d’Huez. It is also high at just over 2000m, and I found the 200m above Alpe d’Huez hard from being at 70m near Manchester the day before. I had to lie down for the cramp to subside.

Eurocamp Active - Road Cycling Diaries

Back down to earth

It’s all worth it when you go down. It is a thrilling descent from the Col to the main road - the only limit to your speed is your courage and judgement. These do need to be balanced though as acrobatic skill may be required if they are not. Only Jim’s pride and a few wild flowers in the verge were hurt.

The hack back to Bourg along the main road was more pleasant than I expected thanks to good roads and considerate car drivers. Back in Bourg d’Oisans we had some lunch and I bought a cycling shirt. I think it has something about an Alpe on it...

Dinner in the campsite restaurant was very good, although later than we would have liked. I recommend booking the day before.

The next day was cooler but still dry and we set off to ascend the Col du Glandon. Where Alpe d’Huez is switchbacks, this is a 2-hour grind to the top with an infuriating section where you lose a whole 200m you have suffered for! Only the Alps can do this. The scenery is fabulous though.

Then, after a reviving bowl of soup in the cafe at the Col we made our way down. And do you go down! It was the first time I’ve overtaken cars and vans on a road bike. What a feeling that is – it’s a pity it only lasts for 15 minutes.