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RoadCycling rides the Alpes
July 18th, 12. Cyclists know the Tour de France is the pinnacle event of the sport, and that the mythical French climbs are where Tour history is created.
Here is my journey - Ben Christian, RoadCycling.co.nz, 40+ weekend warrior from Wellington.
How can you forget last year's stage up the Alpe d'Huez when Pierre Rolland made his name, or the stage over Port de Bales where Andy Schleck dropped his chain and Alberto Contador attacked taking the yellow jersey?
Riding some of these famed monsters is part of the dream of most cyclists. It's what you need to do to complete your initiation into the sport of cycling.
Earlier this year I decided I was ready to complete the journey, to have a go and see how the body would react to such long and torturous climbs. And what better time to do it than July when the Tour is on. I would get to combine some riding with in person watching of the Tour .. and so the plan hatched many months back.
With almost six months to lose some weight and get a training program sorted to help me get ready for the length of climbs, it all seemed doable.
Of course training through the New Zealand winter isn't easy and we have next to no climbs in New Zealand that can replicate the length that I would be faced with. Not withstanding the other small issue that I don't qualify in any cycling manual as a hill climber!
My trip into the unknown was to include the famed climbs of the Alpe d'Huez, Col du Lautaret, Col du Galibier, Col du Telegraphe, and some lessor known but just as challenging climbs like the Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix du Fer, and the Grand Colombier.
Not that I was counting, but most of these climbs were between 18-25km long, and range from 8%-11% average gradient, with some parts getting up to 15%.
Over 10,000 vertical meters of climbing in all.
Five days of riding, back to back gigantic climbing efforts, more than one climb on most days, with bus transfers, or good length rides to get to the base of the climb.
This was always going to be hard, and it was. But I made it up every climb, without stopping, without blowing up, no cramp, journey complete, and a whole bunch of new memories.
The first climb I tackled was the Alpe d'Huez. After a 26 hour flight, with only one day to get over jet lag, it seemed only appropriate to start with the most famous climb of them all, a 14km monster that takes you from a quant little mountain village le Bourg-d'Oisans to the Alpe d'Huez ski station, at an altitude of 1860m.
The road made famous by the Tour de France features 21 switchbacks which somehow seemed to help dull the pain of the 7.9% average gradient.
The guides I was with gave some great advice about riding the Alpe - don't panic about the first 3km. Once you get over those 3km and onto the rest of the climb you realise that the average gradient is a little lower than the first few kms.
Once that first section was out of the way, the rest of the hill just seemed to fly by. There were people walking their bikes, and others flying down the descent, but I just settled into the work and rode steadily to the top.
The record time up the Alp d'Huez is held by Marco Pantini who in 1997 did the climb in the time of 37m35s. There was no risk of getting close to that, but I did come in just over an hour. Happy with that, and a tick in that box.
Col du GalibierThe following day was the biggest day of the week. The plan included the Col du Lautaret, and the Col du Galibier, 33km in a single climb, then the Col du Telegraphe, another 18km of climbing.
The Lautaret was a good climb, but I have to admit I don't really remember much about it.
25km is a long way to be pedaling, taking just under two hours to get to the top, and the only memory I recall is the 1km markers that are placed on the side of the road.
Each marker shows the average gradient that you would expect for the next kilometre.
Once you get to the top of the Lautaret, it's straight into the 8km Galibier climb. Steeper, more mountainous, and a lot more paint on the road from previous Tour appearances. Another hour on the rivet to the summit - which was closed just two weeks ago due to snow! There were still patches of snow on the sides of the road.
At the top of the Galibier at 2642m it was freezing. Again, I was glad of the advice from the guide to bring a wind jacket. It was definitely needed for the descent, and I can now see why the Tour riders are so desperate to get some newspaper to put into their jerseys for the descent. And what a descent it is.
What goes up must come down, and descending from the Galibier is just reward for all the hard work to get up there. I now know that 20km long descents are just fantastic.
While the Tour riders might hit 100km in places, you don't need to go that fast to have a great time. The scenery is stunning, and the technical descent makes it all the more fun.
On Day 3 of this adventure it was time to join the Tour de France.
The hotel I was staying in was a nice 70km ride away from the monster of the day, the Grand Colombier, another 20km of climbing. Once I hit the small town Culoz, I headed straight for the hill.
Much the same plan as many of the other fans who were there to see the race. There were walkers, running, people pushing prams, as well as plenty of cyclists making the journey to the sky in advance of the Tour.
This climb was pretty hard, with some parts hitting 14%, but luckily there were some patches that flattened off and gave some recovery time.
I headed to the top, checked out the KOM flags, and then rolled back down a little to wait for the race to come.
There were about four hours to wait, but the time past quickly - mainly due to the entertaining French families who had been stationed on the hill for two days, most of which it seems, was spent drinking.
The publicity caravan came soon enough and within an hour after that the race flew by. Like most cycle races, even uphill ones, with a flash of the eye it was over. I did get a chance to yell out to the only Kiwi in the race, Greg Henderson, and he saw me and gave the thumbs up.
It was then time to descend the Colombier, albeit a little slower today due to the crowded roads and everyone trying to get off the mountain. Time to call it a night.
Col du Glandon/Col de la Croix de Fer
By this stage of the week I think I had almost decided that I had done all that there was to do in the Alpes, but that wasn't the case.
The day's ride was to follow the Stage 11 Tour route before the race came through, and then watch the whole stage come past the small town St Jean de Maurianne where I was staying.
The Stage route included the Col du Glandon, Col du Croix du Fer and then finished up the Col du Toussuire.
The first climb was a little less mountainous than the previous days and rolled through some small French villages.
There were also fans everywhere, parked in camper vans, walking to the summit or just having a coffee in the local village. This all passed the time as I ground up the 18km climb.
The top of the climb was extremely tough. About 5km to go it was reading 15% on my bike computer. The legs weren't particularly happy at that stage. But I made it up and rolled over the summit, took a photo and then headed to the next peak, the Col du Croix de Fer. Once over that I headed into what was the best descent of the trip. Sweeping technical corners, wind in the face, and 30km of going downhill.
Apart from one little corner of overshooting where I ended up in the gutter off the road, the descent was fantastic. It was all captured on the video camera and provided much entertainment for my companions when we were back at the hotel waiting for the Tour to come past.
The Tour grupetto only just finished within the time cut on this stage which shows how hard the day was.
This stage was also the course for this year's etape. The fun ride that rides a stage of the Tour the day before. Wellington ride Silas Cullen was in the etape and placed 14th overall. Awesome effort on a massive 223km stage.
Col du Grand Cucheron
My final day in the Alps included more Tour watching, and more Tour climbs. This time it was the Col du Grand Cucheron and the Col du Granier. Both Category 1 climbs, and over 10km each. The body was adapting fairly well to these long climbs and 10km seemed to pass by fairly quickly and before I knew it I was having a picnic on the side of the road waiting for the Tour.
The crowd was just as large as the last few days and everyone was having a great time. The publicity caravan came and went, and then so did the race.
To finish the day I rode back to Grenoble via the Col du Porte, another climb made famous in past years of the Tour. The descent off this climb was spectacular, dropping what felt vertically into the township of Grenoble, the final stopping place for my week.
The week was a journey of discovery for me. Now I know that my body can handle 20km climbs. That it can cope with back to back riding days in excess of 100km each day, and that it's bloody cold on the top of the mountains! All great things to know.
Now it's time to head to the Pyrenees to watch the remainder of the Tour, where history will again be made up the climbs like the Col du Tourmalet, or the Pyrasourde.
It is also where I meet with Sarah, who until now has been reporting from the Tour from a base in the South of France. After the Pyrenees we head to Chartres for the time trial and onto Paris for the finale on the Champs Elysees.
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