As the blog title says, you can feel very small in the shadow of something so immense. Just one more thing cycling can do for you. Put you in your place, in a very awesome sort of way.
Visiting the Tour de France isn’t all about riding the same roads as the race and being in huge crowds all day long. It’s also about the things that make France special, like trying to figure out why anyone would build roads in the crazy places they do. Oh yeah, there’s the food too, especially if you like the type of meat that hangs on one of those big rotating thingees and they scrape it off in layers.
Today was our first full day, which meant it was time to hit the ground running, er, riding. Originally the Tour de France wasn’t in the plan at all, until I discovered that the stage finish wasn’t too far from where our ride would be ending. But mostly, since my friend Larry had never ridden a bike in France, I wanted to introduce him to some of the special back roads with great pavement, little traffic and once in a while, a bit of insanity you’d never see practiced in the US. Since we were staying in Grenoble, what better way to start than the Vercors.
Most haven’t heard of the Vercors. The Alps, the Pyrenees, and if they’re really educated or a bit snooty, they’ll let you know about the Massif Central. But not the Vercors, which is good and bad. It’s almost as if it’s a semi-unknown semi-autonomous region in France, build within its own miniature-but-powerful mountain range. Perhaps no coincidence that it was also central to the Resistance movement in WWII.
I discovered that amazing piece of road, the Combe Laval/Col de la Machine, 5 or 6 years ago on a trip with Kevin. It was a beast of a climb, but that ridiculous road with the incredible views (shown in the photo at the top) made it worthwhile. But, the climb getting there was really grueling (Col de la Machine) and the payoff, the cliff road above, actually came too early in the ride. So I made some improvements. 🙂
Basically we did it in reverse, and it would have been completely awesome if not for the gnarly headwinds we faced once we had descended the mountain and were riding the flat roads into the town of Romans, where today’s ‘Tour stage finished. I think I could improve upon it further still (even after dropping the flat section because there’s really no need to ride into Romans); the route we traveled up was supposed to have some cliff roads of its own, but a few years ago they abandoned the fun part in favor of a modern, uphill tunnel that’s over a mile long. Still, a very pleasant ride heading up to it. You can view our route below, including photos taken along the way if you click on the map.
“Ladies & gentlemen, I give you the back side of water!” Does that bring back any memories? It should. I can’t imagine that many people haven’t ridden the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, and been on the back side of the waterfall where you get that ridiculously-corny endlessly-repeated line. Having been to Disneyland too many times (mainly care of two too-spoiled kids who think it’s some sort of right to visit Disneyland on an almost-yearly basis), that line came immediately to mind riding up the D219 road opposite Alpe d’Huez a week ago last Friday (July 22, 2011).
Wow. It seems longer ago than that. But what a great day. It had its issues; getting a flat tire on the descent, and having the tube installed then go bad as well, but for me, getting to ride a road that I’d seen from across the valley (on top of Alpe d’Huez) for so many years, well, it was one of the highest things on my “bucket list.” That probably explains why it wasn’t quite the same for my son, for whom it was just another road, perhaps interesting, but somewhat a distraction from the day’s main event (climbing Alpe d’Huez itself).
Also making this interesting is Kevin’s epilepsy; at any point on a hard climb he could possibly have a seizure that might cause him to lose control and fall over. Because of that it was important for me to be riding to the outside, keeping Kevin riding up next to the mountain and as far away from the sheer cliff (protected only by those low bricks) as possible. If Kevin did have a seizure, he knew that I was going to end up literally pushing him down into the ground; this was not the place to risk him wobbling across the road. Fortunately, I didn’t have to put that plan into effect.
Alpe d’Huez, on its own, is a fine ride, but not really enough for a full day. Spend the extra 1.5-2hrs and climb up to Villard Notre Dame, have a coke (or two) and enjoy the view before heading back into the valley and up the main attraction on the other side (Alpe d’Huez). Park somewhere near the huge Supermarket (same place the ride starts on the Googlemap at the bottom of this page), where you can load up on inexpensive food & drink & various other supplies. This puts you just a kilometer out of the center of town, and, literally, right at the very base of Alpe d’Huez.
For a detailed description of what it’s like, see the photos below. Words really can’t describe D219. Just make sure you’ve got sturdy tires, spare tubes and a working pump, because the rocks that fall onto the road are incredibly sharp. Out of maybe 10 other cyclists we saw on D219, two got flats. Er, three. I got one myself.
Specifics: Elevation at base- 2400ft.
Elevation at Villard Notre Dame- 5050ft (Alpe d’Huez is just under 6000ft)
Climbing time- 1hr 9min (with a couple stops to enjoy the view)
Climbing distance- 5.0 miles
Grade- 6-10% with a few short steeper pitches but worth the effort
Road surface- Generally good but watch for small rocks as they’re very sharp
Food & water- Available in town at the start and at the top at the cafe
If you do both D219 and Alpe d’Huez on the same day, total mileage will be a very unimpressive 32, but climbing comes in at 6200ft. We’re talking quality miles here with incredible views.
Just found another ride report for D219 from some guys we saw on the climb that day! Even a reference to us as “yanks.” And a mention of my flat even.