Into thin air – Col du Galibier
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  Posted October 28th, 2017 by Zdenko  in Cycling, Travel | 2 comments

Visiting Tour de France

By Zdenko Kahlina

Zdenko visits France Alps and climbs Col du Lautaret and Galibier!
My summer trip to France and Tour de France race exceeded my wildest expectations and remains one of the most significant experiences I’ve had in my life! Thanks to my friend Ivan who planned and organized this trip!

Col du Lautaret – Zdenko sandwiched between two Ivans’!

Our first day in the Alps included climbing the most popular mountain in cycling world – Alpe d’Huez. But I never even dreamed that on the same day I’ll be climbing two more mountains in the same area. So, here is my story about climbing Col du Lautaret and watching Andy, Cadel, Contador and others climbing to the top of Galibier during the 18th stage of Tour de France.

It is Friday July 22, 2011. My friends and I already climbed Alpe d’Huez in the morning. By the way, did you know that the classic Alpe d’Huez climb is actually part of the climb climb to the Col de Poutran? You can read about our experience in my blog here. But the real action was later that afternoon, when 18th stage of this year Tour de France arrived at the top of the legendary Galibier.

Canadians on the road – Descending from Alpe d’ Huez

This year Tour de France celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of the Galibier in the race, with a stunning stage win. Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) turned the Tour around, attacking on the slopes of the Col d’Izoard and soloing his way to take the stage win atop the Galibier and moving up into second place overall. His brother and teammate Fränk sprinted to second place with Cadel Evans (BMC) third. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) continued his miracle Tour, hanging on to his yellow jersey, albeit by a mere 15 seconds.

So, after climbing to the top of the Alpe d’Huez, we all decided to go and watch Tour somewhere on the road of the big mountain of Galibier. To get there we had to get into our cars and drive from the village of Alpe d’Huez, descending into the Le Bourg d’Osians, all the way thru the Oisans valley and climb to the top of the smaller mountain Col du Lautaret. This is where we would get on the course of the Tour stage before we could reach the top of the Galibier.

That’s what we did. From Alpe d’Huez we drove our cars down the mountain to the village of Le Bourg d’Oisans and at the traffic circle we turned left towards the Oisans valley (road D1091). This road was already clogged with cars going in the opposite direction towards the Alpe d’Huez. Amazing how many people were climbing this mountain in cars, RVs and on bicycles… they were in thousands! We took the “Route des Grands Cols” (Great Mountain Pass Road) and after climbing the “Rampe des Commères” (Gossip’s ramp) and taking a few corbelled bends, we reached the village of Freney d’Oisans. The altitude of Le Freney-d’Oisans is already at around 930 meters.

Road across the dam at the Chambon Lake

Tour caravan crosses the dam at the Chambon Lake

Only a couple of kilometers further up the road, we were driving over the dam at the Chambon Lake (an artificial one) in the village of Mont de Lans. Here we were stopped by police, who were already told to stop the traffic. We told them that we are cyclists and are going only to the La Grave village (and not all the way to the Col du Lautaret), so they let us go. After the dam the road goes thru several dark and unlit tunnels just above the lake. We were surrounded with beautiful scenery on a very nice wide road with almost no traffic.

There are several tunnels on this road

By the time we reached small village of La Grave, a mountaineering centre and ski resort well-known for its off-piste and extreme skiing possibilities it was almost 14:00 pm. From La Grave it’s only 11km to the top of the Col du Lautaret, a pass that’s been in use for centuries. I’ve slid off the main road and found a nice place to dump the car, pull the bike out and get riding.

Fortunately the weather was beautiful with crystal clear sky and La Meije called sometimes The Queen or Her Majesty was right in front of us. This mythic mountain is composed of three principal summits, the highest point being the Grand Pic de la Meije at 3,984 metres and was the last major peaks in the Alps to be summited (1877) and not by Coolidge or Whymper, but by a French guy!

Zdenko’s new friend: Phil Anderson

Off we went on the same road we have had driven our cars yesterday (in the opposite direction!). About 500m up the road from the place where we left our cars, I took a right hand turn and immediately I’ve met the Col du Lautaret. Cycling over these roads is always spectacular, a privilege.

This is a climb that is really known as nothing more than the stepping stone to the Galibier from the west side. The actual climb on Galibier starts from the Col du Lautaret (elevation 2,058 meters) and is 8.5 kilometers long. It has an average gradient of 6.9 percent and maximum grade of 12.1 percent.

Car traffic was already stopped here and only special vehicles and cyclists were allowed to go towards the top of the mountain and the route of the Tour. Just like on the road to Alpe d’Huez, the most impressive to me was number of cycling enthusiasts that arrived here to watch the Tour. About 7 km before reaching the top of Col du Lautaret, there were cars parked on both sides of the road and lots of people walking toward the top. I was climbing on my bike surrounded by other cyclists, which gave me that imaginary filling that I was also part of the Tour!

I might be on a good day here! I thought to myself.

At least there was no snow and the road was open!

While Schleck brothers, Cadel Evans, Contador, Cunego and co. seem to revel in the luxury of both sides of the centre dotted line, when one has to negotiate these roads using only the right lane, it’s an all together different proposition. Moreover, I’m sure their crew clears off the large rocks and other debris that dot roads like these. Quite often towards the summit of these mountains, the road is scarcely wide enough to throw a picnic blanket.

But this road was different. This was wide road all the way to the top, even with the cars parked on both sides of the road. While climbing you can also see numerous hamlets, facing south, with houses arranged on a terrace overlooking lake Chambon and the Meije glaciers.

A thought crossed my mind to time trial to the top. Before it had time to cross my mind into the too hard/insanity basket, I had grasped it, and it was happening. The legs felt good and I might never be on the Galibier again, why not?! So please excuse the lack of lovely pictures, 99% were taken from the (dis)comfort of the saddle today.

Lets go with this, I thought to myself, and put the hammer down just a wee bit. I had a small backpack with me, carrying my camera and pair of running shoes as I was expecting to do lots of walking while watching the Tour stage. Still I felt strong, good form seemingly in the legs.

The climb is relentless and it goes forever, the longest 7 kilometers in my life! While not too steep, we had to ride into a stiff wind – yikes. I saw loads of cyclists struggling to make it to the top. So I danced the way up the climb in the magical realms of sub threshold. It hurt, a lot, but I knew I could just about last an hour and a bit at such intensity. I hit some very rough times at about 3 km to go. There it goes from a slightly more forgiving section to the proper high country of the Galibier. From this point, the road only levels to under 8% on very fleeting moments.

View of the Galibier

Into thin air – finally, the goal is reached!
I was feeling pretty good, and 45 minutes later I was at the summit. I sat between 13-17kph the whole way up, fizzing past all comers. There were other cyclists around me but I did this climb at my own pace. Remember, I did Alpe d’Huez already this morning! We reached the top of Col du Lautaret – at 2,058 meters, a super high pass in its own right. Now we were in the thin air of those high mountains. At the top, I found that I had actually done the easy side of the Galibier. The easy side is 10% while the other side is 12%. Very difficult, but it’s much shorter.

Hotel at the top of Col du Lautaret

Col du Lauterat – left turn here would take you up the Col de Galibier.

The Tour!
At the top of the Col du Lautaret, the road was totally blocked with people, cyclists, RVs and TV buses everywhere. This is THE Tour de France, man!

Amazing Tour caravan

Amazing Tour caravan

From here if we could go straight on the main road we would drop down into Briançon. But a left turn off of the top of the col would take us up the Col de Galibier. It’s another 8 kilometers of climbing to the top of the Galibier. But this was Tour de France route and police wouldn’t let us even step on the Tour’s course, so we couldn’t ride our bikes any further. I changed my shoes and we all mingled through the parking lots trying to avoid the crowd and position ourselves to watch the Tour.

To find our way out of this craziness we had to hike up the grassy field and up the mountain. But it was worth the effort, as the view from above was incredible. We were pushing our bikes up the mountain until we reached the road above the mountain house. We picked one good spot where we decided to wait for the race to arrive.

Amazing Tour caravan

Big crowds on Galibier

Big crowds on Galibier

This crowd was unbelievable. There were people camping here on this road for days! Very international crowd… which just gives you impression of how big is the Tour. There were people standing next to us from Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Germany even Australia!! I was also showing Croatian colors, though we didn’t have any cyclist from the Croatia in this Tour.

From Lautaret the road winds straight up a mountain and seems to go right over it. The last few kms are simple astounding. With about 1 km before the top there is a monument to Henri Desgranges. Here, there is a tunnel through the mountain for cars – while cyclists go straight up to the tiny overpass.

The “Souvenir Henri Desgrange”
Col du Galibier is so revered in the Tour de France a monument to Henri Desgrange, the race’s first director, was inaugurated in 1949. On each occasion since when the crosses the Col du Galibier, a wreath is laid on the memorial. The “Souvenir Henri Desgrange” is awarded to the first rider across the summit and includes a 5,000 Euro prize. But reverence for Col du Galibier extends outside the cycling world. Buggati, the exclusive, high-speed automobiles created by Italian Ettore Buggati and the winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix, has twice named its models Galibier.

Awaiting for the Tour to arrive – Road on Galibier

Galibier and the “Pantani Forever” Monument
As part of the history of this mountain a new monument was inaugurated on Galibier on June 19th dedicated to Marco Pantani. It was on Galibier, on July 27, 1998, that Pantani made his ferocious attack against Jan Ullrich, then the yellow jersey, and relegated the German to nearly nine minutes in a day to pandemonium.

The “Pantani Forever”

The “Pantani Forever” monument is located at 2,301 meters of elevation on Galibier, the point where Pantani began his attack. The monument was created by Massimo Salvagno from stone from the Piedmonte region, from Luserna San Giovanni.

The riders are here!
And than after an hour or so, the Tour finally arrived. You know the riders are close, when you hear (or see) the helicopters in the air. Between all these mountains they appear to be very loud and the crowd goes “nuts”!

Schleck led Iglinsky up the final climb, as he turned to go up the final 8km with a 3:50 lead. And just at the spot where we were standing, he turned on the power and took off alone on the fan-filled road. Iglinsky looked like he was cooked at this point and moving very slowly.

Andy Schleck solo on the climb

Cadel Evans leads the chase for the final 7 km

Thomas Voeckler (in yellow) was amazing on the Galibier and held onto the yellow jersey.

Andy Schleck celebrates atop the Galibier.

The chase behind them finally started bearing fruit, as the gap came down under Evans’ hard work. He was really pushing the pace when passing by, and it was still about 7 kilometers before the top and finish line. The group got smaller and smaller, with even Contador eventually having trouble hanging on. He finally gave up the fight and fell back, burying his chances of repeating his victory in this year’s Tour.

International crowd with three different flags here…

Croatian and Australian fans together…

It’s all over!
And suddenly they were all gone. More than half the peloton, 89 of 168 riders, didn’t make it to the top within the time limit on this day and we didn’t wait for them either. They could have been eliminated, but the race jury exercised its option of keeping them in the race.

The spectators started descending from the mountain towards the cars. We end up walking all the way past the hotel at the top of Col du Lautaret. Only then we could put our bike shoes on and begin descending towards the Oisans valley and place where we left the cars.

At this point, it was quite cold. The temperature I would guess was down to around 15C and it was very windy. I stop to take one more picture back the way I came up (at left) and I began to descend. I left both Ivan’s far behind as I didn’t want to race with them going down the long descent back to the cars. But they would “pay me back” for this latter…

Road at the beginning of our descent!

It was a fun descent. The 8 kilometers of descending is tough. Many switch backs and it was still very windy. I didn’t take it easy as I planned. I just got adrenaline rush going thru my arteries and I went plummeting down the road. Switch back after switch back, reaching speeds of up to 85 km/h I stormed into the valley. There were others around me so I found myself in a small group of “crazy” vets, who were enjoying the speed.

This picture shows the decent on the west side of the Col du Lautaret.

After a while the descent becomes quite easy as the road straightens up. Because it was reasonably straight and not too steep we let it fly.  I didn’t stop at the village of La Grave where we left our cars, rather I continued this descent all the way to the dam on the Lake du Chambon and village of Mont de Lans. This is where I stopped and waited for the rest of the group to arrive in cars.

Descending from Col du Lautaret

From here it was off to Les Deux Alpes – 9 km up the steep hill. No thank you, I had enough today, so I waited for the cars to arrive as I wanted to hitchhiked the ride. Little did I know that my friends will pool a big joke on me, as a punishment since I didn’t wait for them at the top of Col du Lautaret. So, when they finally arrived with the car, I was waving for them to stop, but they were looking (on purpose) in other direction, pretending they don’t see me. They didn’t stop… I was so disappointed, because that meant I would have to climb on the bike another 9 km to the top. But than suddenly, they turned around and came back. Buggers! They were only joking! I learnt my lesson… from now on I must use better judgment all the way and wait for them next time.

Life’s good! Tomorrow? We’ll watch 19th stage of Tour de France passing by at the dam over the Chambon Lake. The stage will finish at the top of the Alpe d’ Huez! And the boyz in my group will be drinking beer somewhere by the road thinking how we already climbed Alpe d’Huez, Lautaret and Galibier previous day! Life is good!

Hope you have a good season!

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2 comments to “Into thin air – Col du Galibier”

  1. Comment by Mark M. Kahlina:

    Thank you. It is very nice and interesting story. Keep them coming.

  2. Comment by Ivan Colig:

    Thank you Zdenko,very nice story and it was great experience.

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