A few famous climbs of the French Alpes: Col d’Izoard, L’Alpe d’Huez, Col du Telegraph and Galibier

One of the blog-writing challenges during this trip has been and continues to be the overwhelming choice and amount of topics. The posts are long and getting longer and still leave out so much. Having to be selective is frustrating but in order to catch up with the events of the past four weeks, I will try and follow Alberto’s advice and write shorter posts. And I will bunch a few of the famous climbs together into one post.

These four climbs are actually also a little muddled up in my mind the same way the Col de Madeleine, Col de Glandon and Croix de Fer of L’Etape all merged somewhat into one. I’m lying! Each and every climb stands out as fresh in my memory as if I rode it today. But the towns and villages get confused. Did we stay in Briançon when we rode the Col d’Izoard or was that Bourg d’Oisans? And were did we stay when we rode L’Alpe d’Huez? This kind of thing!

From Barcelonnette we drove to Briançon. The anticipation grew as we were slowly making our way towards Albertville, the village depàrt of L’Etape. But we couldn’t just drive pass some of the most famous and fearsome climbs along the way. It was the week before L’Etape, and therefore rest time for L’Etape but how was I supposed to sit in the motorhome and rest? The Col d’Izoard starts just outside Briançon. It was the second time that a local cycling event – this time an individual time trial – gave us the opportunity to climb on closed roads. Alberto was super keen to do the time trial, and it was open to everybody, but after a chat to the guys at the local bike shop, we worked out that the time trial started from Guillestre, the other side of the Izoard. Logistically not impossible, the 80 km drive around the mountain was too much of an effort that evening and the decision was made for Alberto to climb up from Briançon and descend the other side and return over the Col again, while I, wanting to start L’Etape at least somewhat fresh, had to turn around at the top. I would have loved to do both sides, too.

The Izoard is a pretty climb, slowly winding it’s way along the river. There is a village, a church tower and there was a barricade with race officials who stopped all motorists. They clapped and cheered as I manoeuvred through the opening in the barrier just like on La Bonette. Again there were other riders on the road, it was a warm sunny day and I tried to take it easy. But easy was the climbing.

A French couple had told us about the chalet from Napoleon’s times just before the summit that apparently serves the best tarts in the world. Only later that afternoon, when we were driving to Bourg d’Oisans and I asked Alberto whether he had seen the chalet, we regretted not having stopped to confirm the claim. Alas, one more thing to add to the List for next time.

Bourg d’Oisans was packed with cyclists and the camping prices were exorbitant (40 Euros for a night in a camp ground inclusive of Wifi). Fortuntalely, Leon and Martine had given us the insider tip to stay in Allemont, just 11 km further, at the foot of the other side of Col de Glandon. There is a municipal camp ground behind a dam wall and next to a river for a quarter of the prices in Bourg d’Oisans. This camp ground was also packed with cyclists, mainly Dutch, and it didn’t take us long to find out why they where all in the area: La Marmotte – probably one of the toughest cyclosportifs in Europe. The course takes riders over the Col de Glandon and Croix de Fer, then through the Maurienne valley over to the Col de Telegraph and Galibier, down the Lautaret side and it finishes on top of L’Alpe d’Huez. With 175km it is not only longer than L’Etape but with the amount of climbing and calibre of climbs, this is a really tough challenge, maybe one I will also add to the sometime in the future list. Maybe!

If you know this part of France then you probably guessed already that L’Alpe d’Huez was next on our list. It felt rushed, not because we didn’t have the time but because we talked about coming back after L’Etape and do it again. And so we climbed L’Alpe d’Huez on a Wednesday night, quickly before dinner. It was only a short 40km ride from Allemont and I joked how cool it would be to do L’Alpe d’Huez Tuesday mornings as part of your regular training, instead Brisbane’s McAfees. My big ride, the one for which I wanted to be fresh, was going to be that Sunday – plenty of time to recover. The 11km to the bottom gave us an opportunity to warm up and, as agreed, Alberto took off right from the start. I had promised him to take it easy and meet him at the top. But taking it easy was said easier than done!

The climb urges and teases to go fast, to test your legs, to time trial like many others have done before. And that has nothing to do with the plagues at each switchback, which I didn’t have time to read. There is really not much more to say about L’Alpe d’Huez. It is a climb like many others, less scenic maybe. It’s not the highest nor the longest of all climbs but it’s tough(ish) all the way. My legs were fresh from the “resting” I had been doing and for once I hit threshold and stayed there. And then I backed off because I had promised Alberto to take it easy. With L’Alpe d’Huez it’s a funny thing. People ask your L’Alpe d’Huez time as if there is a secret code to judge what level cyclist you are. Everybody knows that Pantani holds the record around 38 minutes and that under an hour puts you up there in the “serious cyclist category”. 1h15′ was the time I had in mind. Don’t ask me why? 1h10′ was a dream to beat. It just sounded like a good time for a 12.5km climb with an average gradient of 8.5%.

36min for the first 6km gave me hope and encouragement that I wasn’t aiming for a ridiculous time but it also made me ponder that Pantani was just about to cross the finishing line. It was really hot and humid. The rain that started with three switchbacks to go came as a welcome relief.

So I didn’t exactly take it easy like I had promised! But I also didn’t go all out like I was planning to do after L’Etape. I didn’t get the opportunity to better my time because our trip took us other exciting ways but I was happy with my time of 1h4’25”, which – at the time – put me in the Strava top ten women. Got to be proud of that!

And with that I was content to seriously recover for L’Etape for the rest of the week.

We tackled Col du Telegraph and Col du Galibier the Saturday after L’Etape. To my great surprise it didn’t take weeks to recover from the heat exhaustion and effort. In fact, by Wednesday we tried a short and easy climb up Col de Mollard from the other side, which was very green with lots and lots of switchbacks and short stretches. My legs were willing companions. By Thursday I was mentally ready to face La Toussuire a second time and even pushed the pace so when Saturday came around, I felt ready for another of the legendary climbs.

The ride from St Jean de Maurienne to St Michel de Maurienne is a flat and short 14km warm up and Col du Telegraph is a great little climb in his own right. Shame it lives in the shadow of the mighty Galibier.

After the very tasty Telegraph entree, we bombed down into Valloire and I regretted not having put my wind jacket on. Despite the warm temperatures, the short 5km downhill stretch was chilly. Valloire was a buzzing ants’ nest in party mood. Life music was playing from a big tent, people in their colourful hiking gear sat at tables outside of cafes and restaurants and the many bike shops offered their rental bikes, mainly mountain bikes, at their shop fronts. But as soon as we had found our way towards the main course Galibier, the serene quietness surrounded us again.

Again, the road climbed gently along the grassy valley in long, straight stretches. Majestic rocky peaks towered above us. Around every bend more straight road further into the valley became visible. It almost looked as if the valley was surrounded by mountains and the road ended by the chalet at the end of the valley. Hikers sat at tables outside the chalet and then I spotted the road taking a sharp right.

From there it crossed over to the other side of the valley and into the mountains up to our right. The views from up there back down into the valley and back towards the road that we had come up minutes earlier are very scenic and gave immediate feedback on how high we actually were. But the roads kept going up higher and higher and the grassy slopes made way for rocky outcrops. There was a chill in the air and before I reached the top I started worrying about the descend with only my windbreaker jacket to protect my sweaty body from the cold air.

We finally reached the tunnel and the pass was visible above us. But it took my brain a few minutes to digest that the couple of steep ramps alongside the bare rock was the road I was meant to ride up. It was one kilometre to the top and I attacked the ramp, only to get almost blown over by the headwind when I came around the last switchback. As if 10% gradient at the end of a long, long climb wasn’t challenge enough, I battled into the wind. I was wondering how important it was to actually ride the last 300m and if I could still claim that I had ridden the Galibier without a Col sign to proof it. Well, I do have the Col photo to proof that I made it and, yes, it was important to ride all the way, even though there is only a little car park at the pass. The views back down to both sides are right up there with those of the Stelvio and the Marmolada.

The descend was as cold and uncomfortable as anticipated. The Hot Chocolate at the chalet certainly helped getting the shivering under control and once my handlebars weren’t in danger of shiver-induced speed wobbles anymore, I loved flying down those straight fast roads towards Valloire and then back down the Telegraph and home.

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3 Responses to A few famous climbs of the French Alpes: Col d’Izoard, L’Alpe d’Huez, Col du Telegraph and Galibier

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great story, Sandra, it is fascinating to read it and you guys are riding the holy grails of cycling. I am back in Brisbane but your blog allow me to relive the climbs of the la touissuire stage Kai and I did just a few weeks ago. Thanks and take care, Thomas rothlisberger

  2. Will says:

    Izoard, ALpe, Galibier, etc. in the same blog post! YOu are living the dream. Congrats.

  3. Vj says:

    Fantastic write up there.Im also from Australia Adelaide,really enjoy reading your blogs great work!

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