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Granfondo Les Deux Alpes

Susannah Osborne
23 Nov 2015

Taking in two legendary climbs, this sportive is proof that age is no barrier to cycling success.

I don’t tend to hang out with the over-70s, except at weddings, anniversaries and funerals. It’s not that I’m ageist, but the 30-year age gap means that our tastes in music rarely match and most of them aren’t on social media.

But as I line up at the start of the Granfondo Les Deux Alpes, a two-day sportive based around the French ski resort of the same name, I’m surrounded by pensioners. It’s as if the event has been sponsored by Saga and it makes for a surprisingly calm atmosphere that is the antithesis of the usual carbon-and-testosterone sportive scene. 

Many cyclists might think that standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of septuagenarians is their chance to shine. Leaving the old dudes for dead (not literally, hopefully) is a chance to climb onto the podium. But others, including many of the younger local riders on the start line, see it as a chance to learn a thing or two from cyclists who have been riding bikes since before they could walk and who still see derailleurs as a fancy bit of kit. 

Les Deux Alpes start line

One issue among these older participants, though, is that some have trouble getting going. Next to me a shrunken, white-haired gentleman is swaying to and fro as if he’s on the deck of boat. After a few minutes spent lurching towards his bike he declares in French, ‘Just get my leg over and I’ll be fine.’ Five local men dutifully lift him onto his bike and all is well. 

Experience counts

In 1998 Marco Pantani won Stage 15 of the Tour de France in a summit finish in Les Deux Alpes. In atrocious conditions the Italian rode away from Jan Ullrich on the Col du Galibier, some 45km from the end of the stage. By the time he crossed the line he had a nine-minute lead on his German rival for the yellow jersey.

As a tribute, the town created an event to celebrate that day – the Marco Pantani sportive (not to be confused with the Pantani sportive). When the Italian fell from grace, the authorities quietly changed the name to Granfondo Les Deux Alpes. It’s not big, it’s not brash but the event has a loyal following of riders, many of whom have been coming since its inception.

As if in tribute to Pantani’s victory in 1998, the weather today is miserable. A heavy mist envelops the mountains, and rivers of rain are running along the mile-long high street. Even the cows have wandered down the mountain to find shelter in the pastures closest to the town and the sound of clanging bells echoes through the valley. Yesterday we were riding in bibshorts and summer jerseys, but today I’m togged up in armwarmers, kneewarmers and a jacket. 

Les Deux Alpes sign

Only around 100 riders are gathered at the start. Yesterday there was a 9km time-trial up the 10 bends to Les Deux Alpes. A proper start ramp and officious timekeepers were transported from the village so we could see exactly how we fared against Pantani’s record of 21 minutes. My time wasn’t going to break any records but I’m pretty sure that his hematocrit levels were higher than mine for the climb. 

Today there are two options on offer: a 166km loop (with 4,000m of climbing) heading north-west and taking in the Col d’Ornon, Col de Parquetout and Alpe du Grand Serre; or a 66km loop (2,400m) towards Alpe d’Huez and back. 

The neutralised roll out to the start proper is a fraught affair. Riders flash past me making questionable decisions about how fast they should ride. Water is flying everywhere and the clouds are so low that it’s almost dark. One rider careers off into the gutter and throws himself off his bike. I can only assume he was unable to brake in the wet and considered it tactically safer to hurl himself onto a verge of grass than to risk toppling over the barriers on a hairpin bend. 

The sportive begins for real at Barrage du Chambon at the foot of the Deux Alpes climb, where a decision on which route to take has to be made. On the emphatic advice of Giles, head of tourism in the town, who is concerned about the weather, I opt for the shorter route. It is, he says, a beautiful ride on roads that are ‘très belles’. 

Col de Sarenne

My group of 50 or so riders heads right onto the D1091, the road that connects Bourg-d’Oisans and the Lautaret pass. It’s a quick route into Italy and features in La Marmotte sportive, but a massive landslide in April has made the road impassable. Some reports say that 100,000 tonnes of loose rock above the damaged tunnel is moving at 25cm per day towards the road. Residents trapped in the villages behind the landslide had been taking a boat across Lac du Chambon to get to work but the fear of the huge waves that would result if the mountain collapsed into the lake have now put a stop to that, which makes for a long round trip.

Thankfully we turn off this road and start to climb, which substantially reduces the risk of being swallowed up in a landslide. Five minutes in we hit a series of four steep ramps that lead to the pretty village of Mizoën. As the gradient hits 10%, riders of all ages fly past me. Most are French and proudly wearing the colours of their local club. The only English guys I’ve seen so far were wearing short-sleeved jerseys and had the look of men in the preliminary stages of hypothermia. And they went the long way…

Alpe d’Huez’s back alley

The road steers us north and we start making our way towards the Col de Sarenne, the lesser-known back face of Alpe d’Huez, which has a fierce reputation among professional riders. The Sarenne bowl is harsh, beautiful and isolated, which means that there are few cars to worry about. Cyclist columnist Felix Lowe, in his book Climbs And Punishment, describes how in the 2013 Tour Tony Martin told reporters, ‘It’s irresponsible to send us there,’ citing the lack of guardrails and 30m drops on the corners. 

A herd of goats is occupying a large section of road and despite his best attempts to shoo them out of our path by swearing at them in French they are blithely ignoring him.

The bleak landscape looks more like the Peak District in winter than the lush, summer Alpine landscape I’d expected, and the combination of dark rock and low light makes it feel like dusk. A pair of riders passes me but I’m feeling fresh and I pull them back. We ride together in silence, the rhythm of our pedal stokes in harmony, and despite the lack of chat I’m glad of the company. The 12.9km climb averages 7%, with the tightly packed ramps close to the summit topping out at over 15%. I’m out of the saddle but then have to stop abruptly as a marshal appears on the road waving his arms and shouting, ‘Mouflons! Mouflons!’ A herd of goats is occupying a large section of road and despite his best attempts to shoo them out of our path by swearing at them in French they are blithely ignoring him.

Col de Sarenne hairpins

The drizzle has set in and as I stop to put on my rain jacket I notice a party of slugs gathering near my back wheel. I wonder how fast they can crawl (I later find out they have a max speed of 0.047kmh) and am satisfied that despite my pedestrian pace at least I’m ahead of the slugs.

At 1,999m the summit of the Sarenne is the highest point on the ride. It’s followed by a 3km section of road leading to the heart of Alpe d’Huez. It’s a hazardous, gravel-ridden trail that’s peppered with potholes and decorated with dung. Sheep and goats of every size and colour stubbornly stand their ground, forcing us to slalom around them like Franz Klammer. An unused chairlift sways in the wind and is a sign that we’re approaching the resort. 

Down d’Huez

Descending the hairpins of Alpe d’Huez is hugely satisfying. The effort of the Col de Sarenne hasn’t taken too much toll and besides, descending is why I come to the Alps. The mizzle has kept the tourists at bay and it’s a smooth, fast ride through Dutch Corner to hairpin number 16 in the village of La Garde, where we take a sharp left. As we round the corner, a man in a tent shouts, ‘Bananes, bananes!’ I fly past and it takes me a minute to work out that the tent was a feed station, but it’s too late now and we start to climb again.

I’m treating this as a ride to be savoured rather than raced and it’s refreshing to take the time to look around rather than fixate on the numbers on my stem. The road we’re on winds up above the Gorge de l’Infernet. It’s only a car-width wide, and there’s nothing but a 50cm-high concrete curb between me and the sheer drop to my right. Down below the Romanche river is glistening turquoise, thick with snowmelt. The water looks invitingly like the Aegean sea, but my new riding partner (who is definitely over 60) says, ‘Don’t look down!’ and then laughs like Muttley in Wacky Races.

Les Deux Alpes descent

Our group swells to four and we tap away together, them speaking pidgin English and me speaking the kind of French that belongs in an episode of Allo, Allo!. It’s nice to have company and I still can’t get over how impressive these old guys are, especially when our descent to Le Freney d’Oisans starts to feel like a race. Eventually we reach the D1091 again, and there’s only a repeat of yesterday’s time-trial up to Les Deux Alpes between me and the finish line. 

The final climb lacks the stark beauty of the route we’ve been riding up to now – the wide road is flanked by high grassy banks – so it’s a case of getting it done rather than savouring the mountain views. After a 40-minute, 9km climb I’m finally home and the sun is out. 

As I cross the line I’m told the presentation will be at 5pm in the vast sports hall in town. Miraculously I win a prize (third woman overall). My excitement is tempered, however, by the realisation that there seem to be prizes for most of the riders, and an hour later we’re still there. After the overall winners, the age groupers, men and women collect their trophies, the 50-55s, the 55-60s… the prizes just keep on flowing until we’re celebrating the 80-85 age group. 

At this point a man rides through the doors and into the sports hall, where he slowly dismounts from his bike and raises his two arms in the air above his head and shouts, ‘Yeah!’ At this very moment his name is called and he stumbles towards the podium where three officials help him onto the top step. The crowd whoops and cheers as he collect his prize – first in the 80-85 age group – but as the applause fades, rather than get down, he starts to shuffle around on the top step. The officials realise that he can’t step down and three men rush to help. Safely back on the ground he collects his pasta meal and tucks in before getting on his bike (with help) and riding home.

The details

What - Granfondo Les Deux Alps

Where - Les Deuz Alpes, France

Next one - 28th August 2016 (TBC)

Price - TBC

More info - sportcommunication.info

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