Cycling in the French Alps 2007
Ever since the early '90s when I took up cycling I have always loved riding hills - the harder the hill the more I enjoy it. So, naturally, I always had a desire to pit myself against some of the Tour de France's great climbs. Unfortunately, due to the great distance involved, and with none of my friends sharing my passion, this had never happened. However in 2007 I was invited to join my friend Graham, and the Logica CMG team, on a trip to the Marmotte race. This is the hardest amateur one-day race in Europe. The race covers 108 miles and starts off going over the Glandon or the Croix de Fer, then takes in the Col du Telegraphe and the mighty Galibier, finishing on the fabled Alpe D'Huez. That is one 'first category' climb and three 'above category' climbs in Tour parlance. Graham had done this race in 2006 for the first time, finishing in the top 1/3rd of the field, and had been encouraging me to enter the race but I simply don't have the time to get in the 100 mile training rides that he and his friends do, the furthest I have ever ridden being just over 50 miles.
My plan was to drive down with Graham on the Wednesday when we would ride Alpe D'Huez, then, while Graham and his friends relaxed I would do Les Deux Alpes on Thursday and the Telegraphe/Galibier on Friday. I would then do race support on the Saturday and we would return to England on the Sunday.
The forecast for the Alps was not good in the days before we left, with predictions of sub-zero temperatures and snow on the Galibier. I duly packed a decent selection of cycling clothes including arm and leg warmers and a waterproof top. In the UK I never wear a helmet on the road bike but I packed my helmet too, thinking about the long descents off the mountains and the lack of guard rails on many of the hairpin bends. For gearing I stuck with my 39x27 bottom gear even though I knew this would be tough, but I didn't want to spend money on new gears and figured it would be fine for the shorter rides I had planned...
The drive down through France was fast and clear, albeit very wet, and we arrived at Alp D'Huez mid afternoon. Our hotel was at the top of the Alpe so we had to drive up as soon as we arrived. I have to say that as the car swung on to the first ramp up to hairpin 21 I was gobsmacked! This looked seriously steep, far worse than the 8.1% average gradient I had read about on the 'net. It was also a very long drag to hairpin 21. The next ramp looked just as steep! And so it went on, taking about 20 minutes to drive up, and putting the fear of God in to me! Graham and I were planning to race each other up here later that day and I was now wondering what I had let myself in for.
The Tools of the Trip
My trusty steed for this trip was my old Dyna Tech 405 which I have owned from new about 13 years now. This is an old fashioned bike, weighing in at 9.5kg complete with downtube shifters. I use this for all my road riding and, although I was offered a loan of a nice modern Trek, there was no way I would do this trip on anything except my old faithful.
I also brought two bits of technology with me - one high tech and one low tech - that would enable me to see exactly what I was riding over. These were necessary because of all the conflicting information on the internet about the French Alps. Every website seems to have a different profile for the climbs and different estimations of the maximum percentages encountered. For example the Galibier has a road sign on it warning of 12%, yet many websites say 10 or 11% and Eurosport commentator David Duffield says "no part of the Galibier is steeper than 9%"??? The truth is out there. In fact the truth is here.
The high tech tool was a Polar S720i cycling specific heart rate monitor. This uses barometric pressure to record altitude and, while not being precise, and certainly not showing short peaks of gradient, it is remarkably accurate if the weather conditions are not changing rapidly.
The low tech tool was a Sky Mounti inclinometer. Nothing more sophisticated than a well damped spirit level that clamps to your bars, this device can easily be used to read off the gradient to within +/- half of one percent.
After unloading at the hotel we rounded up other members of the Logica CMG team who fancied a ride up and set off for the foot of the Alpe. Four of us went down by car as it was alternately snowing and raining whilst Graham opted to have his first descent of the mountain. After riding around the town of Bourg D'Oisans for a few minutes we headed off towards the Alpe. I had two goals here. The first was to beat Graham and the second was to get up the Alpe in under an hour. The approach to the Alpe is a flat blast past the EDF power building, then as you pass the Depart banners the road turns 90 left and takes off skywards. On the flat section the pace ramped up and the 5 of us were in a tight group. I punched the lap button on my HRM as we went past Depart and felt that I was already at race pace even though my heart rate hadn't yet responded fully. As soon as the road started to go up I was in bottom gear and sliding off the back of the group. According to my Sky Mounti this section was 10.5%. By hairpin 21 my heart rate had settled in to 178bpm and the gap seemed to be staying constant to Alan and Tim, a short distance ahead, and Graham a bit further up the road. Jim however had already started to disappear, out of the saddle, his bike rocking from side to side.
I started to worry about my heart rate, and my gearing! This was seriously steep. In fact it is about a mile at 10.5% before the gradient eases. I had never done an all-out effort that would last this long in my life. I had done a 10 mile TT about 12 years previously and I had done a couple of mountain bike races in the recent past. The MTB races had been about an hour long, conducted at an average HR of 175-180, but they are not a constant effort and have lots of downhill sections and flat bits where you can take a breather. My cadence was only about 60rpm which was too low, putting strain on my knees. However I knew the first 2 ramps were the steepest.
By the exit of hairpin 19 I had caught and passed Alan and Tim and was slowly reeling in Graham. The gradient was now a more manageable 9%. I slowly came up to Graham's back wheel but had nothing left to pass him. Going up the next few ramps all I was conscious of was mine and Graham's rhythmical deep breathing. Wondering how hard he was going I managed to gasp out 'Heart rate?' to which he replied '172'. I was still at 178. I knew we were both at (10 mile) TT pace but had a lot further to go, in terms of time, than a 10!
Straight after hairpin 17 the gradient eases off slightly to around 6-7%. As we left the hairpin I continued at the same effort and was surprised to find my front wheel starting to slide past Graham's back wheel. This was my cue. I reached down and changed up two gears to a 39x21, then drove my feet down in to the pedals as I raced past, my heart rate going up to 183. Graham didn't respond and, after opening up a 20 metre gap, I settled back in to my old pace. The road continues at this gradient for about a mile before going back up to around 9% again. Back in to the 39x27 and the low cadence.
After 25 minutes I started to worry again. It suddenly dawned on me that I was not even half way up and I became concerned that I might blow before the top. I eased off slightly and dropped to a heart rate of 175-176. Apparently Graham also thought I would blow and this was why he hadn't responded to my acceleration on the gentler slope. As I carried on up the road I realised that I was riding up a beautiful mountain with fantastic views, yet I wasn't even taking them in. I was just looking at the ground a few feet in front of the bike, or the 'Ultegra' logo on the front hub slowly spinning through my field of view once or twice a second.
Soon, the effort was starting to tell, my hamstrings aching from all the seated riding with a position close to the back of the saddle. I started to stand up briefly as I left each hairpin. As you get to the upper part of the Alpe the road snakes off a long way to the left by hairpins 3 and 1 and you get a great view back down the mountain. It was at this point that I could finally sense the end, even though I couldn't see it. I could see Graham was now a long way behind and I was sure I would finish OK. My thoughts turned to how long it might take. Being a bit of a cycling geek I had used this site to calculate how long the ascent would take me, and I had come up with 62 minutes. I knew that, if you fancied yourself as a climber, the time to beat was 1 hour. I looked at my monitor and I was on 48 minutes with about 1.5 miles left to go. I was now having to stand ever more frequently to spread the load between different muscle groups. Finally I started to enter the town. I came up behind 2 cyclists who were being followed up by a friend in a car. After getting held up behind them I rode past and then I could see the tourist finish in the distance. I changed up a few gears and started to sprint out of the saddle, my heart rate soaring to 186. As I passed the line I punched the lap button on my HRM and it stopped at 59m 58s! Graham's time was 61m 57s and Jim had done a stunning 54 minute ride. I read on one of the websites that organises cycling holidays that the fastest time ever recorded by one of their customers was 52 minutes.
I was elated, but there was no time to rest as I wanted to carry on to the Tour de France finish by the ski station. Marco Pantani holds the record for the fastest ascent of Alpe D'Huez, 37m 35s from the first bend to the ski station. But it all went horribly wrong. The route through the village is not well signed and is a bit confusing with several roundabouts to negotiate. Having only seen the route once as we drove to our hotel I made a mistake and turned left at the wrong roundabout. By the time I finally found the finish I approached it from the wrong direction (along with a bunch of other cyclists who were also lost!) and had covered loads of extra ground! However, Graham took 4m 11s to cover the distance between the tourist finish and the Tour finish, and if I add that to my time it would give me a conservative time of 1h 4m. It was quite incredible to think that 'Il Pirate' had gone up the mountain nearly twice as fast as me. On the other hand rock star Sheryl Crow, whilst dating Lance Armstrong, had done the ride in 1h 37m so I was closer to a pro cyclist than a country music star!
Col du Glandon/Croix de Fer
The next day the team went for an easy ride in the valley. They ventured as far as the foot of the Glandon and rode up the first half mile or so, just to let the newcomers see what the gradient felt like. I had planned to do Les Deux Alpes today, but seeing as I was at the Glandon I decided to split from the group and ride up the mountain by myself. As this was a spur of the moment thing I wasn't well equipped, having no food and just one and a half bottles of energy drink. However I knew there was a cafe at the top and I planned to refuel there, besides it would be all downhill on the way home...
The Glandon climb starts just after a big reservoir. The first half mile is 10% and is pretty hard. After that it eases off to about 8-9% for the next three miles to the village of Le Rivier d'Allemont. These lower slopes are thickly carpeted with trees and you rarely get any good views but you get plenty of shade from the sun (the snow and rain of the previous day had given way to great weather now). Unlike the race up the Alpe I was riding the Glandon at an aerobic pace, trying to stay below 160bpm. Alpe D'Huez had shown that my 39x27 bottom gear would be inadequate for this type of riding (see Gearing for the French Alps below) and I was now using a cobbled together 39x30 for most of this lower part. This was achieved by fitting a 30 tooth MTB cog behind the cassette and replacing the 12T and 13T cogs with a 13T locking cog. Through the village it is flat for about a mile, then, horror of horrors, the road plummets downwards at about 12% for a mile! The Glandon looks easy on paper - it is 14 miles at an average of 'only' 4.8% but it has quite a number of flat parts or descents, which means that most of the 14 miles is at a much harder percentage than the average suggests.
When the road finally turns up again it does so at a vicious 12% and this continues for about 2/3rds mile in a straight line with no hairpins to give you a breather. And there is worse to come! After another short descent the road turns back up again, but this time at 14% for a short distance. I have been told that French law used to forbid roads of greater than 12% in the Alps as this is as steep as a horse and cart can manage, but this section of road was built after the original road was wiped out by a landslide. As this was in the era of the motor car the authorities decided to take the shortest route up!
Thankfully the 14% section is quite brief and the climb then settles in to a gradient of around 9% for a mile, still hard, before dropping off to 7% for about three miles. By this time you are above the tree line and approaching a spectacular dam which has what looks like a massive, stepped, dry stone construction to the dam wall.
Soon there is another one mile long descent and this one is quite annoying. Being above the tree line you can see the descent snaking off in to the distance before climbing up again, the road winding through a grassy hillside. By now I was almost out of water and I was pretty tired. The last 1.5 miles is 7% and it is a relief to reach the summit. After posing for the obligatory pictures I cycled back down a few hundred metres to the Cafe. The place was heaving with cyclists and I looked forward to some nice food to refuel, especially seeing as I knew I had those steep descents to climb when I went back 'down' the mountain. Unfortunately the selection on offer was not great and I ended up with a ham and cheese roll, two Mars bars, one drinks bottle full of mineral water and one full of Coca Cola.
After leaving the Cafe I took the road that connects the Glandon to the Croix
de Fer, a short ride of 1.75 miles at 6%. This had to be done as you effectively
get 'two cols for the price of one' and the Croix de Fer is also over 2000m in
After 60 miles of riding I arrived back in Bourg D'Oisans and got a lift up the Alp in Graham's car - no way was I tackling that again today!
Completing the Marmotte
After the previous 2 days I decided it would be folly to tackle the Telegraphe and Galibier on the Friday as I had originally planned. Instead I took Friday off to recover, then tackled the rest of the Marmotte course on the day of the race. I had already done the Glandon and the Alpe, so I decided to go with one of our support cars to the top of the Glandon on Saturday morning, then ride at least to Bourg D'Oisans and try to get up the Alpe if I could.
Descent of the North side of the Glandon
I left the top of the Glandon at about 8am, ahead of the race as I didn't want to be mixed up with the Elite riders on the high speed descent. This is quite a tricky descent. The roads are quite narrow, the surface isn't brilliant and there are very sharp hairpin bends with no barrier or verge and a sharp drop over the edge. The top part is particularly dangerous, being the scene of a very serious accident that closed the road during the 2006 Marmotte. The descent is 13 miles and took me 30 minutes, reaching speeds of just over 40mph.
After that there is a 15 mile section through the valley to the foot of the Telegraphe. Except I got lost! By the time I had found my way again I rejoined in the middle of a lot of fast racers, being overtaken constantly.
Col du Telegraphe
The Telegraphe begins in earnest as you leave the town of St Michel du Maurienne and pass under a large bridge. As it starts to climb it is only 5-6% and felt easy. My heart rate was around 150 and my cadence was mid 70s. The climb is 7.5 miles long at an average 6.8%. As ever, the intial 5-6% gradient meant that it had to get steeper elsewhere in order to make up that 6.8% average. Soon the gradient was up to a steady 8% and it was becoming difficult, even in 39x30, to keep my heart rate under 160 whilst still maintaining a cadence of 60 or higher - both arbitrary limits I had set in order to preserve my energy for the long ride ahead whilst giving my knees an easy time. The climb is quite pleasant with plenty of shade from the trees and a winding route. There are few sharp hairpins, most of them being long slow turns with the road maintaining a steady gradient through the turn. There is a section at less than 8% for a while then it finally ramps up again to 8% for the last stretch. By the time I'd reached the top my average heart rate was 155 and my average cadence nearly 70rpm which was good as I hadn't been stressing my body too much.
The summit is quite low, at 1650m, and you are still below the tree line. At the summit I affixed a spare race number that the team had from somebody who hadn't made the trip. I would keep this on just for the climb of the Galibier so that I could get some free food from the Valloire food stop and so that I could get some professional photos from Photo Breton after the event. The descent to Valloire is all too brief (10 minutes or so) and then the mighty Galibier starts...
My time: 1 hour 4 minutes
Col du Galibier
The Galibier is usually the highest point of the Tour de France, features in the race almost every year, and is referred to as 'the roof of the race'. It has a fearsome reputation. Climbing to 2645m over 11 miles you ascend way above the tree line and in to a desolate, barren, place where nothing grows and the altitude saps approximately 15-20% of your power due to the thin air. This was going to be the highlight of my trip, something I had been looking forward to more than the climb of Alpe D'Huez. Tours had been won and lost on this mountain, and many a famous rider had cracked on the unrelenting slopes.
As you leave Valloire the road goes up through a grassy plain which gives a very false impression of the slope. It looks to be quite an easy gradient but the burning in your legs tells you otherwise and a quick glance at the Sky Mounti shows why - this part is actually 8%. By now you are above the tree line and there is no shade at all on the climb. On the day it was hot and the sweat rolled off of my brow, straight in to my eyes, causing a painful stinging. This got so bad that I had to stop and wash my head in a mountain stream. Unfortunately this washed off all my suntan lotion as well!
Shortly after I stopped to wash my face the gradient eased off considerably. In fact, for the next 1.5 miles it was only 2-3% and felt as if you were riding on the flat. This was a welcome relief but, at the same time, you couldn't help but think about how the average gradient was going to be made up with some steep riding later!
Sure enough, the road then kicked up to 7-8% again for the next 3 miles before another brief respite at 4% and then the final push to the top. By this time even the grass had given up growing and the landscape was just rocks and dust. The final 4 miles is hard work and many people were stopping for rests, or to deal with cramp, or even resorting to walking. On the lower slopes the road is fairly straight and flowing but up here it starts to wind and twist with lots of hairpins and, all the while, you can see the summit way up ahead with little dots which are the other cyclists up in the rarefied atmosphere. The average gradient on this last 4 miles is 8% and the final section is a series of switchbacks at 11-12% which goes on for a kilometre and is brutal at this altitude with all that climbing behind you. This is the section where cars short cut through the tunnel but cyclists are not permitted to use that route and you climb up over the tunnel.
My time: 1 hour 47 minutes
After a quick stop for a photo and some food from the food station at the summit, I donned my arm warmers and set off down the other side. This descent is just amazing. You basically go downhill almost the whole way to Bourg D'Oisans at the foot of Alpe D'Huez, a trip which takes over an hour at speeds of over 40mph. Climbing might make you ache but so does a descent like this - your arms are not used to being in a tuck and operating the brakes for such a long period of time.
And that marks the end of my trip. I could sense that I was spent as I crested the Galibier. On the few uphills on the way to Bourg D'Oisans I felt tired. When I reached Alpe D'Huez I started to ride up but it was no fun. I stopped twice on the way to hairpin 18 where I climbed off at our team car and loaded my bike on the roof. Most of the cyclists on the Alpe were in a similar state to me, many of them taking the best part of two hours to do the 8 mile climb, grinding a cadence of 40rpm, alternating walking and riding, some being sick or getting cramp. However, unlike for them, there would no medal or certificate for me at the top and thus no reason to punish my body like that.
The guys in the team did a sterling job. The fastest rider, Iain Morgan, came home in an astonishing 7h 7m to take 94th place out of 6000 starters. The slowest riders in the team came home in around 12 hours and 2 people abandoned.
If you're a bike fan then riding in the Alps is something you must do at some time. TV never conveys the terrain properly and it is impossible to imagine how hard these climbs are. Average inclines of 5-8% might not sound like much compared to UK climbs that frequently reach 12-15% but, as mentioned above, these averages are obscured by flat parts and descents on the way 'up' and the sheer length of the climbs is what kills you. The Galibier is a good example. By itself I would say it is probably not quite as hard as the Glandon but in order to reach the Galibier you have to do the Telegraphe first so you are nicely softened up by the time you reach the high mountain.
The weather was very variable, even in July. We had snow and rain on the Wednesday, reasonable weather on the Thursday, stifling heat on the Friday and Saturday and a return to cold and rain on the Sunday morning as we left. A good selection of cycling clothes is a must.
Footnote: Gearing for the French Alps
If you do a bit of googling on this topic you will find loads of people saying how 39x23 or 39x25 is fine for the Alps. Maybe if you're a 'weak' rider you 'might' need a 39x27. Well, I reckon this is quite misleading. Now, I don't doubt that the people making these claims have ridden on these gears, but they must have been pushing a seriously low cadence which is no fun, or they have fitness levels approaching that of a pro rider. Look at it this way: Lance Armstrong used a 39x21 on Alpe D'Huez when he almost matched Pantani's record time. Lance climbs the Alp nearly twice as fast as a respectable time for a club rider. So, to match Lance's cadence an average rider doing 60 minutes would need a 39x36. But that's running flat out, on the ragged edge. Switch to an aerobic pace and you would need at least a couple of gears lower, say a 39x44, or lower than 1:1! OK, so Lance spins a really high cadence of around 95rpm and you might prefer to do 70rpm - that still means a 39x32. And that's with fresh legs. As a further point of reference the guy in our team who came 94th out of 6000 riders in the Marmotte had a triple chainset and was using 30x23 on the top of the Galibier - that's the equivalent of a 39x30 for people with a dual chainring. Now remember, he finished in the top 2% of the entire field! Mere mortals would need at least 2 gears lower than that which, again, is around a 1:1 ratio. Finally, a British journalist writing for Cycling Weekly suggested a 34x26 was a good ratio and that he had done 1h 26m up Alp D'Huez on this ratio at the end of the Etape du Tour. Well, if you work out the cadence for that gear and a 1h 26m ascent it works out at 52rpm - oops! To get up to 70rpm he would have needed a 34x34 - that magical 1:1 ratio again. So, my advice would be to use a triple with a road cassette or a compact chainset with an MTB rear cassette and derailleur.
Right: Climbing the Glandon, 2 miles from the summit.