What’s it like to cycle up Alpe d’Huez?
Whenever you think of the Tour de France do you think of those grueling mountains climbs with hordes of spectators lining the route? Do you picture those snaking mountain climbs such as Alpe d’Huez with its recent great stage winners of Pantani and Shleck? Did you know you can cycle up this mountain yourself? Wait? What? You can cycle up the 21 bends too? Well yes you can and this is what it’s like!
Back in the Summer my girlfriend and I were making plans for a one week break when the idea of cycling up Alpe d’Huez came about. Some of her friends had done it before and we’d heard their mixed stories of how “enjoyable” it was. So without further ado we thought we’d have a go ourselves, preceded by a couple of nights each in Lyon and Grenoble after starting out on the train from London’s St Pancras station.
We let the train/bus/taxi take the strain!
- Eurostar from London St Pancras > Paris Gare de Nord
- Taxi from Paris Gare de Nord > Paris Gare de Lyon
- Train from Paris Gare de Lyon > Gare de Lyon Part Dieu
- FlixBus from Lyon > Grenoble Central Station
- Bus 3020/3030(?) from Grenoble Central Station > Le-Bourg D’Oisans
- Bus 3020/3030(?) from Le-Bourg D’Oisans > Huez – La Village / Alpe d’Huez
I knew enough about the mountain before our trip but maybe I could have read this book called ‘Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb’ on the train on the way down. In the end I read it after the trip instead.
Some Alpe d’Huez facts
So how do you go about it? Well we hired bikes from Cycle Huez who are situated at the top of Alpe d’Huez itself, booking them way in advance as I wanted a size ‘S’ frame to my girlfriend’s ‘M’. The bikes on offer were fantastic carbon fibre Wilier Triestina GTR Gran Turismos with Ultegra groupsets. We took our own pedals and shoes and borrowed their helmets/saddle stuffers. I’d have happily settled with my Kona Kilauea mountain bike from back home with its slick tyres but wowsers, this was one serious piece of kit. You really notice how well €2,500 of proper bike rides, especially uphill! I’m converted. Something I would later tell Cadel Evans about when I cycled with him around East London!
Our accommodation was Hôtel L’Ancolie, which lies in the village of Huez, 5 bends from the top so we were thankful that Cycle Huez offered us the bikes the night before, storing them in the hotel’s locked underground garage. We went in mid-September so neither the village’s cable car or hotel’s shuttle bus was were running so it was a 45 minute walk up to the main resort of Alpe d’Huez. Also there was very little going on up in Alpe d’Huez as the resort is “dead” and was being prepared for the Winter season at this time of year. Don’t be fooled by there being nothing available on Booking.com. It’s not all booked out: there’s literally nothing open! In fact there were only 2 hotels open in Alpe d’Huez and 1 in Huez (our one), and only 1 bar and a very small handful of restaurants, and these opened on alternate days! Either way we were there for the climb and it was nice that it was quiet and tranquil!
On the big day we were therefore starting 3/4 of the way up, so we gingerly cycled down to the bottom, regained our composure and prepared for the ascent. Other riders we met had hired their bikes at the bottom in Le Bourg-d’Oisans, therefore having the reward of cycling back down after their climb, while many had brought their own bikes from home, leaving their hire van at the top. For us starting at the top and cycling ALL the way down first certainly had a slightly negative psychological affect as that took us long enough, in fact over 35 minutes which is longer than it took Marco Pantani to cycle up it in 1995! The idea though was to take photos/videos on the way down as we certainly wouldn’t be taking many on the way up!
Pre-arrival I soon realised there are 2 different starts and 2 different finishes. If you want to cycle the full actual climb that the Tour de France riders do then check out these useful Google Maps links below. Essentially start at ‘2’ and finish at ‘4’:
- The start with the electronic counter
- The official start with signpost (650m further up the climb):
- The “tourist” finish line
- The “Tour de France” finish line (1,500m further up the climb)
So we started out at number ‘1′, where there’s a counter which shows the number of cyclists who’d set out that day (we were numbers 101 and 102). Just up from there is the “true” start, number ‘2′ (as far as my research showed after studying multiple Strava segments). Our intention was to get to number ‘4′, via number ‘3′. We’d been warned that the first 2-3 bends were the worst and they certainly were with the profile map above backing it up. So the advice was to take it easy to start with. In fact we only got as far as bend two before de-robing. My technique on the way up was to stay in my penultimate gear as that always gave me “somewhere to go”. The bikes’ gearing being purposefully set up for Alpe d’Huez beginners with a large toothed cog at the back. I put a ‘Quad lock’ phone holder on the handlebar to enable me to quickly twist off the phone for videos and photos en route.
We didn’t particularly notice the traffic much either. It was a quiet time of year, but any traffic we did see was going slow enough and was giving the cyclists a wide berth. Also the number of us out on the road gave us a great feeling of “safety in numbers” too so no problems for us there.
There were some roadworks on bend 11 but fortunately our timings workerd ok and we reached the roadworks in the hourly 30 min window which meant we could climb straight through it. At bend 12 my girlfriend stopped to let me catch up but I cheekily carried on, encouraging her to catch me up, which she promptly did at bend 13 …and I didn’t see her again until the top! Before that, bend 7 is the iconic ‘Dutch Corner’, which is normally festooned in a sea of orange when Le Tour rolls through. It was hard to imagine what this might look like, but a complete lack of spectators here at least meant I could take the racing line through it.
Above Huez with just 3-4 bends to go two separate photographers from PhotoBreton.com and Griffephotos.com snapped us as we cycled past, handing us business cards with a link to find our photos later. One of which turned into a nice Christmas present for Claire. A nice touch as we were too busy cycling to want to take each other’s photos. As you count down the bends towards the top you see the names of its various stage winners over the years. My favorite being bend 3 from the top (Marco Pantani), less so bends 19 and 21 near the bottom (Lance Armstrong).
With just one bend to go I could sense the looming village of Alpe d’Huez above me with the gradient thankfully lessening off. One last false summit to go and I was then cresting the final hill before riding past the “tourist” finish line between the Cycle Huez shop and Bar L’Indiana. 25m further on to the right being the “tourist” podium and a well deserved photo opportunity.
Here’s me cycling up the last of the 21 bends with the village ofAlpe d’Huez looming in the background.
We knew this wasn’t the “real” finish so after a few minutes, break we cycled under the bridge, turning left, onwards for a further 1.5km to the actual finish line. There are discrete, permanent signs along the road pointing you in the right direction. It’s not a glamorous line with nothing much to see, but then you know won’t be kicking yourself when you see the stage on the TV only to find out that you stopped 1500 too soon. If you did stop early then don’t worry, you certainly “did” Alpe d’Huez. What an experience! Next up for us might be Mt Ventoux and that’s longer and harder by all accounts!
Here’s a video by Sverre Turter Sandvold as he cycled up the full climb – (between numbers ‘2’ to ‘4’).