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What it's like to bike up Alpe d' Huez, Pee Oui tells all

Phil Van Valkenberg's picture

This July the Tour de France will again contest the slopes of Alpe d' Huez and, for the first time in history, climb it twice in the same day!  This will be made possible by climbing beyond the normal finish line up over the col du Sarenne then descending on an obscure road back into the valley of the Romanche River to do the climb again for the finish.  This will take place on Thursday, July 18, three days before the Tour finish in Paris, so it is sure to be decisive.

I have ridden a bike up Alpe d' Huez three times.  In 2003 I did it for time.  This blistering summer over 30,000 mainly elderly French would perish before it was over.  Seems many went off for vacation leaving Grand-Me're home in her un-airconditioned apartment.  A scorcher that would affect the Tour riders and Pee Oui as well, thankfully not lethally.

When you are in the narrow valley of the Romanche looking up toward Alpe d Huez you can't believe there is a road up there.  The rock faces are so shear.  Even the stone itself looks evil (see my photo of souvenir rock).  I'd climbed up as far as Huez, the village 2/3 up in 2001, the year Armstrong trounced Ulrich by 2 minutes to win in 39 something.  It was hot enough then.  I had the idea of shooting for 78 minutes so I'd be half-fast Armstrong.

In 2003 we were staying in Huez. The smart thing would have been to get an early start, but breakfast in the garden was just too pleasant.  There is a back road from Huez to a side valley then down to the Romanche.  I thought it would be a good way to start as I'd get a warm up riding the valley 5K back to Bourg d Oisans to start the climb. 

At the Tourism Center the day before I'd bought the Alpe d' Huez card, a nice souvenir showing the names of each of the 21 hairpin turns and the grades of each ramp.  The race climb is about 3,500 feet, 13K (8 miles) and the average grade is 7.9%.  The card is also a time card and there is a punch clock by the side of the road before the first ramp. At the top there is another clock you can punch for your finish time.

Before leaving the US I'd contacted my friend Mark Norstad in the Bay Area who machines titanium parts for the bike industry to see if he made chain rings for my triple.  I wanted to lighten my bike as much as possible, but mainly I wanted the smallest inner ring to get my sorry ass up the Alpe.  Turned out he did and sent me a set of three including the tiniest.  The 24T though was anodized purple.  I asked him about it and the told me he'd machined it specially for a lesbian San Francisco bike messenger who insisted on the color.  He figured if he was making one, why not make two.

With my late start I headed from Huez on the back road.  It starts as a cliff hugging, no guard rail, 1,500 foot drop off, but fairly level, then a succession of hairpin turns drop it into the side valley.  I was sweeping the hairpins really well when just a couple from the bottom my front tire blew in mid turn.  I rode it out.  Testimony to why sew ups are safer.  I put on my only spare and gingerly coasted to the bottom.  I knew I could avoid re-gluing cause rolling a tire would be no problem on the climb.  But, I knew the bike shop in Bourg d' Oisans would be getting nutso as race day neared and they might run out. So, I stopped in and bought two spares.

Now I was starting the climb in the heat of the day.  There was a slight breeze, but blowing the wrong way for a climb, at my back. The sun was near its zenith so there would be little tree shade and none from the peaks.  I punched the clock and hit the first ramp.  It's one of the steepest and a real slap up side the head.  Makes you see why the non-contenders in the Tour look like they've shifted into reverse on it.  I had a heart monitor on.  I'd figured if I could keep my pulse in the low 150s I could make it, but spending more than short sections at 160 I'd be screwed.  The grades always pitch up in the turns and the closer you cut the corner the steeper the pitch. 

Everything seemed under control except for the heat.  Then about six bends up I hit a 3K stretch of fresh asphalt, a blank canvas for the pavement painters who would show up soon.  As it was it had Easy Bake Oven written all over it.  The glare made little mirage ripples rise off it in the distance.  The slightly softer surface added resistance that felt like my brake was on.  Clearing that stretch I was stressing, pulse increasing, but still below 160 except on some turns.  A couple of ramp angles allowed a thin line of tree shade to creep over the pavement.  Swinging into these was like having cool water thrown on me.

Now it would be mental.  Often when suffering I find a mantra that keeps me going.  Looking down to make sure I hadn't somehow shifted out of my 24x19 low it came to me as I saw that purple chain ring.  "Lesbo-power, lesbo power" I'd chant in my head the rest of the way up.  The mantra gave me the courage to pass through the village where I could see the window of the Gite we were staying at knowing there we some cool Grimbergins in the fridge.  Then above the village and the tree line the temp moderated due to altitude and catching a bit more breeze.

I'd been passing riders all the way up.  It seemed there was a CSC tour group there, many on mountain bikes, grinding away.  The fans who had already gathered cheered us all, especially at the Dutch corner where they were painting the flag on the road and quite into the Heineken bag already.  You have to climb in the saddle except for brief spots on the turns and even seated you have to keep your weight forward or risk losing steering control.  Passing a rider with a quick burst to avoid losing momentum from an oncoming car, I popped a little wheely.

Three hairpins from the top the crowd barricades started and there were photographers who snapped you and handed you a card with their info and a number.  Back home in the US I was able to order a print online (see Pee Oui smiling). 

Lesbo-power, lesbo-power.  I was going to make it, but not in the time I wanted.  When I punched the clock and did the math it was 84 minutes.  The cold water at the fountain by the Tourist Office was the best I'd ever had and handfuls washed the salt from my face.  At the office I got to put my name in the big book of people who had climbed to the top.  For a Euro I bought a certificate signed by the mayor and the attendant wrote my name, the date and ride time on it in the beautiful cursive they all seem to have.  As I was leaving the guide from the CSC tour came in with a list of his people wanting to get certificates and was told that they would all have to come in individually if they wanted them.

So I hadn't hit my goal for time, but had conquered the Alpe non-stop.  Then, two days later, the Tour came through.  Armstrong didn't win, but took third and the yellow jersey on another scorching day. And, his climb time was 42 minutes.  That's half of 84, so I was half-fast Armstrong after all.  Oh the glory of it all.

Conquering Alpe d' Huez is a victory of strength and will power.  I'll try it again when I'm there for the Tour this July.  I'm another ten years older, but a few pounds lighter so we'll see how it goes.  I've still got that purple chain ring.  I plan to blog on Trail Genius everyday of the trip.  For the immediate future, I'll write about what it's like to descend from the col du Sarenne, the scariest I've ever done, and climb Mount Ventoux, which will also be in this year's Tour.

Keep your cogs clean,

Pee Oui