Alpe d’Huez, The day before
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  Posted September 16th, 2012 by Zdenko  in Cycling, Travel | 8 comments

French Alps – Summer 2011

By Zdenko Kahlina

My ride up the Alpe d’Huez climb the day before Tour arrived.
Alpe d’Huez (in French Alps) is the most famous climb of the most famous cycling race in the world “Tour de France”. With its 14.4 km long road up the mountain and its 21 hairpin bends, at an average gradient of 8.45% it is not an easy task to conquer on the bicycle. But we did it… just as thousands of other cyclists did on the same day. The day before the big Tour has arrived!

Zdenko at the bottom of the Alpe d’Huez

Last summer me and my buddies were planning a trip from Croatia to France to visit Tour de France stages; one that will finish on Galibier (another mountain in the area) and the following stage that will finish on most famous climb of them all – Alpe d’Huez. Once everything about the trip was arranged, we knew this is going to be THE trip of our lives. None of us ever before watched the Tour alive. We did see it many times on TV but this is going to be different.

Alpe d’Huez climb from above

Alpe d’Huez climb profile

“Le Tour” is still really followed in France big time, despite all the doping problems in cycling. In fact it’s a popular event, deeply rooted in French pop culture, and in a sense “bigger” than the scandals and the cheaters themselves. During the summer, about 300 amateur riders climb l’Alpe d’Huez each day, and this number is much, much higher around the Tour time in July.

So on July 17, we drove from Zagreb (Croatia) all the way to France and French Alps (distance of 850 km). Our destination was Les Deux-Alpes in the middle of Oisans region, entrance to the wild and preserved region of the National Park of the Ecrins. On the road to the Briancon city in France, while we were still in Italy at the village of Cesana, we ran into the Tour, or perhaps I should say the big Tour ran into us.

The road in front of us was closed because Tour caravan was passing by. We spent 3 hours watching the Tour which was not planned on this first travel day. When everything was over, they opened the road and we continued our journey to Les Deux Alpes, small village in the Alps, located between Cole du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez.

Next morning Tour’s stage was going to finish on the Galibier, so our plan was to visit Alpe d’Huez instead, thinking that there would be less people and cars on the road. We were right, but still there were thousands of people already there. We came to the village of Bourg d’Oisans with cars, got our bikes out and started to prepare for the ride up the mountain.

The summer sun was already high up at 10:00 in the morning as I turned on my Garmin Edge’s timer from below the “Départ” banner just past the traffic circle intersection outside of Bourg d’Oisans. As we were departing, I noticed there was “El Diablo”, well known cycling fan who comes to see the Tour every year, dressed as devil, all in red costume sitting by his RV with some friends.

Mr. “El Diablo” by his RV

Ivan Golub with Zdenko before the start

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. My friends Ivan Colig and Ivan Golub were with me also ready for the task.

I was jolted out of my reverie as the road in front of me turned left and abruptly shot up into what felt like a 9% incline right from the start. 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 one kilometer. I tried to suppress a growing panic within, thinking that my tendency to under train may have finally caught up with me. I came to ride in the Alps with a rather underwhelming 3,500 kilometers to-date. Is this going to be enough for this climb? Well so far it was good, as my friends were still behind me. I knew Colig was going to do the best time and he is just using me and other Ivan to drag him as far as possible, before he takes off on his own. But I was O.K. with this, as a matter of fact, this knowledge even helped me go harder, because in my head I was seeing myself as a teammate helping his team leader win this “stage”.

Another look at the climb, before start

This is some serious work here…

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 34×19. We were already catching up on some other cyclists (wait, they were more like cyclo-tourists), so this was a good sign.

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 another rider decked out in a Rabobank team outfit. Unlike me, he was in his saddle settling into a pace he can comfortably sustain. He looked at me and almost lost it… he had to put his hand out and grab the stone wall by the road, to help him stay on the road. I shifted down into 34×21, 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.

My daughter captured the moment when this Rabobank guy almost lost it…

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 is only provided by the flattening of the road at the switchback turns themselves.

By the restaurant Les Gorges de Sarenne”

By the restaurant Les Gorges de Sarenne”

Steep, snaky road up the hill

By this time I was paying more attention to the people who were already camping on the mountain, waiting for the Tour to arrive tomorrow. There were thousands of people here totally prepared for this event. Music was blasting from the speakers, they were cheering every cyclist on the road and I swear I could smell the beer although it was only 10 am.

Zdenko at the front doing his “job”!

Half way up the mountain it was time to remove the helmet…

Zdenko is still at the front!

The three of us were still together and our wives were driving by and taking photos from the car, which gave us additional motivation to go hard. They would stop where there was good spot on the road and wait for our arrival to take more pictures. I was glad we have covered this climb well by the whole team of Croatians.

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 two kilometers—certainly steep by any standard!

The appearance of a church steeple in St. Ferréol

It was somewhere on this stretch that I heard from behind Colig encouraging other Ivan, to increase the speed and pass me, but Ivan (fortunately) couldn’t do it. So, soon after Colig realized that and swing by me on his own. Hugh, my job was done…  so I thought.

Naturally, the other Ivan went chasing after Colig and I was left alone on my own. Some friends I have… no, no, just kidding. From this point I continued at my own pace regardless of the riders around me. I was still faster than many, but from time to time there would come rider faster than me, who would just swing around me. On the mountain like this you can’t just change your rhythm and jump after somebody.

The road flattened with the arrival of switchback 16 in the village of la Garde. Oddly, painted on the road was “10%” and yet, after the experience of the steep switchbacks just before, this one felt almost flat! I shifted back to my 34×19.

The number of people around this switchback was amazing. This is obviously the most popular spot on the course.

It was putting the major hurt on me; still, I’m encouraged by the fact that I am managing to hold my own against other riders and, although I was struggling, I was still a few notches below the red line.

Switchback 15, at a steep 11%. I was amazed by the wide variety of cyclists going up–from teenagers to grandparents, beater bikes to glossy titaniums, light riders and heavy ones–all on a pilgrimage to the most prestigious of all climbs…

By the church in St. Ferréol Ivan Colig was well ahead

Ivan Golub was just behind him at this point.

And me… I was way behind them, on my own.

Number 15 came after a relatively long and straightish 16. At this stage the odd-numbered switchbacks are on the inside when going up and all one sees to the right is a wall. Switchback 15 is steep, but short. It is followed in regular succession by switchbacks 14 to 7; all steep, but milder, especially as compared to the higher-numbered ones. So, this is the “easy” part… I didn’t feel it! It was still very hard to turn my pedals, even on 34×21.

Switchback 7 announced itself with the appearance of a church steeple in St. Ferréol. The number of people around this switchback was amazing. This is obviously the most popular spot on the course. A boy in a passing station wagon encouraged me with an energetic “Allez!” I guess that’s why most riders going up Alpe d’Huez seem inspired—the place felt like a cyclist’s playground and it seemed as though non-cyclists there at least appreciated the effort and determination that go into cyclists’ efforts to defy gravity.

This young fellow behind me barely had more than 13 years… and he was climbing Alpe d’Huez!!

Unlike other sustained climbs I’ve done before, Alpe d’Huez seemed to push on relentlessly; there were no dips nor flats anywhere I can recall. I drew further encouragement from the cycling greats whose names had been painted on the road. I can now understand why Alpe d’Huez holds a special place in professional racing. These switchbacks provide the perfect venue for epic duels and individual heroics.

Even the day before, it was hard to find parking spot.

These fans were camping here by the road for days…

My mind started drifting and I wondered what the pros think about as they struggle up a steep climb. I wondered what it must feel like to duke it out with them…

I distinctly remembered watching Lance Armstrong’s historic time trial Alpe d’Huez win on TV a few years ago. I especially remember how quickly he was turning his pedals  and I was comparing mine cadence to his… only than I realized how slowly I was turning my pedals!

Good view of the village at the top of the mountain

So far, so good, I told myself. I saw switchback 5 coming up. It was steep, but short. I noticed some Canadians by the road and waved to them… but I was wearing a Croatian jersey, so they didn’t know why I waved and I was out of breath so couldn’t tell them myself.

Getting close to the end…

The July sun started to feel oppressive—it was almost 11AM. My breathing had settled, and my legs had slightly recovered from my earlier efforts. A sharp left turn to switchback 4 was followed by a right bend that led to an uphill straightaway at the end of which the road forked. From this point, the view became more sweeping, and one can see the houses and the hotels at the top of the mountain.

Finally in the village: Alpe d’Huez

Just did the Alpe d’Huez climb: Ivan Golub, Ivan Colig and Zdenko

BABICI and “Zdenko’s Corner” on the top step: Ivan Colig deserved to be standing here!

Last couple of switchbacks appeared quickly after that. And finally there was, newly refinished, widely banked switchback number 1, although the sign was missing. This led to a steep straightaway at the top of which, one can see hotels and restaurants where the climb finishes. With a couple of other riders, we tried to accelerate towards the finish although this proved more difficult even with the adrenaline rush, as the finishing stretch was longer and steeper than it seemed… but soon the road flattened and, panting and gasping, we crossed under the “Arrivée” sign in the middle of the Alpe d’Huez village.

Both of my friends were already there waiting for my arrival. The three of us decided to ride our bikes further, all the way to the actual stage finish, at the other end of village, so we continued our climbing through the village streets, until we could see the real finish line. The two of them sprinted for the line and according to their stories, both of them won!! I was proud to be Third!

And this is how I reached the top resort town of l’Alpe d’Huez after 14.4 kilometers of climbing. Well, after this finish, we turned around and returned down to the centre of village where our wife’s were waiting for us.

Shopping for cyclists!

Next on the agenda was shopping in the cycling stores full of Tour de France paraphernalia…. And beer! I needed a well deserved beer for sure!!

Canadians on the Alpe d’Huez climb

They say “picture is like a thousand words”, but believe me all those pictures here, can NOT describe the atmosphere, the people and everything that was happening on this mountain, one day before the big Tour arrived.



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8 comments to “Alpe d’Huez, The day before”

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  3. Comment by Neven:

    I visited this climb in 2009 and know how tough it is to climb (even in a car), my left leg cramped up from pressing the clutch so much….:) I’m really proud of you dad.

  4. Comment by Zdenko Kahlina:

    Thank you my son… this is the best comment I ever got! Maybe one day we’ll do it together again (even in a car)!

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  7. Comment by Michaele:

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  8. Comment by Amanda Doscher:

    Thanks for this amazing post. Being a cyclist myself I’m trilled after reading this. I must go to France and do the same… Thank you!

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