My ride up Alpe D'Huez

Like most cyclists living in the US, we all dream of riding up that famous Tour de France climb Alpe d'Huez. Well, I finally lived the dream and rode up that famous climb. I thought I'd jot down some notes and show some of the pictures that I took.

I called a friend from home, who now lives in Zurich, and asked if he wanted to ride l'Alpe d'Huez. We had talked about it a while back and decided that we'd do it sometimes. This particular weekend seemed just as good as any. So Doug left Zurich by train and we met at the Neuchatel Switzerland train station around 9am.

We pulled out onto the road shortly after that and headed for Grenoble France. It's about 250 km (155 miles) so it was just a couple of hours on the road. That of course assumes that you don't get lost - which we did. There is no sign in Grenoble that says "this way to l'Alpe d'Huez". So Doug whipped out the map and got us there pretty quickly. However, getting lost turned out to be a good thing. We stumbled upon the velodrome in Grenoble.

That, of course, put us a little later into the ride than was anticipated but it still turned out good. The road to Bourg-D'oisans (the base of l'Alpe d'Huez) is a narrow, fairly heavily traveled road. Doug had a great idea, or what we thought was a great idea. As we were driving up to Bourg-D'oisans, we found a nice little parking area and decided to start the ride there.

We started the ride almost exactly twenty kilometers from the base of l'Alpe d'Huez. Doug had a altimeter on his cyclometer and we knew we were right around 400 meters. We also knew that the base of l'Alpe d'Huez was at 700 meters so we had a bit of climbing to do before the real climbing started.

What we didn't realize was that the 300 meters of climbing was right out of the parking lot. So we started up a not so bad ascent cold. It was tough on the legs. After around eight kilometers or so, it leveled a bit. We cycled along until we hit the town of Bourg-D'oisans. You make a left turn and BOOM, there it is. You start climbing a very steep ascent at around 11%. It was really rough on the legs.

After a few minutes of climbing, you hit the first of the 21 famous switchbacks. The picture to the right shows how steep the climb is. The picture really doesn't give you the idea of how painful it is. The 11% grade continues for about 3 or so kilometers. And, of course, at each turn you get a terrible reminder of just how far you've got to go.
At the fourth switchback, I stopped to take a quick shot of the town of Bourg-D'oisans. I was suprised to see that the town was so far down the hill. In just three switchbacks, we had climbed just a bit shy of 300 meters. On the right is the sign from the 17th switchback (or fourth from the bottom. They are numbered in reverse order as you go up). Each sign has the current altitude and a rider that (I assume) won the stage.
At the following switchback (number 16) you enter a very small village. It had a really pretty church in town so I stopped again to take a picture. And then I turned a looked uphill and saw what I had to climb. In the picture to the right, we climbed up and over the small pass in the middle of picture. It's too bad that you can't see the roads in the picture because it winds back and forth across the face of this hill. It's a very impressive sight from this point.

As I was climbing the hill, I came upon some other people climbing the mountain. After exchanging pleasantries (in French) I noticed that most had on jersies that were written in English. So I asked where they were from. They were from the US. Very cool! So we started chatting about why they were here. Turns out that they were on an organized bike tour. Oh, I asked, with who? They answered Breaking Away Bicycle Tours. I was shocked. I had just come back from the Breaking Away Giro trip. At one of the turns, I came upon Mitch, the photographer. He snapped a couple shots of me and I stopped and chatted. Later that day, I saw Greg and his wife Teri. It was good to see them again. I thought it was very cool that just by chance we happened to meet up.

Just after talking to Mitch, I snapped this photo looking back down the mountain. You can really seen the many switchbacks and the valley where we left. At this point I still have around 9 switchbacks to go so I'm about two thirds of the way there.

As I continued up the mountain, I rounded turn 7 (I believe) and there it was - the town of l'Alpe d'Huez. That's a very nice sight. At this point you're tired but at least the road is not so steep at this point. It's a very scenic turn with a nice church inside the corner. I stopped briefly at the small house to the right of the road to refill my water bottles. At this point I was really low on water and needed more.

Here you can see turn 6. I snapped a quick picture up the valley (left) and back down the valley (right). Only a few more turns to go. At this point, you can see the city of l'Alpe d'Huez getting closer and closer. The last five switchbacks are pretty easy. Of course, just after switchback number one, it turns a little more steep into town. At this point you're so motivated just to get there. A number of people were hiking up the road and would cheer "Allez" as I passed. It was pretty cool.
After reaching the summit, Doug and I stopped in the tourist center and picked up our certificates that say we climbed l'Alpe d'Huez. It's a very nice certificate that allows you to fill in the time it took you to climb it. I could have lied and said that Pantani beat me by only 2 minutes but it was more like 30 minutes.
Just before decending, Doug and I stopped under the "Arrivee" banner and got a British guy to snap our picture. It was a fun descent and not really hard. Since the top is not overly steep, the switchbacks are pretty easy. The last 3 or 4 kilometers are tough because it gets steeper and the switchbacks come faster. As I was decending, I took turn 3 a bit too hot and laid a bit of rubber down to avoid a car - not good. But Doug and I made it back to the car safe a sound. We had to endure a small rain shower but it was short and just sprinked.
After coming home, I found a great website that has lots of data about many of the climbs in Europe. The course profile of l'Alpe d'Huez is on the right. If you'd like to see other passes in Europe, check out http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Ginza/5912/ciclismo.html.

Postscript: I went back to l'Alpe d'Huez a few weekends ago to see just how fast I could do it. I rode a 39x26 gear and timed myself. I rode the 12.4 kilometers at an average speed of 12.1 kph. It took me 1:01:06. I was rather pleased with the time but wanted to break an hour. My max speed on the way down was 82kph.

To give you some idea of my speed, the winner in 1999 was expected to do the climb in about 42-45 minutes. Pantani holds the record. I believe his time was 37:35.


I received a few pictures from Doug. The first is me petting a dog that had jumped into the fountain in the center of the town of Alpe d'Huez. The second is another view of the finish.