This was THE ride.
36 mile ride with well over 100 segments. I mean, when does that happen!? It goes to show what a destination this area is for cyclists. What’s the big deal? Well mostly Alpe d’Huez; a 7.4 mile stretch of switch backs with 3,382ft of climbing and 9% average grade. 46,511 men & women have ridden Alpe d’huez. That is an astonishing number of cyclists and makes this (probably) THE most popular climb in the world. One small factor, I am not one of those 46,511 names on Strava’s official segment list. What went wrong? I’ll get there…
Let me start from the beginning. Since the weather was clear, we opted for a late start for this ride. Well actually it had less to do with the weather and more to do with the farmer’s market. Yeah, you read correctly. This was THE ride and THE market. What a day! The Wednesday morning event closes down the main street in town and farmers begin setting up as early as 4:30am. It was likely around 7 when we walked from the house a mile into town to check it out and it was a bustling mix of small stands, elaborate set ups and people still unloading. I was giddy with excitement. I mean the food was just incredible. Carts and tables and buckets overflowing with nuts (mostly almonds and hazelnuts), dried apricots, fresh figs, giant artichokes, pumpkins, squash, olives, tomatoes, hummus, cheese, charcuterie, etc… I was buying bits of everything. In this area of France, they eat a lot of bird so I wasn’t shocked to see a large amount of poultry being sold. I was shocked to see that there were multiple rotisseries set up at the market. See the photo, I mean full blown set ups with golden roasted birds at 7am; impressive. I selected a black chicken to take for the evening meal. I’d never had a black chicken before! These venders also had an array of sausages cooking. You may think 1 chicken would be enough, but there were 5 of us and today was set to be an epic riding day, so the more food the better! We were all drooling at a particular variety of sausage but when trying to purchase, we were advised in broken English that those were ‘very French’. We persisted, we wanted THOSE! But the man shook his head and repeated ‘very French, strong French’ and let us buy 2 of them. Ha okay. We moved on and the guys picked out some baguette, cheese and fresh pasta while I drooled over (and bought) a giant roasted beet (yes they sell pre roasted veggies along with the fresh! How convenient!). I have no idea what we paid for all this. I understand limited French and when numbers are said quickly… its tough. Most of the time I help out my hand of euro coins and they took what they needed. Shrug. It seemed fair. When we were properly loaded up, we trekked back home to put things away, eat and get ready for THE ride.
3 of us set out together for this effort, Luke Marty and I. The other two men were both not feeling well. The plan was to drive about 45 minutes to the base of the Alpe d’Huez to begin our ride. The drive took longer than expected as a tunnel was out and we were rerouted a bit. Once we arrived it was a quick unloading of bikes before we were in the saddle and ready to pedal. The base of the climb started almost immediately from the grocery store parking lot we started from. There would be no warm up, just GO! So we were off. Luke shot off from the start, wanting to see where he would stack up with an all out effort. Marty and I were leap frogging a bit at the beginning. I saw the signs marking where we were to the summit and got a little depressed. ‘Shit can I really do this much climbing AGAIN!?’ my mental state was not in a happy place as I saw the signs that read 22, 21, etc… I though this climb was supposed to be shorter?! It took me a while to realize that these were not ‘KM to go’ markers like the other Cols had, rather they were counting down the switchbacks; a much more subjective, but somehow less daunting number. I perked up again and started working it until I saw Luke coming down towards me. “Did you finish?? Is the top near? What’s happening”, I shouted. He told me that, no we were no where near the top (dammit) but that the road was closed. WHAT. I mean really WHAT. He turned around with me and we rode another switch back up to where the road was in fact blocked. There was construction and it would reopen in around 10 minutes. There was a line of cars waiting, likely less annoyed than we were. One note about this climb is the traffic. Although it isn’t a steady stream of cars and they aren’t whizzing by you, it reeks of diesel fumes which is very unpleasant while riding. I mentioned before what a popular climb this was. We were not the only riders out there. At the road block there were about 20 other cyclists waiting to continue. Luke didn’t want his legs to sit still so he went back down. I followed but after descending a few switchbacks I knew I didn’t want to get all the way to the bottom to re try the entire climb. It was a lose lose: go all the way down and coming back up would be a tired effort, don’t re-do the entire climb and I wouldn’t get an official segment for the climb. I turned around and headed back up to the closure. Sigh. I guess I would never know how I came in on this, maybe some day I will have to try it again. I waited a few minutes before they opened the road. I’m not sure if it was the anger of the situation or what, but I took off. Seriously I left everyone who was also waiting behind and just went for it. About a quarter way from the top, a group of serious looking cyclists grouped along the road began cheering for me; Allez Allez Allez!!! Okay sure Allez! And I rode harder. Soon after that someone was behind me. I was a little annoyed, I had surely been riding hard enough to shed everyone from before! Oh it was Luke. Of course he was passing me. Although passing doesn’t do his effort justice, he blew past me, it was impressive. Switchback, switchback, another and another… I had to fumble a couple times with my phone to snap a few shots because when would I ever get the chance again!? Finally I was at the top. My legs were wobbly and it was a difficult task to dismount, but there I was. At the top. There is an actual finish line painted on the street. The top is a little cyclist attraction: café, bar, 2 big cycling shops, a podium, drinking well, and proper bike racks. We stayed and drank Coke Light and shopped for new souvenir kits before riding on.
I thought we would be descending; I mean that’s what happens after you climb for 7 miles… right?! No. I should pay more attention to the route plans in advance, oops. We rode through a valley for a bit and my energy levels were declining. On each ride the initial tough effort would zap me for a while. Maybe it was my fitness level, or the amount I was putting into each first climb, or my low iron levels, or the altitude… but it was something. I struggled to keep up with my group as they easily rode on. It seemed like forever until we began going downhill. Apparently this section of descending, the Sarenne, was off limits to the Tour. They wanted it to be part of the course but teams refused due to safety concerns. To comprise, the city paved patches of the descent. I mean patches, like tiny sections of the u-turn, -11% downhill were in good shape. I guess that was all the PROs needed to feel safe, for me however, well I felt close to death. There were rocks scattered along the road that had obviously fallen from the cliff side, the road surface was pitted and bumpy, and the grade was steep. Oh, and you were also on the edge of a very drastic drop off. No guardrail or shoulder, just death. I was not a fan. As we got closer the bottom the road smoothed out and things became more fun. Then we began climbing again, only 1.5 miles but at a 10% grade. Ouch. What happened after that I can barely put into words. The view become amazing. Simply amazing. It was the coolest feeling to be riding so high up, along the side of a mountain that if you looked up from the road you’d never think ‘oh cyclists ride there’. You’ll just have to look at the photos to get a sense of how breathtaking it was. Our ride plan had two options, long and short. The long version would pass by the car, and you know how that goes… short version it was. I think it was best as clouds were rolling in and this gave us a chance to rest up for the next ride which would be longer and more difficult.
I slept curled up in the back seat most of the drive home. Guess I was a little wiped out! Back at the house I let the men unpack the bikes while I got to work cooking some dinner from our morning market haul. It was a feast of pasta, roasted vegetables (potato, cabbage, onion, carrot, tomato), sausage, black chicken, cheese and baguette. The french rotisserie man was right... the sausages were very French. Apparently made from pig cheeks, they were very flavorful but had a very chunky texture. I think 2 was plenty. We dined and sipped local vino as ideas for the next day's ride started to flow: since we had taken it easy (HA!) today, tomorrow should be an adventure and include not 1, not 2, but 3 Cols.
Stay tuned to see if my legs explode or if I survive...
As always, post your Qs & comments below!