Top Ride: PEZ Does The Alps!
This year’s Tour de France will for the very first time take on the mythical Alpe d’Huez twice in the one day by descending and then ascending the little known Col de Sarenne. Before the Dauphiné tests out the roads this Saturday, PEZ man in France, Chris Selden hit the mountains on his own bike to check out the route on a simply epic 150km and 4800m elevation day.
It all started so well. An Australian buddy who I first started riding with 25 years ago had come to France for a visit (and some more riding), our spirits were high after I’d won a race 2 days earlier and the weather was cold but sunny. All signs pointed to a great ride as we set out from our accomodation in the charming, if somewhat abandoned town of St. Colomban des Villards – direction Alpe d’Huez and the never before raced Col de Sarenne.
Ideally I should have organized accomodation near Alpe d’Huez for this ride but with the Dauphiné passing through the Alps in the same week I decided to choose a spot on the map in between a couple of stages to make race chasing (on our bikes) possible – if you don’t mind your 150km days in the saddle that is.
Our plan was to ride over the Col du Glandon (we were staying about 40% of the way up) then ride down the other side to the valley below and on to Bourg d’Oisans. We’d then go up Alpe d’Huez, do the short descent on the top of the Alpe that leads to the new Col de Sarenne, climb that, then come back through the valley up the 28km long Glandon and home to make for 150km or so of riding. Simple really…
This master plan all threatened to come unstuck before we’d even got started though as the day before when driving to St Colomban des Villards we came across the dreaded sign – Col du Glandon – fermé. Closed. Ok, what to do, what to do? A quick look at the map confirmed that my master plan had absolutely no Plan B’s attached to it as where we were staying meant that there was pretty much no other way to easily get to the Alpe. We could have taken our car the long way around but as tough cyclists, we couldn’t do that. Or we could even ride the long way around for a 250km day… ok we’re certainly not that tough!
So instead we stuck with Plan A and headed off straight up the Glandon in the hope that the road ‘wasn’t really closed’. There’s nothing like leaving your warm apartment, jumping on the bike and heading straight up a HC category mountain to get the heartrate going and the legs screaming. After my race 2 days earlier, a 5 hour drive to the Alps the day before and allergies to the pollen that was flying around I was wheezing and struggling like I had just done 100km, not 5.
It was at this point we hit our first road closed sign and although I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, we rode straight around it and continued on our quest for the summit and the Alpe d’Huez and Sarenne which were still over 70km away. The avalanche signs and the large amounts of snow on the side of the road had us worried though and our climb consisted of more about peering around the next corner to check if we could get through, rather than thinking about the climbing we were actually doing.
With four kilometers to go and with the worst gradients still ahead of us we saw them. Three roadworkers with a tractor and various equipment trying to clear the road of snow. So we figured it was good that they were clearing the road, but would they let us through – or even could we get through? There was only one way to find out – we had to ride up to them and see.
This is where speaking fluent French certainly came in handy for me as I pleaded my case to let us pass and the foreman with a shrug of the shoulders and a look of ‘you idiots’ let us through.
The last 2 kilometers of the climb average around the 11% mark but my lack of energy and my wheezing and sore legs temporarily left me as I was able to take in the pure beauty of this climb with the road 100% closed – the mountain was ours.
So with the Col du Glandon out of the way and the stress of ‘can we get through or not’ behind us we pulled out all our winter gear and hit the descent of the other side of the Glandon, direction Bourg d’Oisans and the Alpe d’Huez. Despite the fact that we were in June it was very cold but incredibly beautiful with the snow, the marmottes and the complete lack of road traffic as we descended.
At the bottom of the descent though, with the roads open we started getting some traffic and I couldn’t understand why so much. I’ve ridden these roads numerous times in the past but I’d never had traffic like this – except at Tour de France time. Riding through the town of Allemont we had hundreds of cars passing us – 95% of whom were Dutch. As we rode closer to the Alpe and the base town of Bourg d’Oisans the traffic increased some more and we were now surrounded by not only Dutch cars but also pelotons of Dutch cyclists. What was going on? It was a Tuesday, at the start of June and not in holiday time and yet here we were stuck in traffic.
Riding through Bourg d’Oisans was not possible as there was a detour in place and it was now obvious that some sort of big ‘Dutch’ event was taking place. There were runners, walkers, cyclists and cars everywhere as we hit the Alpe d’Huez and the bottom 2 kilometers which are the hardest of the climb were not pleasant at all with the pollution from the various cars that were constantly passing us – as we in turn attempted to constantly pass the thousands of other cyclists and walkers on the mountain.
Approaching hairpin number 13 it was time to stop for some photos and ask some of the Dutch there what was going on.
I struck up a conversation with Ray and Leonie who were both riding up the mountain (although there were a lot who were walking and/or running) and they explained to me that they and the 8000+ other Dutch were there for a charity event “Alpe d’HuZes” (“zes” means six in Dutch) where participants try to climb the mountain on either Wednesday or Thursday between one and six times by bike or running. All money raised goes to a cancer charity and from a very small start of just 6 guys in 2006 the event has now grown to be one of the biggest non-profit organizations of the Netherlands. There are now over 8000 participants per year and last year the event raised more than 32 million euros. So that was all well and good but with the event being on Wednesday and Thursday I had to ask Leonie, Why are you all here today on Tuesday then? We’re training!
So with that we bid farewell to Ray and Leonie and continued up the mountain whilst stopping a few more times for some photos. I’m not sure if it was the regular stopping, the diesel fumes of the traffic, the couple of kilos of camera gear on my back or just my allergies but I started feeling very, very poor. I was hungry, I had no energy and the aches and pains started coming all over my body. It was at this point that I looked across at my riding buddy Tim and realized that he was on a great day and obviously feeling good. Ouch, those aches and pains just increased! Didn’t he realize that misery loves company?
The pace he was setting, although not too quick by my usual standards was really hurting today and I started mentally calculating all the climbs and kilometers I still had in front of me in the ride and I realized that we were not even half way yet. It was clear that this day was not going to end well.
Luckily just ahead of us we spotted our new friend Leonie again and Tim quickly settled down into a slower rhythm to chat to her and find out more about the event and her efforts (It was just to find out more about the charity right, Tim?). The respite of the slowing in pace and the nice company was certainly welcome but it was soon finished and we said goodbye to Leonie and wished her luck for her attempt on Thursday at an incredible 6 ascensions of the Alpe in the one day.
So with Leonie now behind us and nothing but another 5kms of suffering still ahead I settled into the best rhythm I could just to try and get through the climb. The crazy Dutch supporters on the side of the road who were cheering on their counterparts kept me slightly amused but nothing could stop the realisation that I was on a seriously bad day and I was running out of energy fast. I ate what I had in my pockets and kept struggling through the pain but when I finally made it to the summit I collapsed on the grass and was quietly dying when seemingly from out of nowhere the whole Ag2r team came into view.
No, it wasn’t a mirage and I quickly jumped out of my slumber, grabbed the camera and went over to talk to the guys who were like me, amazed and somewhat frustrated by the amount of Dutch cyclists and traffic on the mountain. This was clearly not a good choice of days for them to take in the Alpe but they were there doing exactly what I was – scouting out the new Col de Sarenne climb and descent. As the entire team had withdrawn from the Dauphiné they wouldn’t get a chance to check out the stage before the Tour this year so that’s what they were there for now. They’d never heard of the Dutch event before either but they all knew about it now! If you’re planning a trip to Alpe d’Huez in the future – keep an eye out for the ‘Alpe d’HuZes’ and plan your trip to NOT be there in that week.
The Ag2r guys were in no mood to hang around at the summit so they grabbed a drink and a quick gel before riding off to the Sarenne. As much as I’d have liked to have joined them I still had the little problem of zero energy to deal with. I was feeling perhaps the worst I have ever felt on a bike in more than 10 years and I had the dilemma of still not being at the halfway point in the ride and with thousands of climbing meters still ahead of me.
Col de Sarenne Preview
Tim quickly suggested a lunch stop which I gladly accepted and more than an hour later with a full belly and feeling somewhat better we set off to discover the Col de Sarenne. To get to the Sarenne, instead of taking the traditional left hand finish for the Alpe d’Huez final straight you turn right and onto a road that had apparently been worked on to make it safe for riders and the race caravan to descend. Before you start descending though you have to go up a very short climb past the helipad that Lance Armstrong used to use to get off the mountain and then the first descent starts. It’s only a couple of kilometers long but the so called ‘roadworks’ are terrible. Loose gravel thrown over the road in a haphazard manner in a bizarre attempt to cover any holes.
This wasn’t a good start. The road was certainly rideable but I couldn’t imagine actually racing down it as the loose gravel made every corner a challenge. It was only a couple of kilometers long though and before you knew it we were climbing the Col de Sarenne – which the Tour lists as a Category 2 climb with its 3km length and 7.8% gradient.
Perhaps I’m not the best judge of the difficulty of this climb as I was still in a bizarre, ‘no energy, pain all over’ state which showed no signs of improving so I’ll hand over the description of this climb to Tim who was still riding well, “It’s a rough surfaced climb with a gradual gradient that didn’t feel like 7.8% to me on a road that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. I was surprised to see that it had an altitude of 1999m as it felt lower to me.”
Me, getting to the top of the Col de Sarenne and completely disagreeing with everything Tim said – Except for the rough surface part. The condition of the road was truly terrible and the so called ‘repairs’ were very poor.
So with the ascent out of the way it was now time to get to the really important part of the day and the reason why Ag2r planned a mini training camp here – the descent of the Sarenne.
There’s 15km of descending to be done after cresting the summit of the Sarenne and it’s here where the Tour could easily be lost. The road surface for the first 6 kms is nothing short of atrocious and I’m surprised that the ASO has even agreed to take the race down here. This Saturday’s stage in the Dauphiné will be an interesting test to see how the peloton handles the conditions but I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a couple of riders crashing as they either try to get an advantage over their rivals or are trying to get back in contact with the riders ahead of them.
This is a technical descent in all meanings of the word. It’s a very winding road and would be difficult enough with a good surface, but with the combination of gravel and debris present and the terribly repaired holes it’s extremely difficult. The repairs had been done recently – in preparation I assume for this Saturday’s Dauphiné as I could still smell the bitumen in the air and further down there were roadworkers cutting the grass and weeds on the side of the road to improve the cornering visibility.
This is what the pros are going to be dealing with at 60+kph. A road that’s just a few feet wide and ‘repairs’ that don’t really merit the word.
I think besides the fact that this is one very dangerous descent, the other thing to be taken away from this course recon is that there’s absolutely nothing relaxing or even enjoyable about this descent. Luckily the really bad section is only 6kms long and after that the road surface gets much much better. Then you only have to deal with the constant bends and switchbacks which although fun are certainly not easy to recover on. If a rider was hurting over the Alpe d’Huez and/or the Sarenne climb he’s simply not going to recover on this descent. The trip back to Bourg d’Oisans and the 2nd time up the Alpe du Huez is then only a short ride through the valley but it would be very difficult for a lone rider or a small group to either catch up to the front group or to break away from them before the climb.
At least the trip through the valley will feel short to the Tour riders, it certainly didn’t feel that way to me. In fact by this stage I’d unloaded the camera to Tim to carry as there would be no more stopping for photos for me – I just wanted to get home and curl up in the bed and cry basically. I was exhausted, completely shattered and was starting to approach a zombie like state. There was still the rather large problem of over 60km to go back to the apartment – 28 of which were up the HC Col du Glandon that FDJ rider, Jeremy Roy recently described to a French magazine as ‘A true bitch’. Ah, Jeremy, never a truer word spoken.
Tim had now gone from being my riding partner of the day to being my motivator, domestique and more but no matter how much encouragement he gave me or how many chocolates and bananas he gave me there was simply no denying the fact that I was in a race – a survival race just to get home. We’d now been out on the bikes for almost 10 hours with over 7 hours actual riding time and any piece of energy that I had had already gone into the previous kms.
I’m not sure how but after 150km and 4800m of climbing I made it back, ably accompanied by Tim in what turned out to be a mammoth day and one that is never, never to be repeated. That is until tomorrow where we plan on doing the Glandon, the Col de la Madeleine twice and the new climb of Valmorel to watch the Dauphiné finish there! I personally am praying for snow and that the Madeleine will be closed……
For those of you who want to attempt such a ride, my advice is don’t! But if you do, St Colomban des Villards is a cool little town to stay in with lots of cheap and basic furnished apartments to rent (I used homelidays.com) and it has easy access to a range of Cols, although I really think the Glandon/Alpe d’Huez/Sarenne/Glandon combo is probably too much. And if you do decide to travel to the French Alps and take on the Alpe d’Huez make sure you check out the Dutch site, www.opgevenisgeenoptie.nl before you go to plan your trip to not be there when they are!
A quick look at the altitude profile of the day from my Polar RC3 GPS Tour de France that I’m currently testing. Not much flat road in almost 8 hours of riding!
Chris Selden has been riding and racing his bike around the world for the last 25 years and writing for PEZ for the last 15. Now living in France, Chris has recently opened a rental house for cyclists in the South of France in the beautiful Herault region. You can also follow Chris and his adventures in France on his instagram page.