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Alpe d'Huez gravel ride

Peter Stuart
5 May 2016

Cyclist goes off the beaten track, and off the paved roads, to find a route up Alpe d'Huez you won't have seen in the Tour de France.

Really? Up there?’ I ask Phil, my guide for the day.

‘Yeah, it’s fine. A bit rocky to start with, but it levels out,’ he assures me. Being a road cyclist, I only divert off the tarmac for pro-race-certified cobbles or Tuscan chalk. This rocky track has me feeling a little unsettled.

Despite my reservations, I’ve come equipped with wide tyres, double bar tape and disc brakes for the task – I’m as prepared as I’ll ever be. Phil is already up the road, wrestling his bike up the broken rocky surface. Like Neil Armstrong stepping down onto the moon, I take a giant leap and begin the gravel ascent of Alpe d’Huez.

The other Alpe

The Alps are littered with gravel tracks. Many were used by the military (especially on the Franco-Italian border) or are still used as service roads for ski lifts. However they came about, though, they’re a blessing for cyclists and have helped pave the way for a new genre of riding.

American road cyclists are well clued-up to the benefits of gravel, especially in regions where roads tend to be either eight-lane interstates or rural dirt tracks. The demand has been so great that a new class of road bike has emerged – the gravel bike. But dirt tracks aren’t just limited to the US, and our very own European ranges have gravel that can compete with the best of Colorado or California. Better yet, they remain undiscovered by the masses.

Phil – whose company More Than 21 Bends runs cycling tours in the Alps and beyond – happened to find this one simply by heading off road on his cross bike. The path rises up to the Col du Cluy and levels out on the Col de Sarenne, both of which he promises offer epic vistas. Phil isn’t the only cyclist to have used the track, but a glance at Strava proves that it’s little-known to two-wheelers, with only 73 riders posting times, compared to Alpe d’Huez’s 9,599 (and counting). I haven’t ridden many paved roads on earth with so few attempts (at least recorded ones), so I was intrigued at what secret treasures it might hold long before we arrived at its base.

We set off two hours ago from Bourg-d’Oisans, which is famous for being the base of the Alpe d’Huez climb. Heading south east toward Les Alberges along the La Romanche river, we had worked up a sweat long before the road tilted upward at Le Clapier d’Auris. On my 28mm tyres I’d settled nicely into an Alpine climbing rhythm over the past half hour, so was slightly put out to reach this gravel track just as I was gearing up for the next steep hairpin.

With my rhythm fragmented, I resigned myself to letting lactate flood my legs, yet a glance at the gravel incline ahead of me already hints that it will be worth the interruption.

I take off in pursuit of Phil, who’s navigating over the rocky start to the path, but it’s not long before my attention is suddenly diverted. Above us what looks like a flock of eagles comes into view, circling overhead. Phil reckons they’re more likely to be red-footed falcons, as eagles don’t fly in flocks. Perhaps when I’m too decrepit to cycle up these inclines, I’ll buy an e-bike and strike up an interest in bird watching.

We snap a couple of phone pics, which predictably render nothing more than minuscule specs instead of the majestic birds, and head off up the track. It’s a steep start, and I’m forced to quickly adjust my centre of gravity to find some traction. Rolling along the gravel offers an immediate burst of resistance, as the tough terrain hampers my momentum and rhythm, but once Phil and I are up to speed, the appeal of these tracks becomes all too clear.

We’re rolling into bare and open green pastures, with the road behind disappearing from view. There’s a wonderful rumble to the gravel, giving the sensation of speed and momentum even when I’m teetering along at 15kmh. The incline tips up to 20% and we both pant and grind our way from one patch of loose gravel to the next, balancing precariously to keep the rear wheel from losing grip.

Keeping my eyes open for flatter stretches of road, I almost miss a tiny chapel that emerges into view on our right. It’s the Chapelle de Cluy, which is seemingly abandoned by all except the bell gently swaying in the wind in its tower.

There’s an oft-quoted line from a poem by Robert Frost that springs to mind: ‘Two paths diverged in a wood, I took the one less travelled. And that has made all the difference.’ Finding ourselves in the wilderness with no tarmac, houses or traces of the modern world to speak of, taking the gravel rather than tarmac path does indeed seem to have made all the difference. While I love the smooth surface of a tarmac road, this complete isolation is something I’ve never quite experienced on a road bike before.

This is very much a staccato climb, full of sudden spikes and intermittent relief. It rises 300m over 3.2km at an average of 9%. On gravel that may as well be 15%, and the climb bears resemblance to the likes of Belgium’s cobbled Oude Kwaremont. It’s hard, but it’s worth every bit of exertion for the scenery on all sides.

Coming to the climb’s major hairpin turn at 1,700m, we enjoy the crowning view of the ascent. This is what cycling was made for. The town of Puy le Bass sits at the bottom of a valley across from us, with the foothills of La Croix de Cassini on one side, and the distant peak of La Tallias on the other. In those early 20th-century Tours de France, on fixed wheel bikes on gravelly tracks, I imagine it was moments like this that made the savage, masochistic 300km stages almost seem worthwhile.

From here, the summit of La Col de Cluy is in view, 1km up the ‘road’. A modest wooden sign greets us at the summit, reading only ‘Col de Cluy – alt.1,801m’ with none of the stickers, signatures and general paraphernalia of any of the paved summits in the area.

A little over a kilometre of gravel descent tests our handling skills over the rough surface, meaning that we barely break 40kmh. We’re quickly on the ascent again, though, as we approach the summit of the Col de Sarenne. Under the warm sunlight, we climb alongside the La Sarenne river through a rich and unspoilt valley. The gravel is technical, but it helps keep us from overdoing things on the climb, and the undulations slow us down enough to appreciate the view. A sign ahead points to Alpe d’Huez – our primary destination for the day.

The Col de Sarenne creeps into view and we make out some cyclists descending the paved road ahead. It occurs to me that they’re the first I’ve seen since rolling onto gravel. ‘I’m not sure anyone knows about the gravel tracks here,’ says Phil, a moment before we’re (somewhat ironically) startled by two mountain bikers roaring past us and off onto the tougher part of the trail. ‘That’s the Canadian national team. We see them around Bourg-d’Oisans,’ Phil explains.

We pull ourselves up the final leg-tearing 15% incline and join the Col de la Sarenne. This is the very road that was used as the route off Alpe d’Huez in the 2013 Tour de France. It was a detour many of the pro riders objected to, and it’s clear to see why. It’s paved, but I’m glad to be on 28mm tyres and a bike equipped for all-terrain. This is no place for a World Tour descent.

If we were to stay on the paved road, we would track the Sarenne all the way to the Alpe tourist resort, but Phil recommends we take a gravelly shortcut. Just before we reach the resort, we turn left off the road onto a desolate gravel track. It’s a brief off-road excursion, but it offers us an undisturbed and unique view off the Alpe.

The path narrows to a stony goat track but, after a brief run into wilderness, we abruptly return to modernity as we reach Alpe d’Huez airport. In the ski season, this is used by private jets and helicopters coming in from Paris. Today, unsurprisingly, it’s extremely quiet. Making our way around the airport on some pleasantly packed gravel, we pop out straight onto Alpe d’Huez proper, and a lunch stop seems in order. 

Up with gravel, down with tarmac

I’ve never climbed Alpe d’Huez, but it looks as though today will offer my best chance to descend its upper hairpins. At this time of year the road is so quiet you can get a clear run, Phil tells me as we sit in the eerily abandoned ski resort at the one cafe still open in the off-season. The temperature is in the mid-20s, even at this altitude, so we savour the chance to cool off and fill up with a few paninis washed down with cappuccinos before starting out again.

Rolling down the upper hairpins of Alpe d’Huez, it becomes clear to me why I would favour a gravel bike over a mountain bike as my choice for a ride. We top 70kmh with ease, and sweeping through the bends I reckon the slightly more road-orientated geometry of my GT Grade is giving me an advantage over Phil’s cross bike.

It’s a shame that we’ve never seen the pros descend Alpe d’Huez competitively, as it’s surely one of the fastest and most thrilling descents in all of the Alps. The corners are open, the tarmac is smooth and the road just drops away in front of me. I do suddenly find myself a little out of sorts when my bike shudders from side to side. I slow up and pull to the side of the road to check for a flat tyre. I look at Phil and, slightly pale-faced, ask if he saw what happened. He replies, ‘Speed wobble, I think.’ That’s a first. I count myself extremely lucky to be upright and set off with a tad more caution.

After seven hairpins, we make our way onto the wonderfully named Route de la Confession. It’s an alternative route that runs from Le Villaret, a fair way to the north, up to the summit of Alpe d’Huez. It’s a beautiful road, but I’m glad to be descending rather than climbing it today.

It begins with gentle slopes that see our speed breeze easily into the mid-fifties, before the road begins to fall away and we’re doing more than 70kmh again. Sitting on the top tube, in the tightest aero tuck I can muster, I’m doing my best to eek out every last inkling of speed when Phil gives me a cautionary shout. There’s a bend ahead, and I jump back into a sensible position and make the most of my disc brakes to scrub a load of speed off before the corner.

It’s followed by a series of perfect hairpins. With the wind streaming over us, and the road curving from one hairpin to the next with almost symphonic harmony, I realise this sort of a rare descent will be placed carefully in my memory for copious playbacks during the flat, grey English days when I’m lacking motivation. 

The Roman Road

The road flattens out beside Lac du Verney, a large hydroelectric damn put here by EDF in the 1960s, but it’s not without its charm. On a sunny day like this, the waters look like a glacial lake.

We roll along the water’s edge to the tip of the lake, when Phil points to an inconspicuous gateway that seems to lead onto a service road of some sort. ‘We’ll have to hop over the side,’ he advises, pointing to a mound of rubble at the side of the gate. I look back with an air of disbelief. It looks like a road to nowhere, but I give Phil the benefit of the doubt.

I’m glad I did. The path that tracks the lake is quiet, technical and offers undisturbed views of the lake and mountains at once. The path – a service road for the reservoir – rolls over small mountain streams that offer an abundance of makeshift bridges and opportunities to test our tyres over the mossy and rocky streams. We hedge our bets and splash through a few, but side with the bridges over the bigger crossings.

After 3km we rejoin the road briefly before finding another gravel track along L’Eau d’Olle, a water outlet from the reservoir. It’s an elevated bank that looks like it used to be a train track. Phil’s wheel drifts in front of mine and we speed up for an impromptu sprint. With a tailwind, we’re gliding over the gravel at over 40kmh.

We’re quickly back on the larger D1091, but Phil holds up a hand and points to a track leading off the road, and once again our route diverges from the beaten path.

At first it’s a wild ride, but we soon find ourselves on a wide and vaguely surfaced road. ‘This is the old Roman Road,’ Phil explains. The road once linked France and Italy, and as with many of the oldest roads, its purpose seems to have been a persistent military one. A sign along the path describes it playing host to Roman legions, grenadiers of Louis XIV and soldiers of Napoleon Bonaparte during its long 2,000-year history.

I think perhaps its best use has been saved for today, though, as a challenging gravel cycle track. The road is 6km long and largely sheltered in a corridor of trees and woodland. It’s a smooth surface of gravel and pebbles, with a few technical stretches of rougher road, but it’s predictable enough to cruise along at close to the 30kmh mark. It’s a great feeling when building speed over gravel that’s akin to riding over cobbles – a sense of loss of control that’s countered by surprising sensations of balance and stability. The hands loosen, the core engages and we sweep along unimpeded.

We’re spat out back onto what now seems like mirror-smooth tarmac at La Paute, a village on the outskirts of Bourg-d’Oisans. From here, it’s back to civilisation along the D1091. With traffic flowing past us, it feels as though we’ve shot forward half a century as we lazily drift back to the base of Alpe d’Huez in the setting sun. It’s only been a 75km ride, yet we’ve got the weary bodies of a ride twice as long. The effect, perhaps, of rolling into the unknown, on terrain I’ve never considered, taking turnings that would normally go unnoticed.

Settling down for a beer in Bourg-d’Oisans, the novelty of our ride suddenly strikes me. Hundreds of road cyclists come in and out of this town, most having climbed the Alpe, yet perhaps not a single one has seen it from the same side as us. In one of the most cycled spots in the world, there are still undiscovered roads.

Do it yourself

Travel

We flew to Lyon, which is serviced by most major airlines, and then drove 90 minutes to Bourg-d’Oisans. We used a transfer organised by More Than 21 Bends (morethan21bends.com) that cost £160 for the return trip to Lyon, or you can opt for an £80 pick-up and drop-off from Grenoble train station. If you can find a flight to Alpe d’Huez (AHZ) airport, you can just roll down the hairpins to Bourg-d’Oisans. 

Tours

Phil from More Than 21 Bends showed us the region’s secret tracks on top of sorting accommodation and travel. More Than 21 Bends offers a gravel-specific five-day supported cycle holiday, including B&B in shared rooms from £349. The company can also arrange bespoke trips for groups of six or more, and provides a range of accommodation in the Bourg-d’Oisans area and offers a fleet of rental bikes. 

Thanks

Many thanks to Phil and Helen of More Than 21 Bends, who on top of everything else gave us some great tips on local cuisine – even as the season drew to a close, Bourg-d’Oisans had a lot to offer.

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