A Big Real Day

A long while ago, when standing at the top of Ventoux waiting for a client, I noticed that the Alps that I was admiring in the far distance to the north just might contain Alpe d’Huez. Over time I slowly realized that cycling from Mont to Ventoux to AdH was a potential ‘thing’, and in 2016 I started playing with Strava Routes to design my own.

This route laid dorment till earlier this year, when I casually suggested it to Stephen, a friend from NYC who comes to Le Sud often to ride. Let this be a lesson to you all out there; never suggest something to anyone unless you are ready for a ‘yes’. Suddenly, I was making hotel reservations, tweaking the route and telling myself that I could still ride for 12 hours and not fall off my bike.

I was more than right, since it took me 14 hours. But we’ll get to that soon…

Stephen and Rebecca (our support, both physical and moral) are staying in a small village in the shadow of Mont Ventoux this summer, and it was from there, just before 6 am, that we rolled out through the medieval arches of Caromb.

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The route I had planned took us around Ventoux to the west then as straight to the bottom of Alpe d’Huez as I could figure out, taking in small roads. Most of the way would be a ‘dark zone’ for me, which I was really curious about. I know the Alps and Provence pretty well, but not the in-between.

Here we are on really the only climb that felt good the whole day – Col de Perty (with a perty view of Ventoux, I might add).

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The descent off the Col de Perty towards the east was long, winding and wonderful, and I think we met one single car in the over 20 kilometers that it took to climb and go down. Just heaven.

The good times kept rolling for the nearly the next 80 km on flattish roads that slowly transitioned us from the south to the mountains. Vineyards gave way to apple orchards and lavender fields became summer wheat all of a sudden. 

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At our very short and meager lunch stop we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. We were ‘half way in’, as I think Stephen texted to Rebecca. But of course, all good things must come to and end, especially on a 225 km bike ride, and so it did after nearly 130 km, when we started our 2nd of 5 climbs of the day. 

If you build a route that takes you from the hilly south of France to the mountainous High Alps, you are nearly guaranteed to have a route that it back loaded with climbs, i.e you better enjoy yourself while you can because you will be hurting by the end. And so it came to pass.

Here is the Col du Festre, which is not very high or hard, but it arrived after 135 km and it was getting hot. Luckily for us there were some frites and San Pellegrino waiting right over the hill, and we thoroughly enjoyed lunch #2 with a view.

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The Col du Festre led to a glacier-fed emerald lake that included a small climb that we mistook for our 3rd, followed by a really excellent descent down into a deep Alpine gorge and a long valley that ended at the bottom of the col we thought we might have already climbed.

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By now Stephen was starting to ‘lose interest’, I would say. We climbed this 3rd col pretty slowly and the last 2 km were well over 10%, making it that much more satisfying when we reached col sign.

At this sign we talked, stretched, and looked up, because that’s where the road kept going. Stephen then saw a railing through the trees that looked like it was on about a 45 degree angle. I tried to reassure him that it couldn’t possibly be our road. Guess what? This col has two col signs and two cols it appears. So, with another 2 km at well over 10%, we reached this one, not all that happy.

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It was around this time that Stephen started swearing more than even usual and insisting that he was ‘going back’. I reminded him that there was no going back because our rescue car was ahead of us, actually already in Alpe d’Huez. We would descend and assess.

At the bottom of a fast and furious descent of the Col(s) de Parquetout, we rested in a Snack on donuts, Coke and a croissant. Our next col was an ‘easy’ 15 km, and after gaining some courage, we rolled onward, with about the same motivation as trench soldiers in WWI, I imagine.

Somewhere around 5 km from the top of the Col d’Ornon, Stephen said, ‘Gerry, I’m done’. We were going to call Rebecca for a pick-up. And so ensued a series of texts to the broom wagon (Rebecca very much regrets not bringing along a broom), in which we try and tell her where Stephen will be. Luckily we found some picnic tables a few hundred meters up the road and he waited patiently there. I left him and pointed my bike north, thinking how sensible Stephen was. I would prove myself right later on.

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On the descent of the Ornon I ran into Rebecca on her way up and got water and a few nougats to keep me going. I then descended into Le Bourg d’Oisan, and tried not to make myself think about the climb of Alpe d’Huez.

Why? Because I’ve done it probably 7 or 8 times and several of those have been at the end of a hard day (Marmotte, Etape, etc.). By itself it’s not the toughest thing around, but when you begin it with nearly 4000 meters in the legs it takes on a different nature.

But I struggled up and even felt pretty okay till I took a break at Dutch Corner (Pro Tip: a good place to get water), then my 29 started feeling like an 11 and it was basically the weight of my legs and the smell of dinner pushing me up the last 6 turns. My view most of the way up was a cracked ski resort road and a long-dead Garmin.

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And as often happens, ‘then it’s over’. One foot in front of the other and all that. I arrived at our hotel to a fresh and smiling Stephen, offering me a cold glass of Affligem and Rebecca getting my hotel key for me from reception. It was somewhere after 8 pm, 14 hours from our departure and in a whole other world, both physically and existentially.

Distance: 223 kilometers. Elevation gain: 5050 meters

Stephen took this photo of a place near the beginning of our journey, which seems to sum up the day – there was everything, but the bottom line was ‘pain’.

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I write this, of course, as I’m getting ready to drive back to Alpe d’Huez on Thursday for a 3-day race. I think you can follow my progress (or lack thereof) on Haute Route’s website starting Friday: https://www.hauteroute.org/

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16 thoughts on “A Big Real Day

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