PEZ Rides Alpe d’Huez!
Top Ride: Cycling the climb of Alpe d’Huez is a mythical experience, a grand beast that conjures images of epic battles on its 21 hairpin bends and leg sapping slopes. The 2013 Dauphiné took on the Alpe before heading down the new Col de Sarenne descent and Pez’s editor Chris rode the climbs and descent. On the eve of this year’s Dauphiné, here’s a look back at one of the French Alps’ Top Rides!
After a few days off the bike since my last crazy ride where I discovered the new Col de Sarenne and its simply awful descent, it was time to saddle up and head back up the Col du Glandon and then on to the Alpe – yes, we were doing roadside reporting the way it should be done – from the bike! Well that was the plan anyway. After coming down sick after the last ride I actually wanted to take the car for this report but with the Glandon still being closed to traffic it would have been a lot of driving to go the long way around and numerous hassles with the gendarmes approaching the Alpe. Besides, today’s ride was all about seeing the race, capturing the atmosphere and for that I guess I could ride slowly and it would only be 110km or so…..
Leaving our accomodation and heading straight up the HC Col du Glandon was once again a very tough way to start the ride and some 2kms in we saw the sign that could change our day in a big way – Col du Glandon, Ouvert. Open. Hhmm, Time for a U-turn, change of clothes and grab the car, or continue on the bikes? My riding companion for the day Tim convinced me that the bikes were the best way to go and despite my legs burning and heavy breathing I agreed. The Col du Glandon early in the morning on a fine day truly is a spectacular place to be riding a bike.
The snow and debris from just a few days previous had been cleared from the road and being the first day that the road was open and early on a Saturday morning there was virtually zero traffic.
In making this roadside report on the bike I chose wisely to not bring my normal couple of kilograms of camera equipment with me and instead went for the rudimentary but mostly effective compact camera. This certainly proved to be a good decision when climbing the Glandon as I made the climb much better than a few days before. When we got to the top though and discovered the views I regretted my decision – just for a moment! Later that day on the Alpe I would be back into my self congratulating mode…
Our descent down the Glandon went without incident and crossing the town of Allemont we were pleasantly surprised to see that the roads were free from the traffic that we experienced earlier in the week. Perhaps the Dutch were all already on the mountain waiting for the race?
The answer to that question was no actually, because there was virtually nobody on the Alpe! In fact for the first few kilometers there were more gendarmes on the mountain than spectators.
This was an amazing contrast from our ride on Tuesday with the 8000+ Dutch and the atmosphere on the Alpe d’Huez was that of a bizarre Alpine ghost town. The gendarmes had closed the road well in advance of the race so anyone wanting to get up and watch had to walk or already be on the mountain as they were even stopping bikes from riding up. Luckily we had our press passes with us after covering the stage start the day before and those combined with a bit of my smooth talking French managed to keep us riding through the various gendarme roadblocks.
Certain gendarmes were easier to talk our way past than others but we were determined to continue to switchback number 13, about 1/2 way up the Alpe as it’s been proven before as one of the best places to watch the race. This is where we had run into the lovely Leonie just days earlier and although Tim was probably hoping that history would repeat itself, we were actually going there for its spectacular view back on to the lower slopes of the climb. From the edge of the road you can see a full 8 switchbacks below you so it makes for an excellent vantage point. With 1/2 the climb already done the race is normally at full flow by the time the peloton gets to corner 13 too, so you get a good idea of who is going to win that day, who is losing time etc.
Of course this day at the Dauphiné the Alpe d’Huez came after just 50km of racing and was a LONG way from the finish so we wouldn’t know who was going to win when the race came past. If all went well though we would get some good photos and have some good atmosphere on this normally packed deep with spectators corner.
As we climbed our way up and the signs counted their way down to 13 I was struck by the complete contrast of any other day I’ve ever done the Alpe. Whether at Tour time, winter time or even in the middle of the pouring rain, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as few people on the mountain. Arriving at switchback 13 this theme of an Alpe abandoned continued as we were greeted by 3 Frenchmen, 2 Germans and a Gendarme. Yep, that was it. Possibly the best corner to watch the race from and it was all ours!
I quickly got chatting to the Gendarme and he explained to me that there were 120 gendarmes on the Alpe d’Huez that day on foot and for the Tour de France there will be more than 700. He was a veteran of many Tour experiences on the Alpe d’Huez and told me a few stories that he made me promise I wouldn’t publish about various behaviour and things seen during that time!
Just as he started telling me some interesting stories one of the Frenchmen there said, ‘they’re coming’ and sure enough, a quick look over the guard rail confirmed that a large breakaway group of 22 riders was already climbing the mountain below us.
It was at this point though that my attention and the whole crowd’s attention (ok, all 8 of us) was drawn to a mini police chase that was happening back on the road right next to us. A Saxo Bank team car had been descending the Alpe at speed on the now totally closed road and had disobeyed various gendarmes instructions not to descend – against the flow of the race. One SaxoBank car versus numerous pissed off gendarmes was an unequal match and the motorcycle gendarmes managed to stop the car just below our corner 13 that was proving to be an unlucky number for this particular driver.
The gendarmes then turned the driver around and parked him on the side of the corner before laying down the law in a very heated discussion. The result was the gendarme ripping the accreditation stickers off the car and driver and parking the car permanently on the side of the road despite the heavy protestations from the driver and passenger. ‘Pas de negotiations’ the gendarme repeated and I’m not sure if the Saxo driver spoke French or not but it was clear through the cop’s body language that his mind was not changing – their Dauphiné was over for disobeying direct police orders and for dangerous conduct.
With all that action happening around us we’d forgotten about the actual race and when we looked around our crowd numbers had almost doubled with the arrival of the professional photographers on motorbikes who are well aware of the beauty of switchback 13. Unfortunately my prime position on the inside of the switchback had now been taken but I did the best I could with my mini camera….
With the passing of the peloton it was now time to get back on the bikes and return down to the base town of Bourg d’Oisans but before we did there was time to take in the beauty of the mountain and its virtually abandoned state one more time.
A cyclist arrived to take in the view from our corner just before we left and it happened to be another English speaker, Xavier from New Zealand. Xavier was enjoying the day and had watched the race from further down after unsuccessfully trying to talk his way through the various gendarmes.
With no hurry we slowly started our way down the still car-free mountain and having spotted a cute gendarme (yes there were many young female reservists on duty that day) we thought we’d stop and have a chat.
We tried to cajole her into a photo but she towed the partyline of ‘not allowed, not when I’m in my uniform’ so it was a no go. There’s a few responses to give to that one, but I didn’t go there and instead wished her well for the rest of the day….
We then arrived back down on the outskirts of Bourg d’Oisans where amazingly there were many more people than on the climb waiting to catch the race at a boring roundabout where we’d see the riders for all of 3 seconds!
After the race went through it was time to get back on the bikes but before that somebody came up to me and asked, ‘You’re not Richard Pestes are you?’. Well standing in the middle of the Alps in France watching a bike race, dressed head to toe in PEZ gear I guess I could have been mistaken for ‘The PEZ’ himself but no, I explained that I was actually his right hand man on a roadside assignment.
The questioning duo were Canadians Drew and Alain who had just been at the top of the Alpe d’Huez experiencing the vacation of a lifetime taking in many of the famous Cols that Europe has to offer as Alain explained to me;
“We say to people that don’t understand the sport climbing the Alpe d’Huez is like playing tennis at Wimbledon or catching a ball at Yankee stadium or playing on the pitch at Manchester United. Name the other sport where you can do this? This is one of the few sports where you can ride the same gear and play in the same arenas as the very best in the world.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself Alain and that’s exactly what being roadside at the Dauphiné or the Tour or any pro race is all about. Riding exactly where the pros ride and then seeing them up close – all for free!
With that I wished Alain and Drew all the best for their return home and I was about to jump back on the bike when I spotted an Australian flag on the other side of the road waving proudly.
Being a proud Aussie myself I thought I better go over and say a quick ‘G’day’, which was met with stunned silence. I then tried the ‘Where are you from?’ which went down better, to which the family responded – Grenoble! Yes, a French family with an Australian flag. So I continued my questioning – this time in French – to find out more. Why the Aussie flag?
“Our son is mad for Australia. When he grows up he wants to be Australian!” I explained to them that I’d successfully been doing that for near 40 years. To which I was quickly recruited for a photo with their son with a ‘real’ Australian!
There was no time to hang around speaking French with a fake Australian though, I still had the Col du Glandon to climb to get home so it was ‘aurevoir’ and ‘see you later mate’ to my new friends as Tim and I saddled up for the last time for the day with 10km of flat to ride before our 28km ascension up the Glandon followed by the descent over the other side.
Fortunately my legs were much better than the other day and instead of pure survival mode up the climb I felt like I was actually ‘riding’ the climb and I also had the time to take in the views that I’d previously missed. And it’s the views and the people that you meet that make a great day roadside on the bike. At 110km of riding though it certainly wasn’t easy but there’s nothing better than a day in the Alps with a mate, on the bike and seeing the pros – perfect!
If you ever get the chance to come to France make sure you try and take in the Dauphiné one day in June. You’ll see the best climbs, the magic scenery, most of the best riders and all without the hassle of traffic and crazy crowds that comes with the Tour. Having said that though there’s nothing quite like the atmosphere those crazy crowds produce…..
On the way home up the Glandon I came across this melting drift that I had absolutely no memory of just a few days prior. It’s amazing what you can see sometimes when you lift your head from the stem.