During last years prologue of the Tour de France in London two friends and I decided to take on some of the classic climbs of the Tour. It would also be a university reunion with some tricky synchronization of schedules as Tom lives in LA, Oli in Frankfurt and myself in London. After setting a date the planning was, pretty easy. We choose Briancon as our base camp and decided to shuffle our play list of Cols according to weather and legs.
I was very eager to take a bike from the period when I became interested in the TdF, late Laurent Fignon and early Miguel Indurain that is. Sourced a nice Colnago Master Olympic frame set, Campagnolo Record C with 2nd generation Delta brakes. The bike resembles very closely what was ridden by the Team Mapei around 1993/94.
There were two concerns regarding the bike. Committing to ride in style, the granny gear would be limited to 39/26 (no compact crank set). That meant bumping up the legs and confidence to manage getting up the Cols not only in style but also with dignity.
The second hurdle was the performance of the Delta brakes. They are known for being not the most aggressive brakes and a mechanics nightmare to maintain, referred to them as ‘ideal for riding in the peleton…’
After the obvious fixes as having carefully routed cable housing and smoothly running cogs inside the brakes I did a fare share of research on the getting to a acceptable setting. The solution came along with the Baradine 453 brake shoes and Campagnolgo chainrings nuts as spacers! I am happy to go into details for everyone in the need of help on that matter. The result is a brake that works well without beeing too aggressive.
Tom sourced a nice Francesco Moser bike on Ebay instead of hauling his Colnago over from California. Oli covered the carbon department with a very nice Wilier Izoard. The Izord set the theme for the ride of the first day:
We took off from the Briancon following the Riveiere La Claree downstream to take on the south ramp of the Col d’Izoard. A quiet road parallel the N94. After 15 k of easy cruising at the lower parts of the valley the road suddenly ramped up on the west bank and we gained about 200m enjoying an amazing view towards the south and stayed above the river for about 10K before we found our way into Guillestre. The market was on and we have a quick lunch before continuing our ride up the Torrent Le Guile. The steep canyon of Le Guile is incredibly narrow the first 5 k after Guillestre. It is the same stretch that leads towards the Col d’ Agnel and was part of this years TdF Etappe from Embrun to Prato Nevoso.
The weather was perfect and the landscape changed sometimes dramatically when taking a turn. With the Chateau Queyras just in sight we left the valley and the climb really kicked in. Suddenly the temperature dropped and we were wondering for a moment wether the blur in the distance was rain or just some foggy moist… The rain was pouring down in seconds in we sprinted 500m to a barn roof in next village. After 15 minutes of moaning why we didn’t stop at an ice-cream place the rain was gone and we continued. Now we hit the nasty bit of the climb in the forrest just after the village Brunissard. I tried to figure out what the difficult thing was about that part. I reckon it is because the forrest disguises what lies in front of you and does not even give you the satisfaction to look at what you already gained. That dull stretch makes it even more spectacular what we experienced when we finally took that right turn and the Cesse Desert was in-front of us. It is a moonscape like environment with massive slopes of fine gravel that quite obviously takes over the road in spring. There is a short strech of descent before climbing the last 200 m altitude. At that point we were to taken by the surrounding to feel any pain. At the summit there were some cyclist and almost the double number of bikers most on heavy BMWs. From now on it was only 30K descent down to our small hotel in Briancon. Oliver, the master of ‘Need For Speed’ took off and disappeared soon behind the next bend.
Just when I past the last hairpin the secon teretorial shower of the day broke loose. I actually quite enjoyed padelling on the big ring through masses of water. The Delata barkes did quite an amzing job and worked as good as you expect calipers to work on a rim in such conditions. The sun broke through after 10 min and back to the hotel take that 300m 10% ramp up the Avenue de la Republique.
Note: A proper wind/rain breaker is worth the money on a descent, newspaper for pros.
Col de l’Echelle Col de Montgenevre
The rental company was so kind to upgrade us to a Merce but we decided to leave the beauty at the hotel again as the previous day was great without having to pack and unpack the car.
We took of for an easy spin towards Col de l’Echelle. It was a quiet ride almost felt like Canada of some sort, wide open. We overtook riders once in a while and where overtaken from others. Many tourers around and quite some locals who most have been on bikes for decades. About 75 min into the ride we reached Col’ Echelle at 1750 m. The landscape keeps rolling for another 5 K befor it dropped into the descent which even I started to like. New smooth roadsurface, nice bends and most important proper hard shoulders at the hairpins. It kind of freaks me out when there is absolutly nothing and I think the Fraenk Schleck YouTube video crashing at this years Tour de Swiss didnt help either. That caution payed of when I reached the damm where the raod goes through a narrow conrete gate. A dozen of Sahara-ready 4x4s came in my direction and there was now way the gate would have been wide enough for a Merc G and me on a bike. So I came to a stand still. I must say these were the only obvious jerks on cars. It is amazing when cars let overtake on the descents.
On Italian territory a brisk tailwind made us almost fly the 10K to Oulux. Quick stop for fruits and water and off we went up again towards the Col de Montgenevre. The route is actually relatively busy with cars but not too bad. On the way up we spotted the bobsledding course from the Turion Olympics 2006. The climbing was not pleasant, quite hot even in the shade of a the avalanche sheds quite demanding or maybe we were just pushing it to get off that main road. 2k before the summit the new road goes through a 1400 m tunnel.
I was quite happy to take the old road and get off that nasty stretch. Montgenevre is a typical modern ski resort with some summer activities. Saw some mountain bikes strapped to the cabins of the local cable car. On the descent down to Briancon we didn’t get through the traffic. When the road flattened out Oli dived into the slipstream of a car and peddled its heart out in 53/13. Loads of riders, many with luggage came up the Col as we went down. That day I learned that my 33 years of ages is still relatively young in terms of who is out there climbing these Cols. Grey hair almost a must.
The previous night we decided to take on a Col at the south ridge of the Alps setting of from Barcelonnette (1115m). The decision had to be made between Cime de la Bonette (2860m) and Col d’Allos (2250m). We opted for the shorter climb saving the highest Col in the Alps for a later day maybe when the hair turned silver. The plan was to take the Merce to Bercelonette all three ride up to the Col d’Allos, one back to the care the others continue the tour towards the south and hope for the driver to catch up. The plan for the next trip is to have a fitness level that allows for two major Cols per day as it give the option to loop back.
The climb started right after we left the village but easy in 39/23. Stayed there for most of the next 20K. The route was very picturesque, model-train-scape like. Stone bridges, narrow roads attached to steep cliffs. The traffic was almost zero so that we took entire width of the road. Some riders past and so did we pass some. At the summit somebody had parked a car very unfortunate in front of the Col d’Allos sign. We dismounted and had another bite from the cereal bars. I got tired of cereal bars and switched to nuts which got more more popular among my co-riders. Tom found a vaccination card, credit card, some Euro notes, and a helmet next to the sign post. There was no rider in sight. 10 minutes later we saw somebody coming up the south ramp, without helmet and as he came closer looked like the guy on the the photograph in the vaccination card. We waved at him and it turned out he didn’t even missed his documents and money, just the helmet and had made his way back up from Allos (1450m). He awarded us a very delicious organic chocolate and took off to catch up with his group. He was defiantly in the 2 major Cols per day category as he did Croix de Fer and Galibier two days before. We got on the bike shortly after, Tom and I heading south and Oli north back to the car. The Mediterranean is only 100 K away, well actually 160 K along the river, and at that point we were still toying with the idea of possibly making it to the sea.
The descent was great and didn’t end for ages. Hairpins down to Foux d’Allos and then very smooth riding down the valley, although with quite a headwind at the beginning. 75 Minutes in the ride I gave Oli a call and we decided to meet up at the Lac de Castillion. The meeting point was perfectly timed and the setting stunning. Tom referred to the lakes color as primary-school-sea-blue. We went for a swim and decided that that was close enough as it could get to L’Cote Azur. Packed the bikes into the car and headed back north. Had a nice dinner at Sait Etienne de Tinee and got back to the hotel quite late. The driver was rewarded with a bottle of beer.
Col du Galibier
Over breakfast we decided to do the real Galiber starting from Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne at 711m going past the Col de Telegraph. There were two problems: Firstly, we had to get there again by car which was not actually a problem yet. Secondly, Toms knee caused some serious trouble. It survived the previous day under the influence of a couple of Ibuprofen and Heparin gel. He wanted to give it a shot anyway.
So we set of by car going actually over Galibier via Col du Lautaret. After the first bend of the Galibier’s south ramp some happy cows were blocking the road, something we didn’t see the days before and actually put a note on for the descent. Still in by car we went over the summit and all the way down to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne. It was dead silent in the car. It is one thing to get to climb and think ‘I have to go all the way up’ it is a totally different story to drive down a climb by car you are planning to go back up in a very short while.
Parked the car, set up the bikes, no joking around and off we went into the climb. 15 min into the ride Toms knee got worse and he decided to pack it, so he rolled back to the car. That was a shame but probably the best thing to do for recovering and possibly getting Alp d’Huez the next day.
Oliver and I climbed in silence. Even my bike was quiet, the 39/26 was always a bit noisy as the derailleur made ever so slight contact with the spokes. Called it the harp-gear. No harp in 39/26 today, must have been the heat. Another 15 minutes into the climb we looked down and were quite pleased by the altitude gained. Lesson learned: It feels not as bad on the bike as it looks from the car!
Some patches of new tarmac came a bit off the road and sticky stuff got in between tires and brakes. Stopped for a moment to remove the gunk and elegantly gave way to three riders. Caught two of them just before the summit of the the Col de Telegraph and the other on the short descent into Valloire. A small village with its own radio station and loudspeakers at every lamppost. On the sharp climb just out of Valloire we were over taken by a Fraenk Schleck look- and ride-like. The guy pushed some gear centre cassette and was definitely not on a compact crank-set nor on a very spread out set of sprockets. Three guys trying to chase him also went past. We kept the these three guys in sight and after another 15 min we know we would catch them soon. Fraenk Schleck was long gone. The 6K stretch between Valloire and the point where the road crosses the river was actually the most impressive part of the ride as we still had the energy to appreciate the beauty and also had the impressive climb just in front of us.
Caught the group of three 1 K before the river crossing just to pull over and at the crossing to get the water bottles refilled. Bad idea, what did we expect to travel trough Sahara for the next 4 hours? Anyway 1.5 Kilo of nice fresh water on the bike. 0.5 would have been enough for the last effort I would say just 5.5 K to go. It was getting steep now but very impressive as the view back on the road was undistracted into the valley.
What was discouraging in the beginning, having driven the route by car, was now playing to our advantage as we could break down the ride in distinct portions. The cheese dairy, the old tunnel …
That was actually the best riding from the old tunnel the last 200 m altitude to the summit. Knowing we made it, going almost flat out in a steady rhythm and gulping in the slightly thinner air. Around the last bend the road levels out a bit and after some relaxing strokes we shifted down 2 gears and accelerated towards the summit 2645 m. The panorama is breathtaking.
After 15 minutes rest we set off towards Briancon. We passed the stretch that was occupied earlier by the cows and got onto the Route Natinal down from Col du Lautaret. We went a bit wild and taking turns team TT style. I guess it was partly the excitement, the oxygen rich air and the smooth road-surface that made us crank out quite a brisk pace. Oli referred to it as the most demanding stretch of the day, which is simply not true, or maybe it is as he took the longer turns in the wind and actually set the pace in the first place.
Best day on a bike so far! The only thing that damped it was Tom not on the ride. He tried to make the best of the day and explored the area around Croix de Fer and promised to be back at the Galibier for unfinished business.
Last day! Oli and Tom had to be back in Frankfurt the same night and planed to drop me off in Geneva but on the way is the climb up Alp d’Huez: 21 hairpins 13.8 K 1080 m altitude to climb and of course all legendary stuff. You read it is called the Dutch Mountain and by the time we got to the relatively small parking at the entry of the climb we knew why. These folks really celebrate various victories of Dutch riders by taking it on in big groups. The good mood it is actually infectious and it is great to see that so many people give that climb a go. On touring bikes, mountain bikes, couples, families
We set off, it is said the steepness at right at the beginning would scare the hell out of you. Don’t ever trust ride reports. Yes it is steep but noting we haven’t seen before. As a rider we all remember our worst climb, maybe it was early in the season or late and over-geared or low on carbs and on the edge of bonking and when somebody mentions a very difficult climb we tend to set it in this kind of extreme category.
Having said that, I have no idea how you attack that bugger after being over Croix de Fer + Telegraph + Galibier, a typical Tour de France Alp d’Huez stage.
The road is already painted with names and banter from the first hairpins on. Took the first couple of turns together and then settled each in our own rhythm. Was chatting with Oli that we reunite at the point where the classic route peels off the main road aka THE JUNCTION and ride the last stretch together.
At the old chapel, half way up the supporting families of the Dutch riders we handing refreshments and performing live music. Oli was taking always the acceleration out of the hairpins into the ramps and I caught up with him just before he took the next scoop. The surprise came at THE JUNCTION Oli hissed ‘I push all the way up’. Well, that what you get from your best friends! Fine with me another 4K to go. The bends are getting wide now and very colorful. When you see the Village there is a sign saying 2km but the ‘2’ is somehow doubled up with a different font and then you already see some finish line and many Dutch riders celebrating and a finish-line and Oli getting of his bike. Kind of happy we are done but remember stories and images that it continuos through the village.
Everybody is cheerful around here so it must the real thing. We rolled back to show-boat and take pictures take in the bends and over the fish line. After an ice cream we decide to check out the story behind the “the other finish” and followed the road through the village. At some point it almost looked like we were absolutely wrong but follow some other rider and there it comes at the and of a huge parking space there is a sign. The official finish and now the 2km sign earlier makes total sense. So the 1:04 clocked to the old finish are king of useless, but the ride was absolutely great and I really want to know how that place is when it is a stage finish.
The Galibier was not only the best ride I have done so far and the Izoard the most breathtaking, it was an absolute amazing holiday with two great friends. Next year hopefully at Toms place in Southern California.