The last hurrah: 60 miles, pitch-black tunnels, devilish descending, jacket schenadigans on the Galibier and teeming rain.
It took a night’s sleep to get over the pains of Alpe d’Huez; it took a second to realise that I had to do this final ride. It was to be the longest one of the whole week – 60 miles over the Lautaret, getting up to 2,000m, and then turning left for a 7-kilometre slog up the Col de Galibier. A once in a lifetime opportunity, and one that I was not going to miss. Alaric, Dickon and Dave all opted for a comfy last day lounging around the campsite, eating snacks and ogling the near-exhibitionist tent inhabitants next to ours etc. After cursing the drizzly weather, we crammed croissants into our mouths – albeit for the last time. Not that there was any time for sentiment; we were out of the campsite by 8am.
I can give the Col de Lautaret a ringing endorsement - if you had to choose any 2,000m Col to climb this year, let it be this one: it is probably the easiest one of that altitude in France. Of course, “easy” is an objective word – the Lautaret is 35 kilometeres of uphill, albeit with three kilometres of descent early on. The wake-up call came at the start of the climb: the steepest bit is at the start, with 6% for a good four kilometres. As I had done in previous days, it was down to the bottom gear and grinding, with Duncan setting the pace, followed by Ross (reining in his attacking instincts), Charlie, Christian and me. Once over that, there were a few kilometres of descent before the plodding pace and rigmarole resumed.
It must be said that this was not a particularly painful obstacle compared to the gradient, length and tempo of the previous ones; the pace set was bearable throughout, but just the thought itself of covering 35km uphill is rather galling - actually doing it can get very tedious. The scenery did its best to break up the monotony, getting prettier and prettier as we progressed: all mountain streams splashing noisly nearby and charming views.
But ah yes, the tunnels – the main road was bad enough, being blasted past by massive lorries. But there are several tunnels – and the first one came on the descent. And I had my black shades on… so it was as good as pitch black. I managed to not slam on the brakes, say the Lord's Prayer or instinctively get into the "tuck-and-roll" crash position, but instead tried to follow the dim shapes in front of me. Thank god Christian’s jersey is see-in-the-dark; thank god it was only about 200m long – the light at the end of the tunnel was blissful. For the rest of the climb, it was sunglasses off.
Rugged mountain beauty - Copyright Christian Brown
We stopped with 12km to go in La Grave, feeling a bit worse for wear but not nearly as dead as the place name would suggest. I must again commend the French on having bars and outhouses in the middle of nowhere – we raided an empty one a few kilometres from La Grave, and the proprietor was friendly and loquacious for the daily refilling of our bidons, despite us not purchasing any beverages.
From here on in, it was every man for himself – while Christian chose to save himself for the Galibier with Duncan looking after him, I went up the road with Charlie (almost needless to say, Ross was in front, spinning away at an insane speed). The scenery was just… breathtaking. If I had not been cycling (or any less of a man), I may just have broken down and wept at the sheer beauty of the surrounding nature. It was completely arresting; all we could do was utter breathless “Wows”. Those 12 kilometres rank as the most beautiful of my life – glaciers hugging the mountains beside us, waterfalls teeming down bare rockfaces, raw and exquisite beauty in God’s country. It was simply sublime; words do not do it justice, and the photos sadly aren’t back from the shop yet…
Nearing the top of the Lautaret, I looked back and Charlie was gone. I had been setting the pace (he alleges I attacked, but I assured him that, as a gentleman, I had done nothing of the sort) and now… well, it was just me and the mountains. And a few crazy lorry drivers – one of them "earned" the finger for swinging out to pass on a hairpin bend. Though it began to hurt near the top, I could see the Col-top stations from quite far out and that spurred me on. It was one more sweeping corner and the sign for the Lautaret – my first 2,000m Col, and about time too, after two hours of climbing.
After dining on steak-frites in the restaurant, we moved on to the Galibier, a left-turn and a further 8.5 kilometres from the top of the Lautaret. Believing my ailments of the previous day to be altitude-and/or-effort-related, I was content just to get to the top of the Galibier, to be able to say that I’d done it. From the start, as Ross then Duncan went up the road, I just sat between 50 and 100 metres from Charlie and Christian, content to save energy – perhaps the only time I can say I truly did that during the week's cycling. And on we plodded; I knew it was going to be a grind, 7 steep kilometres before a soul-destroying last one at 12%. It was far from uneventful.
Firstly, Christian dropped his bottle in the road, made a mewing noise like a cat which has just had its tail decaptitated, and wearily dismounted to pick it up... and cycled back onto my wheel and up to Charlie. Showing rare and impressive restraint for someone who takes half-wheeling as a personal challenge, I just kept pedalling at my own rate. Touching my jersey, I could feel my rain jersey (it doesn’t roll up well) popping out… suddenly there was a noise and it was through my back wheel. Panicking a bit, but aware that I had to – I wanted to – keep going, I took it in my arms and tried to keep cycling with it. Cue the comical sight of a Crédit Agricole-clad rider cycling up the mighty Galibier - all the other climbs are "gnat's piss" compared to it, merci the ever eloquent Monsieur Desgrange - with a rain jacket in his arms… then on his head, then down his shorts, then up his jersey. I tried to find a comfortable position, but it always slipped off. In the end, it just went up the jersey.
That last kilometre was tough without being full-on nasty. As you pass the circular Henri Desgrange memorial (if I wasn’t going to stop for a crazy rain coat, I wasn’t going to stop for Monsieur Fondateur du Tour), the gradient begins to ramp up to the 12% you’ve been waiting for. Even better, with it being 2,600m, the mistral began to blast; I sneaked a glance at the superb scenery to the right. After what is, by all stretches of the imagination, a long last kilometre, it’s one more steep kink then you’re there. Brown, dusty rocks, a parking area and a sign plastered in various stickers announcing “Col de Galibier 2645m). Not very ceremonious, but it didn't need to be. There's not much ceremony on the roof of the world.
You really do feel high up: the road can be seen below for kilometres, coiling away. I wouldn’t say the last 42km of climbing (Lautaret included) were totally worth it, but the level of achievement was unmatched – I had cycled a huge vertical distance by myself. A German tourist took some photos of us, but we were already beginning to chill with the wind. On the descent (raincoat now on to ward off the cold), I took it incredibly easy – with my back-brake rims almost worn to a stub, I felt that I had to, to the point of stopping and taking a few photos. The basics: just enjoying the descent and trying to ensure I didn't crash so close to the finish of our tour.
The roof of the world on the Galibier - Copyright Christian Brown
But something switched in me for the descent of the Lautaret. My last Alpine descent for god knows how long, a good few kilometres of 6%, fairly benign bends and a fine road surface before it levelled out to 2-4% (Dana Albert also descended this road in
La Marmotte, albeit at greater speeder than myself .) Screw the brake blocks, let’s Savoldelli it, I thought. To my credit, despite a few voices of warning, I came from the back, careered round the bends and, tucked aerodynamically and spinning out at times, rode like a demon (for once), surprising myself with the relative ease of passing several people and coming out on the wheel of Ross in first place – not bad for a descentophobe.
Alas, how quickly enjoyment can turn to frustration. While stopped at makeshift traffic lights, the heat got to me and I took a good two minutes taking off and putting away the rain jacket, losing all the "places" I’d gained. Already cursing this, a few minutes down the road and having to pedal on near-flat downhill, there was a “zzzzzzpppp” noise coming from the back wheel. Of course, the rain jacket had speared through the wheel again. Hot, frustrated and tired, I ground to a halt, thrust the fabric from the spokes, spat out some rather colourful (English) language and gave the bike a kick. Luckily Duncan stopped to see what the problem was and, having resolved it, calmed me down and gave me his wheel to follow. Cycling just feels so much easier when there’s a visible target; certainly, my mood improved considerably again.
We stopped at the bridge over the Barrage du Chambon – we had marvelled at the view on the way across, one reminiscent of a Lord of the Rings river setting. As we set off again, it began to spit with rain. Seven days, a good 300 miles, and we’d only had some drizzle on the first day. Only 20 kilometres from Bourg d’Oisans and the finish of our tour, the heavens opened and it became torrential. Like Mother Nature was really going to make it easy for us anyway...
After sheltering in a petrol station to put on the rain coat (my tormentor had now become a necessary friend) and decide what to do, I pressed on with Christian, feeling the worse for wear, just in front. Hell, if it was meant to be an epic, rain-soaked ride back to the campsite, it was meant to be. He had forgotten to take his glasses off, so chaos ensued when we went into one of the Lautaret’s darker and longer tunnels. Me telling him to “ride straight” and backing off lest he end up in a heap on the floor. I passed him afterwards, and then had to climb for several kilometres the bit that we’d previously descended. I almost didn't mind, considering it warmed the body up, but boy did the legs hurt afterwards.
The “best” bit was the 7% last four kilometres of the Lautaret – the rain had turned to light drizzle, but the roads were still sodden, and my rear brakes were having a rough time. After haring around a few bends and nearly losing it on one, I was glad to see the straight and flattish road back to Bourg d’Oisans. From here, I knew I would make it back; I knew I had done the tour, never got off to walk, ridden the Alps. The greatest physical achievement of my life by miles (and we did 60 that day). A few minutes of eerily straight road, a sprint down the left-hand turning for the campsite and arrivée at the campsite, with the other hardened last-day members coming in a few minutes after me.
We enjoyed a big pot of fondue at dinner, with the mountains serving as an inspiring backdrop for one last evening. An electrical storm roared around the nearby peaks into the early hours of the morning, providing another unforgettable experience.
Despite all of us doing little training, with exams and other such commitments, just being in the Alps spurred us on physically and mentally. By the end of the week, the improvements were clear to see – we had gone from the 9km Tamié to a day with two 2,000m Cols and over 40km of climbing let alone riding. Many thanks must go to all the members of the tour – Ross, Duncan, Christian, Charlie, Alaric, Dickon and Dave – for helping to make it such an enjoyable and (for some) competitive experience. It is one that I will never forget.
Alps Diary - Day 5: Alpe d'Huez
Alps Diary - Day 4
Alps Diary - Day 3
Alps Diary - Day 2
Alps Diary - Day 1
Alps Diary - Preview