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A Day Riding Up, Down, and Around Alpe d’Huez

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Last week while doing some initial testing for the new Polar M450 GPS cycling computer I headed down to meet the Polar crew at Alpe d’Huez.  It’s a reasonably efficient 3ish hour train ride from Paris, plus another 75 minute car ride to the mountain village.

While they had multiple rides over the course of the few days the event was going on, I was only able to join them for a single road bike ride.  The route does a giant loop up/down/around and back up again Alpe d’Huez.

Last week I covered the actual Polar M450 from an product perspective, this week I’ll just talk about the ride from a cool cycling perspective.  Aside from the 3+ action cams I had on me at the time for photos seen here, there’s no other sports technology talk in this post from this point forward.  Enjoy!

Up and away:

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I’ve learned since living in France that anytime a French cyclist says “It’s all downhill”, they really mean: “There’s a small bit that’s downhill, but the remainder is all uphill”.  This experience seems especially true in the Alpe d’Huez area – for example last year at the triathlon, where the start is thousands of feet below the village where most people stay.  In that scenario they tell you that it’s all downhill – but neglect to mention the numerous uphill and flat sections.

Which…turned out to be much the same way the ride started.  We more or less immediately started climbing.  Now, to their credit, these were absolutely stunning climbs.  I’ve actually skied this specific section numerous times (it’s a blast), but I think cycling through it was actually cooler.

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While there were a few short drops in elevation, it was mostly uphill – with us recollecting the large group at the top of Col de Sarenne:

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It’s here that Polar had broken out a drone to catch various shots on the climb (fwiw, it was a reasonably impressive hexocopter, not consumer grade – but rather had a full DSLR+gimbal attached).

We meanwhile just re-grouped.  It’s one of the slight challenges with riding in a large group on anything a Frenchman describes as ‘all downhill’ – having to wait for all the cyclists to finish climbing uphill.

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Of course, with the views as they were – nobody was complaining.

Going Down the Back Way:

With that initial climb completed, it was time to actually go downhill.  This particular pass just opened three days prior, and as such our guide noted the road was a bit rough still.  There wasn’t any snow to worry about, and the rain from the night before had largely dried.

This particular route down was used two years ago during the famous dual Alpe d’Huez climb day, when the riders descended the backside of the mountain down roads that the teams had protested a bit about, due to said road conditions.

After having now ridden these roads – I wouldn’t disagree with them.  I was more than happy to be going at my turtle-pace.

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The switchbacks were sharp and the roads mostly lacking any substantial barrier.  It would have been cause for a reasonably bad day had you mishandled your bike.  But still…so cool!

Eventually the rocky ledges gave way to green forests, meadows, and occasional rivers running through.

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There were also numerous little cabins just barely out of sight along the route – sweet little hideaways where you could enjoy the area’s numerous summer and winter activities…and probably for incredibly cheap given these were on the ‘wrong side’ of the mountain to the famed resort.

Riding Around It:

We re-grouped again towards the base of the decent.  With this time truly being all downhill it didn’t take too long for everyone to catch up.

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Once that was done we started a gradual but fast moving descent around the mountain, sorta wrapping from behind the mountain back around to the front of it.  We’d cross over a massive dam along the way:

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Much of the riding was in the forest, and often on beautiful new roads and tarmac.

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Eventually the all-downhill theme continued uphill, because that’s how all-downhill works.  This would have me climbing for probably 20-30 minutes up occasionally steep grades as we stuck to the side of small village roads.

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And of course, your normal ‘Avalanche Crossing’ signs:

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From there though we slithered out onto the front of the mountain and along the edge of massive cliff walls that drop what I presume to be thousands of feet to the valley floor (and seemingly just as high upwards).

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Probably one of the cooler roads that I’ve ridden, even if I suspect that one ill-placed rock could put me out of my misery.

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Before we knew it though we merged into the official Alpe d’Huez climb road.  Of course, we were around the mid-way point in the climb, so it was time to head down to the base to get things started for real (no cheating here!).

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This was a good spot though to re-fill water bottles (also notable if you need water going back up the climb, there’s at least 2-3 of these that I saw semi-evenly placed).

Riding Up the Famed Climb:

For the most part I was on my own at this point.  I did a loop out to the famous town roundabout, and then it was a quick 1-2 minute ride back to the base of the climb.  There’s a handful of signs that indicate various start points – but there’s only one official ‘Depart’ sign – so that’s what I basically consider the official start.  Not that it honestly matters too much, pain commences instantly.

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Unlike other climbs, there is no gradual build.  The ground instantly goes from pancake flat to 10%+ grades, faster than you can adjust the incline on a treadmill.  You can pretty much see it in the picture there as it turns to the left.

From there you slowly tick off each of the 21 switchbacks that make up the 1,071m climb (3,514ft).  This process takes ~14.5KM.

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These switchbacks are marked by past Tour de France winners – though some of them have been scratched/blanked out, presumably due to various doping related post-win revelations.

It’s also worth noting that not every switchback gets an official marker.  Somehow certain switchbacks don’t qualify for the magical marker.  There’s likely a ‘Department of Switchbacks’ somewhere that has specific rules on this.  They may be closely related to the ‘It’s all downhill from here’ department.

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Because of the large Dutch race that was occurring the next day, there was substantial fan support along the route – far more than would normally be present on a random Tuesday.

Over the course of the climb, there are slight variations in the grade of the road.  But it generally stays between 8-11%, though does occasionally burst higher or slightly lower.  Ultimately though, it’s relentless.

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As you near the top you start heading through small villages of sorts.  Sometimes just clusters of private cabins, other times more official.

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As you near what you think is the finish, you’ll see a number of restaurants and plenty of people outside enjoying life.  Note: This is not the finish.  Despite having seen the final switchback sign, you still have more turns and climbing to do.  Get back to work.

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These next 2-3 climbs do not qualify per the covenants of the Department of Switchbacks, hence the fake-you-out.

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On the bright side, the grade is pretty relaxed here, probably only in the 4-6% range most of the time.  Heck, there’s even a very slight downhill section for perhaps 100m.

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Finally, it’s time to make one last turn uphill for about a 300m straight shot to the official finish of the Tour de France stage.

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There’s even a marker designating this as the finish.  Be careful of course to ensure that you actually follow the proper route signs in the village as to ensure a true TdF climb.  And certainly don’t be stopping back at the bar half a kilometer earlier thinking that was the finish!

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From here I turned back around and headed the kilometer or so downhill, around and up back to the hotel – and ultimately the starting point for my journey – making for a perfect loop!

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With that – my day was complete!  Well, minus a few final photos, temporarily losing my rental car keys in the process, forgetting my running shoes in the rental car at the train station (post-finding car keys)…and then a 3+ hour train ride back to Paris.  But hey…I did just barely make that train – 3 minutes to spare!

For those curious about the route, you can view it all here on Strava.  Additionally, the various files from my units are available at this link (you can click on any given product to download the file from that unit).  Those files can then be used to ride the route as you see fit.  I was pretty ‘clean’ in that there should be no wrong turns in there for folks to ponder – just a really crisp line to follow.  At the base of Alpe d’Huez, we did a quick loop out to the traffic circle and back, adding perhaps 1KM on flat ground.  It’s a good way to get yourself all situated ahead of the climb  – plus it gives you the same feeling as when the Tour de France comes through town.

I’d recommend staying in the village (Alpe d’Huez) – it’s trivial easy and cheap to find spots to say up there in the summer since there’s a massive empty glut of accommodations given it’s primarily a winter skiing destination.  I typically use Booking.com in Europe to find last minute deals, but have also had good luck with Hotels.com for European locations.

Enjoy (and be safe)!

Side note: Looking to burn a bit more time? Here’s a few related posts:

An Epic Weekend of Cycling in the Pyrenees
Alpe d’Huez Triathlon 2014 Race Report
A day spectating on Alpe d’Huez at the Tour de France

Have a good weekend!

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45 Comments

  1. Robert

    Great report and photos! Looks like a awesome but very painful ride. Thanks for report/photos have a good weekend!

  2. gingerneil

    I’m not a cyclist, and don’t own anything that could be described as a bike. Would you ever consider running up, or is that just a plain silly suggestion ? It would be one heck of a hill training session for the legs! :)

    • Yup – there were numerous people running/walking/hiking up it those days I was there. There’s actually kinda two ways you can do it. One is to follow the road, but there are also trail switchbacks in between the different road switchbacks as well (ideal for cutting quickly as cyclists go up to catch them twice).

    • Tim Grose

      There is (of course!) a Strava segment for running up it. link to strava.com I know the two British guys in 7th and 8th – both good, but not elite, runners – 32/3 10K at their best. The CR looks to have been set in a race by a French guy with a 29:30 10K PB so classy! The “GAP” pace suggests he was doing the equivalent of about 2 mins/mile quicker than his actual 7:10 average pace.

  3. Jonas

    Looks great!

    So it was between 56-57.8 kms and 1910-1934m in elevation. Which one do you think was the most accurate? or would you just take an average on it :)

  4. MAGNUS

    At work and dont have time to read the post at the moment, but just looking at the photos, it looks so damn cool. I’m jealous.

  5. Neil Tween

    Ray – are you growing a beard? Great report – looks amazing.

  6. going to ‘Huez and nearby climbs in the fall, then Paris, then back home. Looking forward to it.

  7. ComPH

    Ray, you are living “Da Life”, as they say in Hawaii.

  8. S-Go

    Second paragraph first sentence, should end in ‘road bike ride’, Ray.

  9. FLuna

    Hi DC: One word, —amazing !!!— by far your best adventure. And not sure if anybody has metioned, but you are a great narrator –is not easy to keep the reader interested in a full lengt article — very well written and ilustrated, felt that I was riding with you guys. One question though, with such a long time out of home, how is baby dc rainmaker will be created? -JK- Peace and enjoy life– cheers.

  10. Digi

    My friend, a former racer, who did the Alp a few years ago, said it was one of the best climbs he’s ever done. Looking at that second-to-last photo…looks like you found one of five Ford F-250s in France. Ha!

  11. rene

    The Dutch race Ray is mentioning is the Alpduzes. It’s a charity event collecting money for cancer research. Goal is to bike or run up a number of times (originally six times). Friend of mine ran up three times and biked up three times in one day. Yes, that’s more than a marathon uphill.

  12. Bruce Burkhalter

    Doing this ride in two weeks! I keep going over the photos and smiling.

  13. Chris

    Reminds me of being in Alaska and going out mountain biking with the Fairbanks Cycling Club. All trails were 100% rideable and all downhill.

  14. Reny

    Like Rene already told, it was a climb for charity. For me, biking it twice raised about 2000 euro’s. I was actually at a restaurant and watch a lot of polar shirts on their way to the finish. To bad I didn’t know you were one of them. Would like to shake youre hand ;-) But anyway: In bourg dóssains , the village at the bottom of the alp, there’s a great bicycleshop where there are bikes to hire. Mtb and race (even e-bike’s) mostly Giant.
    Enjoy the alpe!

    • Axel

      Kanjer.

      For the non-Dutch, some more perspective on the event: thousands of participants, about 400 of whom climbed the Alpe 6 times, raised well over 11 million Euros. I know a handbiker who did it 4 times.
      The kind of sillyness you only do for a really good cause.

      Those pictures of the cliff-road are stunning, by the way.

  15. PAUL TURTON

    Great report. I’m doing La Marmotte this year and staying in ADH. I would like to do a easy ride the day before to stretch the legs out after the big drive down there. Can you suggest a ride from ADH that does not involve going down the ADH main road to Bourg? Maybe something that is an hour or two. Cheers.

    • An hour or two involving the main climb, or? The climb itself will take you likely 70-100mins itself, depending on your speed (fwiw, I was ~80min).

      You can actually do a variation though of what I did, simply once you get to the dam, then just follow the road signs to Bourg. That’s the fastest/flattest (slightly downhill actually) route and most direct. Our was more scenic.

    • PAUL TURTON

      Thanks Ray. I probably didn’t make my post very clear. We are staying in Alpe D Huez Village and want an “easy” ride the day before we do La Marmotte. Basically we don’t want to climb back up Alpe D’Huez as it may be to heavy on the legs on the day before the mammoth ride we have the following day. Is there a ride you can suggest from the Alpe town centre to spin the legs out? Maybe 1-2 hours without a ton of climbing? Thanks again.

    • slartiblartfast

      There aren’t many flat roads around if you are starting from Alpe d’Huez village. The longest flattish bit of road would be to Col de Sarenne which is only 9km with a bit of a climb to the summit of the col. Otherwise you could drive down to Bourg and start a ride from there. The ride around to Lac du Verney is pretty flat except for the road up the dam wall (see the Alpe d’Huez triathlon short course bike leg description). Ray’s balcony road from La Garde to Lac du Chambon looks pretty cool although there is some climbing involved.

    • PAUL TURTON

      Thanks for the info. I may do an ‘out and back’ to the Col Du Sarenne or if we’ve got enough time do the drive down to Bourg and go out to Lac du Verney. Thanks for the suggestions.

  16. Peter

    Ray – What were your impressions of the loaner Look they gave you to ride?

  17. Daniel Jessee

    I kind of hate you right now. j/k

  18. Michael Fiola

    People must look at you funny with four cycling computers mounted on the bike and four fitness watches! How many times do you have to field questions about that?!

  19. Michael Fiola

    Thanks for the story and posting the files from your devices. Amazing climb and story. I hope to do it one day too.

  20. Logan

    Was the gearing on the bike better suited for the terrain than your last ride there?

  21. Joe E

    Ray, notice you are wearing your F3 as well as other devices, can you please share the comparison of GPS data? Very interested in tracking and distance provided by the F3 compared to other devices.

    • Joe E

      Never mind, sorry just saw you already posted the link in the story, sorry I missed it.

    • Joe E

      Interesting that the Polar devices and Suunto all give about 1.5% – 2% longer distance (1 km longer distance over about 56-57 km) than Garmin devices (1000. Epix and F3).

  22. Marc Steingrand

    Ray grea quick question you used your 1000 of equipment is any thing possible to download and to be used at Kinomap or any other program with my kicker and if yes how should I do that ?

  23. Amazing photos…I can only fantasize about that ride. Time to get a GoPro!

  24. Stephen

    Ray, did you take your bike on the train from Paris to Grenoble? If so, was this a complete nightmare or is it ok? Did you then get a rental car in Grenoble or is there some way of getting yourself plus bike to the Alpe on public transport? I’ve looked at doing this trip a few times myself (but starting with a Eurostar in London in my case for an extra layer of complication) but I could’t figure it out.

    • I didn’t take my bike, but on these trains it looked pretty straight forward – when I booked the ticket it even offered the option to reserve a bike spot for later. For Eurostar I’ve done that before – you just drop-off your bike with them a bit earlier and that’s it.

      As for the car, yup, just a rental right at the Grenoble train station. There’s three within the station, and 2-3 more options directly across the street (not even 50m away). From there it takes about 75-90min to get to the top of the mountain.

    • Erik

      Stephan… SNCF has a door to door service (bikes must be in case)

      It works very good. Check out this site.

      link to m.bagages-sncf.com

  25. Pete

    Ray, I’m going to be over there in a few weeks – I heard the bride on the D1091 is closed by Mizone, did you run into any issues or heard anything about it? Apparently it could derail the tour this year if they can’t reopen it.to get from Mizone to La Grave is 10mi on D1091, but apprently with the bridge hout we’re talking 4 hour rides now. thanks. and great write up – I’m stealing your route!

    • Hmm, on our route we didn’t run into any issues on this specific route. Going that way would have been a turn away from Alpe d’Huez though, probably why we didn’t take it I’d guess.

    • Bruce Burkhalter

      I’m doing a Trek Travel tour through there in a couple weeks and we are staying in La Grave (east of the tunnel). The issues with the tunnel are a pretty big deal for the businesses in the area and there is no easy way around it (I think a two hour detour by car.) If you google “GRAND CHAMBON TUNNEL” you will find a bunch of articles (in French).

      It is supposed to re-open on July 10 but it isn’t clear how confident that date is.

      We have been told there is a small ferry service for pedestrians and cyclists. It goes across the lake that is next to the tunnel. We will be using that to get to APH from La Grave.

  26. Patti

    I just read an article that said they have now closed the water shuttle due to a threat of a landslide on the tunnel side. If the shuttle is allowed to start operating again, does anyone know a source that we can follow that gives information concerning its hours and if they truly allow bicycles and/or if anyone is talking about adding service for the week of the tour? It’s like they want to keep it a secret.

    • Bruce Burkhalter

      There are no secrets. They don’t know what is going to happen. As you said, there is a big concern that the hillside will collapse. If this happens, it will go into the reservoir below. That could cause a massive wave that could damage or destroy the dam. This would be a huge disaster for the people and towns below the dam.

      The officials are meeting almost daily to try and figure out what to do. The hillside is moving several inches a day. It is very dangerous and the tunnel has already collapsed. The TDF has already altered the route to avoid the area. They are doing Croix de Fer before ADH instead of Telegraphe and Galibier.

      One source is ladauphine.com. They are doing a good job of reporting on the story.

  27. ham-planet

    The Col de Sarenne was completely devoid of road debris when the Tour de France went down it in 2013 – it was a lot of fun that year. On years when it doesn’t get the Tour treatment, there’s a consistent sprinkling of fine gravel down the middle of the road, on account of construction traffic heading up to the lift-accessed area – not so much fun.