Sunday, September 18, 2011

Alpe d Huez - An Adventure in the French Alps

The Dream

I always had the desire to climb one of the famous mountains of the Tour de France.  Foremost in my mind was the Alpe d Huez.  A famous ski resort in the French Alps.  It is perhaps one of the most notorious Tour climbs with many fierce battles having taken place there.  While I was in France for the Paris-Brest 1200k it was in the back of my mind to try and visit that region of the country and undertake the climb.

My primary goal and number one priority was to finish PBP.  After finishing the ride on Thursday, and getting some much needed sleep, my mind began focusing on traveling south to the Alps.  I settled on the Alpe D Huez as the climb to attempt.  Feeling better than I thought I would just one day after the 1200k I decided to book my travel for Sunday.  I planned to accomplish the trip, the climb, and the return to Paris all in a single day.

Getting There

I left my hotel in Voisins, on the bike, at 9am.  I rode to Saint Quentin en Yvellines and boarded the RER train to the Paris Austerlitz station.  Upon arrival there I rode about 2 miles, in the city, to the Gare de Lyon which is the station in Paris where the high speed TGV operates.  I was booked on an 11:40 departure to the city of Grenoble, which is about a one hour car/bus ride to Le Bourg d Oisans, the small village at the foot of the Alpe D Huez.

Upon boarding the train I was shown to a bike storage area with vertical bike racks.  I secured the Bike Friday there using a bike lock for good measure.  I then took a seat in the comfortable passenger coach for the non-stop trip to Grenoble.  The TGV runs at a top speed of 340 kph (over 200 mph).  It would cover the 400 mile distance in a total of three hours.  Once underway, and clear of the city, the train did indeed appear to be traveling at a high rate of speed.  Although, it rode so smoothly the only indication of speed was how fast things were going by.  I greatly enjoyed the panoramic views as we sped further south to the mountains.  The scenery changed from flat farmland to more mountain like as we approached Grenoble, the one time host city of the Winter Olympics.  We arrived on time at 2:40pm.

I claimed my bike and headed to the bus station next door only to find the next bus to depart to the Alpe D Huez would not be until 5:00pm.  That would not suit my time frame as I needed to make the climb and return in time for an 8:00pm train to Paris.  I next visited the taxi stand out front.  After unsuccessful negotiations with two cab drivers I was starting to get nervous about accomplishing my goal.  I decided to talk to yet a third cab driver, who had a friendly look about him.  I then met Nicholas who was as friendly as he looked, and, spoke fluent English.  We agreed upon a fee for him to drive me to the foot of the climb, then wait while I climbed and descended.  After which he would return me to the train station.  He said the schedule was a tight one, but he would do his best on his end.  The rest was up to me.

The Climb
The finish line of Alpe d Huez
Nicholas parked in a small lot just 300 meters prior to the start of the climb.  He retrieved my bike from the back of the cab and pointed to the direction I should ride.  I took out immediately, excited to finally be underway.  It was easy to tell when the climb began.  The road pitched up severely and there were markings on the black top left over from this years Tour de France.  It was fun reading the riders names and messages.  Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador. and Andy Schleck all had fans who encouraged them with inscriptions on the road.  The Alpe d Huez is nicknamed the "Twenty one Steps to Heaven" as there are numbered markers at each of the 21 switchbacks.  They count downward from 21, at the bottom of the mountain, to number one just prior to the finish line.  As I rounded switchback 21 it became clear this would be no easy climb.  It was eight miles to the top and the pitch was pretty steep.  My heavy back pack and bike lock added to the challenge.  I was determined to climb the eight miles to the top without stopping.

The switchback markers were my main mental focus. They provided both motivation and information which was better than using the mileage reading on my odometer.  It took me a few turns to figure out that not each turn would have a marker.  Only every other one, indicating a full step up the side of the mountain.  Essentially, one would turn twice for each of the 21 steps.  The pitch was steep, but the turns were much less so.  I looked forward to them.  Although, at times they were as much as a kilometer apart.  Nearer the top the turns became closer together.  There were many other cyclists climbing and descending,  Riders from near and far would come to test themselves.  Most rode bikes set up for racing.  My folding bike got more than a few curious looks from other cyclists and passing cars.  I felt like I was quite slow when two riders went by me at a brisk pace.  After just a few minutes I passed by them as they were stopped at a rest area with a scenic overlook off the side of the road.  I was tempted to pull off for a rest, and to enjoy the nice view, but I stuck to my plan to ride to the top without stopping.

The view off the side of the mountain became more impressive with altitude.  I would be reaching the highest elevation level I'd ever climbed  (over 11,000 feet), and the most altitude ever gained on a single climb (over 3,700 feet).  Whether real, or imagined, I felt as if my breathing had become more labored near the top.  The ski resort above appeared closer with each turn.  The last few steps seemed the steepest.  I passed marker number two which turned out to be the last one, as marker number one was missing.  At the final bend I saw the finish banner and pedaled underneath in my best impersonation of a standing sprint.  Which I'm sure in reality was quite lame.  My odometer read just over eight miles.  I had climbed in just under one and a half hours.  About twice the time of a pro Tour rider, and, about a half-hour longer than the fastest of the amateurs.  I wondered if there were others with folding bikes that made the climb.  Surely there must be with so many visiting here.  But, I saw none other on that Sunday.

Like a Mount Everest climber I had little time to enjoy the summit.  I took  a couple of photos.  Some nice German tourists took one of me in front of the finish banner.  After which I began my descent.  Nicholas would be waiting for me in the parking area below.  I needed to get there to make my return train. 

The Descent
The view from switchback # 3 - Alpe d Huez
 While physically the descent presented little challenge it did require much in the way of bike handling.  The hair pin turns were highly technical, especially on a 20" wheeled bike.  I smelled my brakes heating up as I scrubbed off speed before each turn.  The views were incredible (I stopped on turn three for a photo).  At times I was shivering  from the windchill, although the air temperature was over 70F.  The trip down was  75%  faster then the one up, but still seemed long.  The numbered markers went by and I hit bottom in just over 20 minutes.  I pedaled to the parking lot to find Nicholas waiting patiently for my arrival.

Getting Back
A brief glimpse of Nicholas - who was quite camera shy
 Nicholas helped me place my bike in the cab.  It was about 6pm.  He said traffic would be heavy on the way back to Grenoble, but we should have no problem making the train at 8pm.  He knew the back roads, which were rather scenic.  He took time to point out the sights, even stopping briefly to show me a castle.  We had a nice conversation about life in France.  He would be taking a vacation to Corsica in one weeks time, and would stay there for a full month.  I learned it was routine for citizens of France to take long vacations.  At least long by US standards.    By 7:30 we were back at the train station in Grenoble.  I had time for a croissant and coffee before boarding the train.  We pulled out on time.  The train appeared nearly empty. What I didn't know was that we would stop in the city of Lyon to pick up more passengers.  I didn't recall the ticket agent telling me that. We took on a lot of passengers, filling most of the remaining seats.  We then resumed our high speed journey to Paris.  I purchased a late meal which I ate in my seat on the folding tray table.  After which I closed my eyes for a brief nap.  Soon enough we pulled into the station in Paris.

I bolted from the train with my bike as quickly as possible.  I needed to get to the RER station just the other side of the Sienne, two miles away, to catch the last train to SQV.  In the dark it took me longer than I had hoped to locate the station. By the time I got there I had missed the train.  I noticed on the departure board another train scheduled to leave for Versailles in 40 minutes.  I'd  visited there the first day in France with my friend Chris on our bikes.  It was only about 5 miles from SQV.  I sort of remembered the route to take.  It was the only choice, other than riding my bike the entire way.  It was nearly 1am when the train delivered me to Versailles.  The village was dark and quiet.  I found the D-10 which I remembered was the road Chris and I had used.  It looked a bit different at night, but I recognized some things along the way, including a village we had passed through on our prior trip.  Once arriving in Saint Quentin I knew my way back to Voisins quite well.  I arrived at my hotel at nearly 2am.  A long day, but one I'll happily remember.


To some folks a full day of travel for a single climb would hardly be worth it.  However, from my perspective, it represented a unique adventure.  The sights and feelings of that day will stay with me for a long time. The traveling back and forth was as much a part of the fun as was climbing in the Alps.  I rode a high speed train, for the first time, and loved it.  I met Nicholas the cab driver who taught me much about the French culture.  I was enamored with the general beauty of the countryside, and simply awed by the Alps.  Finally, I made it up the mountain, on my little folding bike, and, on my own terms. I felt as good about that as if I had won the King of the Mountains Jersey.


  1. I'm really impressed you did the whole trip in one long day, especially so soon after PBP. It was the middle of the following week before I found myself back on a bike. By the way, if I recall correctly, you were 10 min faster than Shane and I on the climb. We were worried about getting worn out before PBP; however you must have been worn out after PBP. By the way, one minor correction: the top of the Alpe d'Huez climb is at 6100 ft above sea level, at the bottom of the ski area. The top of the mountain is around 11,000 ft.

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  2. Fantastic post and what an adventure! Well done!

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