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!

The views from Alpe d'Huez were amazing

The views from Alpe d’Huez were amazing

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.

Getting there?
We let the train/bus/taxi take the strain!

  1. Eurostar from London St Pancras > Paris Gare de Nord
  2. Taxi from Paris Gare de Nord > Paris Gare de Lyon
  3. Train from Paris Gare de Lyon > Gare de Lyon Part Dieu
  4. FlixBus from Lyon > Grenoble Central Station
  5. Bus 3020/3030(?) from Grenoble Central Station > Le-Bourg D’Oisans
  6. Bus 3020/3030(?) from Le-Bourg D’Oisans > Huez – La Village / Alpe d’Huez

Some Alpe d’Huez facts

Some  Alpe d'Huez facts and figures courtesy of procyclingtrumps.com/

Some Alpe d’Huez facts and figures courtesy of procyclingtrumps.com/

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.

My Wilier Triestina GTR Gran Turismo Bike fom the 'Cycle Huez' hire shop

My Wilier Triestina GTR Gran Turismo Bike fom the ‘Cycle Huez’ hire shop

The Cycle Huez hire shop at the 'tourist' finish in Alpe d'Huez

The Cycle Huez hire shop at the “tourist” finish in Alpe d’Huez

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!

Starting out at the village of Huez - 5 bends from the top

Starting out at the village of Huez – 5 bends from the top

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!

The Alpe d'Huez profile

The Alpe d’Huez profile

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’:

  1. The start with the electronic counter
  2. The official start with signpost (650m further up the climb):
  3. The “tourist” finish line
  4. 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.

The counter at the bottom of the climb

The counter at the bottom of the climb

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.


My view for most of the climb!

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).

Looking back! Bend 4 is in honour of stage winner Roberto Conti

Looking back! Bend 4 is in honour of stage winner Roberto Conti. Check out the small, white rectangular sign on the corner of each bend


Half way up Alpe d’Huez and time for a “selfie”

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.

The welcome site of Bar L'Indiana opposite the 'Cycle Huez' bike hire shop just past the

The welcome site of Bar L’Indiana opposite the ‘Cycle Huez’ bike hire shop just past the “tourist” finish line

Celebrating on the Alpe d'Huez tourist finish podium

Celebrating on the Alpe d’Huez tourist finish podium

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!


The “real” Tour de France stage finish line 1500m up from the “tourist” finish

Here’s a video by Sverre Turter Sandvold as he cycled up the full climb – (between numbers ‘2’ to ‘4’).


The podium 50m down from the real 'Tour de France' finish

The podium 50m down from the real ‘Tour de France’ finish

Cycling the RideLondon 100

Back in 2013 I took part in the inaugural ‘RideLondon 100’ and absolutely loved it! But what’s it like if you’re not a regular Lycra-clad weekend warrior? Well as two mountain bikers (back in our “yoof”) but with the odd ‘London to Brighton’ bike ride under our belts it was manageable but still a bl**dy long way 🙂

Being "photobombed" on the finish line

Being “photobombed” on the finish line

 It was my friend Dan who first suggested entering and after we successfully got in we decided to ride for the charity ‘Shelter’. Dan insisted on using his heavy (but lovingly modified) 1980s Raleigh road bike and I went with my mid 90’s Kona hardtail mountain bike … with the skinniest slicks I could get on the rims (1.3″ continentals) … and  we both just about got away with it. I remember seeing one guy on a Brompton just 2 miles in as he looked over at me and said “I think I’ve made the wrong choice!”

As far as training went, with one of us being based near Cardiff and the other in Hertfordshire, we never trained together and both did our own thing. For me that was hopping off the train a stop early after work and cycling the 7 miles home on my Brompton. It was hardly the training of champions but was psychologically sufficient for the big day ahead.

 We stayed in a hotel near the start at the Olympic stadium as that meant we could drive down the night before, cycle a short ride to the Expo on the Saturday to pick up our numbers, and not have the “faff” of getting up early and into London on the train for our early start times.

 So what was it like?

 We were given different start times so Dan was ahead of me by about 20 minutes but we’d organised a rendezvous point 3-4 miles down the road … and that worked well apart from almost forgotting to look out for him when I sailed past while talking to someone else.

Baggage handed in and now awaiting my start slot

Baggage handed in and now awaiting my start slot

 There’s actually an initial rolling 2 miles before the 100 miles starts but that’s a nice loosener to get up and out of the start area. Very soon I realised there were some delicious bikes around … and this was definetly the case of “all the gear BUT all the idea too” which made me feel somewhat of an amateur on my mountain bike. However at the other extreme, albeit in a smaller minority, there were people on cheap, heavy old mountain bikes with fat tyres who looked wholly unprepared for what lay ahead.

We actually cycled 102 miles what with they're being a "rolling start"

We actually cycled 102 miles what with they’re being a “rolling start”

 After a few miles in it became quite evident that the effort put into the event was quite remarkable with “every” crossing, junction, obstacle having been carefully cordoned off so the route was completely closed off. No mean feat I’m sure.

Cycling down The Mall in just under 8 hours waving to the crowd felt fantastic. I just wish I could have done a stylish “Peter Sagan” wheelie right down the middle of the road! 🙂

 Top 12 Tips?

  1. Do all/some of the necessary training.
  2. Make sure your saddle stuffer has all the necessary tools for any mechanicals.
  3. Add a few energy bars/gels in there too.
  4. “Safely” slipstream your friends/others while riding along. The best scenario was when we’d find two advanced riders in front riding along chatting, side-by-side, and we’d then take a wheel each so we could have a chat too. With the consent of those in front of course who acknowledged to us that they didn’t mind us tailgating them. Occasionally you’d hear the “whop, whop, whop” noise of the rear disc wheels of a train of team enthusiasts flying past. Attempts to latch on to the last man proved futile, even just for a laugh, as was their sheer speed, and the types of bikes that Dan and I were on.
  5. Stock up on the pasta/carbs a few nights before just as you would if you were taking part in a marathon.
  6. Look out for the cameras on Box Hill and along The Mall finish line.
  7. Check out the tribal paintwork on Box Hill that was painted for the 2012 Olympics
  8. Don’t be put off by Leith Hill or Box Hill. From what I can remember I found ‘Ditchling Beacon’ on the London to Brighton bike ride far worse.
  9. Get yourself a souvenir t-shirt from one of the parks at the finish.
  10. Hang around in the late afternoon to watch all the pro riders come through in the RideLondon Surrey Classic bike race.
  11. Turn on Strava to record your journey and revel in the glory afterwards. Possibly go on 2G to save as much battery as you can though.
  12. Oil that chain and pump up your tyres as much as you can (according to what’s written in PSI on the sidewalls)
Storming up Box Hill over the London 2012 tribal road markings

Storming up Box Hill over the London 2012 tribal road markings

 What did I take?  

  1.  iPhone (I’ve since bought a ‘Quad Lock’ case and attachment for my iPhone which sits nicely on the stem).
  2. Cards/notes in a slim Oyster card holder (rather than taking my whole wallet).
  3. iPhone battery charger but I didn’t actually need it as the phone just about lasted the distance.
  4. Germoline, Vaseline, Imodium and a small canister of suncream for protection and any “rubbage”
  5. Thin yellow windproof jacket for the stops.
  6. Cycling shorts and top (with stuff stuffed in the rear pockets).
  7. Helmet and gloves.
  8. Clipless shoes and cycling socks.
  9. Saddle stuffer containing ‘Kool tool’, inner tube, puncture repair stickers, tyre levers, 5 chewy bars, dextrose tablets.
  10. 2x water bottles.
  11. My bike/helmet number + safety pins.
  12. Sunglasses.

… and on the evening before the ride I took off the Crud Catcher mudguard, gave the bike a dusting down and tucked away any flapping cables etc. to reduce any drag. The “power of incremental gains” as Olympic team coach Dave Brailsford likes to say. NB. I’d already replaced the front Rock Shox with rigid forks to lighten the load and improve performance.

Our first post-finish photo along The Mall

Our first post-finish photo along The Mall

 Would I do it again?

Probably … but on a road bike … but it was great to do it the first time, and this year my girlfriend and 4 other friends are taking part! I wish them all the best and hope to see them safely at the finish in good time where I’ll be helping out throughout the day as a “veloteer”.

Outside Buckingham Palace savouring the moment

Outside Buckingham Palace savouring the moment