We challenged keen cyclists Jim, Andy and Simon to see if their mountain biking skills could cut it on some of France’s most famous climbs. Andy kept a daily diary to share the cycling highs and lows of the trip...
I've been mountain biking for 22 years and have not done any serious road cycling apart from my daily 10-mile commute. So a weekend road biking with a few mates on some of the most famous Tour de France routes was somewhat daunting.
Still, how hard can it be? ‘Let’s do Alpe d’Huez first then, Andy.’ Yeah, great idea guys...
Being designated driver from Geneva to Bourg d’Oisans meant that I was a little tired on Saturday morning. A tip, hire your car from the Swiss Sector of the airport; it makes for an easier exit and re-entry.
Saturday morning dawned – as did the task ahead – with a bang. That happened to be the advanced party knocking on the door wondering why we weren't up and ready to ride yet. It was 7.30am, that's why.
After a quick brew we were away and into town to collect our hire bikes*. I’d recommend bringing your own pedals, shoes, helmet and saddle; you'll regret not doing so by the 3rd bend of the climb.
An hour of “faffing” (technical term meaning to adjust and readjust your bike 15 times in the car park) and away we went – for breakfast that is. Croissant, strong tea and an energy gel – the perfect start for a 14km relentless climb of over 1000 metres.
We started a half km warm up on a flat road out of Bourg d’Oisans and BOOM: 12% gradient from bend 21 to 19 (the switchbacks are in reverse order as you go up, making the ride the world’s slowest countdown).
By bend 18 it settles down to 7% average and you start to get a rhythm in your legs. In third gear and feeling surprisingly okay! We made a quick stop for photos then pushed on – the other 4 were ahead of me by then!
Bend 17: I passed Simon. Sights set on Jim up ahead. Caught his wheel, quick breather and away on bend 13. Now Adrian who was 2 bends away. Catch him and sit up for a couple of km through the village of Huez then kick as I can see Neil up ahead, closer than I expected. Eventually caught up with him on bend 3. I was in the red zone, feeling the height and heat. Managed to stay with Neil to the finish. Well chuffed!
After a quick water refill, it was time for the Col de Sarenne, 1999 metres above sea level and the start of a mental downhill – if road biking was this much fun back home I might convert to skinny tyres!
A very quick sprint along the main road brings Bourg d’Oisans into view, where pizza and a cheeky beer were waiting. A couple of the guys ordered soft drinks – yellow card offence! Simon decided he needed a new shirt, which meant 30 minutes of man shopping. Red card!
A refreshing evening of isotonic lager and great food in the parc’s restaurant (with the obligatory micky taking) was followed by a very, very sound night’s sleep.
Legs felt good, head not so. Col du Glandon today, which is French for ‘I'm going to die’.
A proper warm up this time, 7km on flat roads before the climb after the first reservoir. Then it's – you've guessed – up. And up and up, then down, then up again, then down a bit, then really up. But what a view! Beautiful alpine pastures with the cliché cowbells ringing in the distance, picturesque villages with little bakeries and big views to the North. Poetic stuff indeed!
We stopped for a photo at the top, next to the road sign signalling 1924 metres and a giant bicycle sculpture which I've seen on so many La Tour finishes. Magic, big grins all round!
Now the fun part, going back down...Adrian clocked 48.9mph; we're overtaking everything else on the road. Other riders, cars, vans, you name it. I start to get cramp in my hands from braking. In no time at all we're back on site for a quick shower and into town for a fantastic meal and a few more energy drinks.
We cycled back to the hire shop and indulged in a spot of souvenir buying before the drive back to Geneva. We got stung with a £28 vignette on the Swiss border, hence the tip to hire the car from the Swiss part of the airport or take a 45 min detour through the French part of the city.
All in all, an amazing experience. Bragging rights in the pub are off the scale. A later summer boost to fitness and a desire to repeat again and again. Euro-Col bagging par excellence!