Close encounter of the 3rd kind: ‘Hors Catégorie’

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the stunning valley of Bourg D’oissans

So there they are: the Alps! Boy oh boy have I been waiting (and preparing) for these. From pretty much 10 months out and on every wet winter ride my thoughts were on these mountains and getting ready for them. In the last months I started realising that each pedal stroke would make the difference on these climbs. So I trained a lot and I trained very hard..

We left Maastricht very early morning on a Thursday with five guys and two cars. My parents had kindly lent me their Volvo station wagon with which I had driven to Maastricht from Amsterdam the afternoon before. Our host in Maastricht had bought a 4 x bicycle carrier rack especially for the occasion which we fitted on the back. We had tested car and equipment to the minutest detail so we would not come up with any surprises on our short but action packed weekend.

The set up

Off we went..

The drive to the Alps is a rather uninteresting undertaking. Apart from the sketchy roads in Belgium, the best approach is to forget the entire thing quickly, 10 hours by car is not my cup of tea. The only upside of the days close confinement on four wheels was, that we (the riders), could get to know each other a little more. Up until the very day of departure some of us had never met each other! As these things often go, one friend invites another friend and a group of keenly interested riders form. But often not necessarily already known to one another. Our group was made up of two Dutchies, two Poles and one Portuguese, making a fine balance of East, West and South Europe represented.

On top of Alpe d’Huez for the first time: Nuno, Maarten, Bram, Robert, Marcin.

We arrived at our hotel in Allemond, located in the Isère departement of the Rhônes-Alpes region in south-eastern France around 3 pm. We parked the cars, dismounted the bikes  and went straight up to our rooms. We were given somewhat perplexed looks and confused reactions when we returned to the lobby in full cycle kit half an hour later. Thinking that we let no time go to waste we were getting ready for our first ride up the Alpe d’Huez! The hotel owners, who are a kind and helpful Dutch couple and whom I am sure have seen all kinds of ‘nutters’ pass through, were responding to our half an hour transformation with somewhat surprise. “Zo hee!” “you guys haven’t even arrived yet and are already going out on your first climb?!”  The man came out into the courtyard where we were preparing ourselves for departure and asked us after our remaining plans for the weekend in a manner of polite chit chat. But then I saw his face change into a mix of confusion and slight trepidation. “That is a pretty full on schedule you boys have for tomorrow” “The pass on the col du Galibier (2645m) has only been opened since yesterday and there are still high mounds of snow up the top”. “Cars cannot go there yet and you’ll need to go past the wall of snow they’ve removed to clear the road”. Truth is he was probably right to be cautious, as none of us had ever ridden the 170 km loop that we were aiming to ride, nor crested that many high mountaintops in one single ride. But he quickly detected the determination in all our eyes and wished us “a very pleasant stay”.

Hotel La Douce Montagne

DAY 1      Hollywood mountain

Maarten and I decided to go for the ‘easy’ side up Alpe d’Huez. The others for the ‘hard’ side. The road Maarten and I took goes directly upward from our hotel via a dam next to a retaining reservoir. From there you enter a forested area where the road starts winding up in the typical snake-like pattern of steep mountain roads. Hairpin after hairpin of almost deserted tarmac stretched out in front of us as we gradually made our way up. You then cross over via de pas de la confession to the main ascent of Alpe d’Huez. Alpe d’Huez is known for it’s many attempts by cyclists of all ranges, sizes and shapes and has in my opinion somewhat lost it’s beauty as it has gradually turned into a bit of a ‘Hollywood mountain’. This is very evident from the cyclo-tourist focussed reception you find up the top. Every bar and shop seems to have a life size poster with ‘I made it!’ in front of it where you can take selfies and bask in self-admiration for having climbed, a surely tough mountain, but in comparison to the true giants directly surrounding it (Glandon, Galibier)  nowhere near difficult a climb. Yet as a leg opener for what was to come and after an early morning start we were more than content to have ticked this one off. We took the same route as we’d come up and were sailing down the mountain. Once back in the valley the heat of the day hit us in the face again. Something you don’t notice when you’re high up an Alp. I looked down on my bike computer and it was still reading 25 degrees. We changed, showered and took our place at the table specially reserved for us in the restaurant of the hotel. We received a typical cyclists meal, with tomato soup as a start, chicken breast with green beans and pumpkin for the main and something sweet which I don’t recall anymore as dessert. After dinner and after a couple of beers and planning for the next day it was literally lights out for me.. the adrenaline and excitement of being in the Alps swiftly made way for a profound fatigue. It had been a long day and fatigue from work and an event I had helped organising the week prior were all quickly washing over me..

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Alpe d’Huez experience

DAY 2     This is it

When the alarm rang at 5:30 am I was thinking to myself we were ‘bloody crazy’ for starting out so early. After all, this was a holiday! Then, after a few moments of seriously considering to turn the lights off again, the excitement kicked in when I realised what lay ahead of me and I surrendered to the fact that it would be a holiday in a perverted, cyclists kind of way..

Looooong day! 6:30 AM departure from hotel – back by 4:30 PM

We took the same road up past the retaining reservoir we had taken the day before. Yet this time we took a left turn and after a few minutes started our ascent of the Col du Glandon (1924m). This climb features occasionally in the Tour de France and is also part of a sportive for the more advanced cycling enthusiasts called ‘La Marmotte’ (referring to the area’s higher mountain regions which are inhabited by Marmots). To be honest I had a real hard time straight away. The gradient was a tasty 10% average for the first hour and I hated it. I have found  that I can climb quite well on any gradient below 9%. On those climbs it’s not difficult for me to find a steady rhythm and spin away for a long time. Anything above 9% and I basically loose my rhythm, have to push and jerk too much on the steerer and find that my larger (thus heavier) body is like a Dutch car and caravan combination struggling uphill on a Belgian motorway in the Ardennes; gradually losing momentum while stuck in a low gear. Definitely not the nimble, ‘dancing on the pedals’ stuff that the lightweight guys are capable of.    

The other thing you find out almost immediately is that subtle (and not so subtle) differences in fitness and strengths within the group are amplified dramatically on long climbs. As a result it was normal that our group splintered into single riders all following the same route but not necessarily riding together that much. We did for most of the course try and meet up either at the summits or at the bottom of the descents to continue the route together. Marcin (who we all agreed on must be illegal import from another planet) took off like a rocket straight away. He ended up riding the entire thing solo.

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After we crested the col du Glandon we descended into a tiny village called Les Roches le Chatelet where we refilled with water. From there we continued on downhill until we needed to take a right onto a not so pleasant semi-motorway to get to Saint Michel de Maurienne. By this time of the day the temperature had gone up around 27-28 degrees and we were boiling. The cars and trucks racing by over the false flat road made us uncomfortable and uneasy. We rode single file all the way to Saint Michel. There, at the foot of the next climb, the col du Télégraphe, another Hors Catégorie climb often appearing in the Tour de France, we finally had an opportunity to take our leg warmers, arm warmers and other extra layers of clothing off. And so we set off to tackle the second mountain of the day. Col du Télégraphe was the only climb of the day I actually liked. The gradient is steady and not too crazy and the summit stays well below 2000m so no issues with the reduced amount of oxygen available. I was really coming into my own on that climb.


After summiting the Télégraphe I directly took the 2 km long descent down to Valloire. Valloire is the last village before the 17 km long climb up to the Col du Galibier. I found a local market where I purchased 6 bananas of which I ate three straight away and refilled my bottles at the square’s fountain. I send a whatssapp message to the group saying I was already in Valloire and would be waiting for them there. We had previously agreed to have lunch there or so I thought because after half an hour of waiting I realised the guys must have stopped elsewhere. Turned out we had a misunderstanding and they had started lunch already on the top of the Télégraphe. After we met up in Valloire they decided to start out with the climb already as I was still having my lunch. Soon enough though we were all together again and taking on the mighty Galibier. One of the highest paved roads in the French Alps.

After having set out together the individual differences started to play a role again and I decided to press on alone spinning a lightest gear as possible and gradually but steadily working away on the kilometers ahead. The views and sceneries with mountain streams, jugged rocks, glacial avalanches and bird of prey circling above were just mind blowing any place you looked and had a real pacifying effect on my strained mental state. Something I was very grateful for since the heat and continues rise in the road can really wreak havoc on your spirit.BeFunky Collage_202.jpg

But then even the magnificent views could not soothe me any longer. I was starting to have issues with the altitude. As I was now well above 2300 meters I struggled for breath and my heart rate was too high. I started to become nauseous and had to repeat a kind of mantra internally of ‘do not vomit, don’t go vomiting’. Up until then I had ridden a strong pace and I decided to back off. I brought my bpm down from 170 to 160 and slowly but surely my body found it’s balance again. By now grass had made way for thick ice walls and the green meadowy landscape was replaced with rock and snow.

The final kilometer with 10% average gradient is cruelly also the steepest of the entire climb. It’s like the mountain’s last punches before bowing it’s head and giving in. Once atop you are treated to a cocktail of elation, awe, fatigue, astonishment and pure bliss, all while you’re trying to act cool like it’s no big deal to the other riders around you.

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The final km’s

Then follows the long, long descent down to Bourg D’oisans via Col du Lauteret (another TDF climb), through the picturesque village of La Grave and past the artificial lake Lac du Chambon. Stupidly enough I hadn’t refilled water atop of Galibier and after more than an hour of descending though the headwind and ever rising temperature I was suffering from a severe case of thirst. Luckily in Bourg D’oisans there were plenty of options to refill and I downed a can of fanta and a 1/2 L bottle of water and set off again to complete the last 10 km of our trip. Back at the hotel I changed clothes, showered and put on some comfy clothes and came down to join Marcin for well deserved beer(s). He had arrived 3 hours before me already. Maarten, Robert and Nuno arrived not much later and we retreated to our rooms for a deserved rest. Dinner was uneventful other than that we made plans for the next day and I could tell by the looks of everyone that we were all happy to have an early night..

Day 3      Reconnaissance de L’alpe d’Huez et Col de Sarenne

Originally we had planned to throw in the climb of the Col d’Izoard to our cycling madness and we thought it’d be a good idea to leave this until Saturday. However, the evening before we realised it’s a very similar climb to the ones we had already ticked off and on top it would be a three hour long drive to get there. So instead we chose to climb Alpe d’Huez again and attach the col de Sarenne which is easily accessible from Alpe d’Huez to our loop. Col de Sarenne features a fine descent through some breathtaking landscape albeit on a pretty dodgy road. I had been advised by a cycling buddy from Amsterdam not to leave it out. It turned out to be golden advice. The climb from Alpe d’Huez up to col de Sarenne turned out to be a jewel and was postcard material wherever you looked. Going down the other side was sketchy stuff as the tarmac was old and tattered to say the least and full of gravel pockets, yet the jaw-dropping views on the valley and snowcapped peaks made up for it more than plenty. Reaching speeds of well over 80 kph in the downhill was easy and simply a matter of not clenching the brakes more than necessary and before too long the daredevil in me stuck it’s head around the corner. Shooting past the tiny villages of Clavans le Haut and Clavans le Bas it was endorphin and adrenaline fused ecstasy but it was also raggedy edge stuff and on a few turns I nearly overcooked it. Still I loved it to bits and couldn’t help myself exclaiming a few loud yelps of pure pleasure on the way down.

At Mizoën next to Lac du Chambon we turned back again to the foot of Alpe d’Huez for a final attempt on the ‘hard’ side of this Col. At the start I was alone with Marcin who once again left me like a piece of turd at the roadside when he took off to try besting his record of the ascent (he did and posted a 79th best time on Strava. Incredible stuff considering 23000+ people have attempted it including some of the big name pro riders). I on the other hand had to settle for a slow pace, controlling my effort and keeping fingers crossed I was going to make it at all. After having ridden 300+ km in just three days and nearly climbed 9000 m elevation I was at the end of my strengths and halfway up the mountain I was hanging on for dear life. One moment feeling like ‘I’ll do this no worries’ and the next ‘Shit! will I even make this bastard?’

Eventually mental resilience is a good thing to have and to get up the last 6 bends I relied on my never say die attitude that I discovered when I was an 11 year old boy riding with my dad for 150 km through the hills of the Veluwe on a 26 inch 3 gear Gazelle road bike. (Thank you dad for introducing me to this great sport. My thoughts were going out to you on those high mountains a lot and I am sure you would’ve been so proud!)

Coming down for the last time was blissful. In part because I knew it was all behind me now and in part because I still couldn’t quite believe it had gone so well and that the months of hard and focussed training bore such beautiful fruit when perfect weather, good companions and life long lasting experiences all fused together into one.

But now I just wanted to go home. I swear I was so empty that the last little ramp of 300m out of the village of Villard Reculas toward the final descent felt like the toughest climb I had done the whole weekend…

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Thank you Maarten, Marcin, Robert and Nuno for an unforgettable trip!

Thank you Alps for existing 😉


Totals (yeah I know :-))

300+ km

8360m elevation

roughly 11000 calories

avg speed 19 km/h

max speed 83,5 km/h

Day 1

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Day 2

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Day 3

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2 thoughts on “Close encounter of the 3rd kind: ‘Hors Catégorie’”

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