After conquering Lacets and the Galibier / Télégraphe double we’d now entered the business end of the week, the chance to test our legs on four more iconic Tour de France climbs.
It was Day 3 and we were starting to feel the pace. Like a bunch of teenagers let loose in Magaluf we’d hit it too hard, too early. Lacets de Montvernier was supposed to be the aperitif, a gentle little loosener. Instead we’d gone full gas up the 18 switchbacks like demented fools and then followed it the next day with a pretty brutal seven hours up and over Galibier. But this was my snappily titled 5@50….one Tour de France climb for every decade (and 2@50 doesn’t have quite the same ring)..so there was no going back.
DAY 3 - COL D’IZOARD (84KM, 1748M)
As military bods often tell you, ‘No battle plan survives the first contact’. We’d ridden two pretty tough days and this was supposed to be yet another. We’d planned to drive to the town of Briançon and climb the Col de I’Iseron over to Val d’Isere. The Iseron is a beast, the highest paved pass in France, a staggering 2,770m of exposed rock that’s frankly more Himalayan than Alpine.
We’d hoped that by early June she’d be fully open and passable. No such luck. Snow still covered her upper slopes and the route remained shut. But like all good cub scouts we had a fallback plan up our sleeves just in case, and so we headed instead for the Col d’Izoard. At 2,360m it first appeared in the TdF in 1922 and has since featured 34 times. Near the top is a memorial to legendary winners Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet. In 2017 Warren Barguil won here - the first time the Izoard had hosted a summit finish.
We parked up in Briançon and after some initial fettling (me having to replace my Schwalbe tubeless rubber with a bullet proof clincher from Decathlon) we chain-ganged the first 30km along the valley up to Guillestre and on toward Montbardon. As the drizzle turned to freezing rain we pressed up upwards through a serene Sound of Music landscape, the only noise the sound of cowbells. We were going the reverse direction up the Col, the gentler side but still around 13km at an average of 9%. The view down to the lush green valley was captivating but by this stage the rain was starting to seep into our bones . As we zig-zagged upwards through the Izoard’s many twists and turns the temperature dropped below 0C and things started getting unpleasant. I’d really wanted to soak in every second of the Casse Déserte, the bare scree-covered moonscape that covers the upper slopes of the Izoard (the one I’d seen in so many vintage TdF pictures) but soon it disappeared, cloaked in a blanket of freezing fog.
I’d decided to wind in the watts to try and deal with my altitude issue and dropped off the back. I was crawling. Eventually, at the top, I found the other guys sheltering in the souvenir shop, frozen to the bone. A quick photo by the monument and we set off downwards, first through an alien moonscape before the most gorgeous 10km of sweeping forest back down to Briançon, the road falling away down a succession of 20% slopes. Turns out I go down, faster than up, and I managed to arrive first, wet through and some way ahead of the rest. I’d forgetten however that I didn’t actually have the car key. To prevent imminent hypothermia I decided to strip down to the bare essentials and engage in some manic jumping jacks outside a French version of B&Q (a British DIY store)…much to the amusement of the locals. I’m no linguist, but I’m sure I could make out the French for “Look at that stupid &%$%*$@ Brit” being mouthed from passing Renaults. On my tenth round of jumping jacks the boys finally appeared and we bundled into my brother’s Citroen, incinerating ourselves in front of the heater. Another one, thankfully, done.
DAY 4 - LES DEUX ALPES (48KM, 1142M)
This was another day where our plans changed. We’d intended to get up at the crack of sparrows and drive the 300km or so down to Mont Ventoux to ride the Giant of Provence. It was a crazy idea, but I felt it was doable and it fulfilled a long-held ambition. Tim and Andy weren’t convinced and in the end we decided to stay closer to home and have what was essentially a rest day. After three tough rides it proved a sensible move.
Les Deux Alpes is a big ski resort that’s rather overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, Alpe d’Huez. Unlike the Alpe it only has 10 switchbacks, not 21, and rises at a pretty constant 8% for around 10km. It’s a testy little climb with some sweeping Alpine turns toward the top, and the day we rode it it was bitterly cold. At the top we headed for the only open cafe we could find and sank a few old school pints. The relentless cold was starting to get to us, particularly me, so we devoured some grim Croque Monsieurs and headed off, going full gas down the mountain and back up the D1091 to La Grave. For myself, Tim and Andy that was day over, put the feet up and prepare to do battle again tomorrow. Steve however, still had fuel in the tank so decided to press on up the Lauteret and climb the Galibier again…
DAY 5 - COL DU GLANDON & COL DE LA CROIX DE FER
BOTH WAYS (70km, 2161M)
When I’d sat down to plan this week of Alpine suffering there was one thing - in retrospect - that I’d not factored in sufficiently: The effect of altitude. Of the four of us it seemed to hit me the hardest - my power was down, my heart rate up. The other guys didn’t seem to be suffering as much, or they were hiding it well, so I figured maybe age was catching up with me or perhaps sea-level life on a warm Mediterranean island had done something to my constitution. Our hotel was situated at around 1,400m (4,600ft) and by day five even climbing the (admittedly pretty steep) stairs to our room was getting harder.
So, according to a nice YouTube video I once watched this is the science. Contrary to what many of us think the percentage of oxygen in the air is the same at altitude as it is at sea-level, around 21%. What’s different is the way those oxygen molecules behave. They are more dispersed, which means the higher you climb the more your aerobic capacity falls. Someone used to riding at sea-level (like moi) will see their VO2 max (the volume of oxygen they can absorb during intense exercise) fall by 2% for every 300m they climb. So at 2,000m you can expect to see a decline in your VO2 max of around 15%. For amateurs like us, often climbing at or very close to threshold, that’s a pretty significant drop.
By day five we’d chalked up about 300 kilometres, not a huge amount really, but we’d climbed 7,602m. Ahead today was another classic double. Steve and I had climbed Glandon during the Marmotte and I remembered it being a long old slog (the mountain goat had nailed it of course). It starts near Bourg D’Oisans (the bottom of Alpe d’Huez) and hits you with 21km of climbing at an average of 7%. But that disguises the ramps and the constant twists and turns as you ride in and out of the forest. The prize at the end of the Glandon is four beautifully exposed kilometres along stunning Lac de Grand Maison up to the 2,000m summit, one of the most amazing views in the Alps.
By this point we’d already notched up a fair chunk of ascent, but the ride wasn’t over - we still had the Col de la Croix de Fer (the Pass of the Iron Cross) to conquer. Its summit is a kilometre or so up the valley from Glandon’s so we pedalled on and began descending the hairpins on the west side down to the ski station at Saint-Sorlin-d’Arves. A quick snack and we began heading back up the six kilometres we’d just sped down. This is the classic side of the Croix de Fer and frankly a bloody brute. You look up and all you can see is a soul-destroying wall of switchbacks, each one stacked above the next, and seemingly stretching upwards for ever. The last eight kilometres average 9%, while the last ramps up to 10% before you reach the end at 2,067 metres.
Croix de Fer has featured in the Tour18 times since 1947, including 2018 when it was part of Stage 12, a 175km epic from Bourg St Maurice to the summit finish on Alpe d’Huez. Steve and I had ridden this before on the Marmotte but this time we did the whole thing without stopping, cresting the top and heading straight for the mountaintop cafe for a refuel. Here our run of crap French snacks continued - a trio of rubbery Croque Monsieurs, each one half defrosted and the texture of my Decathlon tyre.
Suitably fleeced we headed off toward the Glandon and back down to the lovely village of Allemont where we’d started. The descent is mega fast and somewhat butt clenching. I dropped down the last twisting 4km at an average speed of 64kph+, against a stream of weaving trucks coming the other way, each cutting the bends so they strayed into my side of the road. There were positives though: Strava told me that for a huge 40 second segment of the downhill I was faster than Team Sky’s rouleur Michal Kwiatkowski. Unfortunately the elation was somewhat dampened by the discovery the 2015 World Champ was born the year I finished university…
DAY 6 - ALPE D’HUEZ AND COL DE LA SARENNE (79KM, 2013M)
So here we were, the final day of the 5@50 (which in fact had become a 6@50) and the most iconic climb in the Tour’s 100 year history. There’s longer, higher and steeper climbs than Alpe d’Huez but no other mountain holds such mystical attraction to cyclists. With its 21 hairpins, each named after a famous stage winner, the Alpe IS the Tour de France. Like Glandon and Croix de Fer, Steve and I had ridden this too on the Marmotte in 2015, but that day it was 46C, so hot villagers were coming out and spraying us with their garden hoses. A 51-year-old Dutch guy collapsed with heat exhaustion and later died from organ failure half way up.
Thankfully this time around the weather was cooler, in fact near perfect, and we were going to climb it without 90km and 4,000m already in our legs as we’d done that day. We cycled down from La Grave toward Bourg d’Oisons and prepared for the ascent, stopping at the foot of the climb to take the obligatory photos and decide who was going to have a pop at the Alpe, and who was going to take it easy.
Tim and Steve took the former approach, me and Andy the latter and the two of them soon spun off ahead. As anyone who’s ridden d’Huez will know the first 4km or so are really brutal, kicking up to 11% in places. After that, as your legs scream for mercy, it eases slightly to an average of 8% for the next 10km to the top.
Tim and I had both clocked up regular ascents of ‘Alpe du Zwift’ while training for the ride, and come in just under the hour mark. Nothing though can really prepare you for the reality of this climb. For me it’s the corners - they don’t curve gently round and upwards, they flatten off providing a moment’s relief before kicking up violently destroying your rhythm. If there’s an art to riding this mountain I’ve yet to find it.
Saying that, riding Alpe d’Huez is an immersive experience. You are there, on the very spot where Lance gave that ‘look’ to Jan Ullrich in 2001, where Pantani smashed the record four year’s earlier, where Coppi won in 1952. For us Brits the mountain rose to real prominence in the 90s when the TdF was beamed into living rooms for the first time by Channel Four. As well as producing stars, that decade was also cycling’s dirtiest. Of the 35 fastest times up the Alpe, 24 were recorded by men we now know were on the hot sauce.
1 37′ 35″ Marco Pantani 1997
2 37′ 36″ Lance Armstrong 2004
3 38′ 00″ Marco Pantani 1994
4 38′ 01″ Lance Armstrong 2001
5 38′ 04″ Marco Pantani 1995
You have to go down to 14th place to find a rider untouched by drug-related controversy, Colombian Nairo Quintana who climbed it in 39”22’ back in 2015, before his form started to slip.
Alpe d'Huez’s relationship with the Tour began in 1952, almost half a century after the first Grande Boucle - but it was still the very first mountain-top finish in Tour history. Today the hairpins are all signed, starting with number 21 at the bottom then rising to number one just below the village, each corner bearing the name of one of the Alpe’s 27 stage winners.
For me the climb was slow and steady. I think I could actually have gone harder (not much, but a little) but I really wanted to enjoy this. At one point I came across a fellow Brit - a huge 19 stone rugby player with arms the size of my thighs - who’d set himself the challenge of climbing this famous mountain. The poor guy was suffering like hell, wobbling all over the road but he was moving. I rode along with him for a kilometre or two, trying to lend some encouragement before I had to leave him to his personal battle with gravity.
After more than a year’s planning, the feeling of finally cresting Alpe d’Huez and achieving our five climb target was unforgettable. To confirm to yourself that yes, you may be half a century old but you can still pull off a pretty tough feat of endurance was fantastic. And so we sipped hot chocolate in the sunshine, kicked back and savoured the moment. We’d done it. Eventually the rugby player appeared, his proud family there to meet him, and help him bask in the joy of cycling up a bloody big mountain. I shook his hand and congratulated him. I didn’t know the guy from Adam but I felt proud of him nonetheless.
With the big climbs done there was one final task - get back to the hotel. To do it we’d decided to throw in one last treat, the Col de la Sarenne. In the warm June sun we headed up the rough 9km track to the 2,000m summit, before dropping down the most beautiful zig zag road to the Barrage Du Chambon at the base of Les Deux Alpes. The Sarenne wasn’t a Col I’d heard much about before, and riding up rather than down would be a hell of a climb - unsurprising then that in winter it doubles as the longest black ski run in Europe.
Back in La Grave we celebrated with a few beers and some amazing food. Two good friends of ours, Toby and Ian, had driven down from the UK to join us for the last two days (and do a bit of mountain biking) so we ate and made merry most of that evening. For me the week was everything I’d wanted - a kick in the balls for Old Father Time and a memorable way of marking a big birthday with some fantastic blokes. In six days we’d clocked up 23 hours in the saddle, covered 460kms, and climbed just shy of 12,000 metres. And of course for a magical 40 seconds I was faster than a Polish wunderkind…. Job done.