From Lancashire to Dutch Corner
Updated: Jan 29, 2021
In August 2020, my Dad and I embarked on a 14 day trip to the French Alps, masks and sanitiser in hand, this was 2020 after all! It was the most incredible experience as we took on France's most famous peaks. At the beginning of the trip, I thought it a good idea to keep a journal of sorts, to look back on in the future. This plan worked to perfection, for all of two and a half days... Unfortunately the fatigue of climbing mountains caught up with me, resulting in the project falling apart, or dropping from the back of the pack you may say. Alas, I am happy that the words remain from the first few days and perhaps they may bring a smile to your face. Without further ado, I present the words from our journey to the top of Alpe d'Huez, the 'Hollywood mountain':
Monday 10th August
Miles driven: 540
And so, it begins, two weeks of pain, heat, exhaustion- but adventure. 10 days riding in the wheel tracks of some of the greats (including 4 days travelling). My mind wanders to Fausto Coppi winning the first ever summit finish of Alpe d’Huez in 1952, his attack over the Col d’Izoard which led him to Giro d’Italia success over the late, great Gino Bartali; Marco Pantani’s audacious long range onslaught over the Col du Galibier in the torrential rain, to put Jan Ulrich out of the Yellow Jersey in 1998; and of course, the ill-fated 13th stage of the 1967 Tour de France, which saw the premature death of Tom Simpson on Mt.Ventoux. These are the greats we shall be following up the climbs, if we even get up them that is!
The trip began as it meant to go on, with exhaustion, I had 1 and a half hours of sleep this morning, after working a night shift at KFC last night. The broom wagon pulled away from our drive at 5:15 this morning, 15 minutes later than planned, as was to be expected! Fortunately, having ridden my bike for two years since passing my driving test, and driving all of half a mile, I will not be required to take the wheel in this trip. A blissful day of sleep ahead is what I plan. Of course, this never happens. The day is spent with nervous anticipation of our arrival in France, worried that at any moment the trip may be curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions. Only when we pull into Calais on the Eurotunnel at around 14:45pm local time does the nervous excitement turn to sheer elation. The nerves still remain, after all, this successful trip across the border means that we will genuinely have to get our steel bikes up to the top of Europe’s greatest mountains. Alas, that is a concern for another day...
The journey through northern France to our budget F1 Hotel in Chalons-en-Champagne is spent in the same baking heat as we had experienced south of Birmingham. It really is remarkable how the weather changes once one gets south of the Midlands. Up in’t north we are thoroughbreds, designed to stand the cold and wet rainy days that so often plague us. This 25+ degree heat, which increases to 38 degrees once on the continent, certainly has the beating of us, I feel as though I’m on the bloody equator!
Our thirst is finally quenched by beers (tequila Desperados nonetheless) in a lovely little pizzeria named the Crousty Délice. It isn’t going to win any awards, but it does provide us with impressively sized pizzas, and provides me with a cracking little chocolate mousse for dessert. This is the food of champions, I can envisage Fausto Coppi tucking into chocolate mousse before his Tour win in 1952, the greatest winning margin seen this side of the war, at 28 minutes. I am kidding, of course. I am not yet into fuel, cycle, sleep, repeat mode just yet, anyway, I will be burning this food off in the coming days, won’t I? Sure, that’s the story I will go with.
The ‘F1’ branded hotels in mainland Europe, if you didn’t already know, are about as cheap and cheerful as you can get, as long as you have a loose definition of the word cheerful. There *is* a bed, there *are* toilets, there *is* a roof over your head. For £14 a head for a one-night stay, this may allow my bank account a thankful smile, but it certainly won’t be luxury. I wonder if this is what Chris Froome has to go through before his training camps? Somehow, I very much doubt it. My dad asks whether or not our room will have air conditioning, I puff out my cheeks in exasperation, he quickly notes that this exhalation of air may in fact be the only form of air conditioning we get. A long, hot night probably entails.
Tuesday 11th August
Miles driven: 384
Rattlesnakes or grasshoppers? That is the lasting, quite silly, question of the day. It turns out I am indeed a fool and the constant backdrop of sound in Huez is in fact the sound of grasshoppers. They are chirping away as I am writing this, late at night, sat on the balcony of our stunning Airbnb apartment. For the record, last night’s F1 hotel turned out to be a sauna throughout the night, with no air conditioning and the window providing little to no help. Having woken up at 2:30 this morning, I felt as though I had been 12 rounds with Mike Tyson, but alas, I had simply been sleeping (barely) in *that* room for around 3 hours. After this humid experience finally ended, it was onto the motorway we went. But, before we could reach the bliss of 300+ miles on the ‘autoroute’, we first needed to escape the town of Chalons-en-Champagne, a task that appeared too great for my Dad. The opposite road regulations in France certainly got the better of a tired Iain this morning, who haplessly got lost in this small town, with frustrations boiling over. I had to act as the Derek Ringer to my Dad’s Colin Mcrae, escorting him through these bizarre roads with my words of wisdom. A similar task needed to be endured through the city of Lyon later in the day, which was brimming with crazy French drivers in all manner of vehicles, including one woman on an electric scooter (the one wheel at the front, one wheel at the back, kind) who decided to sit in the middle of a complete traffic lane, forcing all those behind her to slowly indicate into the inside lane.
Nevertheless, the Alps soon beckoned on the horizon and as we got ever nearer, the realisation of what we had undertaken became quickly apparent. These were certainly not ‘slightly bigger than Pendle Hill’ kind of hills, these were mountains; these were mountains that loomed with jagged rockfaces and snowy tops. Deeper and deeper we plunged into this daunting terrain, until we eventually arrived in Bourg d’Oisans, which sits at the bottom of the Alpe d’Huez climb. The strange thing was, that after watching Tour de France coverage which of course shows the Alpe from the perspective of a helicopter, in contrast at the foot of the climb, the road that snaked up the mountain was not in fact clear at all. We swung a left off the main road and all of a sudden, we passed the KM0 indicator that designates the start of the 8.5-mile climb. The reason for this ambiguity over where the road was soon became apparent; the top of this momentous climb can not actually be seen from the foot, as the road appears to climb in a series of three terraces. The climb up to the first terrace is by far the most frightening, with gradients of road that, alone, would not be too unsettling, but in heavy frequency on a climb of this length, become the stuff of nightmares. The following two terraces (imagine a flight of steps from side on, you can’t see the top step from the bottom, as the preceding steps overhang) certainly did not quickly pass. The drive to the top of the official climb felt as though it took us 40 minutes, which would place us slower than Marco Pantani managed the Alpe on a bike in 1997. Perhaps it did not take us this long… however we did, unintentionally, become the bugbear of many motorists behind us, as we slowed down through each hairpin to look in awe at the legends’ names that adorned the hairpin number indicators- Fausto Coppi on bend 21 and Marco Pantani on bend 3 come to mind initially. By the time we had reached the top, the fear of God had been placed within us, my Dad pondered whether he will even be able to climb the Alpe at all. I suppose we will find out tomorrow, I slyly remark to him- he better bloody make it up…
After a brief cycle around the town of Huez in order to stretch the legs, the night was spent wandering the streets and soaking in the fact that here we stood, at the top of the most famous climb in cycling- the ‘Hollywood climb’- Alpe d’Fricking Huez. Another pizza and another beer quickly washed down, we end the night watching a local league ice hockey game on the open-air court in the middle of the town. This rink overlooks onto the mountains opposite, which whilst spectacular to us two Johnny foreigners, probably doesn’t even resonate to the players themselves, who seem far too preoccupied with avoiding broken bones as they smash each other against the barriers at every passing opportunity. The action is fast paced, brutal and to tell you the truth, pretty one-sided. The away side dominate proceedings and the Alpe d’Huez team certainly do not entertain the home crowd. This matters little to me, as this is the first ice hockey game I have ever seen in person. Perhaps I should try this, I initially think, then my mind wanders back to the winter ice skating in Bath last Christmas- bambi on ice was the role I played- I ponder ice hockey again… perhaps not.
After returning to the apartment to find our smart TV has access to Netflix (3 points to the Pooles), the alarm is set. At 7:00am, we climb the Alpe!
Wednesday 12th August
8,648ft of climbing (Alpe d'Huez & Col du Solude)
At 9:09am, I conquered Alpe d’Huez. A full 1 hour, 8 minutes and 23 seconds after passing the KM0 mark at the foot of the climb, a time I am very pleased with. As I was toiling away earlier in the climb, I anticipated a time of around 1 and a half hours, thus anything quicker is well worth the effort. As for the ride itself, I began by taking it steady, through the often-mentioned steep earlier slopes of the Alpe. These gradients of around 10% lasted until the sleepy town of La Garde, a place at which I made my first kill, my first overtake of the Alpe- boy it felt good! I was the Nairo Quintana of 2013 dropping Chris Froome on Stage 20 of the Tour, I was Pierre Roland of 2011 dropping Alberto Contador. My legs still felt good, in fact, I felt good past hairpin 11, the point at which I realised I was almost halfway up the climb- I can make it now, I thought! Passing hairpin 13 seemed almost ritual, as this is the corner commemorating Geraint Thomas’ 2018 victory, cementing his place in the Maillot Jeune on the way to winning the overall title. A shout of “Chapeau Geraint” ensued and I sprinted away from the bend. Dutch corner (hairpin 7) was similarly outer body, imaging in the sea of orange cheering me on. The history on this climb is unparalleled, well you can now add George and Iain Poole to the history books… I began flagging around hairpin 6 and the next few bends were a grind to maintain a steady pace. The next notable hairpin was number 3, Marco Pantani’s corner. This was the site of one of his trademark, sprinting-on-the-drops attacks, which led him to glory at the top of the Alpe. Of course, I copied Pantani’s style as I sprinted around the bend, resulting in the elastic finally beginning to snap. My core muscles were non existent after this, body swinging from side to side as I pushed on to the summit. The plan had worked up until now, I was to maintain a steady rhythm from the bottom, until I knew I could complete the climb. That point was now, I knew I could finish off the job, even if I cracked. So now my attention turned to getting as quick a time as possible. I kicked on through the final town of Alpe d’Huez and just like Geraint, I sprinted out of the final roundabout up until the arrivé sign, 14km from the bottom. 1 hour, 8 minutes, 23 seconds. That was immense. The Alpe was not finished with me yet though, my attention soon turned to my dad, where was he? Would he have given up? Would he make it to the top of the climb? After a quick check of the Wahoo app, I see he is entering the village of Huez further down the climb. By the time I’ve descended, he is slowly approaching bend 5. We finish the climb together and my dad, 1 hour and 55 minutes after starting the climb, has conquered the almighty Alpe d’Huez.
After a quick spot of lunch and a change of saddle (inadequately broken in Brooks saddles are not recommended for climbing Alpe d’Huez), we push on upwards once more and eventually find ourselves well above Alpe d’Huez at the mightily impressive Lac Besson. Rather than being one lake, this is a series of at least 3 lakes, all as big as each other. This was well worth the toiling climb that came very soon after topping out on Alpe d’Huez. My cleats were as frustrated with me as my legs were. I was scrambling across gravel and rocks to reach the third lake, although my cleats were screaming for relief as they scraped across the rock, it was a journey well worth it. These lakes were stunning, high up in the mountains, with a backdrop of snowy tops and clouded peaks. Time to descend now and fuel up back in the apartment, for the day was not over. This afternoon we would arguably complete an even more picturesque climb on the slopes of Col du Solude, the climb I come to know as ‘the untouched col’.