Their names are full of sound. They evoke a shine in the eyes of every racing cyclist. L’Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier or Col d’Izoard – to name but a few. These are the mountain stages of the Tour de France. They have seen the sweat of the best cycling pros and have demanded numerous tears. Every year, thousands of cycling fans follow the tracks of the Tour de France to the French Alps and climb the legendary mountain passes by bike. In July 2019 I should have my premiere there.
Cycling holidays without planning? An attempt!
What is worse than rainy weather on a cycling holiday? Exactly, cycling holidays with constant rain, cold and snowfall on top. In the Alps you are not immune to it even in summer. Nobody voluntarily comes up with the idea of getting on their bikes under adverse conditions. The problem is that most working people set most of their annual holidays at the beginning of the year. Weather on holiday? Uncertain! Even if in some daily newspapers a “weather expert” explains in January what the future summer weather will be like, it should be said at this point that currently NO expert can forecast the world. Unfortunately even a weather fairy cannot predict the weather for the immediately following two weeks in 99 percent of the cases. Sunshine or rain on holiday? In the end you have to take it as it comes. But wait! What would be, if one would follow the good weather…?
The motto for the 2019 holiday was: Cycling where the sun shines. In concrete terms, this meant that the destination was always determined at short notice for two to three days in advance. The signs were good, as the weather in southern France in the first half of July was characterised by rather dry weather. There was only one big catch: My friend and I had absolutely no idea where to best find accommodation strategically in France. We wanted to avoid heavily used roads at all costs, just like overcrowded tourist centres.
Master of Kongfufu
What do women do when they are disoriented? Sure: ask for the way! I wrote to an acquaintance who regularly rides her racing bike in the south of France. She referred me to a French friend. He is a former MTB professional and knows the Rhone-Alpes region like the back of his hand. We put our holidays in the hands of two experts: Petrus and Kongfufu. Admittedly Petrus only determined the weather and the weather fairy had to interpret the forecasts correctly. But without our French helper we would have been pretty upset. Kongfufu is only his nickname, but he is a master in the art of tour coaching.
Getting the best out of it: a few tips
Our first stop in France was Briancon, the ideal starting point for the Col d’Izoard, Col du Granon, and Val des Pres. If you want to do a bigger round, you can also take the Col de Vars and Col Agnel with you. The roads are relatively quiet. No comparison with the well-known Alpine passes in the Central Alps. Fantastic landscapes, a true Eldorado for all racing cyclists. Our bike premiere was to be the Val des Pres. However, the road in the Val des Pres was partly flooded and buried by recent mudslides, so that we had to turn around and could not drive completely into the valley. But already here the grandiose landscape became apparent. Instead we attacked like the Col du Granon. It is steep throughout and you push yourself up to the end. Again and again one drives past grazing flocks of sheep. There was almost no traffic. In the upper part a tidy and icy wind whistled. But we were rewarded with a breathtaking view.
Driving the Col d’Izoard means harmony. The pass is less steep from the west side. But without big intermediate descents it goes almost steadily uphill and the landscape offers numerous delicacies. At the top of the pass there are a few snack stalls. A snack with French cheese is an absolute must. The Col d’Agnel is over 2700 metres high and leads to the Italian border. Beside the direct ascent of Pierre Grosse, there is also a small connecting road from Saint-Veran to the ascent to the Col d’Agnel. In the forest there is a climbing garden and a cafe where you can find probably the best crepes of France. Visit them! The small side road west of the main route is suitable for a return trip to Col de Vars. It leads through small villages, through Champcella and La Bâtie des Vigneaux.
For the next classics we moved into a quarter in Le Bourg-d’Oisans. The village is at the foot of the Alpe d’Huez driveway. The ascent is a must for every cyclist. But it is not really beautiful. On the other hand, those who take the way from Alpe d’Huez via the Route du Col de Sarenne will be rewarded here scenically. Also the drive to the west to Villard-Reculas offers a fantastic view. Also worthwhile are the dead ends over Vaujany and Oulles. A secret tip is also the round about Villard-Notre-Dame. The Col du Galibier can also be reached from Le Bourg-d’Oisans, but you have to take a busy road with some tunnels. Feasible, but not harmless. On the other hand, one is lonely when driving west to the Col du Sabot. Those who do not turn into the dead end here but stay on the main road will come directly to the Col du Glandon, which is also fantastic, even if with temporary car traffic.
Our third stop was the small village Le Planay which is next to the starting point Les Saisies of the Tour du Mont Blanc. The Tour du Mont Blanc is the toughest one-day race for amateurs. A proud 333 kilometres and over 8300 metres of altitude difference can be mastered in one day. The course goes once around the Mont Blanc, through France, Switzerland and Italy. Not far away is also the place Beaufort from which one can cross the Cormet de Roselend and also the Val d’Isère if one has good legs. The Cormet de Roselend is a beautiful pass. When we climbed through the wood in the lower part, we met the devil. DIDI Senft – known as El Diablo or Didi the Devil – just painted the driveway with his devil’s teeth. Because a week later the Tour de France was to roll across the road here. The heavenly Peter, however, put a spoke in the wheel of the devil and thus also of the Tour de France. The 19th and 20th stages of the Tour de France were overshadowed by a onset of winter and the Cormet de Roselend could not be driven by the world elite of the Tour in 2019. We, on the other hand, still had the best summer weather. We really wanted to make a detour to Chamonix. The mountaineering village has its own charm. On the one hand it is overcrowded with tourists and I bought probably the most expensive ice cream of my life there, on the other hand there are hardcore mountaineers floating around. This contrast in a very small space has a special charm. For the trip we took a part of the route that is also used by the participants of the Tour du Mont Blanc.
One recognizes the tourist by the coffee
Every country and every region has its peculiarities. German engineering is world famous. Its road construction, on the other hand, is a catastrophe. The Germans cannot do construction sites. If construction takes place in Germany, the construction complex is blocked off weeks in advance and hundreds of signs erected. On the construction site, machines and workers are to be seen sporadically then. Often everything stands still. The construction work takes several months. At the Col d’Izoard we were able to experience how it works. Our tour led over the Col d’Izoard pass to the Col d’Agnel and back again. The distance had to offer 130 kilometers and 4000 height meters. In the departure of the Col d’Izoard we could observe how construction workers began to close the oncoming lane for the traffic. When we drove five hours on the way back up the pass again, we could not believe our eyes. The pass had been completely re-tarred on this side as if by magic.
What kind of food do we associate with France? Baguette and red wine, of course. Cheese is also very popular. This has little to do with the modern, healthy lifestyle. Nevertheless, the people in the Rhone-Alpes region are remarkably slim. What didn’t fit into this picture was that “butter” was advertised on every corner, on every poster and every food package. This would be unthinkable in Germany. Even if we didn’t look like typical German tourists on the outside, it was clear when we ordered our coffee that we weren’t locals. Because in Rhone-Alps you drink your “Latte” with cream and not with milk. Raised eyebrows were the result, if I insisted on my milk in coffee instead of cream. In the back room of the coffees one probably shook one’s head over the tourists.
Our holiday experiment worked excellently thanks to Petrus and Kongfufu. All in all, it must be said that the French in the Rhone-Alpes region were all warm and down-to-earth. A dream for us cyclists. Always and everywhere you feel the soul of the Tour de France.