In 2007 we were living in Amsterdam so we took advantage of our relatively close proximity to France (compared to Australia, anyway!) and arranged to meet up in Briancon France with Ross and Jeanette, friends from Australia for a week of cycling the French Alps. Following the week with our Aussie friends we had a week with an organized tour company, Thompson Bike Tours, which took us on to the Tour de France route.
14 July Grenoble – 33 miles
We drove all day on Friday and reached Grenoble near midnight. We got up a bit late on Saturday but still managed a nice ride up to Saint Nizier du Moucherotte. It was basically uphill all the way to the turn-around spot and downhill all the way back. Our biggest hill since leaving Oz. Lonely Planet called it a steep but steady climb. We had no idea how it will stack up against the rides later in the week. Certainly it was much bigger than anything in Holland. We stopped mid-ride in a small town market for some “square pants sponge Bob” cake. Got back to the hotel just in time for a shower and check out. Next up was the 2 hour drive to Briancon. Stopped half way at a roadside crepery for lunch then finally arrived in Briancon to meet Ross and Jeanette, friends from Oz, at the chalet.
15 July Briancon – 62 miles
Today we went on our first ride in the Alps proper. Only 10 miles from town we found the Col d’ Izoard. This is a pretty famous tour climb, this year being also part of the Giro. It was hard but Dave didn’t have to peddle. Turns out that his bike is the Izoard model and there was some sort of weird magnetic thing that pulled him all the way to the top (or at least it seemed that way as he chatted at us the whole way up!). Ross, Jeanette and I all had a hard slog of 7% or greater for the full length. The top was followed by an incredible 24-mile decent into Guillistre and a nice gorge. It was a bit of a grind back to Briancon, 30 miles with some rollers and hills. Ross drove this route the day before and had told us it was pretty flat. Damn car drivers!
16 July Briancon – 24 miles
We needed an easy day today so we opted to ride over the relatively low Col de Montgenevre, across the Italian border, for a coffee. Ross got to show off his Italian skills and order us all proper coffees.
The ride back was mostly downhill, nice. We stopped on the edge of Briancon for silly photos at the large ornamental bikes they have up for the tour. Ross and Dave made fools of themselves by climbing onto the seats. Passing traffic seemed to get a real kick out of the Aussie fools!
17 July Briancon – 49 miles
Today we rode up the Col de Lauteret and the Col du Galibier. The tour was going up the Galibier later in the day and was finishing in Briancon so we opted to ride up it early and make it back to town to watch the finish. The ride from the chalet up to the Col de Lauteret was nice and steady, nothing too hard. We left pretty early, about 6:30, but there were already people starting to congregate along the side of the road. At the top of the Lauteret we made the turn to start climbing the Galibier. By that time it was almost 8:30 and the gendarmes were there in force, barricades were up to prevent any cars and there were tons of people walking up to get spots. We slogged our way up amongst all the walkers – it was a pretty hard climb, almost 22 miles with an average grade of 5.5%. There was a really steep bit right near the top just to make sure you were really hurting. Tons of people along the road cheering us on – it was pretty wild. The ride back down was fun, though we had to go pretty slow to avoid all the walkers. We had a great ride back down the Lauteret – a really good downhill all the way back to town.
Back at the chalet we had lunch and then walked into town to get a spot to view the finish. Very crowded along the route but we secured a good spot on a very steep climb less than 1k from the finish. The tour parade came through, all kinds of funny vehicles throwing goodies into the crowd. Dave was right there grabbing it all, knocking down the little kids around him to get things! When the riders came through it was it was quite exciting to be so close to them. A rider from Barloworld won – then the peloton came through and the last stragglers. They all look incredibly fit – very thin, mostly muscle I think!
18 July Briancon – 103 miles
Big day today, we rode from Briancon to Alp d’Huez, did the climb and rode back to Briancon. We got up really early and left the chalet just after 5:30. Climbed back up Col de Lauteret and then down the other side. It was cold in the valley but we knew it would warm up. We eventually made it to Alp d’Huez about 9:30 or so. There were lots of folks around the base of the climb; there is a parking lot just near there and it’s clear that a lot of people drive there and park and then ride up. (Note for future rides Dave!)
We took a deep breath and started the climb. We had read that the first 3k were pretty tough, and for sure they were. At least 10% for the whole 3k – it was rough, even with the switchbacks. After that it eased up a bit, still hard but at least seemed possible. The numbered switchbacks were a nice diversion – they each had a name of a tour rider who had won an Alp d’Huez stage. Plus, they started at 21 and decreased as you went up so it at least made you feel good to see the numbers going down! There were a few flat spots in the middle to give you a breather as well. We finally made it up to the village at the top, but the signs indicated the tour finish was up another few turns so we kept going all the way to the top. Many riders stop at the last village, and Jeannette and Ross, who were behind us, stopped there but of course we couldn’t do that! We made it to the official finish line and got someone to take a picture of us to prove to Andy that the Existential Velo jerseys made it to the official top of Alp d’Huez!
After meeting up with Jeannette and Ross and getting a bit to eat, it was time to make our way back to Briancon. We had a long way to go – but we did enjoy the ride back down Alp d’Huez. We had a bit of flat and then we had a very long ride back up to the top of Lauteret – it must have been over 20 miles of pretty good uphill. By that time it was about 1pm and very hot. It was a tough climb that seemed to go on forever. We stopped at a little bar to get Jeannette and Ross something to eat. The bar turned out to be owned by some folks from Wales, so no problem getting a good sandwich. Then it was on to continue the climb. We kept plugging away and made it back up to the top of Lauteret by about 4pm. Dave and I sat and had some great homemade cookies and juice and coffee and waited for Jeanette and Ross. They arrived in good time – though Ross was very tired. He was so funny at the top – made some comment about being ready to be off the bike about 5 hours ago and trying to convince his body it only had 5 more hours to do (in language slightly more colourful than that)!
From the top we had that great downhill back into Briancon, which was a great reward for a hard day. We were all very tired but felt great about doing such a famous climb, particularly as part of a very long day. Dinner at the chalet and we were all in bed pretty early!!
19 July Briancon – 23 miles
Ross seemed to have recovered his ability so speak overnight but we still opted for an easy day. Dave found a pretty flat ride up a valley to a town called Plampinet. We stopped for coffee in town then turned around and rode back. The return ride was much more downhill than the out bound ride seemed uphill. We all agreed that the past few days must have been hard. By now, it had to be over 5% before it even felt uphill.
20 July Car drive from Briancon to Toulouse
We parted company with our Aussie friends and drove down south to meet up with the folks from Thompson Tours for the second stage of the vacation.
21 July Vielha Spain – 23 miles
We met up with the Thompson Bike Tour folks at the Toulouse airport around 11am. A couple folks had lost their bike gear flying in, so we had a slow start while they hit the bikeshop. We had a couple hours van transfer to reach our hotel in Vielha, Spain. It rained most of the way, arrived around 1PM. Just in time for lunch (red wine included) and a siesta. We finally got on the road for our shakedown ride at 5:45.
As we started the ride, the rain let up but the road was pretty wet. It was still pretty dark from the clouds and there was some fog about. The first 6 miles were downhill. Combine the cool wet downhill riding, with two days of car transfer and you get pretty stiff legs. The climb to the Artiga Delim was hard. Several wet cattle guards and lots of cow droppings made for an exciting descent. We made it back to the hotel around 8PM. Still a bit early for dinner in Spain but at least in one piece. It’s a pretty fast group but we were not the last ones back to the hotel.
22 July Vielha Spain – 64 miles
We left the hotel at 8:30, 30 minutes before the A group. We knew we wouldn’t ride as fast as them but we wanted to ride the A route. The B group skipped the harder climbs. We rode to down the valley to Bosset and made a left turn on the Col de Portillon. There were still some clouds about from the rain and the roads were a little wet. The climb was pretty long but the downhill to Luchon seemed to go down much more than we had climbed on the other side.
From Luchon, we had the 20ks climb to Superbagneres. It was pretty steep in places, lots of switchbacks and turns where you could see the road hundreds of meters above. It was very windy and cold at the top but at least the sun was shinning. We bought a big slice of bread from a confused restaurant owner to try to get some energy. The ride down was cold and windy, though it warmed as we descended. At the bottom we passed Luchon again and started up the back side of Col de Portillon. It turned out to be quite a bit harder than other side. Either that, or our legs were feeling the Superbagneres. The descent was warmer, in full sun now. It was 16ks back up the valley to Vielha where we stopped a Spanish tapas bar and ate some lunch. We had a bit of a struggle with the order and I’m not really sure we got what we ordered but everything tasted great so it didn’t really matter.
23 July Viehla Spain to Bielsa France – 64 miles
Today we rode the tour route, or at least the last two cols. We had 30ks of flat to downhill to start, crossing the French border and making our way towards the first col. We left a little earlier than the A group again as the B group was not going to tackle the first climb.
We eventually reach the base of the Port de Bales. This is a new climb for the Tour as until two years ago, it was not paved on the other side going down. It was a hard climb. Even though it was not the final climb of the stage, it had lots of people on the roadside. Closer to the top the numbers increased and it started getting crazy. Lots of Basque. Nancy got one of the famous “I’ll run beside you” pushes from a young fan, just near the accordion player and his band. It was many hours before the tour was scheduled to pass, but the party was in full swing.
It was a very long descent of the Port de Bales to the start of the Col de Peyresourde. We had to ride up to the Thompson Bike Tours tent, which was set up 5ks from the summit. We certainly weren’t riding alone, being a finish climb meant the road was lined with lots of people. We arrived at the tent pretty early and ended up having over 5 hours to watch the tour caravan, race vehicles, leading riders and the tailend sprinting grupeto. Dave managed to grab some more swag from the caravan, this time not taking out as many kids.
After the tour passed, we had to ride up the remaining 5ks to the summit. It was nuts. There were tons of cars and people walking. Most of the cars were just parked so we slalomed left, right and back, weaving our way to the summit. Probably not as fast as the tour riders, but all the dodging certainly took our minds off any pain the climb might have caused. From the top the traffic sort of thinned out. Or at least we got through it quicker. Every now and then, we had to pass a long line of parked cars. We eventually made it to Arreau where we got loaded in the vans for a transfer to Bielsa, eventually reading the hotel at 9PM. Long day on the road.
24 July Bielsa France to Aucun France– 63 miles
The hotel in Bielsa wouldn’t serve breakfast until 8:15. Then we had another transfer to the start of the ride. We got on the road around 11PM. A & B groups left at the same time today, heading toward the famous Col de Tourmalet.
Before we could tackle the Tourmalet though, we had to climb the Col de Aspin. We rode for an hour through the valley, then reached the Aspin. It was a nice climb. Not too hard and with quite a few people (rest day at the tour today so every one rides). At the top there were lots of cows and even some pigs about. In the Pyrenees, all the high mountains have open range. You have to be very careful on the downhills as several times we came round a corner only to find the road completely blocked by cows.
It was a nice downhill off the Aspin where we re-grouped for lunch in a village. We made our stop a quick one and headed out to the Tourmalet. With all of the famous tour stages that have been coming here, since the 1930s, there certainly is lots of mystique about the Tourmalet. It did not disappoint. There was a 10ks section where the roadside km markers never dropped below 8.5% with several over 10%. Absolutely no breaks for the entire steep part of the climb. We took it slow, not completely by choice, and made the top in a little over 1.5 hours. We were lucky to have some clouds on the climb so it wasn’t too hot and even luckier when the clouds cleared at the top. Great views and lots of people. We had to fight off a group of young kids who had ridden up in a car in order to get a summit photo. I’m not sure you’ve earned a photo when you ride in a car up, but like I said, there is quite a bite of mystique and everyone wants to prove that they had been there.
The descent was very long and steep. The sun came back out and we stopped a few times to enjoy the views. Eventually we made our way to Aucun and our chateau. The ride queue sheet was a little off and we had to ride an extra 10ks but it didn’t matter because we had scaled the Tourmalet today.
25 July Aucun, France – 63 miles
Crap, no really, crap! When dreaming up a vacation in the south of France, I certainly didn’t envision ending up on the side of a mountain with one foot covered with crap, soaking in an icy glacial stream, hoping the cold water would suddenly clean up a very messy cycling shoe. Oh yeah, did I mention that I was almost arrested just prior to finding the need to use the icy roadside washing machine? Some vacation.
The day started innocently enough. We were with Thompson Bike Tours following the Tour de France. After a nice breakfast at our chateau, we headed out to tackle a couple Cols. The Col de Soulor and the Col de Aubisque to be exact. The latter also happened to be the final climb of stage 15 of the 2007 TDF. We were under little time pressure to make the full distance before they closed the Aubisque. We needed to cover 65k in a little over 5 hours, as they were supposed to shut the road to bikes going up at 2pm.
The Soulor was not too bad and by the time we were heading down the other side we had hooked up with some other riders of the group. We joined up in a nice paceline and made good time towards the Aubisque. After a quick bakery stop, we rolled past the climb start just after noon, nearly two hours to spare. So it seemed we had made the cut-off in plenty of time. All we had left to ride was 15ks to the top where Thompson Bike Tours had set-up a tent about 1k from the summit finish. And the tour would not be through until 5PM. We could have walked it and still made it, easy.
As Pyrenean Cols go, the Aubisque is pretty tough. We had lots of company on the way up with many riders, some from our group and lots of walkers. The tour buses of all the tour teams also passed us. We weren’t the fastest riders, but we were passing some folks and making pretty good time.
Everything was right on schedule until about 6ks from the top, when we reached the tour communications village. For some reason as we came to the village, a single gendarme had the road blocked. And he wasn’t letting bikes OR walkers past. It was all of 1PM, well within the supposed cut-off time and hours from the tour. A small group of us tried to talk, cajole, persuade our way past. No go, he was not having it. And the more we talked, the more of his mates that came to join him. Before long there were about 50 of them and we were going nowhere. They got a little rough, knocking one rider to the ground and dragging his bike off the road (leaving the rider to sort himself out). Eventually, they forced us completely off the pavement over a ditch and into the weeds on the side of the road. Arrests were spoken of, but as it was only French, we were getting this secondhand.
Ok, now what? Plan B. One by one, we snuck off into the woods to work our way around the men in blue. We are talking serous woods here. It was extremely steep, with lots of trees and it was not even clear if we could get above our friends before we ran into a cliff at the bottom of the next switchback. I took the lead. Real hands and knees stuff here. Perfect, with a bike to carry as well.
As I reached the top of the steepest part and looked over the side, I discovered the bad news. It was even steeper going down the other side and our Plan B was not going to work. Everyone had to work back down the way we came, to sit in the ditch and ponder 5 hours while we wait for the tour to pass.
On the way back down, I managed to step in the-you-know-what. Could it get any better; 5 hours in a ditch, smelling like crap, no food, no water, no shade. Did I mention that this was the hottest day yet in the Pyrenees for the tour? Thank goodness, the ditch had a stream. Nancy and I, with about 10 fellow cyclists, took a seat and accepted our fate.
Over the next hour, the gendarmes found other felons to bust. Over time all 50 of them drifted off elsewhere to prevent fun from happening. Even our trusted trainee who had earlier promoted himself to road closure captain wandered off, to a spot on the road below where we were sitting. The bravest cyclists among our group decided to make a run for it, up the road. Walking in the ditch and keeping low, he made it. Then one more and one more. In the space of ten minutes, all but Nancy and I had made a stealth escape to just around the corner where they mounted up and rode up the hill.
Our turn was next. We had the worst position, being lowest on the hill. But we had to give it a go. We timed our run so as to join in with a small Basque family. We walked on the inside, them on the road. They didn’t seem to know what was going on but with a little encouragement, they kept walking with us. We were both too nervous to look down the hill to check on the men in blue, fearing a whistle or shout. Keep walking. Made the corner. Phew! Mount up and ride like the wind.
Ok, maybe not quite like the wind. Only one corner later, another gendarme. Our escape luck holds, he only got the “no riding memo” and other than making us dismount and walk, we can continue. This goes on for the next 5ks. Ride 100 meters, meet a gendarme, apologize for riding, walk 20 meters, mount up, ride to the next gendarme, etc. Some two hours later, we reached the tent.
All I needed at that point was new cleats from all the walking and a washing machine for my one smelly shoe. Perhaps a beer would be good as well!
Oh yeah, the tour did come by and we saw a big attach by Rasmussen to win the stage and take control of the tour (before his team booted him the next morning). Just being there made us feel like we’d won as well.
26 July Aucun, France – 14 miles
Today was the only day we didn’t ride all the Cols. Nancy ate something that didn’t quite agree with her (as did a lot of other riders as well). So we hung out at the hotel and relaxed in the morning, before riding up the valley above town around lunch time. We managed to find a store that was open in the village and had a nice cheese and jambon (ham) lunch back at the chateau.
All and all, a great vacation. Some really hard riding, but also some of the most famous climbs and we did almost all of them. Next time we’ll take lower gears and maybe try to include some more hills in our training. Then again, I don’t know how many times you have to ride up the Tourmalet and Alp d’ Huez before you can check it off your “life’s must do list”.