The French Alps
Martin Harris

September is here and that means that the kids go back to school and I drive off to the French Alps for a week of cycling adventure. This year I am back at the King of the Mountains, a lodge run by Helyn & Guy located at le Riviere d'Ornon close to to the top of the Col d'Ornon, which is just a few minutes' drive up from Bourg d'Oisans They have converted the old school into a guest house and is an ideal place to stay. There are various options to travel but I chose to drive; up early, breakfast on the 7:25 ferry and a 600 mile drive from Calais. I was there in by 18:30 and was very pleased to hear that Tartiflette was on the menu for dinner that night - I would need the energy for tomorrow's ride.

Day 1 - Alpe d'Huez, Col de Sarenne & Les Deux Alpes
A big day, so I drove down to Bourg for the ascent of the famous Alpe d'Huez. This is my 5th ride up the Alpe and I am glad to say that I set my best time of 1:13:27 - not as quick as Martin Sutton a couple of years back but a 30 second improvement on my last effort. The Alpe is always busy, but the other way off the mountain is quiet. The Col de Sarenne tops out at 1,999m and was used in this year's tour, with Tony Martin one of the riders not happy about the descent. Since I last rode this route, the surface has been improved but it is a long, narrow and bumpy descent with no barriers. Care is needed!
After descending through Mizoen to the Barrage du Chambon, I then climbed up the other side of the valley to the huge resort of Les Deux Alpes and returned via the narrow 'balcony' road via Bons.

Alpe D'Huez - 1,071m climbing, average 8.1%
Col de Sarenne - ~300m climbing from Alpe d'Huez
Les Deux Alpes - 608m climbing, average 6.2%

Day 2 - La Berarde, Oulles & Col d'Ornon
Today I left the car behind and climbed the valley to the mountaineering resort of La Berarde. Arm-warmers on for the descent to Bourg, then 5km on the flat to Les Clapiers before ascending the valley of the Veneon. La Berarde is at about 1,700m so this is a 1,000m climb in 22km but most of the climbing is done before the village of St Christophe with a flat 11km at the end. La Berarde is a strange place out of season - there is a whole street of bars & cafes but only a handful of cyclists and hikers taking advantage. The setting is just stunning; a steep valley leading up towards glacier-capped mountains, proof that you don't need to rise to 2,000m and beyond for great scenery.
After lunch at La Berarde, I descended back to Bourg and near the foot of the climb up Col d'Ornon I took the 7km detour to Oulles. Oulles is the remnants of a mining village, there are now only about a dozen residents who face a narrow road with a 10% gradient for most of the way. It really must be one of the daftest places to live in Western Europe. By now the temperature was in the 90s and there was no breeze - this 7km climb took me almost an hour. The strange thing is the quality of the road - it is frozen in winter, baked in summer, serves a dozen residents and is almost immaculate. You may not agree with the French attempts to preserve rural life but they sure know how to build a road. The road engineers of Essex could do with an educational trip here.
After Oulles, I continued up the Col d'Ornon to le Riviere and a welcome drink after 5 in the saddle and over 2,000m of climbing.

La Berarde -~1,000m climbing from Bourg
Oulles - 745m climbing from Bourg, most of it in the final 7km
Col d'Ornon - ~650m climbing to the top from Bourg, about 500m to Le Riviere

Day 3 - Col du Telegraph & Col du Galibier
A drive over the Cols du Glandon and Croix de Fer to leave the car in St Michel de Maurienne to tackle the mighty Col du Galibier from the Telegraph side, the same way that Russel Whitford rode in the Marmotte, but he cycled the Glandon rather than driving it! St Michel is just over 700m above sea level and though The Col du Telegraph is 'only' 1,566m, it is still a climb of over 800m in less than 12km, averaging almost 7.5% so has to be treated with respect, especially with the Galibier to follow. The climb is pleasant through the forest and fairly steady and I reached the Col in 1hr 10 minutes. There is then a 160m descent into Valloire before a 1,240m climb in 17km to the Galibier. Again the average is over 7%. This was another perfect day, too perfect. Not a cloud in the sky, heading due south up the Galibier on a baking hot day. As they would say on Masterchef, 'cycling doesn't get tougher than this' (well maybe all 3 ascent of Zoncolan during an Italian heatwave....). The first half to Plan Lachet is tough, time for a quick stop to refuel before the last 8km that never relents - 8%+ all the way. Past the goat's cheese farm, past the photographer, past the entrance to the tunnel and finally the last km to the summit. It took me 2 hours cycling time (plus photo stops) from the Telegraph so 3hrs 10mins for the whole ride. All the effort is worth it, the views are just fantastic. Then the descent back to the car and another 2,000+m climbing day is over.

Col du Telegraph (from St Michel) - 856m climbing, average 7.3%
Col du Galibier (from Valloire) - 1,241m climbing, average 7.3%
Col du Telegraph (from Valloire) - 165m climbing, average 3.3%

Day 4 - Col du Glandon /  Croix de Fer & Col d'Ornon
Another car-free day so a quick descent to Bourg, a bit of flat to Allemond and then the climb of the Col de la Croix de Fer, with the bonus of the Glandon thrown in. The climb starts with some switch-backs up the face of the barrage (dam) in Allemond followed by a steep, but steady climb through the forest to Le Riviere d'Allemond. You reach 1,276m at this point but then descend 100m as the road crosses the valley. Then by way of apology for taking away some of that height you have gained, the road gives it back to you at 12%. The grade slackens a little and you then reach the base of the Barrage de Grand Maison (the French are big into hydro-electric), some switchbacks take you up the side of the valley and then all the effort is worth it. The view here is just stunning; snow-capped peaks rise above a green-blue lake as the road twists away further up the valley. There is another 70m descent before the road junction at around 1,900m. Turn left for a 25m ascent to the Col du Glandon, with views to Mont Blanc. But amazingly it gets better; back on to the main road for the 2.5km push to the Col de la Croix de Fer, at 2,067m with views dominated by snow-capped peaks, including the jagged lines of the Les Aigles d'Arves. This is the best place to enjoy a plate of chips and a cold coca-cola.
If that wasn't enough I had the 500m climb back to Le Riviere d'Ornon making it another 2,000m day. On the descent I saw Helyn & Guy who were enjoying a mid-week ride - well you have to if you live here.

Col de la Croix de Fer - ~1,550m climbing (including all the undulations and the Glandon)
Riviere d'Ornon - ~500m climbing

Day 5 - Villard-Reculas, Pas de la Confession, Huez, La Garde, Auris,  Le Freney d'Oisans & Col d'Ornon
A day to explore some of the lesser known roads of the area; the balcony roads of Oisans. These are narrow roads, high up the valley sides offering amazing views across the valley. Not for the faint hearted. This was another day without the car and started the same as yesterday; descend down to the N91 (now renamed the D1091) and towards Allemond, but before reaching the village I headed right for Villard-Reculas and the third way up Alpe d'Huez. The road winds up the hill side over looking Allemond and the Lac de Verney before magically appearing three quarters of the way up the cliff face overlooking the Romanche Valley. Soon Villard-Reculas is reached and time for a morning coffee before riding the very narrow road to Huez - the Pas de la Confession. The views over the valley were just breathtaking. After reaching Huez at bend 6, I descended past Dutch Corner to La Garde and at bend 16 took the second balcony road towards Auris. This was even narrower than the previous road, perilously clinging the rock face way above the Romanche Valley. You wonder why these roads were built in the first place - so much engineering for so little traffic. The road climbed steadily to Auris and then a fast descent to Le Freney before joining the main road and the descent back to Bourg.
After lunch in Bourg, I did consider the climb to Villard Notre-Dame. I have driven this road a few years ago and can safely say that it is the scariest road that I have ever seen; steep and narrow with low barriers and unlit unlined tunnels. But I was conscious of another big day tomorrow so decided to return back to base, but this time would go the extra 3km to the top of the Col d'Ornon. It turned out to be a good decision not to include the extra climb as I bonked a couple of km from Le Riviere. Rather shaky by the time I reached base, I pulled in for some much-needed nutrition before continuing the climb to the top of the Col. I was saved by some cake and some of Alice's (Helyn & Guy's daughter) Haribo sweets.

Huez via Villard-Reculas- 820m climbing, average 5%
Auris - 625m climbing, average 5.25%
Col d'Ornon - 650m climbing, average 5.25%

Day 6 - Col du Mollard & Col du Glandon
My final day and the choice between the Galibier via the Lauteret or the Glandon from the Maurienne valley, with the bonus of the Col du Mollard thrown in. As much as I like the Lauteret / Galibier combination, I have done that before so the Mollard and the Glandon it is, both new climbs to me. In the car today, I drive to the top of the Glandon, cycled up the Croix de Fer and then descended through the ski resorts of St Sorlin d'Arves & St Jean d'Arves before taking the 7.5km climb to Albiez Montrond via the Col du Mollard. A quiet road leading up to a small ski-resort with some great views over the peaks above La Toussuire then a long descent into St Jean de Maurienne. Rain was forecast for the afternoon, so rather than stop for lunch in St Jean, I pressed on to St Etienne des Cuines at the base of the Glandon. What I didn't realise was quite how low I would be, around 450m, giving a climb of almost 1,500m to the summit. This on day 6 - even the grand tours don't have 6 consecutive mountain stages. There wasn't much open in St Etienne so an energy bar was had before the start of the climb proper. The lower section of the Glandon, being in a narrow valley, does not have the classic beauty of other climbs, but is a steady climb to the village of St Colomban des Villards at an average above 7%. Nothing much doing in St Colomban (this is the one disadvantage of the quieter valleys after the school holidays) so another energy bar before the second half of the climb. By now the scenery has improved but so has the gradient, the flat section through the village being repaid with the gradient now rarely dipping below 8% this is tough. The final 3km are just brutal but the finish line is in sight. What a way to finish the week; one of the most famous HC climbs and I made it to the top before the rain fell too!

Croix de Fer from Glandon - 160m climbing, average 6%
Col du Mollard - 403m climbing, average 6.8%
Col du Glandon - 1,472m climbing, average 7%

Villard-Reymond & Col do Saulude
Well that was not quite it, driving back up the Col d'Ornon I took the turn for Villard-Reymond; a 10km narrow road clinging to the cliff edge (sound familiar?) A short walk through the village and up to the Col du Saulude. Mountain bikers may know this as it is part of a track leading to Villard Notre-Dame. The view from the Col is fantastic - each bend of the road leading up the Alpe d'Huez and the balcony roads are clearly visible. Time to reflect on the week; excellent weather, fantastic riding and great hospitality from Helyn & Guy (& Alice). I am already dreaming of next years' trip.

Photo Gallery

View of the Alpe d'Huez from Col du Saulude - the 21 bends go straight up the middle.
The road from Villard-Reculas can be seen in the upper left quadrant

Further reading
Nick Khan and Mont Ventoux
Russel Whitford and the 2013 Marmotte
The Pass del Stelvio, Annecy-Semnoz and Le Tour de France
Nick Khan & Martin Harris in the French Alps
The Stelvio Pass & Mont Ventoux
4 Wheelers in The French Alps
Martin Harris & Mike O'Kill in The French Alps
Martin Harris in The French Alps
 

 


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