XV.013 – BACK.TO.THE.ALPS

By the second hairpin the blood is pumping so loudly in my ears that all I want to do is throw my bike into the trees and sit down in a waterfall in the shade – with 100 miles in the legs there’s just another 19 switchbacks up l’Alpe to go. 44 degree heat, 5000 metres of climbing and 170 kilometers – is this what the French call a holiday?..

A dozen of us had set off down to the alps early on the Thursday morning and moved into our chalet in Alpe D’huez by tea-time. The road up to Huez seemed more vicious than I’d remembered from the TV and I knew it would be even more bad-ass on the bike.

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The next morning we headed out from the top of the ski station over the back side of the alpe and over the Col de Sarenne (1999m), the same way that the tour took back to the bottom in 2013. The descent into the valley was a perfect rough ribbon of switchbacks – the perfect antidote to yesterday’s car journey. A coffee in Bourg was followed by a fantastic ascent of Pas de la Confession (1542m). My legs felt good and we got to rehearse the final six switchbacks of l’alpe, back to our chalet so after a nice little 70km spin I was quietly confident about the upcoming days “Marmotte Sportive”.

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A muggy six-thirty descent into Bourg raised alarm bells about the warmth of the ride later in the day, by the bottom we were already happily chatting in 25 degree heat before the sun had even made its way into the steep sided valley. The first climb up to the Glandon (1924m) was relatively pleasant – up through the trees the heat and the gradient were manageable, but even so I made a conscious effort to eat and drink. By the top I was ready for a fresh pair of bottles and I stuffed plenty of gels into my pockets.

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The second climb up Montvernier (777) was amazing – my kind of climb. It was shorter, steeper and had relentless tight switchbacks, perfect to stretch your legs on. The descent was made more technical by the poor road surface, but it was good fun and before the long valley road I’d found a good strong group to work in – two Belgians, three Italians and me took 60 second stints on the front, blasting past unorganised groups that were caught in the headwinds, before we began the climb up the Mollard (1630m).

I have nothing nice to say about the Mollard – If I don’t ever see that mountain again it’ll be too soon. The majority of the climb was tree covered but even so the heat had started to get silly and I knew I was on the edge of cramping – my back was moaning too so I had to go really steady. Luckily at the top there was a proper feed stop, so after some real food and fresh bottles I was back in the game.

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The Italians I was riding with were all part of the same race team and they’d kind of taken me under their wing, so we chatted up the final couple of kilometres of the Mollard before descending like lunatics down to the start of the Col de la Croix de Fer (2058m) – my favourite climb of the day. It was completely unrelenting, getting increasingly steep and exposed to the top. It wasn’t so much topping-up-the-tan-lines as being branded-ready-for-slaughter! I got an odd kick from the brutality of it and paced the Italians most of the way up. Back in the game!

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Finally the wide open descent of the Glandon opened up in front of me – with nothing to do the whole way down but lean into the lumbering corners it felt like flying. We were treated to a tailwind up the valley, but it was quickly becoming obvious that the final climb up to Alpe D’Huez was going to be something to remember for all the wrong reasons. In the final feed station I was told that I wasn’t supposed to be standing in the shade, but I think Madam Jobsworth gave up when I silently returned her gaze with one of her own Gallic shrugs.

With two bottles soon to be boiling in the 44 degree heat I set off up to Alpe d’Huez (1880m). It really is hard to explain just how hot it was between the concrete walls and I considered several times how dangerous, rather than tough, it was to be climbing like that. One of our riders collapsed from the heat and two others weren’t able to finish. Olly had earlier tyre problems and made the cut-off by two minutes and early reports suggest that 40% of the 7000 starters failed to make it to the finish. The last kilometre through the village in the big ring was like heaven – 08:36:35 in 1012th position!

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After all that drama I was pleased to get out for a nice quiet ride on the Sunday. Spinning along I took the reverse route from our first day in the mountains. Descending alone without the madness of thousands of riders was a treat and the climb back up the Col du Sarenne has to be my favourite part of the whole trip – quiet, steep and wild is exactly what I needed to finish off the trip.

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Big thanks to Andrew and Lawrence for organising. Awesome riding with the guys from St.James Velo and it was good to see lots of Kent Velo Girls (and Boys) out too.

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Glen rides for the Southborough & District Wheelers. He races Mountain bikes in the UK National XC Points and Eastern XC Series, Road bikes in the Surrey, South-East and Eastern Leagues, TT in the South East Region and ‘Cross in the LCCA League. He receives personal support from Helly Hansen, The Velo House, Scott Bikes and THE.ÆIGHT.BICYCLE.CØMPANY.

Glen runs The Velo House with Olly and Matt, a coffee shop, workshop and bike shop welcoming all cyclists and even well behaved non-cyclists. We’re based at 5 St.Johns Road, Tunbridge Wells, TN4 9TN – 01892 554 505 – glen@thevelohouse.com.  

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