|Climbs||Alp d’Huez, Col de Sarenne, Col du Lautaret|
We woke to a beautiful, clear day, albeit on the cool side, and it seemed like a perfect day to tackle what we would consider the “Queen’s Stage” of the trip: Alp d’Huez and the Galibier.
Being on the chilly side we rolled out the road a couple of km, and then back, just to get a bit of blood flowing before we got straight into the Alp d’Huez. However, within the first hundred metres I was already getting pain at the back of my knee. I was hoping it was just a bit of stiffness, but with each pedal struck it felt like a sharp knife.
But hey, it’s Alp d’Huez, so it’s just a case of suck it up Princess and sort it out at the top! Once we hit the base of the climb everyone just starts spinning at their own pace. But the first few km barely saw the percentages drop into single-digit gradients, so for us bigger lads it was just 34×32 and keep breathing!
The one good thing about starting early on the second day is it’s about as fresh as you’ll feel. The first 8 or 9 k are just stunning, the switchbacks, the view back down to Bourg. Even as you go through the switchbacks, and think about the famous scenes over the years at the Tour. The final few km through the resort though are a bit boring if being perfectly honest. But the sense of achievement at getting to the finish line is amazing. Even if that was it, if the trip ended there and then the trip would have been a success, everything after that was an achievement.
Even though it was a chilly morning, the arm warmers are off within the first couple of minutes on the ascent. But a cold wind at the top meant the fast lads were wearing every layer they had, and were sheltering behind a van. On the plus side I was able to grab some parcetamol.
Col du Sarenne
One of the good things about changing the plans was that instead of coming back the Alp, we were now going to head cross country and come down the Col du Sarenne. On paper it sounded easy: a few km relatively flat on quiet roads, a bit of a climb and then a descent that “had a bit of gravel”.
The reality was much, much harder! The road over was relatively flat for a few km, but definitely a back road, narrow and with a rough surface.
A real killer though was that the last 3 km to the top didn’t really drop below 10%, and with the Alp already in the legs, it was a struggle. But still, it was another Col in the bag, for what seemed like a tough 3k. But for once, it turned out going up was the easy bit!
I cannot put into words how hard I found the first few km of that descent. Rough, gravelly, steep roads, with sharp, unprotected hairpins and sheer drops. Everything that I find tricky about descending was there! Remember, this was the descent that Froome called to have neutralized in the 2013 Tour de France.
A lot of it was psychological, knowing that there were zero margins for error if you left the road, so for the first few km, I didn’t let off the brakes at all.
After the initial 3 or 4 km it did switch from very steep and technical to more open and flowing, and out of the entire week, the second half was some of the most enjoyable descending we had. The group stayed together until we came down onto the Col du Lautaret.
Col Du Lautaret
In Ireland this would be considered probably the most epic climb we have, but in the Alps it’s just the spin to lunch. Once on the Lautaret we met Marcin in the van again, and everyone took the chance to leave a bit of kit in the van, as we settled in for the 20km at 6%. The gradient would have been normally manageable, but fatigue was settling in, and a few of us were just trying to spin to the next stop and take it from there.
We were very lucky to find somewhere in Grave for food, and even though the kitchen was about to close, a simple plate of proper carbonara was manna from heaven and proved to be a great morale boost. However, it was cold by the time we got back on the bike, and with a drop in temperature, it was soon apparent that the weather was turning. Given the slower than planned progress we realized that the Galibier was now at risk (the original plan was from the top of the Lautaret to then go straight up and down the Galibier).
Snow was forecast, but there was still a chance that the fast guys might make it, so everyone was happy to continue up the Lautaret at their own pace, but for those in front to just have a crack at the Galibier if it was on.
Back in the gruppetto, I was still suffering with my knee, and the third dose of paracetamol wasn’t really helping. By the time we arrived at the coffee stop at the top of the Lautaret it was already starting to snow, but even if it was all clear I wouldn’t have gone for it.
Unfortunately for our GC riders, they had to turn back after a few KM, again the snow had come in harder a few hundred metres up. And while they might have been ok on the way up, visibility was just dropping too much to be safe on the way back.
The good news is we were able to get a few hot drinks in, and the final 30km was all downhill. The bad news is it was positively Baltic cold on the way down, plus it was raining. Again, the first 2 or 3 km were the worst, especially with the cold water kicking up off the road. But as we dropped the temperature picked up, and it also dried, so by the time we rolled into Briançon the form was pretty good.
The hotel was great, the facilities were nice and fresh, and the town itself was beautiful. It’s a pity the Galibier didn’t work out, but even looking back on it a few weeks later it’s still not a downer. It’s just one more that’s still on the bucket list.
Next up: Izoard!