Alpe d’Huez needs no introduction. Famous for its 21 hairpin switchbacks, it rises from the dramatic valley of Bourg d’Oisans to its eponymous ski resort some 1 kilometre of gained altitude later.
You definitely feel on the tourist trail on this climb. Or at least I would have if I hadn’t gone the wrong way. I passed group after group of different nationalities bearing club jerseys testing their legs against the challenge, and scores of individuals dressed up for what was apparently a once-in-a-lifetime experience or charity effort. But every one of them – even the man on the wooden bike carrying a stack of books, even the team from the flatlands of Cambridge who looked in a collective state of cardiac arrest – beat me to the famous flagged finish line that day.
There comes a point as you near the summit that the road forks (to be generous) at which any rider with a modicum of sense would carry on forward to conquer the last few corners before the ski resort hoves into view ahead. For some reason I missed all the dazzling signs advertising the famous Tour de France route, and in a state of panicked urgency as I watched my Strava challenge dwindle as I dithered in indecision, veered off to the right and continued along the road less travelled.
Not one to obsess, I returned two days later to get an official time for the correct route.
I’m glad I did. This time, somewhat buoyed by the experience of having a Dutch man asking me if I wanted a picture of myself “upstairs on the podium”, I decided to carry on along a circular route that would take me up and over the Huez resort and back down the other side. Unlike the iconic tarmac switchbacks this was a cyclist’s Nirvana. The road seemed to defy my Garmin map at one apparent dead end, but slowly a road materialised from the new mountainside ahead, apparently guarded by three enormous sheepdogs spreadeagled lazily over a swathe of boulders around which their flock was penned. So with wolves evidently on the loose, I didn’t delay and spun my legs a little faster to catch up with a group of fellow lycra enthusiasts further ahead.
Everybody always overtakes me on the downhill, that’s unavoidable. In this case, I was overtaken three times by the same man – the first time he skidded into the ditch of the hairpin bend ahead of us, the second time he went over his handlebars into the ditch of the hairpin bend ahead of us, and the third time he managed to muster the self control to pass untroubled. Laughing heartily to myself, I promptly skidded on the rubble into the hairpin bend ahead of me. But it meant that as I weaved my way steadily down the mountainside, brakes steaming, I was met with some of the most spectacular and largely unseen views of the Rhone-Alps.
Read more about the climb on ClimbByBike.com