Where’s Wallis? Alpe D’Huez, France

Given the impending start of the 2015 Tour De France and the web-traffic that my Alpe D’Huez placeholder page was getting as a result, I thought it was time to give a brief low down of my visit to Alpe D’Huez to watch the 2011 Tour.

Alpe D'Huez

(more pics to follow…)

Now I was somewhat mis-sold this holiday…”we’ll go on  a road trip through France, stop off in Epernay to visit the champagne houses, head down to the south and spend a few days on the beach in Cannes or St. Tropez, oh and then we could perhaps catch a stage of the tour when we’re driving back through the Alps”

This changed somewhat over the week to…”well, if we want to get a spot to camp anywhere near Alpe D’Huez we’ll need to get to the area a couple of days before the tour comes through, so really there’s not enough time to get to the south coast beaches. Straight to the Alps!”

Now, I say this in jest. Whilst it is exactly how it happened, I don’t begrudge it at all because Cannes and St. Tropez will always be there, and I’m so glad that I had the experience of watching the tour instead.

In Epernay we skipped going to the Champagne powerhouses (Moet etc.) with their extortionate tour prices and instead popped into De Castellane where we had an excellent tour and tastings. We also hired bikes from the Epernay campsite and set off for an afternoon through the vineyards. We would pull up in little villages where every other house had a sign for their champagne and would pop in to try. Some of the guys would only have one small field of vines and would be selling their champagne for 10EUR a bottle. It was great stuff too. Just a shame we couldn’t carry more on our bikes!

Rain and champagne!
Rain and champagne!

Now for the cycling:

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Alpe D’Huez, well you’ll probably have stopped reading this already! But, it is a ski-resort by winter, cycling mecca by summer. The road winds up the mountain for about 14km of steep climbing (8%) and consists of 21 switchback bends. The perfect finish to a 100+km stage of the Tour.

The Alpe D’Huez stage usually consists of one or two other big climbs before reaching the final climb up Alpe D’Huez. The organisers have just announced that this year the riders won’t be climbing Col du Telegraphe or Galibier on stage 20 due to a risk of landslides in a tunnel that they would have to cut through after their descent. Instead they’ll be climbing Col de la Croix de Fer, a casual 29km of climbing, but just at 5% gradient 🙂

So, where do you stay when watching the Alpe D’Huez stage of the tour? There is the village of Bourg D’Oisans at the foot of the mountain, but any hotels here will get booked out well in advance.

If you’re a crazy German with a camper-van then what you’ll do is drive up the mountain about a week before, park somewhere between bend 21 and 1 with half the camper precariously balanced off the edge, shove a few rocks under your tyres and then get out the ghetto-blaster and the Europop tunes, crack open some beers and settle in for the week.

We’d originally booked into a campsite about 40km east of Bourg, but as we drove in from Grenoble (2 days before the tour was due to arrive!) we passed through a little village called Rochetaillee which is 10km north of Bourg on the D1091 from Grenoble.

We spied a house with lots of tents in a field outside and decided it was worth stopping in to ask whether there was any space for us to pitch up. Given my GCSE French was marginally the least rusty I did my best and ascertained that they were totally full. I then switched to the universal language of begging and the lovely hostess agreed that we could pitch in what was effectively their back garden.

It was such a find! We paid 20EUR a night for the tent spot and then they asked if we wanted breakfast in the morning, gave us little cakes to pack for the day and dinner when we got back on the day of the tour. We warned them that we wouldn’t be back until late and this was no problem at all, with them offering to heat it up for us when we got home 🙂

I would definitely recommend being within walking/cycling distance of the Alpe D’Huez climb as you won’t be able to get near it in your car on the day of the tour. The day before we drove up to the top to have dinner and a walk around where the riders would be finishing. There’s also a luge track up at the top to ride on.

I would have loved to have ridden up but:

a) would I have been fit enough?!

b) the mountain bikes we hired from town had a grand total of 3 gears and slightly flat tyres. Not the best for one of the more enduring climbs in the Alps.

So I’ll just have to go back as it’s now an aim of mine to climb it one day!

I’d actually love to do the Alpe D’Huez triathlon. My old housemate Dave did it whilst we were living together back in London and it sounds fantastic. You swim in a lake at the foot of Alpe D’Huez, ride up it, and then run at altitude at the top. They’ve got a short course of 1.2km swim, 30km bike and 7km run or a long course of a 2.2km swim, 115km bike and 22km run. It’s also pretty unique that it has two separate transition zones, requiring a bit more logistical planning than usual but also meaning that you get to set up T2 at the top and then whizz down the mountain before starting your race. Or if your a dreadful descender like me you can shuffle down the mountain with white knuckles and the brakes locked on.

I can’t really blame the fact we didn’t ride up on the quality of our bikes though, because on the morning of the tour when we were walking up the mountain to get our spot for the day, we saw people of all shapes and sizes on all sorts of bikes slogging up the hill (and whizzing back down), ranging from snazzy racers to old rust-buckets.

We hired the bikes the night before the tour and rode back to Rochetaillee along the river path. We then cycled back into Bourg bright and early on tour morning. I think we got there by about 6am. After a quick stop at the supermarket for picnic supplies (once you’re up the mountain you’re not coming back down until the evening) we began the hike up.

Our aim was to find a spot that was just after a switch-back and sufficiently steep that we’d get an extra 0.1 seconds of watching the riders as they powered past. We ended up pitching up around bend 9 – the bend numbering starts from 21 down at the bottom – so we were just a couple of bends down from the infamous ‘Dutch Corner’ up at 7. We walked up to have a look after the riders had gone through and it was as big a party as everyone had described!

It was such a fantastic atmosphere walking up the road, the aforementioned Europop playing en route up and everyone chatting to those around them. The road was covered in chalk supporting the riders. Because there’s not just one condensed section to watch the riders (and because we were up there by about 9am!) there was plenty of space to lie down on the verge above the road and have a little sunbathe whilst we waited for the action to start.

First came the ‘caravan’, this is where all the sponsors affiliated with the tour drive past in their branded cars and lorries and throw goods out to the crowds. We got a healthy supply of haribo, some fans, some clapper sticks, a bandana and perhaps even a bottle!

Then it was time for the riders to come through:

2011 was the first time that an Australian has won the tour (topical given my current location) in the form of Cadel Evans. However up Alpe D’Huez Pierre Roland was leading and the French were going mad.

The Schleck brothers were also both in contention for the GC win, but thanks to a strong performance in the time-trial the following day Cadel arrived in Paris in yellow.

We got about a whole 5 seconds of watching each rider pass. Compared to last year when I saw approximately 0.5 seconds of the tour coming along the Embankment through London this was a luxury. The guys we were with did the classic thing of running alongside the riders, thoroughly pissing them off but managing to get themselves featured on Eurosport!

After the race we slowly made our way back down to Bourg. It was somewhat surreal as that day I got results for my accountancy exams so I ended up getting this important text whilst halfway up Alpe D’Huez. I’d managed not to think about it all day given the excitement of the tour but I was inevitably nervous (my job depended on passing!)

After getting my results (I passed, hooray!) I quickly forgot about work and London and my mind turned to the 10km walk that lay ahead of us back along the road to the campsite. I was so tempted to try and hitch a lift but the traffic was moving at about the same speed as us because everyone had the same idea of trying to get to Grenoble that night in time to watch the time-trial the next day.

It was actually really good fun walking back, all the cars were in great spirits and once we’d seen people a couple of times they’d toot and wave. Then the best part, some of the caravan came past and gave us more haribo, essential walking fuel!

All in all it was a marvellous trip, my top tips:

  • Get your accommodation sorted in advance;
  • Make sure you’re within walking distance of Bourg;
  • Take your bike with you and ride up, either on the day or the day before!
  • Pack an epic picnic and plenty of drinks for the day;
  • The more cycling themed apparel you wear the more friends you make: my ‘Look Mum No Hands’ cap got a lot of love;
  • Pop up to Dutch corner for a party;
  • Be transparent with your tour plans well in advance, no promises of Riviera yachts!

If you’re going to watch the tour at Alpe D’Huez this year, or any other stage, I’d love to hear from you, and I’m very jealous. I’ll be watching the highlights at weird times of night!

Now to check how many times I’ve spelt Alpe D’Huez wrong… Alps D’Huez, Alp D’Huez, Alpes D’Huez, Alpe De Huez 🙂

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