A week in the French Alps

18 months after joining the Southend Wheelers it was time to see whether the regular training rides had improved my cycling sufficiently to tackle 5 days of Alpine riding. After a quick internet search, I booked to stay at the King of the Mountains in Riviere D'Onon just 10km from Bourg D'Oisans the town at the foot of the famous Alpe D'Huez.

The King of the Mountains is a small lodge run by Helyn & Guy who offer great hospitality and are highly recommended should you wish to visit the area. There are various travel options available - fly (Grenoble, Chambery, Geneva or Lyon), train (Eurostar & TGV via Lille or Paris) or drive.  I chose to drive, as with an early ferry and driving via the autoroutes, Bourg D'Oisans is easily reached in a day. This is a 650 mile drive with 70 euros in peage, but flexibility of having my car allowed me to venture further afield.

Day 1 - The Alpe D'Huez and Col de Sarenne
Where else to start but the famous Alpe itself and the legendary 21 virages. Doubtless many Wheelers have ridden this before, both faster than me and on heavier bikes but for now the Official Southend Wheeler's Alpe D'Huez record is 1 hour and 17 minutes (to the tourist office rather than the full tour route)
Rather than descend back down the same road, I returned via the summer-only Col de Sarenne; a lovely quiet ride taken me up the Romanche valley via Clavans and Mizoen.

Day 2 - The Col du Glandon & Col de la Croix de Fer
A punishing ascent through the forest to le Riviere d'Allemont rewards you with stunning views over the mountains, enhanced by the artificial lake created by the huge Grand Maison barrage. My only complaint was that I didn't see any Marmottes, other than that this was a perfect day. Ideal weather, hard climbing and a fast descent, what more could you want?
Day 3 - The Col Lauteret & Col du Galibier
The first three miles from Bourg are flat, but then the fun begins with a 22 mile climb up the Lauteret. Despite being the main road from Grenoble to Briancon, traffic was light and the scenery stunning. Above the village of La Grave, the glaciers of the high Ecrins are clearly visible to the South. I re-fuelled with a plate of chips at the Lauteret and then began the final 5 miles to the summit of the mighty Galibier. At 2,645m the views are stunning and well worth the effort. Tired legs are soon forgotten - I didn't turn a pedal in anger for 20 miles. You just don't get rides like this back home!

Day 4 - La Berarde
A ride up the Veneon valley to La Berarde proves that you don't need to climb to 2,000m and beyond for stunning scenery. The ride was a steady climb, with a couple of very steep sections, to the community of La Berarde, deep in the Ecrins National Park. This is a favourite place for walkers and climbers, with hikes to several refuges available. Probably not a good idea in cycle shoes, but the descent back to Bourg was both fast and enjoyable.
Day 5 - The Col d'Izoard
I drove to Briancon for an attack up the Izoard, another monster Col at 2,360m. The ascent from Braincon is steady all the way, averaging 4% to Cervieres and then 8% to the summit. I had planned to descend the southern side and loop back to Briancon via the Guil valley and Guillestre, however the clouds were approaching from the south and some rain started to fall. Slick tyres and wet descents are not an attractive option so I returned to Briancon for lunch and a visit to the citadel. This day just proves that in the high mountains you need to prepare for the weather changing very quickly. I soon donned my arm-warmers and gillet, but the descent was very cold until I returned to sunlight near Cervieres.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed by 5 days cycling in the Alps. Mountain weather can be unpredictable, but was almost perfect  this time. The hospitality given by Helyn & Guy (and their other guests) was outstanding, as were all the meals. This time I travelled alone, but hope to persuade other club members to accompany me next time - I still have the unfinished business of the Cols du Telegraph, Mollard and Isere! I chose early September for my holiday but anytime from June to September are fine (in May the high passes may not be open). The months of July and August will be busier due to the school holidays, but the chair-lifts and cable cars are running which open up further possibilities.

Martin Harris
September 2009