The climb up to the Alpe d’Huez is now famous from its regular inclusion in the Tour de France. Yet it is dangerously busy, overrated and in reality boring. However, if you can survive the lunatic riders and drivers on the climb. If you can navigate through the hordes of cyclists, their overpriced bikes, the cafes and souvenir shops in Alpe d’Huez. Then dodge the construction traffic for the next Russian ski hotel.
You will arrive on a desolate road out of town. Here you can rediscover the peace and quiet of the French Alps on a gentle climb up to the Col de Sarenne. Then for a reward you can take the long and even quieter way home. With a ride along one of the most breath-taking balcony roads in all of Europe.
Getting to the start line
Bourg d’Oisans is the town at the very base of the Alpe d’Huez. Here you will find many campsites and hotels from which to choose. Yet they can quickly fill up in the busier summer months. Planning my stay with google maps; I noticed there was a quieter campsite just out of town called RCN Belledonne. It is reasonably priced, there is a pool and the staff are friendly and helpful. See here: https://www.rcn.nl/en/camping/france/alpe-d-huez/rcn-belledonne
This meant that I had a good few miles to warm up my muscles before beginning the climb up the Alpe d’Huez. Little did I realise that the route alongside the Isere River was beautiful in its own way. The everchanging views; the parallel lines of the riverbanks and the vanishing point; were all amazing as I thundered along on a perfectly tarmacked greenway.
The busiest bike lane in all of France
Arriving to Bourg d’Oisans involved a small distance on the wide shoulder of a main road. I then had to navigate a large roundabout before the final approach to the Alpe d’Huez. Passing the last two campsites, I could see the road turn to the left and start to climb. I stopped to catch my breath and watch a peloton sized bunch of cyclists zoom past. I was laughing in astonishment; it felt like the busiest road in London or Paris. With most of the traffic being cyclists of varying self confidence. Interlaced with the occasional Renault Clio driven by a teenager at full speed as he tried to not be late for work.
The Alpe d’Huez is known for its 21 hairpins; which are numbered and counted down on TV when the professionals of the Grande Tour race up. With each hairpin having a plaque commemorating a previous stage winner. Yet for all the historical sentiment of this seemingly haloed climb; something did not feel quite right. Looking around, I could see either a busy road; an overdeveloped valley or grey granite cliffs leading up to even greyer mountains. With the city like traffic; the grey rock of buildings and a breezeless dry air; I wanted to be here in the same way I wanted to be in a polluted city.
Thankfully, the torment did not last too long and I soon arrived to the town of Alpe d’Huez.
The first person you meet as you pass the welcome sign of the Alpe d’Huez is a photographer. A poor man taking photos of you on your expensive bike; in the vain hope you will buy his photographs. I felt sorry for this man. Spending the whole day under the fierce sun, being polite to the cold and aloof, hoping all day for any earnings at the end of the day. Yet this gentleman was the nicest man that I met in the whole town.
A vulgar street of souvenir shops and cafes was packed with cold and hard looking cyclists. None of them seemed happy from their climbing achievement. They seemed focused on buying even more expensive clothes, waiting for a overpriced coffee or just blankly staring at anyone they do not know.
I could not wait to get out of Alpe d’Huez; it was an awful place. What is essentially a soulless ski resort for Russian oligarchs and Chinese diplomats; has become like a Benidorm for the bicyclists in summer. It was hard to find the Col de Sarenne; because it thankfully has no signposts at all. Leaving town; I noticed a display of old bicycles and a list of previous Tour de France winners. I noticed that the name of Lance Armstrong had been erased from the list; for admitting to doping. Yet still on the list were: Jan Ullrich; Frank Schleck and the legendary Marco Pantani? It made me realise that maybe Lance is still the better man for admitting to something wrong that no-one else here can?
A road less travelled to the Col de Sarenne
After literally passing through a building site with excavators and diggers either side. I came to an airport for the rich and infamous. At the point of giving up and turning around; I spotted an unmarked gravelled road leading off into the fields. Rounding the first hill; I was suddenly alone. I could hear the birdsong once more and a fresh breeze seemed to greet me like an old friend. I was now climbing towards the Col de Sarenne. A road that only goes to the next valley and nothing more.
The final part of the climb to the Col de Sarenne was surprisingly steep in places. The road climbed up through a valley that widened until it reached the summit ridge; giving to an optical illusion of the altitude. It was mid June and the wild mountain-meadow flowers were in full bloom.
Finally reaching the summit; I met three Czech men. An elder but still fit father and his two sons. We discussed the return route ahead and then took it turns to take each others photographs. It was amazing to think that absolute strangers from far away lands can meet through a common exercise. No politics or religion was spoke of; just a laugh and a joke.
Waving goodbye to the good men of the Czech Republic; I descended into the next valley. The road hair-pinned away; as it tried to lose height as quickly as possible. This valley could be named after the Ferrand river in its depths; yet it seemed so remote, to be named at all. The valley climbed ahead; to hills and mountains that led away to the east. Yet I could only go down and back to a so called civilization.
In places the road had turned to gravel; after being broken by brutal winters and the freeze/thaw effect of surface water. Descending further I met two shepherdesses; caring for a flock of at least 300! As I passed by the flock; I slowed as to not frighten them. For which one shepherdess waved, thanked me and gave the most beautiful smile. It made me feel happy, whole, amazed and relaxed. Here I was enjoying in the French Alps with all forms of natural beauty around me.
After this epiphany of the natural way; the road descended for miles and miles down to the Lac du Chambon. Take care to not turn the wrong way here like I did. The road to the left through a tunnel towards Briancon seemed the natural route but I was wrong. Turn right onto the D1091 towards Grenoble and Le Freney d’Oisans. Ride across the top of the dam then descend until you see a Avia petrol station. Turn right here and follow the D211A towards the village of Mairie d’Auris.
The scenic way home
By the time I had reached the D211A; I was exhausted, hungry and my water bottles were almost empty. I had took the opportunity to refill at every water fountain that I had passed; yet it was a very hot day. The D211A side road started to climb above me; to pass over a ridge. Yet when I arrived to the top of the ridge; the road kept climbing up! Looking across the valley I did not realise that I had descended a long way. So I was now having to climb; just so the road could pass above the near vertical cliffs that fall hundreds of metres to the valley floor below.
The road seemed to keep climbing until I was almost ready to drop. I started dreaming of endless dinners, a shower and my comfy bed. I even thought of just sleeping on the grass verge; then the road magically levelled in front of a sign.
It was a warning sign that the road ahead is narrow, avalanche prone with many precipices. Rounding a rocky outcrop; I was greeted by the evening sun. A sun that shone down on one of the most breath-taking views I have ever seen. The Isere River and the town of Bourg d’Oisans lay far below. I was on a narrow balcony that clung to the cliff. The stunning beauty brought me quickly to my senses and wide awake!
The return back to the campsite was still long and tiring. Yet I had gained a new strength from the natural beauty of what lay before me. I finally returned to my campervan and slept like a baby. I was living a dream.
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