This particular white rectangle has a red stripe through it like a Napoleonic sash. The words ‘Bourg-d’Oisans’ are firmly crossed out. You have reached the town limits and it won’t be long until you’ve waved goodbye to flat roads too.
As towns go, Bourg is pleasant but was never going to make the headlines on its own. For that it needed an accomplice, and that accomplice is Alpe d’Huez, the most famous set of hairpins in France, if not the cycling world. So famous that despite getting up with the dawn there is already a loose string of cyclists, from whippets to loaded tourers, filing up the road.
The edge of town is bordered by the Romanche River, which flows a pale grey that perfectly matches the peaks of the mountains in the distance. A roundabout follows and then an EDF industrial plant, another entirely forgettable landmark were it not serving as the official start of the Alpe d’Huez time-trial. To mark this, words of encouragement are spray-painted on the tarmac and the road begins to tip steadily up.
Soon appears the first of the 21 signs positioned at the apexes of each of the Alpe’s switchbacks. Each displays the names of this mountain’s conquerors and the dates of their feats, with this first one, number 21, proudly displaying ‘1952 Fausto Coppi’ and underneath, rather less proudly now, ‘2001 Lance Armstrong’. The sign also declares its own relative height: 806m above sea level.
The pitch becomes severe in a blink. Five more switchbacks come and go in a fug of mid-teen gradients before the names of Pierre Rolland and Joop Zoetemelk appear, stuck up a lamppost at bend 16, outside La Garde village’s stone church.
Some of the riders ahead have stopped already, congregating around a fountain, looking a touch dazed as they top up bidons – this is the last bastion of free water to be found on Huez, and these first six bends are considered the Alpe’s hardest. But as your fellow cyclists re-clip and peel off to the left, you do the opposite and take your leave to the right, following a sign for ‘Auris en Oisans’.
The once wide and well-surfaced road becomes more like a driveway, narrow and patched as it winds through La Garde before trailing off into a valley encased in golden-leafed trees. The trajectory is still very much up – 6%, 8%, 10% – but the bend-numbering signs and their bend-toiling cyclists have disappeared.
You will get to the top of Alpe d’Huez today, but not by the usual means. This is the road less travelled, and it belongs solely to you.
What a day
At 130km with some 3,200m climbing, today’s ride would be a severe stage in even the grandest Grand Tour, so when the road breaks cover from the trees on its right there’s every reason to slow up and smell the Alpine flowers. The barrier preventing cataclysmic departures from the road is concrete and three feet high, which makes the views over Bourg uninterrupted and arresting. This isn’t known as the Auris balcony for nothing. You could sell tickets.
From up here the Romanche has turned from grey to silver and Bourg’s buildings are reduced to scattered gravel dumped into the corner of a great chequer of fields. The drop increases in its vertigo offerings – it would take a service course of knotted tubulars to affect a rescue – but as the road ascends so its tranquillity heightens.
This is the sort of road that brings you level with a bird of prey hovering over the valley floor, itself so quiet you could swear to hearing its feathers ruffling in the thermals.
A black trapezium hoves into view, revealing lighted squares within it. As tunnels go this is a brutalist one, a poured-concrete tent with glass-less windows on its right side, inserted with force into the rock face on its left. But it works to maintain the progress of the road, and also to prevent anyone in a vehicle much bigger than a Transit van using it.
Another equally low-slung, very manmade tunnel comes and goes, followed just metres later by a third. This one is more like it, a much longer bore into the rock, damp, dark and smelling like cellars.
Emerging from the tunnel the road has become impossibly narrow and you’re left wondering how any four-wheeled vehicle up here lives to tell the tale. The road turns around the cliff face so sharply that its continued future is based more on assumption than anything you can see. It may well drop off into vertical nothingness – it’s impossible to know.
One last tunnel and an even narrower surely-that-won’t-support-a-car stretch, and you begin to get the sense the gradient will soon tip back into the negatives.
Villages where livestock outnumber people come and go, the gaps in between bridged by edifying but less beautiful roads than before, which snake along the valley floor before finally arriving at their lowest destination, Lac du Chambon. The road that skirts the banks doubles as the crown of a vast dam, its water placid, nestled so deep in the shadows of the mountains that feed it.
The letters ‘Vallée du Ferrand’ are bolted into the cliffside next to a T-junction, and it’s here you take a sharp left to begin a climb in earnest. If Alpe d’Huez is Jacques Anquetil – bright, brash and famous – the road you’re now riding is Raymond Poulidor, so nearly as accomplished but, for all the proximity, forever in its rival’s shadow. This is the Col de Sarenne, the other way up the Alpe.
Stats compare favourably – 12.8km, 7.5% average, 954m gain and, if it pays to look at such things, while Alpe d’Huez has been climbed nearly 40,000 times, Sarenne has only had 17,000 attempts, says Strava. This is the quiet sibling, and bar one year in the Tour de France, that’s how it has always been.
That year was 2013, the 100th edition of the Tour, so to celebrate race organisers decided to make riders ascend Alpe d’Huez twice. To do this a loop had to be created, and the road you’re now climbing was ridden in reverse as a descent, much to many riders’ chagrin.
Lower down it’s harder to fathom the problem. There’s just enough space for two good lanes; corners are wide and the surface uniform. But as dotted lines turn solid, then turn to a hatched box demarcating the road splitting in two, it begins to make sense as to why Tony Martin decried Stage 18 ‘irresponsible’ and ‘dangerous’. Much like the Auris balcony, the road gets narrower and narrower as the kilometres tick by, its surface cracked like a cake in a too-hot oven.
A technical set of hairpins of dubious quality, leading out of the village of Le Perron, is precisely what the pros railed against. But as a privateer rider taking on this side of the Sarenne as an ascent, the experience is fantastic. Mountains build on mountains, the treeline strips back, your altimeter trips inexorably upwards.
Skimming the top
Across the top of the pass it becomes obvious why it’s necessary to check this road is even open. High up in a place like the Rhône-Alpes, winter snowfall can keep roads closed well into spring, so too early onset snowfall at the tail end of autumn.
On a day like today, a strong summer has obliterated the snow and left only scorched grass. The sky is an equally strong blue and the only whites are wisps of clouds gathered around distant peaks, some so high as to be crusted in snow, others bearing only the illusion, a mixture of polished grey stone and chalky deposits making them appear capped in white.
The zenith of the Col de Sarenne is 1,999m. The air is noticeably more rarefied, the temperature often jacket-worthy even on warmer days, and your wheels are soon much less troubled by gravity. That’s because it’s descending to Alpe d’Huez, whose de facto paved summit sits 139m lower down to the west.
Motionless cable cars overhead indicate the approach of civilisation and soon you’ll find yourself rolling into Alpe d’Huez town, an incongruously built-up mass of high-rise apartments and larch and tile chalets.
You take your leave, observing the signs again on Huez’s switchbacks, being careful all the while of the riders coming up them. You’re now making the descent of Alpe d’Huez’s final six bends.
The kilometres fizz by as the road falls away, at first straightened then suddenly in a flurry of hairpins. Another lake awaits at the end, Lac du Verney, and ahead lies another gemlike climb.
This is the Col du Sabot, a sleeping giant that tops out at 2,100m after a 14.5km ascent set to the gentle dong of cowbells. Its slopes turn to gravel, and the effect is desolate enough to feel brilliantly otherworldly. On a clear day the Col de la Croix de Fer is visible to the north, if not reachable by bike – this is a literal road to nowhere.
If Tony Martin had words about Col de Sarenne, he would have been apoplectic about descending the Col du Sabot, whose technical nature can turn treacherous to the unwary.
The gravel, while happily negotiable on 25 or 28mm tyres, can appear at times overwhelming, and even when the road smoothes back into tarmac it is still tarmac in its loosest sense, and still just as narrow, if not feeling even more so at speed. Still, that’s half the fun. The sight lines are good and it’s unlikely you’ll see another road user besides a scurrying marmot.
Past Lac du Verney, heading south, the road is a pleasant enough spin on a path parallel to the Romanche River, just visible here and there behind a curtain of trees. It’s a sedate way back to Bourg, and that might fit just fine – it has been 110km already, after all. But heading straight for home now would be to miss one last trick. It’s another out and back, but one entirely worth the self-negating detour.
Where the Auris balcony and Cols Sarenne and Sabot were narrow, this ride up to the tiny village of Oulles is best described as ‘compact’. Its initial hairpins toil upwards like neat stacks of rope before stretching to a final plateau at just shy of 1,500m.
Oulles is not the most testing climb here, far from it. But then that’s the point of this ride: to let Alpe d’Huez draw in the other cyclists to let you enjoy the surrounding spoils in near-isolation. And what spoils they are: higher, longer, steeper and much more arresting. They’re still going to hurt, mind.
The rider’s ride
AX Lightness Vial Evo, €6,500 (this 2014 build), benobikes.com
German carbon fibre specialist AX Lightness has undergone some re-jigging of late, and its bikes now appear under the name Benotti. However the model families endure, so while this particular Vial Evo is now discontinued, a revised Benotti Vial Evo Ultra 2 exists in its place. What unites Vial Evo bikes is a pursuit of the light weight, hence the eschewing of disc brakes (although disc brake versions do exist) and a 700g frame at the Vial’s heart.
Here that frame is built up with Sram Red into a 5.8kg bike – not bad considering these Mavic Cosmic SSC wheels weigh north of 1,650g, albeit what they lose out on in weight they make up for in aluminium brake track reliability, all the better to cope with reining in your speed on long, hot descents.
The geometry is relatively neutral – not too long, not too low, not too aggressive – and for such a light frame the bike is good and stiff for punchy climbs. A sloping top tube leaves plenty of seatpost stuck out to flex comfortably, and as such this bike is perfect for rides such as this one. It’s light, climbs superbly and is comfortable for long, arduous days.
Cycling’s most famous hill
Alpe d’Huez is here so you’ll probably want to ride it…
Alpe d’Huez. World debut 1952. First rider over: Fausto Coppi, 45min 22sec. Twenty-one infamous bends, 32 immortal appearances and counting at the Tour. Featured twice in back-to-back stages in 1979 and climbed twice in one stage in 2013. Fastest rider over (notwithstanding certain kinds of ‘help’ and contentions over the climb’s true length): Marco Pantani, 36min 50sec.
However you cut it, this is one legendary climb, and any rider about to attempt it can expect the following: the start is at the EDF building outside Bourg d’Oisans, the finish at the main car park in Alpe d’Huez town.
The first six hairpins are considered the hardest, although this is actually a pretty consistent climb with few surprises – even in the apexes of switchbacks the gradient rarely troubles 15%. It’s also busy and the views are by no means the best in the area. Still, this climb has the feel of greatness, and is certainly one for the scrapbook.
How we did it
The greenest way to travel to Bourg d’Oisans is via train, taking the Eurostar from London to Paris then the TGV direct to Grenoble. From Grenoble it’s a case of an hour’s bus or car journey, or private pick-up. See alp-venture.com for some competitive transfer rates. Flying is the other option, with Lyon and Geneva airports a 2h and 2h 45min car journey away respectively.
We stayed with cyclotour operator Cycling Ascents, which offers self-catered and B&B accommodation in a beautifully converted old schoolhouse in Bourg d’Oisans, itself the perfect base for tackling a host of other mountains in the area, from the Galibier to the Croix de Fer. Prices start from €126pn in a chalet sleeping up to six. See cyclingascents.com.
Our warmest thanks to Kevin Smith of Cycling Ascents for putting together this route and riding it with his friend Chris Wall. Cycling Ascents offers accommodation, guided and self-guided tours and training camps from its base in Bourg d’Oisans. Thanks also to Lee from Alpventure, who drove our photographer Dan around for the day.
• This article originally appeared in issue 115 of Cyclist Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Tags: Best Bike Rides