Tour of the Alps 2002

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Day 2: 22 June 2002: l'Alpe-d'Huez and beyond

On Saturday morning we got up at 6:30 to eat breakfast and to be on the road by 8:00 as it was supposed to be hot. We rode into Bourg-d'Oisans and north up the N91 to the turnoff to the Col d'Ornon and then back to the base of l'Alpe-d'Huez. The D211 turns off the the N91 marked by a sign proclaiming "Alpe-d'Huez", crosses a bridge and then confronts you with a large clock and a start line. I crossed the line at 8:17 and was on the lower slopes almost immediately. Keith rolled ahead, being the strongest climber, and initially I was behind him pretty closely. The initial gradient is steep and Keith pulled away; I let him go as this was the first mountain I had ever ridden and I had no idea how I would fare. I can hold Keith's wheel on a 200 meter climb- the tallest hills near Minneapolis/St. Paul- if I hurt myself a bit, but this was an 1100 meter ascent. Judy and Kirk, living and riding in the Rockies as they do, were more sensible about the climb.

The initial ramp continues for about 3 km, and then the gradient eases off after Turn 17. It's quite startling how quickly one gains altitude in the first few kilometers and how beautiful the Romanche Valley is from l'Alpe. The hairpins (locally called lacets which means "shoelaces") are clearly numbered and give one an excellent- and appreciated- sense of progress. I found a rhythm in my 38 x 28 that I was comfortable with and settled in for a long climb. Lower slopes of Alpe-d'Huez There are several small towns on the lower slopes of the Alpe, the largest being la Garde; these are not usually seen on the Tour TV coverage so I was surprised.

The hairpins went by and suddenly I saw I was passing lacet 10. I realized that "this is do-able" and my morale soared. Ah, if my teammates could have seen me then, after years of listening to me gripe about hills. I was climbing comfortably at about 8 mph (13 km/h) at this point- less than half the speed of the best grimpeurs. After lacet 10, the road steepens but again eases off after after the next hairpin. Eventually one climbs above the trees and at this point it became quite warm on the mountain as I was in full sun. After lacet 4, there is a fork in the road with a sign pointing cyclists to the left and trucks to the right. Following the left fork, I wound past lacet 3 and towards lacet 2; there was an enterprising photographer snapping photos of riders as they went by and handing them a business card with contact information and a reference number. Looking down
from Huez At this point it was almost anticlimactic to ride into Huez and to cross the finish line in front of the Office de Tourisme. I had ridden l'Alpe-d'Huez in 1:18. Keith had been there about 10 minutes by the time I got to the top.

The Tour de France would have you believe that l'Alpe-d'Huez is a dead-end road up to the top of the mountain. It isn't; there are in fact several places you can go: northeast through Villard-Reculas to Allemond and the Col de la Croix de Fer, southwest over the Col de Sarenne and allegedly north over a rough track to the Maurienne side of the Croix de Fer. After meeting up with Judy and Kirk, we proceeded to ride through Huez in search of the D25 over the Col de Sarenne. A tour of the perimeter of the resort area brought us to it, a small road winding around the "altiport" with its interesting downhill runway. We got to see a plane land and another to take off, which looks like an *ahem* interesting experience. The D25 was marked as a "route pastoral" which seemed to mean that they'd pretty much left it alone, much like a "rustic road" here in the U.S. We were looking to cross the 1999 meter Col de Sarenne, which had a reputation as an under-appreciated jewel of the Alps.

The D25 winds through alpine meadows with some ups and downs, including one stretch to the summit with a marked reddish tinge to the pavement and a grade at better than 10%, some of it close to 15%. It was steep but still quite ridable at about 5 mph in my 38 x 28. I had been expecting the air to seem thin, but in fact I didn't notice any difference from home. Another bonus for a flatlander! At the top of the Col de Sarenne was a monument engraved with the usual rather florid sentiments. Many French monuments seem to include some advice such as "take the time to truly live" or "there's no time like the present." Probably not a bad idea. The monument also contained some historical information about the area.

Keith and I stopped at the top and took summit photos near the sign, looking back towards Alpe d'Huez. This was something we had neglected to do at the top of Alpe-d'Huez for some reason- probably because there wasn't a summit sign where we stopped by the tourist office and the fontaine. Keith at Col de Sarenne Kirk and Judy joined us at the pass after a few minutes. There were a lot hikers at the col, having parked their cars and headed off on the various hiking trails from the parking lot. The Col de Sarenne is apparently a well-known place for hiking, which must be quite enjoyable if it's anything like the riding. We revelled in the Alps-ness of the place- my first col or mountain pass- and then started the road down the other side. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

The D25 descends through a series of switchbacks, the first 5 kilometers or so having a crumbly, gravel-strewn surface that does little for one's confidence. There were also cobbled spillways that one rides over every so often, presumably to channel snowmelt in the spring. Vehicular traffic was sparse, but there were quite a few cyclists. The scenery was breathtaking as one looked down into the valley with its tiny towns like le Perron (where there is a interesting stone house built right against a huge tumulus that dwarfs the house), Clavans-le-Haut and Clavans-le-Bas. Just after the latter the road comes to the Ferrand River; we mistakenly crossed the bridge and began climbing to Besse, but quickly recognized the error and returned to the D25 to Mizoen. The D25 joins the N91 at the dam that creates the Lac du Chambon. We turned downhill, zooming quickly into le Freney d'Oisans. There Kirk and Judy opted to ride straight back down the N91 to Bourg-d'Oisans while Keith and I elected to take the "scenic route." Looking down the D25 from the pass

The D211a was described as "spectacular" in a couple of guide books and on several Web sites. Keith and I learned an important lesson on this day: in the Alps, you have to earn "spectacular." It is not simply given to you. The D211a started out steep and stayed that way for some 7-8 kilometers, with the trees hiding any sense of the road ahead most of the time. It was hot with no breeze on the climb. We did not realize that we'd be climbing to 1251 meters- about 540 meters above the valley. There was a road high across the face of the cliff which was visible from our gite; that was the road we were on. I was thoroughly frustrated on the latter part of the climb, simply having been inadequately prepared for this type of riding and having overextended myself for my first mountain ride. Keith kept me going with encouragement and good humor, and once we were on the top and slowly descending towards la Garde on Alpe d'Huez the view really was very, very spectacular. On the climb I was frustrated, but at the top it was well worth the ride up.

towards the Altiport (Note: this is actually a photo from partway up the Col de Sarenne, looking back toward Huez- I was out of film by the time we got to Mizoen) Hugging the cliff, ducking through tunnels and avalanche sheds, we made our way to la Garde, an old town about 4 hairpins up from the bottom of the mountain. We rode up a short rise to the D211-where we'd been just a few hours earlier- and turning left we zoomed down the slopes back to the valley floor and into Bourg-d'Oisans. We rewarded ourselves with a stop at the patisserie and basked in the glow of accomplishment, before riding back to the gite and Mme. Pauline's wonderful cuisine. After an aperitif in the garden and a chat with Monsieur et Madame and the others, we restoked ourselves much to the amusement of the other guests who were entertained to see four skinny people eat so much. Just before dinner, Fons rode in to the gite, having ridden almost the entire route of La Marmotte as a training ride- the same ride we'd do the next day. He noted he had suffered quite a bit from the heat, which was apparently unusually warm for this part of France. We should have taken notice- when an old hand in the Alps makes such statements they are worth noticing.

43.73 miles (69.97 km) in 4:22:55.

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