An Unexpected Love of Cycling in the Alps

My husband and I watch coverage of the Tour de France every July, and I am always entranced by the beautiful little villages perched on the mountainsides and decked in flowers. They seem like fairy tale perfection, and my dream has always been to drive from small village to small village enjoying some hiking, the scenery, the people, and the food. So last year – after years of saying “maybe next year” – we took some good friends up on their long-standing offer to come to France for a visit.

Our basic plan was to spend a few days with our friends in and around Paris, and then head someplace in the French Alps – or even Switzerland – to visit some of those little villages and do a lot of one of our favorite vacation activities – hiking. My husband had occasionally suggested over the years that I might like to ride some of the iconic mountains we see each year on the Tour, but I had always dismissed the idea out of hand; I didn’t like to climb. I have never been a willowy-mountain goat who enjoys grinding up the steeps. I like fast, flattish group rides with (maybe) some rolling hills, and for racing I love pancake-flat, 45 minute criteriums, the flatter and faster the better.

Early in the spring, however, I was on my Saturday group ride chatting about the upcoming trip with my friend Jean-Luc from Belgium, and he made the very same suggestion: that I ride one of the iconic Alpine climbs. And strangely, it suddenly sounded like an idea that I would actually consider. He had a lot of experience riding in the Alps, and he suggested that I look for a climb that was both picturesque and located in a region that would allow us to hike and enjoy the surroundings. It sounded better and better, and I returned home that day ready to find my mountain! My husband and I researched all the big climbs, both for scenery and for the tourism and hiking opportunities near them. We looked at Galibier, Croix de Fer, Ventoux – all the classics – and eventually settled on Alpe d’Huez – perhaps not the most scenic, but amazing enough for a first-timer, and an iconic climb famous for its twenty-one switchbacks. The area also offered good hiking in the surrounding Ecrins National Park, and we could stay in the village of Bourg d’Oisans – the town at the base of the Alpe d’Huez – which looked like a good base for day trips.

Brambleton Criterium podium
This girl was all about fast and flat.

I only planned to do the one ride, so I needed to rent a bike, and I was also interested in a guided ride if possible, since I was unfamiliar with the area and spoke no French. Ultimately we found all that plus our accommodations through More Than 21 Bends, a bed-and-breakfast and cycle tour company run by a British couple and based in Bourg d’Oisans. I was able to get a guided ride that took in both Alpe d’Huez and the Col d’Sarenne, a bike rental (in my tiny extra-small size) through their Prompt Cycle shop, and accommodations at their bed and breakfast (and ultimately we lucked out and were assigned a private apartment across the street, which was fantastic!).

Me and my guide Joe at the finish of our ride

There was a two-day bike rental minimum, so we scheduled our arrival a couple days prior to the big ride, and on our first full day there I picked up my rental, fit it with my own saddle and pedals from home, and got in a relatively short morning ride up the nearby Col d’Ornon, an 1371m (5000ft) climb just minutes out of town (and which will be part of Stage 17 in the upcoming Tour de France). I was blown away. It was awe-inspiring, climbing a narrow road nearly to the clouds, surrounded by massive, towering peaks and with only a foot-tall stone guard wall separating me from an abyss down a terrifyingly steep slope. My brain could only giddily repeat “this is unbelievable” over and over again. I was in love and I already knew that two days on the bike in the Alps would not be enough. I would be coming back.

The next morning I met up with my guide Joe from More Than 21 Bends, whom I had met the day before since he was also the mechanic-in-residence at the Prompt rental shop. I had signed up for a group ride, and the group turned out to be just me and Joe! That was great since the pace would be my pace, rather than be slowed by stragglers or pushed to too hard by killers. We rode at a steady pace while still holding a conversation, and ultimately ended up putting in a pretty respectable time – one hour fifteen minutes. At the top we stopped at a cafe for a bit, meeting up with two other riders who were staying at the More Than 21 Bends B&B, plus my intrepid husband who had driven up the mountain in the rental car to have a coffee.

On the Alpe d'Huez "podium"
On the Alpe d’Huez “podium”

After the break we took the obligatory pic on the “podium” across from the cafe, then headed on across the mountain plateau. The sharp ascent up the Col d’Sarenne was about a twenty minute effort, and then the mad descent began!

A thirty minute descent was a new experience for me. I don’t do a ton of descending in my daily riding in the DC metro area, so it’s already not a particular strength, and then add in steep grades, 160 degree switchbacks, and a flock of sheep (!) in the road, and you’ve got a ride that it is fair to say was outside my comfort zone! The disc brakes that came on my rental bike were a great help as I got accustomed to the terrain, and while I felt like I was hanging on for dear life at the beginning, as we progressed the road surface improved and so did my confidence, until eventually I was flowing smoothly down the mountain, enough so that Joe got a little out of his comfort zone for a brief moment after he took a quick nature break and then had to turn on the gas to catch up with me (he was checking his Garmin with mild shock as he looked at his max speed).

Rolling back into Bourg d’Oisans, I found my husband set up with French cold cuts, cheeses, baguette and desserts spread out for my post-Alpe d’Huez enjoyment, and now I was sure of it: two days on the bike in the Alps was definitely not enough. How soon could we come back??

Well the answer turned out to be “as soon as possible!”

Go to next post: La Marmotte: Who would be crazy enough to do that?!?

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