Rides to Remember: Why you should never underestimate Alpe d’Huez

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Alpe d’Huez is one of those climbs that’s so ingrained in the imagination of cyclists that it comes up in ride bucket lists time and time again. It’s not one of the hardest climbs that regularly features on the route of the Tour de France, but it is one of the most memorable as it’s 21 hairpin bends and 13 kilometres of climbing have been home to so many pivotal race battles. It’s a legendary mountain and,  for anyone lucky enough to have ridden it, a ride to remember.

That’s exactly why we chose the tale of Monika Sattler’s battle with Alpe d’Huez to launch a new Ella series called Rides to Remember. Rides to Remember is for the type of adventures that when you look back will always stand out as more than just another day on the bike – they are the ones you’ll never forget. The ride could be an event that is so innovative it is locked into your ride calendar every year, a gorgeous route to discover when visiting somewhere new, an iconic ride with historical significance or a completely different style of challenge on the bike. So sit back and enjoy the first installment in this new series and the inspiration to get out and enjoy more of cycling’s endless possibilities.
~Simone Giuliani

Developing a climbing addiction

Chasing the epic climbs in France it is hard not to become addicted to elevation gain. At first, it was one little climb with 700 metres of vertical gain that blew you away. Then it was 1,000 metres, a big one. Then two climbs … and you just keep going. Going until you find that point where you can barely move anymore. That was the point I found chasing Alpe d’Huez.

It all started when after riding both sides of the Col de la Croix de Fer I looked at where I had ridden on the map and saw that Alpe d’Huez was so close to the route. How could I have missed it? I have to go back! So I started thinking I’d just add Alpe d’Huez to the 6.5 hour ride the day before. What is one more climb? After all last year a Tour de France stages went over Col de la Croix de Fer and up Alpe d’Huez. What’s the deal with just riding back as well?

Well, I would learn soon.

So, two days after the first Col de la Croix de Fer ride, which at the time I had sworn I would never do again as it just wasn’t my gradient, I was back climbing it again. It was a solid four hours later with 1800 metres of vertical gain in my legs that I found myself in Bourg d’Oisans, a pretty French town that marks the start of the well-known “tough climb” of Alpe d’Huez.

Bourg d'Oisans

Well, yes, the climb did start tough. But then I thought it’s only a little more than 10km of climbing and around 1000m of ascent. Oh wait, what? That actually sounds pretty hard. It was actually starting to sink in that this might not be the random neighbourhood climb.

There were count-down markers for the corners. Not sure about what they were intended for ….was it meant to devastate or encourage you? Just 20 corners to go.

I lost my faith in those corner markers very quickly. Either I was already so in the red zone that I made up corners or the count-down person was vicious. Not every corner had a corner sign. (Let’s talk about mental abuse here!) Plus, my vision got so blurry that I couldn’t make out the numbers anymore. In short, I was losing it. And then what set me off completely were all those cyclists who were flying down the mountain. SMILING!

Excuse me. I am suffering here, have a little bit more empathy. A more pitying face would be appropriate. Anyway, by corner 15 I decided not to look up anymore.

2011 - Tour de France 19e etappe

No smiling cyclists anymore. No untrustworthy corners anymore. Staring at the pavement was just fine by me.

But another misery was setting in. I now could exactly follow my progress by seeing if the pavement was moving under me. Was I moving?

Heaven or Hell?

At some point, and do not ask me what corner, I looked up and saw two villages above me. Is it heaven or hell? Well, actually both. Of course, Alpe d’Huez was the one further up.

No time to look up anymore. I had a job to do. Staring at that darn pavement and hoping it would keep moving

And then suddenly I heard someone yelling “photo, photo”. I looked up. Yes, there was a photographer in my snail-pacing way to take a picture. I let him do his job. Then he wanted to give me a business card. If I had some breath, patience and energy I would have given him a quick rundown of the misery I was enduring and that there was no way, I wanted documented proof to show my current state of misery. But words apparently weren’t needed. My facial expression did its job. He immediately retracted.

Then signs of “Tour de France this way” appeared in my tunnel vision. Then the corner signs disappeared. It must be going straight, or only uncornery corners now. And I made it into the village that I thought marked the end of the Alpe d’Huez climb.

I was confused. Where the heck is that damn arrivee sign? Distressed, I frantically asked two coffee drinkers. “Another few meters uphill,” they said. So I climbed those “few” meters and I still couldn’t find that one-and-only sign I would recognise from miles away. At seemingly the end of the village I turned around and was looking for the sign, now even more distressed.

By chance, I found this small, piddling sign which did not represent the size of this massive effort. They must change the sign!

Alpe d'Huez sign

I took my obligatory col picture. I felt disturbed, mentally and physically abused. Why would someone play with you and your legs for such a long time? And then I descended and Alpe d’Huez became a bit friendlier as I discovered it actually had a view:

In that moment I forgot that I had to climb back over Col de la Croix de Fer (1500m elevation). And if Alpe d’Huez was misery, this was absolute hell. I was mentally so exhausted that those 50 metre road sign reflection markers every, well, 50 metres kept me going.

I think this less than pretty video says it all:

You can check out the Strava map of this exhausting day, which ended up being 165km with 4600m of elevation.

Col de Fer Alpe d'Huez map (2)

Monika is a German ultra-endurance racer based in Melbourne and one of our Ella ambassadors. She is a gravel grinder, exercise physiologist and mental toughness coach that loves cycling challenges which push her beyond her perceived physical limits. You can find more of her writing here.

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