l'Alpe d' Huez (French Alps)
July 12, 1998

Distance: 16 miles (roundtrip)
Elevation: 3,350 feet
Difficulty: 7/10
Scenery: 6/10;
Route: Bourg d'Oisans-l'Alpe d'Huez-Bourg d'Oisans

Alpe d'Huez Profile
Profile taken from here.

Huez at Start
(Above): At the Departure Banner, Bourg d'Oisans

The summer sun was already high up at 10:00 in the morning as I turned on my Avocet 50’s timer from below the "Départ" banner just past the intersection outside of Bourg d’Oisans. Shortly thereafter, I was rolling easily along a flat, smooth stretch of road that, I hope, would eventually take me up those fabled switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez, arguably the most famous and most coveted climb in all of cycling.

Hard to believe, but it was only yesterday morning that I was clumsily trying to balance a rather unwieldy cordura cycling bag on my right shoulder while trying to carry an equally ponderous garment bag on the left in between trains and buses all the way from London to Paris, then from Grenoble to Bourg d’Oisans. I made it in to Hotel De Milan early Saturday evening and promptly collapsed on the bed from exhaustion and relief. It sure would be nice to finally ride tomorrow, I sighed…

…I was jolted out of my reverie as the hitherto level stretch turned left and abruptly shot up into what felt like a 9% incline. And I’m not talking about one of those short 200 yard pitches that one can pretty much grunt one’s way through, either. This one must have lasted for over half a mile. I tried to suppress a growing panic within, thinking that my tendency to undertrain may have finally caught up with me. I came to ride in the Alps with a rather underwhelming 350-mile year-to-date riding portfolio comprising one 90-miler and a handful of 40-60 milers, feebly supplemented by a dozen or so 1-hour stints on the trainer at the local gym. My personal assault on Alpe d’Huez had barely started and my thighs were already screaming. I remembered having read somewhere that the climb is steepest at the bottom, but the recollection seemed little consolation at the time. I shifted down to my 39x19.

Before Switchback 21

The switchback 21 sign appeared about a mile from the start, but the grade did not relent, and lactic acid built up around my quadriceps. I slowly passed a rider decked out in a Lotto team outfit. Unlike me, he was in his saddle settling into a pace he can comfortably sustain. I shifted down into 39x21, sat back down, and tried to relax. But my heart kept thumping. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw Bourg d’Oisans down below (already!), but I was too busy grunting to pay much attention. Switchback 20 appeared after a further half a mile, and the road continued on as steeply as before. Switchback 19 followed very shortly thereafter, a development that was more psychologically helpful than anything, for the gradient remained steep. To my right I caught another glimpse of the valley, the detail of which were steadily diminishing with every ascending switchback. I tried to take in more of the view to distract my attention. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in this stretch, relief are only provided by the flattening of the road at the switchback turns themselves.

(Photos Below): Steep, snaky, switchback 21
Switchback 21

From Switchback 21 to 20

I was mortified by the appearance of switchback 18 following a sharp, left-hand turn doubling back unto 19. Because 18 was a relatively straight stretch, one can’t help but notice how steeply it seems to shoot up. I somehow managed to negotiate 18, and then felt a very slight flattening of the road. I’ve gained almost 700 feet in a little over a mile—certainly steep by any standard! I thought of some of the other short, steep roads I’ve been on and how they compared—Alba Road in Santa Cruz (2,000+ ft. in 4 miles), Jamison Creek Road near Big Basin State Park in Santa Cruz (1,500 ft. in 3 miles), Quimby Road near Mt. Hamilton in San Jose (1,600 ft. in 3 miles), Bohlman-On Orbit-Bohlman (2,000+ ft. in 4 miles), and Fort Ross-Cazadero Road in Sonoma County (1,600 ft. in less than 3 miles).

Switchback 19
(Above): Switchback 19
(Below): Switchback 18

Switchback 18

 

Click here for a continuation
of the ride up l'Alpe d'Huez