Diaries from an Alpine Adventure
Tuesday June 14th: Day One – Basingstoke to Le Bourg d’Oisans
The worst part of any trip is the travelling. For this trip we are travelling by car and the prospect of spending the best part of 12 hours locked in a metal box did not fill me with excitement. The morning starts well, my alarm goes off at 04:20 and the previous night’s preparation is appreciated. Clothes on, breakfast eaten and I’m outside on the driveway at 04:55 awaiting pickup.
The bike is tethered to the bike rack and my bags have been lumped over the rear seats. One more pick up to go before we head to Ashford and our EuroStar train, departing at 08:20. The pessimist in me checks that I have my passport and I confirm with Brad and Gary that they have theirs. It is now 05:05, the good start to the morning did not even last an hour. It’s been a hectic few weeks for Gary H so forgetting something was on the cards. Bike, cycle shoes, cycling kit and helmet were packed without hesitation but the passport must have slipped his mind.
05:20 and with the last pick up completed we now head in the opposite direction to that required to meet our train to foreign lands. Our bad news travels fast and the two other cars carrying more members of the party take great delight in boasting that they will have their feet up at our chalet while we are still traversing France having been delayed due missing our EuroStar train.
I’m not quite sure how it happened but with passport picked up, navigation of all weekday comuter traffic on various motorways and a moment of ‘technology fails me’ at the self-service EuroStar ticket machine we roll up to the loading pens in Ashford at 07:55. Somehow, we made the 08:20 train. The others got here with plenty of time spare and were pulled to earlier trains. By the time our train departs they are already in France.
We stop just outside of Calais to get some fuel and grab refreshments. As we enter the services we see the Marc Mulley group leaving. After all the banter regarding the passport debacle they are only a few minutes in front of us. Now, I would never condone competiveness when driving, but the race was on!!
France is vast. Kilometre upon kilometre (we are in Europe now) of straight motorway cuts through the country. Due to the tolls applied the traffic is light so covering long distances is pretty easy. The remainder of the drive was punctuated with Wattsapp updates and jokes from all three groups on the road. After around 8 hours on the French roads we rolled in to the chalet complex at Le Bourg d’Oisans. Mike and George were already there but the passport savvy, early birds in the Mulley truck were nowhere to be seen. It would be nearly an hour before they turned up, so much for getting the earlier train.
Travelling is tiring. Dinner in a local restaurant, a quick sort out of kit for the morning ride and bed was calling. Weather permitting Alpe d’Huez was being climbed in the morning, we needed some rest.
Wednesday June 15th: Day Two – Alpe D’Huez
Le Bourg d’Oisans was not our base for the entire trip. The town is conveniently situated at the base of Alpe d’Huez so was being used for a single night to facilitate climbing the iconic mountain road. The weather forecast, when checked the night before, did not look promising and we woke up to persistent rain and low cloud cover over the mountains. Day two was not starting well.
By the time everyone had loaded up with breakfast and got dressed it had been decided that a 10:30 start to the days ride would offer the best chance of the weather clearing. Slowly the clouds broke up and in a comparable upward trend the mood lifted. In order to warm the legs up before the big climb a 15 mile loop to Allemont and a view in to the Glandon Valley was completed. There was a little conjecture as to where the climb of Alpe d’Huez started but we followed the signs and was promptly greeted with the road ramping up to a 10% gradient. The alpine climbs had arrived and in brutal style.
Climbing can be a lonely art. You have to find your own rhythm, get in to your own zone and keep pedalling. Each hairpin on the Huez ascent is numbered and the countdown from 21 to 0 helps you gauge your effort levels, or compound your misery depending on how you feel. After about an hour of climbing, the ski resort arrives and it’s a quick scoot through the high street (sic) towards the official Tour De France climb finish. The last few hundred metres of 9% gradient slightly taint the sense of occasion at being in such a famous place but do give you an appreciation of how hard the battles are to get race wins on such an iconic finish line.
We roll back in to the ski resort, grab some lunch in a bar and share our stories of our climb. The alpine adventures have started in style, everyone has conquered the first mountain and spirits are high. Not as high as the German party in the same bar though who appear to be trying to increase their ballast for the descent by drinking large quantities of beer. The OP group, being the highly tuned athletes that we are, stick to ham & cheese sandwiches and coffee’s.
Back at the chalet we load the cars again and head north. There are two options to get to St Jean De Maurienne, the toll roads or the mountain road. We opt for the mountain road and a preview of the Col du Glandon that we intend on climbing the next day. The views are stunning on the drive, which is good as they take our minds of the relentless nature of the climb that we will have to endure the next day. Generally I like to research big climbs in order to prepare my mind for when I ride them. In this case I’m not so sure it was a good idea but the smell of burning brake pads did divert our minds slightly. We really were in the big mountains now.
Thursday June 16th: Day Three – Col du Glandon & Col de la Croix de Fer
I awoke to the sound of running water in the bathroom and at first thought my roomie Brad was having a shower. However he was still asleep in his bed. The bathroom window was open in order to circulate air in the room but it was also letting in the sound of the rain cascading off the roof tops in the side alley. Day three was not starting well.
The conversation over breakfast was obviously about the weather. Several of us had utilised the free hotel WiFi and pulled up differing local weather websites. The general consensus was that the weather would clear up around 10:00 and we would roll out then. A good breakfast was consumed and everyone returned to their rooms for an extra hour of down time before meeting up in the hotel courtyard to start the ride.
We eventually rolled out at 10:45, the rain lingering a little longer than forecast. The sun came out and the roads began to dry on the 10km ride north to La Chambre and the start of the climb to the top of Col du Glandon. The start of the climb winds through forest roads still wet from the overnight storm, the occasional stream of water cascading down the drain gulleys. After a few kilometres the forest thins and we are riding alongside mountain pastures farmed by the locals. The sun is out, the legs are warm and the gradient consistent. It’s turned into a good day.
Everyone is climbing their own climb, the group of ten scattered across maybe a kilometre of road after settling in to their own pace. The Col du Glandon averages 7% gradient over the entire 19.5km (12.1 mile) climb, a flat section in the middle through the village of Le Villard Martinan masks the true steepness though. As you climb markers on the side of the road advise you of the distance remaining to the peak and the average gradient in the coming kilometre. Spirits are high as Sir Dan, my climbing partner this morning, and myself pass the 5km to go marker.
With 2km to go the roadside markers stated that the average gradient would be 10%. Tired legs groaned at the increased effort required after more than an hour hauling our bodies up the mountain road. In the hairpin bends the ramps were steeper still, it was a tough finish and the mountain was about to bite back in more ways than one. Sir Dan stretched out a 100m gap in the last couple of kilometres, he always defies the laws of physics with his climbing ability. As I crested the Glandon he congratulated me on a good ascent but also commented on the bank of cloud that was marching towards us from the south east valley.
With our camera phone pictures captured a couple more of the group rolled over the summit, elated that the test was over. By this time a light drizzle had developed in to quite heavy rain and it became clear that we had to get moving quickly. The plan had already been decided before the climb started. If the weather turned on the Glandon then roll down the short road on other side and climb another 2.5km to the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer where a café awaits. By the time the four of us were ready to set off the rain was really coming down and the wind had picked up. The short climb to the café was a test, due to the conditions, in equal measure to the 19.5km of the Glandon.
Crazy Dave was already in the café when Brad, Sir Dan, Paul Stretch and myself got there. He had crested the Glandon third, seen the weather coming and decided to roll on. A wise move as the rest of us had been soaked by the rain and were now struggling to warm up round the small warm air heater that was located on a side table in the café. Gazing though the window the inclement weather an odd cyclist could be seen taking a quick photo of their achievement before heading off down the mountain. Mike, George and Dan Hare were soon within the safety of the café and enjoying a coffee and a baguette. Only Gary H and the Pigeon were left unaccounted for.
Thirty minutes later they arrived during a break in the weather having taken shelter in another cafe a few kilometres down the road. A few of us took the chance to grab souvenier photos of the summit signage. Marc and Gary jumped in to the café for a coffee. At this point we probably should have got moving as the break in the weather offered a chance to descend the 20km back to St Jean de Maurienne. We didn’t, instead revelling in the relative warmth of the café stop, who by now had located a second warm air heater. By the time we decided to move the weather had turned again, rain and wind lashed the mountain and it looked like lasting a while but we had to move.
Within a kilometre it became clear that due to being so cold I could not descend the full distance to the hotel, second on the road with only Pigeon in front I decided that I would jump in to the first point of refuge I found. 5km down the road a sign for a restaurant popped up and I pulled in. I flagged down some of the others as they passed and stated my intentions. Pigeon had gone on, Brad and Paul wanted to keep moving. Sir Dan went with them to ensure their safe navigation to the hotel once in the valley. Somehow Dan H had flagged down a road maintenance truck and blagged a lift down the mountain. I think that only George standing on the roadside with his thumb out stopped Dan getting a ferried down to St Jean in the warm cabin, bike laying in the flatbed alongside the workers tools. So Dave, George, Mike, Gary, Dan H and myself decided to grab another coffee and wait out the weather.
We soon realised that the weather was in for the afternoon and we were either in for a long wait or an unexpected overnight stay. Pigeon had confirmed himself and the other three had returned to the hotel cold but in one piece. We agreed a time that we would assess the situation and make a decision regarding getting off the mountain. At this point the six of us had settled in to the refuge of the restaurant and George was doing his best to entertain us between the French sports news channel giving us updates on the England vs Wales football match. It was now 16:30 and we had been waiting out the weather for ninety minutes. We called Marc and requested the rescue party be mobilised, two cars were now heading up the mountain to pick the six stranded cyclists up.
Over dinner there was a large amount of analysis of events of the day. In summary everyone got off the mountain safely on way or another but it was agreed that we should never take the weather for granted and be cautious when an unsettled forecast has been provided.
Friday June 17th: Day Four – Col du Telegraphe & Col du Galibier
The mood was more upbeat on the morning of day four as the sun was shining. It was also my birthday and I had promised everyone some sunshine for my big day. A decision had been made that the Col du Galibier was the target today. Due to the distance required to get to the Galibier and its height, 2642m, we could only complete this ride on a day with good weather. The ride started fast as we headed south to Saint Michel de Maurienne and by the time we got to the foot of the opening climb everyone was warm and removing some layers that protected them from the early morning chill.
In order to get to the Galibier we first had to crest the Col du Telegraphe, itself a test at 1566m above sea level. On the climb the group again split in to small groups and settled in to pace that suited them. On the road I buddied up with Brad and we soon started picking off other riders who were ascending the Telegraphe and looked likely to have similar plans to us for the day.
Atop the Telegraphe the low cloud was shielding the morning sun and the temperature was significantly lower than that felt within the valley only an hour earlier. Paul arrived quite quickly after Brad and myself, all three of us decided that we would grab a quick coffee and then kick on to Valloire and the start of the Galibier climb. The others arrived in quick succession and ordered their refreshments with one exception. Gary had somehow missed the café lurking within the low cloud and had rolled down the mountain to Valloire on his own. A quick text message confirmed his location so we all started to make our way onwards on the route.
The descent to Valloire was fast and did not offer any chance to get the legs turning before the Galibier climb started. The first couple of kilometres were quite a struggle as Brad and myself tried to find our rhythm for the impending 18km of work. The sun was out though and we were soon ticking over nicely. The ski resort of Valloire soon ended and we were soon alone in the serenity of the alpine wilderness. The silence only disturbed by the sound of our breathing and the occasional Harley Davidson motorcycle taking part in a local rally. As the road stretched out before us we could see the snow-capped mountains that would be host to the final kilometres of the Galibier climb.
Nothing can quite prepare you for assault on the senses that is the Galibier. Legs burning, lungs busting and eyes sore due to the views that unfold around every hairpin turn. Today even our ears were being abused as the Harley Davidsons were now of greater frequency and were joined by some classic sports cars from many decades. This weekend was the date for the Punta Bagna rally in Valloire where petrol heads from southern Europe would meet and test their machines on the Galibier climb. Self-powered cyclists and fuel hungry engines heading to the same mountain top, a true juxtaposition.
The less said about the final couple of kilometres of the Galibier the better. Surrounded by snow the road appears to have been cut out from a desolate arctic landscape. In fact the last kilometre had only been cleared by snow ploughs the week before so you were often flanked by six foot plus walls of snow. After climbing the majority of the day with Brad he had stretched out a 200m lead on me by the time he reached the summit. I had hit a wall quite literally during the final kilometres and as the road ramped up to 11% willed the pain to end. Cyclists gathered in front of the summit sign posing with their bikes to record the achievement while motorcyclists stood in line patiently waiting to record their own moment of glory.
Paul reached the top in what can only be described as a delirious mood. For some reason his eyes told him that there was several kilometres of the climb remaining until he was told that in fact he only had 50m to the top. Half the group had got to the summit but the temperatures were low, with the sun shielded by cloud and the wind blowing it felt somewhere around freezing point. We decided to start the long descent back to Valloire and declare on the group Wattsapp the location of the café where we would get lunch.
As much as there are no climbs in England that can prepare you for the long arduous ascents in The Alps there are equally no descents that can prepare you for the physicality of coming down a mountain pass this length. Your speed gathers quickly as the road falls away at 8, 9 and sometimes 10%. You have to scrub that speed off with frustrating regularity as another tight turn approaches and today made even more hazardous by the rivers of snow melt water dissecting the road. Even though the landscape is open and you can see the road ahead the steady stream of ascending cyclists means that you are unable to take the ‘racing line’. As a viewpoint approaches I decide to take a break and give my hands, arms and neck a few minutes of relief. I’m soon joined by Mike, Brad and Paul who have the same idea.
From our viewpoint we can see that the road soon opens out and looks to offer some fun. Mike decides to start his video camera again and capture the ride.
We arrive in Valloire in quick time having been lucky on the second half of the descent and being able to hold a good speed through most of the corners. Dave and Sir Dan find a restaurant and we all tuck in to a well earnt lunch. The outside seating is located roadside giving us an excellent vantage point as some of the vehicles participating in the motor rally roll through. Nice the classic cars and motorcycles are and although we are all tired, we all agree that the best way to experience The Alps is by bicycle.
The ascent of the backside of the Telegraphe is relatively uneventful. In comparison to the climbs already completed this week it’s a short simple workout, a good thing with a belly full of lasagne and frites. Atop the Telegraphe for the second time today it starts to lightly rain. The twisty nature of the long drop in to Saint Michel de Maurienne means that sections of the descent are dry while others are damp and require tentative progression. We all meet up in the town and start on the valley road back to the hotel.
Those who have ridden advanced club rides will be familiar with ‘Diesel’ Dan Hare. He enjoys the climbs in his own way and endures the descents but Dan really comes alive on the flat lands. The sight of Diesel making his up the side of the peloton to the front generally sends alarm bells ringing. From my safe haven at the back of the group I saw Dan moving up and knew things were about to get fast.
It is just 8.7 kilometres (5.4 miles) from Saint Michel to Saint Jean along the Maurienne Valley road. After Diesel set the pace and the group started rotating we averaged 44kph (27mph) along that stretch of road. As Brad hit the front and added yet another injection of speed George was spat out of the back of the group getting battered like a dragonfly in the wind. A couple of others fought to stay on the group as the legs screamed at the high intensity after the massive day of climbing. Only the requirement to turn off the D1006 and in to Saint Jean de Maurienne relieves the frantic pace and provides respite. As we roll gently towards the hotel the mood is good, what a great day in the saddle.
Saturday June 18th: Day Five – Col du Chaussy & Col de la Madeleine
The theme for this cycling break was rain and yet again we woke to a light drizzle falling from the low cloud. Our usual morning check on the weather forecast revealed a mixed bag today. The rain in the morning clearing but a high chance of further heavier showers in the afternoon. High mountains have an unpredictable nature and were experiencing it this week.
It was our final day of cycling so we were all keen despite the roads being damp. The sun had appeared again by the time we reached the bottom of the first climb. The somewhat bizarre Lacets de Montvernier. An engineering eccentricity, so pointless in its nature that it has to be seen to be believed. Only 3.7km in length and with 330m of elevation gain it is not the biggest or hardest climb in the area but it just has to be ridden. It is 18 quick fire hairpins provide a weird rhythm to the climb before opening out to mountain vineyards and a vista like something from the movie Jurassic World.
The Lacets are one of two ways to start the Col du Chaussy ascent and as such there were a steady stream of riders passing us at the cross roads in Montvernier village. We stopped here for a few moments to cool down as the morning sun really was beating down on the sheltered Lacets climb. Most of us decided to splash some cool water from trough over our faces or dunk our caps to provide some relief from the heat. When Pigeon reached our meeting point he proceeded to utilise the trough as a bird bath with a full head submersion.
As we all reflected on the tough start that was the Lacets several groups passed us heading up the mountain. These riders were to become excellent targets or pacemakers for us as we began our own ascent of the Col du Chaussy. Again we snaked our way through woodland and past small holdings farmed for various local produce. Every so often the trees would clear and we were treated to fantastic views of the Maurienne valley below. At one point the road had been cut out of a rocky outcrop creating a cavernous semi tunnel with only a small wall offering protection from the massive drop to our right.
The top of the Col du Chaussy is a bit of a non-event really. A small green sign indicates that you have reached you destination and a log cabin acts as a café. There are no views to speak of and on the day we were there some heavy farm machinery was parked in the café car park. It felt a world away from the festival atmosphere at the top of the Galibier. To compound the subdued feeling the sun had disappeared and we could now see increased cloud cover rolling in over the mountains.
In order to get to the start of the Col de le Madeleine climb we need to descend the north side of the Chaussy. Much like the southern side climbed earlier we pass small holdings and speed through woodland. At one point we cross a brand new bridge over a mountain stream obviously rebuilt after being washed away at some point. The descent from Chaussy terminates at a junction with two options. Left to La Chambre, right on to the climb to Col de la Madeleine.
The clouds have become slightly darker now and there is moisture in the air. An impromptu meeting takes place on the junction to decide our next move. Four are keen to attempt the climb. Five have decided to head down to La Chambre, the events of the Glandon day and the horrific weather still fresh in the mind. Personally I am torn between the two groups but take heed of Crazy Dave and his decision to descend. Dave has the nickname ‘crazy’ for a reason and if he is not taking a risk then in my book you take note. So Brad, Mike, Paul and Sir Dan head off up the mountain. The rest of us drop in to La Chambre for lunch and during the short descent it starts to rain, our decision appears to be justified.
Lunch was a Pizza. Consumed a small takeaway outlet with a few seats inside. We had collected a new member so were now a group of seven. A large party in the same hotel were on the same route as us and one of their riders had decided the Madeleine was going to be too much. True to the OP ethos we took him under our wing and ensured that he had a great ride back to the hotel.
It was sunny when we returned to the hotel and a group of Belgian cyclists were already back. They had ridden a short route today in order to get back and watch their national team play the Republic of Ireland in Euro 2016. The beers were flowing and our group ordered a round in order to toast a successful trip. I just had water, admittedly in a slight sulk that the sun was shining and I chickened out of the Madeleine climb.
After an hour or so I decided that I would head out on the bike again but just as I was sorting myself out the heavens opened scuppering my plan. Brad and Paul returned just as the rain took hold and declared that they had completed the Madeleine and only got wet in the last couple of km back to the hotel. This announcement and their successful climb of the Madeleine did little to lift my mood. As the latest heavy shower eased I prepared myself again, it was a long afternoon to be sat in the hotel. Mike and Sir Dan returned and I stated my intention to ride over to the Lacet again and burn off some of my lunchtime pizza. Surprisingly they wanted to join me.
We left the other seven in the hotel bar watching the football with their new Belgian comrades and headed off to the Lacets. It was sunny again and I finally cheered up. It was the last day of the trip so I wanted to maximise the time on the bike. We climbed the Lacets individually stopping at several points to take photographs. We met up at the same place as on the morning ride but this time heading right and back down towards St Jean. After another small ramp in the road we were treated to an unexpected descending treat in to Hermillon. It was a great moment as we all whooped with joy during the fast, twisty rollercoaster road. At the bottom we all agreed that we had to do it all again so promptly headed back to The Lacets and did it all again.
Back at the hotel the Belgians were happy. A 3-0 win over the Irish triggered celebrations. All ten of us were also happy, having each achieved a great deal during the few days of our alpine adventure. Time to head out for the last dinner of the trip.
Sunday June 19th: Day Six – St Jean de Maurienne to Basingstoke
The Marc Mulley group were packed and ready to go early. They departed around 06:45 on the long drive home. Gary H, Brad, Dave and myself gave ourselves time for breakfast. We were organised too but felt getting some food in the morning was better in order to last the full day. We departed just after 07:30. Much like the journey to the Alps the banter had started on the group Wattsapp with regular updates as to where everyone was on the road.
The Eurostar terminal at Calais was busy, so busy in fact that our early start and subsequent early arrival had been pretty much negated by the time we got on a train. We were still early though having booked the 20:00 train and catching the 19:20. The Mulley group, true to form, had enjoyed their journey through France a bit too much and were 30 minutes behind us. Having been ahead on the road they were behind again.
Back in England it was raining, we had appeared to have bought the weather back with us. The M25 was suitably busy and the M3 frustratingly slow. I got home about 20:45 tired from another long day. I did however have a phone full of photographs and a head full of memories. What a trip that was!