2015 Tour of the Alps

September is here and it is now time for my traditional week in the French Alps. This year I am back with Guy and Helyn at King of the Mountains, a converted old school building in the hamlet of Riviere d'Ornon a few miles from Bourg d'Oisans, the home of alpine cycling. It is a 600 mile drive from Calais but easily do-able in a day but as well as the long established Bike Express coach service and flights to Lyon or Grenoble, you can now catch a train direct from London to Lyon leaving a short connection to Grenoble and the bus to Bourg. Something to think about for next year.

Day 1 - Alpe d'Huez &  Col du Sarenne and Les Deux Alps
Where else to start but the Alpe. An hour and a quarter of pain and then the holiday begins! I did think that I may be on course for beating my best time of 1:13:27, but sadly age is catching up with me and I couldn't even beat 1:15 Not sure of my exact time, was around 1:15:30 but I had lost interest by then, thinking more about the coffee stop and the rest of the day.
The Alpe was its usual busy self but the Sarenne, though busier than previous years, was still a lot quieter. This is my favourite part of today's ride; climb out of the resort, a drop down on the road that is Europe's longest black ski run in winter and then a climb up to the Col at 1999m. The descent offers awesome views of the Ecrin Mountains, but the road is a little rough, gravelly (is that a word?) and steep with no barriers so you must concentrate. But it is still probably safer than riding through Leigh on a Saturday morning.
After descending to the Barrage below Mizoen, it is time for another 600m of climbing to the resort of Les Deux Alpes and a plate of chips for lunch before riding back down the Bons balcony road to Bourg. Over 2000m of climbing in total.

Day 2- Cols du Glandon & Croix de Fer and Villard-Reculas / Pas de la Confession
A big day of climbing today with about 2500m in total. The climb up to the Croix de Fer is a favourite of mine. A 25 minute warm up from Bourg to Allemond, past the first dam and along the lake before climbing through the forest to Riviere d'Allmond. Here the road drops about 150m before climbing back up at 12% until a couple of switch-backs are reached. Here you climb up the valley side to be above the level of the water held back by the mighty Barrage de Grand Maison. The road undulates before settling in to the final section of the climb. 2.5km from the Croix de Fer, you have a short sprint up to the Col du Glandon (1924m) offering views to Mont Blanc before the final push to the Croix de Fer at 2067m and a well earned lunch.
The day was not over though, after descending back to Allemond, I rode up to Villard-Reculas. Last time I rode this it was the first climb of the day so I found it very enjoyable. This time the pleasing glimpses of the Lac du Verney were somewhat offset by weary legs but eventually the final corner was reached leaving just the gentle amble up to Villard-Reculas. A quick stop to take in the scenery before continuing to the high points at the Pas de la Confession at 1542m and a gentle descent into Huez before a faster drop down into Bourg, courtesy of 16 of the most famous hairpin bends in cycling.

Day 3 - Villard-Reymond, Col du Solude & Villard-Notre-Dame and Maronne / Le Rosey-Chatelard
For a change I brought two bikes with me this year; the Madone for the road stages and my new Gary Fisher inspired Trek Dual Sport. A hybrid with 63mm front suspension, disk brakes and a triple drive chain. Not a mountain bike but one well suited for the unmade roads onto which I was venturing today.
I started with a short roll down the hill to Ornon (Pont des Oulles) for the unmade track to Villard-Reymond. There is a 'proper' road to Reymond from La Pallud further down the valley but I was keen to ride the abandoned road, mainly as there are two tunnels.
The surface started poor but was easily handled by the Dual Sport but after exiting the first tunnel I was in a stretch that had to be walked due to the number of fallen trees. This is not a road that is going to be re-opened in a hurry. After the second tunnel I was back on the bike for the short climb up to Villard-Reymond and the Col du Solude. The Col offers a great view over the valley to Alpe d'Huez, Pas de la Confession and the Auris balcony road.
After the Col it was a gravel road down to Villard-Notre-Dame. Possible on a road bike, but not recommended. Notre-Dame is a village of just 42 people but if you have seen the road down to Bourg then you will think that it is 42 too many. It is a properly surfaced road starting in the forest but soon clings to the cliff edge high above the valley floor. The barriers are almost non-existent and there are some unlined and unlit tunnels to navigate - one over 600m long with a 90 degree bend. Not for the faint hearted. Imagine driving that every day.
After reaching Bourg, it was time for a quick lunch before riding up to La Garde at bend 16 (the first bend is number 21) and then turning onto the Auris balcony road. I have ridden this all the way to Le Freney before but today it was as far as L'Armentier for the climb up to Maronne / Le Rosey- Chatelard. This could be done on a road bike but there was so much gravel that the descent was much steadier with the bigger tyres and disc brakes of the Dual Sport. The road is the other side of the River Sarenne to the Alpe d'Huez but at the top it was easy to see how the ski areas interlink.
Final climb of the day was back up the Col d'Ornon for a well deserved recovery drink.

Day 4 - La Berarde and Col du Cloy
Another day without the car, roll down to Bourg for the climb to La Berarde, deep in the Ecrin Mountains. Most of the climbing is done by the time that you reach St Christophe leaving a lovely ride, high up the valley side eventually meeting the river again at La Berarde. The scenery here is just stunning. Snow-capped mountains and hiking trails leading to refuges high in the sky. The town itself is one street of bars and restaurants that look slightly lost out of season, with just a handful of hikers and bikers taking advantage.
The descent to Bourg is fast and the climb back up to Riviere d'Ornon was a lot easier today on the Madone than yesterday on the Dual Sport.

Night Ride - the Col du Cloy. This was possibly the highlight of the week. After dinner, Guy drove us up to Huez and guided me along some sections of single track and gravel road to the Col du Cloy at 1600m. The single track descent straight off the Col was a little technical and at times I was wishing that I had my mountain bike but this was a fantastic experience. The ride back to Huez also featured some single track sections; I did get off and walk a couple of short parts but would love to do some more night riding. It was a round trip of about an hour and a half, still had plenty of life in my front light battery. You wouldn't want to lose your light here - there were no street lights to back you up. The church at Dutch Corner was lit up beautifully and was just visible on the last of the off-road sections.

Day 5 - Col du Sabot, Lac Bessan, Col du Cloy and Col du Maronne
The Dual Sport was out again today as the route features some more unmade roads (some from last night!).
First up was a drive to Vaujany and then a ride up to the Col du Sabot. Listed as both 2100m and 2130m, this was to be the highest point of this year's tour (what, no trip up the Galibier?). The road surface is good enough for a road bike and the other climbers of the day were all on such machines. This is not a popular climb as it doesn't lead anywhere, it just ends at a very small car park but the views are amazing. The climb up is long and twisting but as you get higher the view down the valley keeps getting better and better. At the top you can look down the other side to the road up to the Glandon & Croix de Fer and the Lac du Grand Maison.

For the second part of the day I drove up to Alpe d'Huez (via Villard-Reculas & the Pas de la Confession) for lunch and the short ride to Lac Bessan over the little known Col du Poutrain. A lovely picnic spot but today was not the weather for hanging around. There was a path from here back to the foot of the Col du Sabot - the hiking options around here are pretty good, especially in the height of summer when the cable cars are running but this is France and the fun police close everything down when the schools go back....

After Lac Bessan I then rode most of the way to the Col du Sarenne before taking a gravel road to Col du Cloy. Some of this was the same as the route ridden last night. It looked a bit different in the daylight. Rather than take the single track descent, I took another gravel track that went around the mountain to the Col du Maronne, a couple of kilometres up from the end of Day 3 ride. It is only when you are on these gravel tracks that the full size of the ski area becomes apparent with smaller resorts all feeding in to the playground that is Alpe d'Huez in winter.

Day 6 - Lacets de Montvernier and Col de la Croix de Fer
And that was it, my last day was upon me but perfect weather and a stunning ride made it a special day. I started by driving up to the Col du Glandon before taking a fast and cold descent to St Marie des Cuines (last year's base camp). The ride along the valley warmed me up before the short but spectacular climb of the Lacets de Montvernier; 18 hairpin bends in less than 4km. The climb itself was straight forward but this is a section of road like few others (have a look at the Col du Turini, famous from the Monte Carlo Rally for something similar).
A short climb to Col du Ventour at Le Chalet before dropping into Saint Jean du Maurienne for the final climb of the week, the north face of the Col de la Croix de Fer. The official stats of 30km long, 1522m height gain and an average gradient of 5.1% do not tell the whole story for there are two sections where you descend giving you 200m  more climbing and 7 lost kilometres. The real stat is more like 1700m in 23km at around 7%. By now the temperature had risen and the effect of days in the saddle were beginning to tell. The hardest section was probably in the final resort of Saint Sorlin d'Arves but the final 5km above the ski resort on the narrow road to the Col were just stunning. What a way to end this year's trip.

6 mountain day and a bonus night stage; even the organisers of the Vuelta would raise their eyebrows at this itinerary. And you thought that Matt had it tough in his 24 hour TT......

My thanks once again to Helyn and Guy (and their other guests) for great accommodation and brilliant food and the bonus night ride. Unfortunately this will be the last time that I can stay at King of the Mountains as they are closing it down to concentrate on their transfers business. I have had 4 great weeks with them over the years and wish them all the best for the future but will be back to the Alps soon, indeed I am already thinking about how many bikes I need to take next year....

Martin Harris
September 2015

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