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An Epic Day of Cycling in the French Alps

What's it like for mere mortals to cycle up the famed Alpe d'Huez?

Last month, REI Adventures staff member Tim L. found out during our Epic Cycling Climbs of France trip. Cycling some of the mountain stages of the Tour de France has always been one of Tim’s lifelong dreams and, after training hard on the rolling hills of Seattle for 6 months, he was prepared to turn those dreams into reality. 

Cycling up Alpe d'HuezIn today’s blog, Tim describes his climb up Alpe d’Huez, one of the Tour’s truly spectacular and unforgettable stages:

I've been awestruck by mountain vistas in a multitude of exotic locales around the world, but the French Alps may be the most stunning mountains I have ever seen. Perhaps even more stunning are the roads carved into their cliffsides, defying logic and creating an idyllic cycling paradise. The bravery and ambition that built these roads must have matched that of the world’s elite cyclists that dare to race them year after year during the Tour de France. 

Alpe d'Huez switchbacksAnxiety weighed heavily on my mind the night before our first ride, so much so that the short sleep I managed to muster was rudely interrupted by heart-pounding dreams of the looming ascents. The introductory ride of the week was none other than the 21 switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez, cycling’s greatest amphitheatre. 

Ascending 3,680 feet over a torturous 8.5 miles, the storied “Alpe” has been the staging ground for some of the most dramatic bikes races in history. With an average grade of 8% (and a max of 14%), Epic Climbs of French Alps groupthe expansive views quickly and dramatically reveal themselves around every bend. The ride is broken up with dreamy sights of French countryside, quaint mountain villages and towering church steeples perched on the edge of cliffsides overlooking the valley below. Throughout the ride, this bucolic backdrop serves as a delightful distraction from the task at hand.

The beginning of “the Alpe” is the most punishing, with the steepest slopes of the climb welcoming riders from the outset. If you’re lucky, excitement and adrenaline will get you through the first few stretches. For me, the most sobering and motivating aspect of the climb would be seeing the names of cycling greats painted on the road by fans from all over the world: Shleck, Boonen, Contador... Armstrong! Channeling the spirits of these cycling giants provided a ghostly energy for each turn of the crank.

Alpe d'Huez signOn all hors catégorie (beyond categorization) cycling climbs, managing your mind is just as important as churning your legs. One of the most vivid memories from the day was rounding switchback 8, where I found myself riding with a crooked neck staring up at the towering slope and seemingly endless switchbacked road ahead. I overtook an elderly German man on the curve, pedaling at a slow but methodical tempo. We exchanged pleasantries as I passed before he exclaimed in a loud and authoritative tone: “Don’t look up! Keep looking forward!” This brief mentoring moment with the seasoned cyclist provided me with a mantra that would stick with me to the top.

Alpe d'Huez summitReaching the summit of this climb is undoubtedly one of the most satisfying accomplishments in cycling. Stretching out over the finish line in just shy of an hour was a dream come true, and one that required months of training and discipline. The finish line experience was topped off by our REI Adventure guides, Michele and Julien, providing a celebratory picnic lunch and sharing stories of Le Tours of yesteryear. Their seemingly endless supply of knowledge and enthusiasm was well received, as were the fresh breads and local cheeses of this magnificent country!

There we were, sitting on the summit of Alpe d’Huez enjoying a sandwich and feeling like we conquered the world. It was almost unbearable to think that the 21 switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez was really no more than a warm up for the week ahead…

In our next post, Tim describes the grueling ascent of Provence’s Mt. Ventoux, one of the most formidable cycling climbs in Europe.

Alpe d'Huez summit celebration

Posted on at 5:25 PM

Tagged: Alpe d'Huez, Cycling, France, REI Adventures and Tour de France

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What a classic! With so many rides and so little time, I enjoyed living vicariously through Tim's adventure. Thanks for sharing and thanks to REI Adventures for having such great trips.

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