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Double trouble: Supergranfondo Galibier-Izoard sportive review

In-depth
15 Mar 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 83 of Cyclist magazine

Words Joseph Delves Photography David Wren

The tiny town of Valloire in the Savoie region of France is home to a lot of churches.

Little chapels and private shrines sprout on every corner, as do crosses and effigies of the Virgin Mary.

Chief among these is the fabulous Rococo-style Notre Dame de l’Assomption in the town centre, which is far grander than the small community would seem to require.

But when you live somewhere as remote and exposed as this high mountain town, you probably want all the divine assistance you can muster.

On the morning of the Grand Trophée Supergranfondo Galibier-Izoard, a crowd of cyclists gathers near the church, almost doubling the commune’s population.

At this altitude we are already above the Col du Télégraphe, but that doesn’t mean we’re in for a long descent to start the day, because Valloire sits below an even more fearsome climb, the Col du Galibier.

The stats are pretty scary.

Ahead of us lies 4,672m of climbing over 180km.

We’ll start by going up and over the Galibier at 2,645m, before making our way south to the equally barbarous Col d’Izoard at 2,360m.

Then it’s back around to face the Galibier again from the other side.

I know I’m not really in shape to tackle such a brutal course, but I’m here now and eager to get going, not least because the speaker system has just started playing Ed Sheeran’s ‘Galway Girl’.

We head straight out of town, and in only a few turns it feels as if we’ve been folded into the mountains.

Penned in by 45° slopes, and with no sight of civilisation, it’s a dizzying landscape.

We’re already almost 1,500m up and we only have a few kilometres of pedalling before we take a sharp right onto the climb of the Galibier.

There’s a lot to be said for starting the day with a big mountain, and I’m unexpectedly full of vim and optimism.

First among mountains

When Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange first included the Galibier in the race in 1911 it dwarfed everything that had come before, and only three riders made it to the summit without pushing.

In 1976 the tunnel that allowed riders to cut through under the summit was closed, adding a further 86m and helping the Galibier retain its title as the highest-ever finish line in the Tour at 2,642m – a record it still holds.

More than a decade before I owned a road bike, I ran home from school to watch Channel 4’s half-hour highlights of the Tour.

As a teenager in the 90s, I was dumbstruck by how anyone could ride, let alone compete on, such things.

It was then that road racing got its hooks into me.

I remember watching Marco Pantani duking it out with Jan Ullrich right here at the 1998 Tour.

Twenty years later there’s still a thrill in climbing up a mountain with the names of my heroes – Mayo, Pantani, Contador – still just about legible on the tarmac.

It’s quite early in the summer, and there are patches of snow dotted around the lower slopes.

As we climb they solidify into sizable banks at the roadside.

The temperature grows colder even as the sun rises in the sky.

This is a big, attritional climb, but it’s steady in gradient and I have been strict with myself about not overcooking my effort, so I find that I’m not suffering too much.

A little over an hour after starting and I’m standing on the top.

As cols go the Galibier is pleasingly functional.

Unlike the roads built to service luxuries like ski stations, or scenic routes created specifically to draw in the tourists, it was born out of necessity.

With little inclination to linger in the wilds, on reaching its highest point on the saddle between the Savoie and Haute Alpes regions it simply turns around and heads back down.

Ill-suited to hosting a summit finish, it looks as if it would be hard pushed to accommodate more than a few campervans, let alone TV cameras and the rest of the normal finish line rigmarole.

Still, it’s a spectacular spot.

Its wide, sweeping corners and open lines of sight make racing down off it an utter joy.

The cold morning air cuts through me, and I try to shake life into my limbs as I whizz downwards with reckless abandon.

As the incline peters out it makes sense to team up.

Soon I’m sitting in with a bunch of riders and I have to remind myself to rein it in, as it makes little sense to burn myself out before the next climb.

Still, it’s fun to go fast for little effort and the pace stays stupidly high for nearly an hour.

Sadly it’s not possible to stay in the peaks forever.

For around 30km we pass through nondescript farmland and villages, occasionally clattering along decayed back roads as we head for the town of Guillestre.

This will mark the start of our next major climb.

At the base of the Izoard climb I find myself alone as I enter the spectacular Gorges du Guil, hemmed in on either side by vertiginous cliffs.

The upward gradient is almost imperceptible but my average speed is slowing all the time.

For the next 15km I slog away until I arrive at the commune of Arvieux and the rest stop that marks the start of the Col d’Izoard proper.

Dunking myself into a water fountain to cool down, I realise I hadn’t planned to be anywhere near this knackered by the start of the second climb.

There is still 10km to go to the summit, and this is where it starts to get steep.

Through the desert

Back on the bike and into the trees, my legs are just about working.

The best part of an hour later as the greenery thins out along with the oxygen levels it’s a struggle to keep them moving.

The scenery is spectacular, but I can’t say I’m enjoying it. Finally I pop out from the confines of the forest and find myself in the otherworldly landscape of La Casse Déserte.

It’s a barren mess of scree slopes and rock pillars carved into strange shapes by the wind.

This is the scene of legendary Tour battles since the Izoard was first included in 1922, and I’m suitably impressed that those early pioneers could make it up without the luxury of modern gearing.

As it is, devoid of shade and baking in the midday sun, I find myself struggling to stay on top of my comparatively genteel ratios.

I pass the twin monuments to Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet.

Quitting here would definitely be bad form, so I put all negative thoughts out of my head and crank onwards.

The switchbacks ahead represent the steepest part of the climb at 10%. Then, finally, it’s over.

With a cafe, small cycling museum and a monument erected by Le Club Alpin Francais at the top, a collection of riders and motorcycle tourists mills about.

Although the sun is up high, and the col several hundred metres lower than the Galibier, I decide to pull on all my warmers for the descent.

It’s a good move, as the rushing air instantly chills my sweaty limbs which are now too tired to generate their own heat.

My theory that I only needed to worry about the climbs, and that the intervening periods would take care of themselves, has proved to be bunkum.

With the Izoard done, the 20km grind between Briançon and the second ascent of the Galibier takes about an hour, despite me desperately trying to glue myself to any passing wheel along the way.

Many bits of me hurt in weird and unexpected ways. I’d pictured myself attempting to beat my earlier time up the Galibier; now I’m wondering if I’ll make it up at all. At the penultimate stop, I take off my shoes and lie down on the concrete. I’ve been rolling for more than seven hours.

When I eventually get going again, it takes an age grinding up an interminable valley until I feel as if I’m really onto the mountain.

In idiot mode, I tick off pedal strokes one at a time.

The memory of whizzing down so easily this morning now feels like a cruel joke.

I start recognising sights from earlier, first the abandoned tunnel beside Le Rif Blanc, then the newer avalanche tunnel just below the Col du Lautaret.

When I reach the hump that marks the boundary between the valleys of the Romanche and the Guisane it appears that in my befuddled state I’ve invented a rest stop for myself.

There are no tanks of energy drink or massive piles of sandwiches, just shell-shocked cyclists huddled outside a cafe.

I grant myself a sit down anyway.

Having already been climbing for 30km, and with 8.5km still to go, I know I’m in for a final kicking.

With my speed not even in double digits, I can’t guarantee it will be less than an hour.

At least from here the route turns off the busier road and the scenery returns to peak Alpine splendour.

Nature break

By now I’m really wrecked and cursing the fact I didn’t invest in a wider-ratio cassette.

The sun is hot, my legs are cramping and my brain feels mushy. Still, this is the most beautiful climb I’ve ever ridden.

The sheer rocks, the snow piled on the edges of the tarmac and the swooping birds of prey all add to the effect.

Sadly, scenery can only fuel your legs so far.

Just as I’m wondering if it would be quicker to walk, I spot a large black object by the roadside ahead.

As I crawl closer it reveals itself to be a huge boar.

It has presumably been hit by a car – its feet point skyward and its black belly is swelling in the sun.

I give it a wide berth and a sympathetic nod.

I suppose there are worse things than feeling tired on a bike.

A little further up there’s nature of a more vital kind. Scampering beside a snowbank are two chunky marmots.

Despite having visited the Alps several times, it’s the first time I’ve seen these dog-sized rodents.

This definitely warrants an extra stop.

I watch them from a discreet distance for a while before they scamper off.

As I return to the climb, I’m congratulating myself on spotting the marmots when I turn a corner and there are dozens of the critters, loads of them, all sleek and looking well fed.

Apparently, the late-arriving spring has seen a rash of them appearing on the mountainside.

Up the road I can make out an ant-like line of riders crawling along the upper slopes.

It takes me a long time to drag myself up there too. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden this slowly.

I keep trying to make it to the next corner, then the next, then the next.

Eventually, I lift my head up enough and see the finish just two hairpins above.

This is the steepest section at 10-12%.

From here all that’s left to me by way of motivation is to sneak in under the nine-hour mark.

I just manage to get out of the saddle and make my self-imposed time cut.

Wobbling about on shaky legs, I find a spot to nap for half an hour behind the finish line, and when I wake up my nose is slightly sunburnt.

But my day is not quite over yet.

Finishing atop the Galibier, the final roll down back to Valloire isn’t included in the stated distance, but unless you intend on camping on the mountain, it’s unavoidable.

Pushing the day’s total north of 200km, it’s the best descent of the lot.

The details

Pack your climbing shoes

What: Grand Trophée Supergranfondo Galibier-Izoard
Where: Valloire, France
How far: 180km/73km
Next one: 22nd June 2019
Price: 70€ (£60)/50€ (£45)
More info: grandtrophee.fr

The rider’s ride

Specialized S-Works Tarmac, £9,500, specialized.com

With many of its competitors going boxy and integrated, could the latest Tarmac be one of the last knockout-looking superbikes?

Specialized’s pure-bred racer is no slower for the addition of disc brakes, but definitely stops a lot faster.

Supposedly as aerodynamic as the old version of the Venge, with medium-depth carbon rims and fast, grippy tyres, it’s very quick.

It’s also comfortable and stupidly fun to descend on thanks to impeccable handling.

The dual-sided power meter in the crankset is a nice touch, even if the figures I was producing by the second climb did nothing to help my morale.

How we did it

Travel

You won’t be getting to Valloire other than by car. We flew into Geneva and rented at the airport.

Just make sure you leave via the French and not the Swiss exit.

A return from Gatwick with Easyjet cost £150 plus £84 for the bike.

Accommodation

Very comfortable rooms along with secure bike storage were provided by Hotel Les Melezes, which is a large chalet-style hotel in the centre of Valloire.

Prices from €69 (£50) per night.

Bikes

For bike hire, Snow And Bike in Valloire has a quality rental fleet and a range of spares.

Thanks

Many thanks to Remy and Eric at Grand Trophée for the invitation.