An Idiot’s Guide to the Haute Route Alpe d’Huez: A guide written by an idiot.

The route for the first of the two ‘compact’ Haute Routes was announced recently, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. I’m lucky enough to be riding the event; having done a lot of writing for the awesome Sports Tours International (more of which later), I’ve got myself a very tasty package to go out there for this event with them, and to then go on to ride the Etape a couple of days after.

Anyway, less of me. Onwards….

The feel of the area and event

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Being based in one location is the key difference between the new mini-Haute Routes and their biggercousins in Europe and the Rockies. The stress and faff of moving every day on the week long events is something that newbies fail to account for, and something that can become one heck of a grind towards the end of the week when heads are tired and nerves are becoming frayed.

I’m presuming most riders will be based up in Alpe d’Huez, which is pretty standard fayre for a ski resort – a large, jumbled mess of ugly hotels and overpriced shops and bars. The environs outside of the station is pretty nice though, with the plateau leading over to the Sarenne and Lac de Besson giving a great ride across some pretty picturesque meadows and lakes

The dichotomy og tourist ugly and pastoral beauty up at Alpe D’Huez epitomises the region as a whole really, with the horrendously ugly Maurienne valley and its large steel works and rail roads totally juxtaposing with the mind-blowingly epic craggy peaks around it. Everything in the area just feels huge and imposing; bordering on intimidating. The mountains nestle between dominating cliff faces, and the valley floors are wide and bewildering. The first time I rode there it pretty much blew my mind.

The beauty of this choice of host venue by the Haute Route is, for me, somewhat ironic. I am not a fan of the Alpe D’Huez climb really, as you’ll find out below, however, I most definitely am a fan of the climbs around it. There’s so many to choose from, and they all just feel, EPIC.

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Stage 1:

TT Bourg d’Oisans – Alpe d’Huez (16km, 1,135M+)

Well, it’s Alpe d’Huez, the superstar of climbs. I imagine you know it already: lots of bends, Bourg D’Oisin, etc etc?

I’ve ridden it twice, both times with a very cloudy head and so my memories aren’t that clear – the first ascent was after 6 hours of punishing riding in the Marmotte, and the second time was when feeling close to death to ‘compete’ in the Grimpee D’Alpe TT the day after the Marmotte. Essentially though, the climb, which averages 8.1 %, can be split into three sections.

The first third is tough; very tough. The first few bends especially. Riders of the Haute Route Alpe D’Huez had better be ready from the get-go, as the first two or three hairpins of the Alpe are steep, probably around 11%. And they’re relentlessly steep. Whereas further up the climb, the bends seem to offer a brief respite via a flatter smoother corner, it feels that the corners just exaggerate gradients here. Keep cool and don’t smash yourself to the ground. It’s the first minutes of three big days and going into the red here is not wise!

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The next seven hairpins, roughly marked by joining the villages of La Garde and Huez, offer you the chance to settle into a rhythm, as the gradeint eases to a more moderate 7-8%, and, as mentioned, the bends are wide, flat and shallow, letting you spin up slightly and change your rhythm as you accelerate into the next ramp. Be warned though, the bends are all the respite you get on the whole climb; the gradient never drops below about 6%m and the constant chain tension drains your legs.

The final seven bends were, for me, a battle for survival. The climb starts to open up away from the claustrophobic safety wall to one side and cliff face on the other. You start to enter the jumble of buildings in the ski town of Alpe D’Huez, and the pain creeps in as you feel like you’re getting close to the end, yet it never seems to come. The bends seem to become further and further apart now, an the final curves feel like they’re absolutely miles apart. I think the final minutes are as much a case of staying mentally strong and being patient as much as anything else.

I’m not a fan of this climb, as you’ll have gathered if you read my marmotte report. You can’t see much as the wall to one side of you is high and obtrusive; the road surface is pretty poor given how much traffic it carries, and the rock face on the mountain-side of the road seems to reflect the sun onto you, making it a real cauldron. It will be good to get it out of the way methinks. The pacing of this stage will be difficult to judge. On a full Haute Route, the TT is a go hard and race or go home and recover day. But today, with only three days to fight for positon, you can’t dawdle. But this is a tough climb, and several matches could be burnt if you’re not careful. Plan your strategy wisely!

Stage 2

Alpe d’Huez – Alpe d’Huez (152km, 4,300M+)
Cols: Glandon 1,924m, Croix de Fer 2,067m, Alpe d’Huez 1,850m

At 152km and 4,300m, the queen stage of the event has a mini-marmotte feel to it; not just due to the massive stats informing it, but also the start and end – a cheeky warm up of the legs over the  Glandon to start, and a haul up to Alpe D’Huez to finish (albeit via Viallard Reculas rather than the signature climb from Bourg).

The Glandon is a huge climb, with 22km of climbing set on average gradients of 5.5% when approached from the ‘Marmotte side’ that we will take. Climbing it really does feel like a journey, with the start marked by narrow steep roads through dark and dense woodland, before finally opening out about midway to a stunning reservoir and luscious green planes.

The 5.5% average gradient of the Glandon is, unfortunately for all, deceptive. As you’ll see from the profile below, the climb features short descents and plateaus, making the remainder quite pokey in terms of gradient. A lot of the sharper ramps are, from adrenaline fuelled memories from Marmotte, set in the first third. Keep calm and keep the excitement in check, or you’re in for a long day. And beware the killer km at around 12km in! You swoop around the first descent of the climb, and just as you hit the base, the road ramps directly up in front of you for about 400m of 12% WALL OF PAIN! Make sure you’re in the right gear and are mentally and physically prepared. I’ve seen people hit that in the big ring, and it all got a bit messy….

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If you thought the Glandon was huge, after a quick dash through the charms of the Maurienne valley, where approximately no selfies will be taken (the roads passing through it are ugly as sin), the Croix De Fer looms large. All 29.3km of it.

From what I can remember of the Croix de Fer taken from this side, it’s pretty similar to the Glandon in feel, with tight shaded roads mingling with flat meandering sections through villages and alongside pretty streams. Again, like the Glandon the average gradient (5%) is highly deceptive; there’s a couple of descents en route, which provide the blessing of a breather but also the curse of steepening the remainder.

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The top final three or four kilometres of the Croix de Fer (image below) are spectacular. You pass through a long stretch of quiet shady roads and into a tightly set and beautifully sleepy little village and then the climb seems to totally change. Set along a particularly narrow and precipitous road that feels like it’s going to fall off the edge of the steep escarpment, the road is quite harsh under the tyres and switches back and forth a number of times. The gradient seems to ramp up, but I think it’s as much an illusion as genuine gradient; the crazy little road amplifies the lactic in your legs and any mental weakness. It’s a thrilling yet attritional end to one of my favourite climbs in the area.

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The final climb of the day, to Alpe d’Huez via Villard Reculas, is the lest kown of the three approaches of the event. I know little about it to be honest, other than that it join onto the infamous hairpins in the village of Huez, i.e., with about six of the legendary bends left to ride before feasting, shower and massage time. Reports from some bloggers etc suggest     it’s a refreshingly quiet and picturesque change from the trademark AdH climb and so it will make a welcome change.

From research and reading, the Villard Reculas climb is not going to be a pleasure cruise of tranquil climbing and marvelling at the views; 16.8km at 5% with around 130km alrady in the legs is never easy. It looks to be a climb of three sections with the first third being relatively consistent in gradient, the middle easing of and even descending, thus allowing a brief recovery, and the top being a reminder of the time trial fun that you had the day before up the signature climb from Bourg.

Stage 3

Bourg d’Oisans – Alpe d’Huez (80km, 3,260M+)
Cols: Les Deux Alpes 1,652m, Sarenne 1,999m, Alpe d’Huez Lac Besson 2,074m

Although this stage is only 80km, it jams in a load of climbing, with nearly 3,300m of ascent set over two ‘categorised’ climbs, and a cheeky drag over a headland to start. The first lump on the profile isn’t a ‘climb’ as such, but it’s still up hill, and it all counts in what may be slightly reluctatnt legs after the monstrosities of the day before.

The climb to Les Deux Alpes is a typial ski station climb, quite new, regular and smooth. It has a feel of Alpe dHuez to it, and it almost seems to be a little jealous of its rockstar cousin over the road. With numbered bends and quite a few switchbacks, it seems a bit of a pale imitation of the signature climb of the event. It’s pretty straightforward from memory. At 9.8km and 6.2% it’s nothing to get your chamois in a twist about; save the histrionics for the Sarenne instead.

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sarenne2The Sarenne is going to be the real highlight of the day I think, and, for some, will reveal another side to the area that was unrealised before. It’s wild and unkempt, with narrow and rough roads barely frequented by traffic (see right). This feels more like a road to be used by farmers and local inhabitants, rather than the tourist and ski busses of the highways around it. The ascent has a real Pyrenean feel, totally wild, undulating, and haphazard. I rode it when feeling pretty rough on the Haute Route 2015 and can’t remember many of the details. It felt hard on the day, but on paper – 12.9km at 7% – it shouldn’t be a killer. I think the main difficulty is managing the ever-changing gradient and pokey hairpins, as well as finding your line in a potentially busy bunch on the narrow road.

The wildness of the Col du Sarenne is reflected in the way the climb came to prominence in the 2013 Tour de France. Stage 18 of the race featured two ascents of the Alpe D’Huez, with a descent off the Sarenne closing the loop after the first climb. Many riders complained that the descent was a dangerous one due to its rough and gravelly surface, uneven cambers, and steep drop-offs. Of course, the Tour’s organisers paid only fleeting attention to this. The descent remained in the parcours, however, with passing gestures of some temporary barriers installed at the most dangerous spots and sections of re-tarmacking performed.

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The final ascent of the day is another I know nothing about, beyond the fact that the Lac De Besson is one of the many lakes between the Sarenne and village of Alpe d’Huez mentioned at the start of this piece. The roads up there are narrow and tranquil, much like the Sarenne before it. The inclusion of the col is still to be confirmed, presumably due to restrictions on traffic and permits for installing start villages etc. From what I gather, it will be a great addition to the race, extending the Pyrenean feel of the Sarenne and showing a different side to the Maurienne area. Fingers crossed the guys at OC Sport than organise the Haute Route can pull it out of the bag and get the permissions required.

4 Replies to “An Idiot’s Guide to the Haute Route Alpe d’Huez: A guide written by an idiot.”

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