N2A – day 4 – Bourg D’Oisans to St Jean de Maurienne

24 Sep

Here’s the day in summary: CH THRESH 2014 MAP DAY 4

Total distance: 97.2 Km

Total elevation: 3176 m

Total descent: 3317 m

Yes, today was going to be a big one. First up, the “Kim Kardashian” of alpine climbs – Alpe D’Huez – famous for being famous, more than it being a classic Col. 22 hairpins from the valley floor up to the ski station, with no “pass” as such – you have to come back down the same side. It has been in the Tour de France more than just about any other route, sometimes as a brutal, chest bursting time trial. Second climb of the day was Col de Croix de Fer (Pass of the Iron Cross – very apt) – right up there with the hardest Cols in the Alps.

More of that in a moment. We said goodbye to the Hotel BelleDonne – which had given us a good welcome but was by some margin the worst hotel we have stayed on during these trips (to be fair, we had been warned that there aren’t many convenient hotels in the area).   The early group warmed up for 8km along the long, straight main road between the hotel and L’Bourg D’Oisans, the town that sits in the valley between Alpe D’Huez and Les Deux Alpes.

Then, a left turn and an immediate 12% climb to the first hairpin of Alpe D’Huez. The intimidation of those first two hairpins is quite sickening – there is a sign at each one counting down from 22, 21, 20….Thankfully, the following hairpins are marginally less steep – 9-10% – and you get a rhythm going, easing off at each hairpin for a few seconds before getting into the grind in the straight bits.

After 3 turns I stopped to take a couple of photos of the valley bottom shrouded in cloud and let the group go on up without me – I wanted to take it at my own pace.  The first shot below shows the view back towards the hotel and the second just shows through the cloud the road we just came across to the foot of the climb.


After 7 or 8 further hairpins I met up with Gideon, who was riding that day, and he was kind enough to keep me company for the rest of the climb. I asked him to do all the talking, which he obliged, while I just cranked out the pedaling. As for every climb on the trip, I made full use of my 39 front / 32 rear combo (quite often wishing I had and sometimes actually trying to change up to an extra cog at the back), occasionally dropping down to 39/27 to get out of the saddle and use different muscles for a few turns.

Counting down the hairpins, we rose up through Huez village, which is 6km from the top, I was beginning to feel like this was getting monotonous when I recognised the approach to the ski station from the Tour de France coverage, which livened things up again for me.  A short down slope onto the main street (complete with Rapha shop!), then a final left turn onto a wide boulevard where we could see the group and Lee’s food stop set up by the official finish line of the Alpe D’Huez climb. Gideon and I put in a spurt in the big chain ring – not sure where that energy came from – and the group were kind enough to clap us in. Almost automatically I headed for Lee and the freshly boiled kettle for a cup of tea – as soon as you get off the bike you realize how cold it is.

We shared a few stories and took a group photo, before we headed down – the day’s work far from done.


The climb looks more spectacular from the top looking down than it does while you are doing it…..


….not because the views aren’t there, but because you don’t really take it all in when your head is down and you are concentrating on….breath-in-breath-out-turn-turn-breath-in-breath-out-turn-turn.

We had to take a diversion down a lesser-known route to get to the bottom of the next climb. Mark, John and Brian overshot by 2km and had to climb back up to make the turn – so they did more than anyone else that day!

We passed by a viewing spot called Pas de la Confession at 1,542m – which seemed to convey the magnitude of the view….



And then another steep descent to a brief stop where Pete was collecting jackets ahead of the next climb. It was starting to rain, so I swapped the warm jacket for a light waterproof (Castelli – top piece of kit) and Mark and I set forth.

The bottom of the valley felt very damp and dark, and it started to rain in earnest as we started the climb amongst the trees deep between the cliffs. For me, this was the hardest section of the whole trip – long, steep and straight – no hiding from what was to come, and no hairpins to give relief. Plus the weather was miserable and promised worse as we got higher. I read out the profile from my Garmin, when the gradient flattened out to 9% for a few metres but generally it stayed above 10% for at least 4km.

Still, the break was only a third of the way up the mountain….or so we thought. Up, up and up we went…on and on…wondering where the feed stop was going to be. A couple of hairpins emerged…surely around this corner…no…then it must be the next one….no. Eventually, I had to stop and take some calories on board (thank goodness for Haribo!). Another couple of turns and we hit a steep descent – then, I was sure, we’d see Lee’s silver Ford Focus at the bottom and all will be well.

But no….nothing but a brutal 12% straight section and no relief in sight. Then Claude went past and saw the despair on my face – he stopped and gave Mark and I some orange juice and told us the stop was 4km further at a large dam, and the Col another 9km beyond that. Oh sh*t!

Well, we soldiered on and made the dam (very impressive but I was too pooped to take a photo). Lee has set out his stall and we took on a hot drink, fuel and water. I should say also that the weather had improved, so that it was cool but not wet – a blessing.

The other riders were not far ahead, we were told, so Mark and I set off. For me, this was very much a climb of two halves – the first half, horrible and merciless; the second half, less steep and more scenic, and probably easier because the fuel tank was full. There was another short descent – the type you begrudge because you are losing height and that takes you further away from your target – before the final climb to the Col. There must have been a thousand sheep baa-ing in the pastures above the road and there was a cheeky marmot looking at us a few feet off the road as we passed.

Claude was waiting for us at the top and Pete arrived in the van soon afterwards and kindly took a picture of us in front of “the Cross”…


Here’s some of the group arriving earlier in a moody shot taken by Will….

photoIMG_0914 …and Dennis “broken” at the top!

Not far down the other side, we stopped at a ski station for lunch. One of the best lunch stops, with a friendly and enthusiastic husband and wife team and great salad and lasagna. The host was so pleased to have us that he got his camera out to get a shot of the group before we left. Seeing Pete eat outside in the sun with his trademark beanie hat in a deckchair – someone remarked that he could have been on the beach at Blackpool!

After that, another long descent, this time into St Jean de Maurienne – a town we passed through on G2MC before tackling Telegraphe/Galibier – and the Hotel St.Georges.   Before the rain began, we stored the bikes and headed for showers….


Dinner was in what felt like a town hall meeting room down the street from the hotel – the lighting slightly too bright but the food very welcome.

After dinner, Gideon gave his usual briefing of the two-Col last day ahead. The fearsome Col de Madeleine, and a warning not to underestimate the smaller Col just before the finish.

Outside, it was pouring with rain with the odd clap of thunder…not a good sign for the morning.



One Response to “N2A – day 4 – Bourg D’Oisans to St Jean de Maurienne”

  1. Chikashi September 24, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    I didn’t realise you don’t use a compact chainset. You crazy!

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