Climbing the Alpe d’Huez

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Waking up this morning, it was once again ‘race day.’ Time to do yet another ride that seemed pretty far beyond my abilities, but I suppose that has become the new normal since we left our comfortable suburban life to ride our bikes full time.  We were in no hurry to get on the road since we didn’t want to haul cold weather gear up the mountain (ultimately a bad idea-we baked) and hung around eating our bread and fruit and yogurt and granola and making jokes about how the day was going to be such a good “rest day”.


We rolled out of camp, not entirely sure where the ride began.  We knew that our campground was somehow on the route, and were surprised to find the not-so-clearly marked starting line about 50 meters from our tent.  Who knew!

The ride – Alpe d’Huez – for those of you who are unfamiliar- is the ultimate climb in Toure de France.  It has 21 switchbacks, climbs 1,100 meters over a course of 14.4 km, and is a total man-killer.  As a point of reference, it is very similar to climbing from the base of Little Cottonwood to Alta Ski Resort, or the vertical distance of our house in West Bountiful to the temple three times.  While it is not impossibly steep or impossibly long, doing it quickly will destroy you.  The current record is somewhere around 34 minutes.  Insane.

Bree and I had planned to take very different approaches to the climb of Alpe d’Huez.  I would race to the top and try to complete the climb in under 90 minutes, which I considered a good time given my leg’s freshness and the fact that my 30 pound bicycle with anything but skinny tires would probably not be the weapon of choice for such a ride.  Bree, however, would take her time, take a few pictures, and actually enjoy the ride.  We don’t very often have the luxury of riding at our own pace, but with today’s carefully mapped route, I knew I could finish the route and then head back down to find Bree toward the end of her ride.

The ride started out with a nice, steep climb out of the gate approaching a 10-12% grade.  As I started up the mountainside, my legs immediately began cramping up.  Maybe I was more worn down than I cared to admit?  Each switchback is marked with a sign denoting how many kilometers remain.  While this could be useful for someone familiar with the ride, the signs acted as a constant reminder of how far we really had left to go.

Before we made it past the 4th switchback, we hit construction.  For whatever reason, they decided to knock rocks off of the wall that had been carved out to make room for the road, requiring the whole road to be closed down for pretty long periods of time.  Impatiently, cars began lining up as the construction crews meandered around, scooping rocks off the road.  After ten minutes of cars honking and the rock wall crumbling, the crew let us pass.  Everyone was irritated – the cyclists because timing is very important, and the vehicles because the wait really was unnecessarily long.

While the beginning of the climb is difficult, it eventually mellows out to and average of 8-9% grade, which I was able to maintain at a sustainable pace.  By this point, the switchbacks began ticking off quickly as the views of the valley below got better and better.   A handful of very small communities rolled by, all hallmarked by an old steepled church, as well as an old church with a cemetery nestled inside one of the switchbacks.

There were surprisingly few cyclists on the road as I climbed switchback after degrading switchback, panting the whole way.  I saw one other cyclist on the road as I passed him, and aside from that I had the road entirely to myself.  The traffic wasn’t bad, either, and as would be expected they were all very well aware of and respectful of the cyclists on the road.

Eventually, the forested switchbacks gave way to a meadow which led to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez.  After some more climbing through the resort, guessing at a few directions as to where to go (and getting lucky, since they were correct), I finally arrived at the equally unglamorous finish line.

The resort was quiet.  Everything, save a few restaraunts and shops were closed.  Pleased with my time of 71 minutes, I decided to go back and find Bree, and then ride the rest of the way up with her.


At home, Ben and I head out on our own rides pretty frequently, but it has been a while since we’ve done so, and it was strange to be pedaling with such a big goal without my partner by my side.  Still, to tackle the climb at my own pace was exactly what I needed today and I was definitely not in it to win it.  All I was looking for was a finish, regardless of the time it required.

I’d rallied every bit of positive energy I had as we rolled out of camp, and as I watched Ben bolt up the first climb, I was feeling remarkably cheerful despite the steep roads below me.  Without a load, I was happy to discover that my not quite recovered legs, could really get my bike moving and the steep grade felt pretty manageable.  I’d covered only a handful of switchbacks though, when I hit the construction zone.  Agitated, I stood around for a pretty solid ten minutes waiting for the road to re-open, annoyed that construction of all things was slowing me down.

Once I was back on the road again, I’d joined up with a small group of cyclists, none of them moving very quickly.  I was actually glad to be on my touring bike because despite its heavy weight, the low gearing made spinning up the hills pretty easy.  I wondered how strange I must look among the perfectly outfitted cyclists on my steel bike with the camera case strapped to the back, not even wearing an actual cycling jersey.

Somewhere around the middle of my climb, I passed a gentleman standing on the side of the road taking pictures of the guy ahead of me,  presumably his son.  As I approached, he called out to me, asking if I was having fun yet, and when I responded in English, he asked where I was from.  Before I had pedaled out of shouting distance, we realized we were both from Utah, and agreed to chat at thee top.

The scenery was spectacular and I watched the roundabout just down the street from our campground get smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see it anymore.  Soon, I had broken our highest elevation record for the trip thus far, and felt like I was on the home stretch.  For as tired as my legs had been, I was suffering from nothing more than a bit of back fatigue and was actually having fun!

By the time I was five switchbacks from the top, I was surprised to see Ben heading back down to ride back to the top with me.  He had really cruised up the hill for his first run and was still feeling energetic enough to ride the last 25% back up with me.  We chatted as we slowly pedaled up the last few kilometers, catching each other up on our respective rides.  The last couple of switchbacks were getting awfully hot, and I was feeling a bit fatigued, but all in all, the trip to the top was awesome!


After chatting with the gentleman from Utah and his children who had just completed the ride, we were surprised to find that some were from North Salt Lake.  The older gentleman also works with Bree’s old stake president.  It is a small world!  After taking some pictures of the  grassy hillside at the top, we decided to see if we could find the indoor tight rope which I have been dying to do since we found out about it two days ago.  Unfortunately, it is neither winter season or summer season yet at the ski resort, nothing is open.  Instead, we made fools of ourselves by attempting to take  ridiculous pictures of each other in front of signs and on the dumb little podium they have set up in front of the tourists office.

The route down was spectacular, since we could now see the expanse of the valley that our backs had been against on the climb up – not to mention I was slowing down a little to take some pictures and enjoy the ride down.  We even stopped to take some portraits of each other and of us together and using our handy ir shutter release.

As we headed back into the valley, we stopped at the grocery store and grabbed some ice cream and salad ingredients to celebrate with a feast.  It seems that everything about this trip revolves around food.

Yesterday, our bike tour friend from Vancouver left.  His tent, the only other MSR tent we have seen in Europe, was pitched next to ours.  As he left, he gave us a book of rides to do in the Oisan valley.  I had one in mind since I hadn’t quite had enugh, but due to insufficient sunscreen for probably the first time this trip, I had to bail and hide in the shade again.  It was just as well.  We got some time to kick back and enjoy our final rest day before we continue our journey north tomorrow.  Our other friend from South Africa, who ironically also has an MSR tent (3 in one campground!), came by to say goodbye as she is leaving tomorrow and make sure we caught the beautiful sunset that had lit the face of the mountains and the few remaining clouds that lingered over the glacier-capped mountains.



3 Responses

  1. Debbie Matheson says:

    I knew you could do it Bree!

  2. KanyonKris says:

    Alp d’Huez, very cool. I want to do that climb some day.

    • Breeanne says:

      Thanks Kris- it is for sure worth a shot. All in all, it didn’t turn out to be nearly as bad a I’d expected and the scenery is just beautiful!

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