Alpe d’Huez

Lisa Toner here: I love fall, but riding in the rain (even on a cross bike!) is just not the same as those sunny days on smooth asphalt. This summer, my husband and I did a 12-week cycling trip in Europe. Below is a post about our ride up Alpe D’Huez, the climb made famous by the Tour de France. You can read more about our touring adventures here.

Alpe d’Huez.  For your information, it’s pronounced quickly, like one word: “Alpaydwez.” When French people asked us about where our travels would take us, we tried telling them “Alps” or Alpe d’Huez. Despite our best efforts to sound French, they nearly always said, “I do not know this place.” Finally, a bike shop employee coached us in the ways of pronouncing it and we repeated it over and over. (I don’t know if we ever fully mastered “Chamonix,” because even when we said it in our most French way, people still looked confused.) Oh, the joys of traveling in France when you don’t know the language!

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American cycling friends take note: Once you can pronounce Alpe d’Huez the French way, just say that while toting a fully loaded touring bike. You will surely impress any Frenchman, particularly chubby guys sitting outside a bar.  Your glory may last for a moment as their eyes widen, looking at your heavy bike. Then, when it’s apparent you don’t speak French, only English, they will slap you on the back and congratulate you for this year’s big Tour de France victory, inevitably thinking you are British. Then, when you say “no, I’m American!” They will do yet another double take, laugh loudly, and say “Lance Armstrong, hahahahaha, Lance Armstrong!!” and make needle-stabbing motions on their wrist. I usually try to explain that I’m a Tyler Farrar fan, but at that point the conversation was hopeless. (This is a true story that happened several times!)  Ah, bike love.

We got a taste of cycling legend when we spent a week doing some giant climbs in the French Alps as we made our way from Grenoble to Chamonix and the Swiss border.   Of all the big hills in the world, perhaps none is as symbolic as Alpe d’Huez, a climb that rises about 3300 feet over about 9 miles, ending at a ski area.  To put that in perspective, Washington Pass, the first big climb I did, gains about 4500 feet in 38 miles. Alpe d’Huez is a remarkable road literally carved into a cliffside. Each of its 21 switchbacks is numbered (counting down as you ride up!) and named after a Tour de France stage winner.   In the summer, hundreds of cyclists climb it daily; near the summit, you will find several professional photographers camped out, taking shots you can later buy from their website. The Dutch love this climb because a Dutchman won the stage many times in its early history. Dutch road graffiti is visible all over the climb. (How do the Dutch train for hills in such a flat country? A Dutchwoman I spoke to said they skate and ski a lot in the winter.)

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From Grenoble, we rode gradually upward to Bourg d’Oisans, the town at the base of Alpe d’Huez. Camping was expensive there; the cheapest we found was La Cascade, which gave a discount to foot and bike travelers. It was about €25 per night for a tent and two people. We pitched our tent literally 50 meters from the start line, a sign that said “depart.” We would leave most of our gear at camp and do the ride as an out-and-back day trip.

We got an earlyish start for the climb, mostly avoiding the hot sun. As promised, it started out steeply, with lots of 11% grade in the first few switchbacks. We kept a steady but hard pace.  For the ride up, we had Nuun, water, and a few chocolate hazelnut bars in jersey pockets. We rode without stopping. Jon had a small pannier; not the most fashionable cycling attire, but we had to carry a giant SLR camera and stuff to change a flat. Plus, Jon derived no small amount of satisfaction from chasing down people on carbon fiber bikes and dropping them.  He pulled away from me near the top while I kept a hard but sustainable pace.

If you’re curious, it took us about 1 hr 15 minutes to reach the top at a steady pace on our touring bikes. I think a fast time for amateur racing cyclists is around an hour. I was tired and a little disoriented by the throngs of people shopping at an open air market.  There, we were revived by some delicious cured meat, cheese, and fresh fruit. I had been too afraid to try those cured sausages until this point, but nibbling on free samples convinced us that they make an excellent recovery food. We bought a few, not realizing how valuable they would be over the next few days when we entered rugged mountain territory.

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The descent was kind of annoying and chaotic. We braked almost continuously and stopped for lots of pictures on the way down.  We saw all sorts of cyclists making the pilgrimage.


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Down before noon, we lay around in the shade for the rest of the day and watched the Olympics with a bunch of cheering Dutch people. (The campground lounge had a big flatscreen TV!). We didn’t realize that today’s climb was a mere warmup for the sufferfest tomorrow would bring.

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