July 13 – Rencurel to Chichilianne 68.2 miles – Got an early start again to try to beat the heat. We missed out on seeing some grand canyons due to road construction, so we headed for our first big climb, the Col de Rousset (4,484’). From the direction we came it was a pretty gentle climb. When we looked over from the top of the other side, it was very steep and full of switch-backs, at least a dozen. We carefully descended through them and came out among great fields of lavender. The air was positively heady with their perfume.
We had lunch in Die at a park and had a nice visit with a woman taking a bus tour of the French Resistance hideouts. Then we started up the Col de Menee (4,600’). Along the way we saw this hedge trimmed like a biker’s head. Clouds gave us some respite from the heat and we turned out to be the first in our group to top the pass. (Of course, we HAD taken off an hour earlier than everyone else and we had only stopped for 20 minutes for lunch.) We were starting to feel confident again.
We blasted down the road to Chichilianne where we were staying in an old castle, complete with stone circular stairways. The dining was fairly formal, but the cook served us the veggie patty we’d provided and made it seem part of the meal.
July 14 – Chichilianne to Venosc 62.6 miles – We had a long downhill at the start of the day, 14 km. That, naturally, led to some serious ups and some more serious downs. At the bottom of one of the roads we crossed a gorge where they were setting up for bungee jumping. The bridge had to be 300’ from the river below. We didn’t see anyone jump off, but it almost made me sick just to look over the edge.
Then we climbed to La Mure for a snack. Ahhhh, how I’ve come to love pain du chocolate! (Chocolate filled croissants) The rolling road led us to the Col d’Ornon (4,500’). Along the way is where we met Serge, the 70 year old French rider who tagged along with us a while, then went out on his own. When we saw him at a bridge in the next village, we thought he was just guiding us toward the Col. Turns out he lived just moments away and invited us in for about 5 minutes. His wife immediately started to lay out food: chips, bread, jam, fruit and he asked if we’d like some beer or wine. We said no but couldn’t turn him down when he offered us some pastis – a French aperitif made from anise. It was delightful. His wife spoke some English and between that and our limited French, we all had a pretty good time. We compared maps of trips we’d taken or that we were on. He’s done Paris-Brest-Paris at least 2 times, possibly 4. It’s an 800 mile, 90 hour endurance ride. Finish in time or it doesn’t count.
They sent us on our way with full water bottles and full hearts. He assured us we’d top the pass in an hour. We did. Then we had another fast descent to le Bourg-d’Oisans. This is a cycling mecca. It is at the base of Alpe d’Huez and there were cyclists everywhere. We met people touring from New Zealand, Britain, and all over the US. We bought souvenirs, then headed to our hotel, about 10 miles away. It was easily the hardest 10 miles of the day. It all seemed to be uphill, some of it excruciatingly steep. It was a lesson in expectations. In our minds we had finished when we got to le Bourg-d’Oisans. We just weren’t prepared to go one more mile, much less 10. We were awfully thankful to get to our hotel that night, just before the evening thunderstorm broke.
July 15 – Alpe d’Huez 33.3 miles
This was our day to climb Alpe d’Huez. We stripped the bike down to nothing. We didn’t carry our trunk. We just stuffed our back pockets with the essentials, repair kit, bars, wallet, and set off. We hit the bottom of the climb and BOOM the road went up. The 21 switch-backs are all numbered, in reverse order, from the bottom to the top. For the first three it’s about a 10% grade that eventually gives way to a more manageable 7%. There were crowds of people at every corner, usually in huge campers. We were surprised by the number of German flags we saw. It seemed the Germans had staked out all the best positions. Almost everyone would lustily cheer as we rode by. There aren’t a lot of tandems going up that hill!
Sheila did snap when one man called out in German, “She’s not pedaling back there!” This is the quintessential remark made by people trying to sound clever. Once you’ve heard it several thousand times, it loses its charm. On the slopes of Alpe d’Huez, it had no charm at all. Sheila shot back a quintessential American one-word response. That shocked him into silence.
All the way up we were being passed by a steady stream of cyclists from all over, come to pay homage to one of the great climbs of Le Grand Tour. We actually went faster than a few singles, but not many. It was very interesting when we could see hang gliders below us in the valley.
The sun was hot, but not morbidly so. The grade pitched up to 12% around turn 3 or 4. Yikes. I’ve never spent so long a time in such a low gear. As it was we were barely going 3 miles an hour at times.
Finally we completed the last turn and could see our way into the resort at the top. We zipped in, then hung out with our group (most of whom had passed us on the way up) and did some shopping. An hour or so later, we zipped down the previously grueling route. It took a lot of brakes to make some of those corners! And all the while bikes were flowing up hill, up to the top of a spectacular climb.
We bought new bike helmets back in Bourg-d’Oisans, then began the return. Knowing what the 10 miles returning to our hotel were like somehow made the trip much easier. We were ready for the climbs, (they didn’t seem nearly so long or hard) and we pulled in early enough for a relaxing pastis on the front lawn of our hotel.
July 16 – Venosc to Pinsot 66.6 miles – What a great way to start the day. It was almost all downhill for 28 miles! Then we had choices. We could climb to a ridge and go along its backbone for 40 miles of up and down or drop down to the valley and travel 25 miles of flat. We split the difference. We rode part way up the ridge. Then we got to a “road closed” sign. So we worked our way back down to the valley and continued on the flats. We were happy to have a day of relative ease after the climb yesterday. When the day was winding down we crossed paths with Mark and Maria, a tandem couple from our group. We rode together the last 20 km. They were kind to us and kept their speed down. We all stopped in one village and wandered around looking for ice cream and sorbet. It was very pleasant. It had a big town square just aside the church. Shops were all round it. A gorgeous river ran just to the west. This city felt like it had a heart, unlike many towns in the US.
The chef for our hotel was very solicitous. He came out several times to make sure we all had what we wanted. I wished I had more French so I’d be able to do more than just smile and nod.
July 17 – Pinsot to Albertville 45.4 miles – Today we started out climbing again. What a surprise! Our first climbs led us into a high alpine valley like many we’d seen. Dotted with pastures and villages these valleys are delightful. You can always hear the clinking of cowbells in the distance. The roads are lightly traveled so it is fun cycling. About 7 km from the top of the Col du Grand Cucheron (3,900’) we saw the now-familiar “Road Baree” sign. A farmer had advised one of our group that cycles could indeed get through the pass, so we pressed on. About 3 km later we came to another “Road Baree”, but since none of our group had turned back, we pressed on. We kept a nice spin up and reached the top just as everyone else was starting down. Rather than stop for a snack, we thought it would be fun to be with the gang, so we trundled down also. We never saw anything that even remotely was blocking the road, so we weren’t sure what the signage was all about.
At the bottom of the climb 17 km later, most of the group stopped for lunch. We merely balanced our fluids before setting out again. We had a short steep climb, then a long stretch of flat road leading to Albertville. We got a bit lost trying to find our hotel, but we still beat the luggage truck. Then we went into town for some sightseeing, some stamps, and some food supplies. We were pleasantly surprised to be able to find vegan food at many of the stores we shopped at. It would make the next trip much easier knowing where to get food.
July 18 – Rest Day– It had been 275 miles since our last rest day, so we took another one today. We napped. We swam. We read. We napped. We swam. We read. We watched the tour stage that ended at Alpe d’Huez. A great day. We were really tired of the get up, pack, ride, ride, ride, unpack, wash clothes, eat, go to bed, repeat. Staying still in one place was lovely. Although everyone who took the rest day ride came back and said it was the most beautiful of the trip. Oh well.