Sam’s finished his GCSEs so we’ve been to the Alps. What a trip! We set off with nothing but a channel tunnel crossing booked, £600 of euros and a vague idea of where to go.
Getting there was quite hard going. We left on the Wednesday evening, drove to Cambridge and camped on Aunt Rach’s lawn. Up fairly early, onward down to the channel tunnel and a slightly earlier crossing than booked. Which was then delayed. Whether it was because of Brexit or Boris Johnson announcing he didn’t want to be PM, who knows, but we didn’t get to France until about 4pm and decided a news blackout was a good idea. Stopped at Troyes for a meal and ended up staying there for the night after passing through some pretty impressive rainstorms. A pleasant mediaeval town centre but just a big French city in the middle of some uninspiring countryside (for us) and not what we’d come for.
Better weather the next day and a temperature that just kept on rising until we arrived at Allemont, along the road from Bourg d’Oisans and at the foot of the road to the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Glandon. I’d had a quick look beforehand and found a campsite that was half the price of the others and when we got there we discovered it was because there was no bar or pool. Perfect.
Eager to be on the bikes we set off through Allemont towards the barrage (dam) at the top of the village. It was the day before the Marmotte Cyclosportive so there were hundreds of cyclists out stretching their legs on their incredibly fancy bikes. We headed off up the hill then turned towards Vaujany for a proper climb. I’d expected long, twisting roads uphill but fairly steady gradients that allowed you to just spin up with graceful coolness. No. Within a couple of turns my heart was pounding, sweat was pouring and I was so glad I’d put a 32t block on the back and cursed I hadn’t put a smaller chainring on the front! Sam pulled away and I resolved to make my own way up these hills. Once through Vaujany we stopped for a rest. I felt dizzy, sick and ridiculously hot and eagerly dowsed myself in the roadside fountain, probably breaking all the rules of the local administration in the process. I also realised I’d only had a tin of mackerel fillets for lunch and that was a while ago and had probably been used up! The road carried on up and so did we, intrigued to see where it went and how far we could get. Eventually after 13.5 miles of up we got to the Col du Sabot at 2100m having ascended more than the height of Ben Nevis but the views across the other side towards the Glandon and Croix de Fer made it all worthwhile and the local geography started to make sense.
Now it was cold and we needed to get back before the shop shut and get ourselves sorted in the campsite but, of course, the return journey was MUCH faster.
Dodging the cow muck, staying upright when crossing the gravel and judging the speed through the hairpins was all great fun and soon we were eating ice cream before stocking up on food in the village shop. Satisfied and excited we settled in for some much needed rest before day 2.
I’d left the route choice to Sam but there was no discussion about this one – the Alpe!
Apparently the target time is below an hour so as soon as we hit the bottom I suggested Sam could disappear and I would make my own way up. He’d gone by the time I got to the first bend but I just plodded on keeping my heart rate steady at a level I knew I could sustain. Sometimes I passed people, often they passed me. The views gradually opened out. The engineering involved in the road construction is remarkable, even the idea to make a road here is amazing. Each numbered bend (counting down to the top) is dedicated to a famous cyclist and has a board full of stats. All these things occupied my mind as I ground up the hill. The Marmotte finishes up here and as I entered the town some glamorous and sensible people sitting in a cafe were cheering and clapping folk who looked like they needed it. I met Sam coming down from the top to find me – he’d taken ten minutes less than me to get there. Eventually we declared the hill conquered and I demanded a sit down to recover.
We found somewhere to eat and the first finishers of the Marmotte were arriving to great applause – quite rightly. Our route took us over the Col du Sarenne and sadly the weather packed up and we descended in heavy rain and wind. It doesn’t last long and by the time we’d warmed up at a lovely Salon de the on the way down (3euro for two hot chocolates!) the sun was almost back out.
Soon we could see the main road down from the Galibier and it was full of the thousands taking part in the Marmotte.
We joined them and had a blast down on the closed roads, through tunnels (scary in sunglasses) and passing crowds of cheering spectators. We latched onto the back of a short train of blokes who kindly dragged us into Bourg d’Oisans before they continued up the Alpe. All we had to do was get some more food and eat it.
There was a little more discussion this time about where we should go but in reality there was only one choice that wasn’t too intimidating or far away and that was the Col de la Croix de Fer. You get the Col du Glandon tacked on too because it’s only a few hundred metres up from the main road so it would be rude to miss it. The route started up the road we’d already travelled on the first day through Vaujany but this time we would continue up past the reservoir we’d seen from the top of the Col du Sabot. Either we were getting used to it or this was a bit easier but the initial section passed very pleasantly as the road wiggled up through the forestry.
Soon the village of Rivier d’Allemont was passed then surprisingly downhill for a few hairpins – noted for the return that there was more climbing here. More strenuous climbing up to the Lac de Grand Maison then things opened out and we could see where we were going in the distance.
After some undulations in the open country we eventually arrived at the restuarant below the Col du Glandon.
Once again I seemed to have run out of fuel. Sam eats a gluten free diet, something that is often poorly understood nor accommodated in France it seems, and the problem of trying to find him some food, and find a seat, and decide what I wanted (FOOD!) caused the proprietor to take control, make me sit down and behave as if I was in a restuarant! Soon we had full meals in front of us and after that the world was a much better place. Only a few km more led us to the top of the Croix de Fer where the best view of the trip so far awaited us.
Many people had made the journey and there was some rotation of people wanting pictures next to the iconic signposts and view points. At the same time the top was buzzed every few minutes by someone on a helicopter flying loops around the mountains.
Time to move to on and our first taste of overtaking cars on the way back down to the Glandon and another photocall.
Then down and down, reliving the moments of the ascent as they flew past. The re-ascent to Riviere was nothing to be feared in the end being fairly insignificant compared with what had gone before. Onward down through the woods, this time mixing it up the motorbikers who couldn’t always pass us through the bends. Exhilarating for sure.
We’d got the evening meal sorted by now – either sausages or steak with boiled potatoes and salad – quick and easy and just the job.
It felt like we should have an easier day. The obvious objective that we were mulling over was the Col du Galibier but at over 2600m and about 70 miles that was a little daunting. Instead we set off up the road opposite our campsite towards Villard Reclulas.
Within a mile or so we saw a group of about 8 cyclists up ahead, moving more slowly than we were. Sam inevitably picked up the pace a little and we soon caught them and discovered they were all English apart from their French host who seemed to have a little more ‘baggage’ than any of them and was finding it tough up the hill. I started to chat with them and discovered they were all from Essex and had come to do the Marmotte. This was their first ride out after that having taken the day after off as a rest day! Apparently the biggest hill in Essex is 98m high – how they’d trained for the Marmotte I have no idea but they’d all got round, some in very impressive times. Chatting passed the time and we soon arrived in Villard Reculas having barely noticed the climb. We paused for some photos and to take in the atmosphere and discuss mountaineering with one of the Essex lads – his friends obviously knew he could talk as they just pushed off without him leaving him to chase after them once he realised!
Having got rid of our post cards to the passing post lady we continued on towards the village of Huez.
The road was to become one of the famous French ‘balcony’ roads and although we weren’t at the dramatic section yet we did have a sense that we were traversing the side of the valley at a high level.
The village of Huez coincided with what felt like lunchtime so we stopped on a terrace and ordered some lunch. Here I discovered that it is possible to order a sandwich even if it is not on the menu and having confirmed there was nothing gluten free the proprietor was happy for Sam to eat his own sandwiches on the terrace. This is the village of the eponymous Alpe and Sam explained to me how the pastor of the church had been Dutch when the Tour de France began and had rung the bell whenever there was a Dutch winner of a stage. The corner on the main road up is still known as Dutch Corner and is covered in orange on race days.
Having stopped to admire ourselves in the mirror we dropped down a few bends then continued along the real balcony road towards Auris.
What an incredible place! There were sections where the road is literally chiselled out of a cliff face and a memorial along the side indicated that this was done in 1902. Why? I couldn’t find out a reason except that it links the villages without having to go right back down to the valley and back up again.
Being France the precipitous drop was protected by a huge 18″ of concrete at the side of the road.
Travelling by bicycle was by far the best way of taking this in – passers by in cars miss so much as well as struggling with oncoming traffic.
Below Auris the ascent of Deux Alpes begins and we’d thought about going up here at the end of the day. I think we were both a little tired and considered not going up but in the end we did. Less steep and shorter than the Alpe d’Huez it was no less an effort at the end of the day but again worth it for the views, the ice cream at the top and the descent. It’s also popular with mountainbikers and the armour clad downhillers were something we hadn’t yet seen. I’d had my second ever days skiing here in 1991 and I remember it as the place I learned to turn where I wanted rather than 50 yards past where I intended to.
Apart from a bumpy corner 10 on the way down we had no problems and were prepared for the tunnels this time as well. We spotted the Essex boys on the roadside and bumbled our way home on the biggest day so far.
We’d had fun watching an English couple at our campsite who were clearly cyclists and runners but seemed reluctant to talk to us. He spent hours cleaning and fettling his bikes so we came back eager to see what cleaning had been done today. More pressing was the fact that the car battery was flat after we’d charged mobile phones,etc without starting it up. I asked the helpful campsite owner and he produced an ancient battery charger for us to plug in overnight.
The only remaining obvious objective was the Col du Galibier. Sam had been hesitant about this because he thought it was too far away and too high to do from the campsite so we decided to drive up to the Barrage at the foot of the Deux Alps climb to start. This meant we had to get the car started though and the ancient battery charger hadn’t worked overnight. I approached a Dutch chap on the campsite because he had a suitably large car and I guessed he would speak good enough english to understand what I needed. Once he had finished his substantial breakfast we were gratefully on our way.
The road we’d gone up yesterday was closed to cars with a policeman and a ‘flamme rouge’ at the entrance. This is something which happens every Tuesday morning so that cyclists can enjoy the roads without cars on. Imagine that in this country – if Hartside was closed for the morning for cyclists there would be outrage!
We’d seen on the Sarenne day that the normal road round the Lac du Chambon was closed and an emergency road had been made on the south side of the lake. Although this was a temporary road (and technically closed to all but local traffic) they’d gone to town in building it and there were some impressive machines with long legs designed for working on steep sided roads.
La Grave was the first place of any note and we paused for something to eat (I was getting the hang of this) and to gaze at the lower slopes of the Meije. A couple of teenage lads and an older man (a Guide or their father – not clear) had just come down off the chairlift following a mountaineering excursion by the look of it and reminded me of past adventures.
Beyond here there were some tunnels (we had our lights this time) and more pastoral mountain scenery and some smelly goats before we got to the Col du Lautaret for lunch. The top of the Lautaret is really the start of the Galibier which is a further five miles up!
The scale of these passes and mountains is staggering. This was a bit more like I was expecting though – the gradient was a little easier and I didn’t always feel the need for my lowest gear.
At the top the weather was starting to close in. It was windy and rain was in the air and the other side of the pass looked a little more menacing. A kind lady took a photo of us together but declined my offer to return the favour – “It’s better if my husband and his wife don’t see us together” she said!
So we turned and headed back down. Sam didn’t like this descent, fearing the consequences of a mistake with the steep sided bends, but the rain stayed off and soon we were back at the Lautaret. Now we had a headwind. It seemed a bit cruel having to pedal hard to maintain a reasonable speed downhill but still easier than on the way up. On and on it went driving home the point that we’d gone a heck of a long way up – 20 miles in fact. Gradually getting warmer as we got back to warmer air we were eventually undulating or way past the lake and back to the car and that was it – cycling done. Special tea tonight with extra salad.
We were meeting an old University friend of mine in Grenoble so we’d mostly packed the night before then went for a run before leaving the campsite. Tired legs!
Had a fantastic time with Marianne and all her family and Sam enjoyed trying out his GCSE French with her nieces and nephews. I had a fascinating morning with her brother in law – an artisan baker and we returned home with the smell of fresh bread filling the car. I’m going to write some more about the artisan baker in another post.