Getting high in the Alps

We started our summer in Europe with a week in the France, staying in the beautiful Clarée Valley. I had signed up to the Etape du Tour the previous November, so when we decided to hit the road for a few months I had to work out a way to go to Sicily via the French Alps.

After considering buying a van we decided on the more (economically) sensible option of taking our bikes on the train. The Eurostar goes all the way down to Provence and it’s possible to take bikes if packed down into bags no bigger than 85cm long (on any side of the bag). That’s quite a tall order with a 56cm road bike, but with a few bungee cords I was able to get it through the gates at St Pancras.

After a night in Marseille we took a train to Briançon, a small town nestled in the Alps that was playing host to the Etape and a stage of the Tour. All the accommodation in town gets booked up pretty quick with the arrival of the Tour, but we found a gem of a campsite Huttopia in the Clarée Valley, about 30 minutes by bike. They have sites all over France and we took a glamping style pitch that had a bed on a wooden floor, fridge, picnic table, cooking stove, matches… basically everything you need!

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Clarée Valley (she refused to remove the pannier rack all week)

Sestriere

The day after we arrived I decided to spin my legs with the not insignificant climb up to Montgenèvre, past Claviere and over the border to Italy to Sestriere, the scene of some great battles in the Tour de France. It’s a great ride with stunning views of the mountains and valleys. After a coffee in Italy I turned back and took the same route back to Claviere and then onto Cesana Torinese, quite a tough climb on the way back.

I was taking it fairly easy to keep my legs fresh for the Etape, however I took a bit of abuse from my clubmates after uploading to Strava and they discovered they’d put several minutes into my time the previous day. Never mind I said, we’ll let the legs do the talking tomorrow!

The ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1084192531

Etape du Tour

It was an early start on Sunday as I had been put in wave 0, the first group off around 6am. I left the campsite around 5.15am to head to Briançon and find my start pen. I’d had visions of lining up with the crème de la crème of French cycling however I got to my pen pretty late and was at the back with a mixed assortment of riders including plenty of people from later waves who’d snuck into the front group.

The ride got off to a brisk start with wide valley rides with some rapid descents. With hundreds of unknown riders around I was taking it easy on the descents, whilst plenty of mad hatters were pushing 80 or 90 kph down the hill.

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Col d’Izoard (South approach)

Back on the flat I worked my way back to a fast-moving bunch and settled in for the first climb, the uncategorised Cote des Demoiselles Coiffées. As ever I let my enthusiasm get the best of me and followed a French rider who attacked out of the bunch for an all-out effort on the climb. I was at the limit and started to think perhaps this wasn’t a good idea with the big climbs yet to come, but was committed by this point. Over the top of the hill my group of 4 or 5 continued to push the pace so I dropped myself off the back and waited for the bigger group to catch up.

Whilst riding in the bunch I met Duncan from Derby, a triathlete, but otherwise very nice guy. We whiled away many kilometres having a chat before we hit the first categorised climb, Col de Vars. I had been feeling a bit of a knot in my stomach, I think from having a concentrated beetroot shot first thing at the tent. As we hit the climb I was suffering with the pace and got dropped off the back of the group. I felt like I was going backwards as riders surged around me. I figured it was a just a bad bit and I would pick up for the Izoard.

 

The descent off the Vars was a welcome relief and I tried to find a decent rhythm again and found several riders on my wheel as I tapped along the valley. No matter how slow I felt I was going no one was coming around me to take a turn, even with me snaking across the road to try and force them through! After a long ride along the windy valley we finally reached Guillestre and the start of the Izoard climb.

It was pretty warm by this point, touching around 30 degrees and you could see riders were suffering in the heat. As I would discover throughout the summer, my shoes were too tight in these conditions and I had to completely undo the straps to make it bearable to pedal. Not ideal for climbing a mountain.

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Beers with Roger and Tim (my brother)

On the Izoard it became every man for himself and I was slogging myself just to keep going at a semi-acceptable pace. There was a rest stop around a third of the way up, which I’d usually skip to finish the climb, but I had to grab more water and get my feet out of my shoes for some respite.

It’s a pretty majestic climb to the top and the landscape becomes barren and lunar in places as you reach the final ramps. With the top in sight I continued crawling up, with barely the energy to increase the pace for the finish. It was a relief to reach the top, but it was quite an empty feeling rather than elation as I knew I could have gone better if I’d prepared better – without stomach cramps and my shoes crushing my feet.

At the top of the Izoard was a neutralised descent back into town where we crossed the line below a finishing arch, then heading to the customary pasta party. After having some food, I headed to town to meet Maria Grazia and the other Kingston Wheelers to sink beers for the rest of the afternoon watching the Tour de France.

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Back at the campsite after the Etape

My final time was 6:47, with total time in the saddle just over 8 hours. At 180km it was quite a long Etape, personally I think I prefer the shorter sharper editions. As I suspected my brother had gone quite a bit faster and I was forced to eat my words from the day before!

The ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1086211175

Col d’Echelle

After the big ride the day before, I headed with Maria Grazia to spin the legs up the Col d’Echelle. As a fairly new cyclist she’d not cycled a Col before and was apprehensive of our upcoming ride to Bardonecchia with fully loaded panniers. The Echelle was the mountain we’d need to pass over before the descent down to Italy. After plenty of training in Surrey I knew she’d be up to it, the profile seemed fairly forgiven compared to some of the bigger mountains around us.

We cycled straight from our campsite along the valley road, before turning off right to start the climb. It’s fairly steady gradient averaging 5% with some steeper bits towards the end. As I suspected it wasn’t a problem for her and we even passed a few cyclists on the way up. After a photo at the top we carried on over the top and I nipped down to Bardonecchia for a coffee in Italy. I give it a full gas effort on the way back up – but was just outside the top 100 on Strava. Not surprising after the effort of the day before.

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Maria Grazia’s first Col

The ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1087663203

Col du Granon

The same afternoon Maria Grazia decided it would be nice to talk a walk after lunch, no rest for the wicked. Along the valley started the path up to the Col du Granon, which stands at 2413 metres and hosted a summit finish of the Tour de France in 1986. It’s possible to cycle up from the Southern side, with a narrow tarmac road leading to the summit. I observed that it would be possible to MTB from one side to the other as we walked up the gravel track. We walked all the way to the village of Granon, a charming little cluster of houses from another time. As the clouds rolled in we beat a hasty retreat back down the mountain to avoid the rain. In total, we covered 16 km across 3 and half hours.

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View from the Col du Granon

The walk on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1088027254

Galibier & Télégraphe

I had been eyeing up a big ride this week and in in advance of the tour coming through I thought it would be cool to go check out the Col du Galibier, one of cycling’s most famous climbs. Rather than just do it once, I also thought it would be a good idea to ride it both ways both North and South, the latter being the way the Tour would approach it. It was a beautifully sunny day and the climb was busy with cyclists.

After the Lautaret the southern approach is wild and dramatic. I stopped briefly at the top before descending down to Valloire, where I looked for a café. I spotted signs for the Col du Télégraphe and figured I should probably go see whilst I had the opportunity. It’s only 10km or so from the southern side and with an eye on the time (I’d promised to be back for lunch) I pushed onto the top for another photo. At the bar I stopped for a coffee and then headed back down to Valloire to begin the second ascent of the Galibier.

It was pretty hot by this point and I was starting to feel dehydrated. I got a little way up the climb before ducking into a bar for a coke and more water. Feeling a bit refreshed I pushed on up the climb, getting a few nods of respect from fans lining the road. 5km from the summit I passed a Pantani-esque Frenchman who jumped onto my wheel and then proceeded to ride away from me. I clawed him back and we rode together for a bit until I noticed he’d dropped off my wheel. Not that I’m competitive or anything. The support from the fans lining the road was getting more vocal near the top and for the last 1km I put in a big effort to finish the rest of the climb out of the saddle.

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Ready to ride in new Assos kit 👌

After the fourth mountain of the day I was pretty spent, but I had a nice 30km descent ahead of me down the Galibier and Lautaret. I was nicely aero tucked when Ross from Kingston Wheelers passed me. By the time I got back to the campsite I was finito and had to sit down with a Calippo. An epic day in the saddle!

The ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1089512752

Tour de France: Col de Lautaret

We had deliberately extended our stay to catch two stages of the Tour de France that would be taking place in the Haute Alps. The first was Stage x, a monster stage taking in the Glandon, Télégraph and Galibier before a flat finish in St Chaffrey. Maria Grazia and I decided to cycle up in jean shorts, maybe not the best choice on humid day in the Alps.

At the top we settled down for a picnic and then headed to a bar to watch the action. Contador had attacked on this stage and then been caught by Team Sky who had reeled him in. We went to grab some free goodies when the caravan rolled through ahead of the race, we ended up with sweets and washing liquid.

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Top of the Lauteret

When the race arrived, Primož Roglič, was solo followed by the GC riders a minute behind. From our vantage point on the bend the race rolled through pretty quick, but it’s amazing to see how strung out the field is on this kind of mountain stage. After it had all passed through there were several hundred cyclists heading back down the hill and we joined them for a fun descent back to Briançon.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1091559265

Tour de France: Col d’Izoard

For stage 18 I hooked up with Ross from Wheelers and we cycled up the Izoard from the North, the other side to the way the race would come up. We took it fairly easy chatting on the way up, well Ross was chatting as I was heavy breathing. Near the top they were stopping riders so we had to divert round the side of the road, carrying our bikes to the plateau. It was pretty lively at the top with a big screen and thousands of fans waiting for the summit finish. We decided to walk down the other side of the mountain with our bikes and re-join the route after the barrier sections of road. It looked pretty ridiculous with the two of us in cleats stumbling down the mountain. Eventually we got far enough down and squeezed through the barriers and then started pedalling down the course.

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Gangsta’ Ross on the Izoard

About 5km from the finish there’s a bit of a descent and there were plenty of fans and a bar so we decided to stop here and make it our viewing point. To the side of the road there was a group of Italian guys from Brescia who had brought a massive picnic of wine, cheese and cured meats. They immediately befriended us and kept us fed and watered all afternoon.

When the race arrived it was Darwin Atapuma leading up front, with eventual stage winner Warren Barguil close on his heels. The group of contenders followed close behind with some exciting attacks going onto the descent. After the broom wagon rolled through we were kept back for an age before we were allowed to go back up the hill. Giddy on wine and cheese we absolutely hammered it back up to the summit, with my early attack on Ross coming to nothing as he glided past me to the summit.

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The Italian lads from Brescia

When we reached the top the thousands of cyclists we’d seen earlier were attempting to get back down, it was wonderful sight-seeing a sea of cyclists snaking its way down the mountain, with the occasional team car working its way through the madness. At some point we were passed by Michael Matthews in an orica car, freshly crowned in the points jersey. It was a crazy descent down and starting to get dark by the time we reach Briançon. I headed to Carrefour and bought some beers, then cycled back to the campsite one handed.

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Busy at the top of the Izoard

The ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1093179104

Bardonecchia

With our week in the Alps at an end we headed back up the Col d’Echelle and onto the Italian border town of Bardonecchia, where we take a train to Turin. On the ride up we passed an Italian guy with a heavy laden touring bike and plume of feathers on his helmet. We saw him again later on the train and he told us how he would tell his family he’d back in a few days (or weeks) and go off exploring on his bike. A really nice guy and inspiration for the rest of our trip.

The ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1094160067

Summary

It was a fantastic week of riding and camping, something I’d love to repeat next time I do the Etape. In total we covered 615 Km and 14956 metres of climbing. A great week on the bike.

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Stage 18 departing from Briançon
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