Classic TDF Climbs

It’s July 11, 2013,  and I’m sitting in a room with 11 other riders in Lourdes, France listening to three Trek Travel guides giving a briefing on today’s ride up Col d’ Soulor and Col d’Aubisque.  Col d’ Soulor is the first of eight climbs up mountains in the Pyrenees, Alpes and Provence where the Tour de France is won and lost.  They are the very essence of the world’s most grueling sporting event. The mountain ascents of the Tour have made and broken champions and the so-called out-of-category climbs are the worst.

Tom Emerick climbing Alp d HuezTom on Alpe d’Huez

Why am I sitting here waiting to ride up the first of eight mountains that have 10% plus grades and how did I get here?  It began 13 months earlier when, as a retirement gift, my family gave me a trip to see the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France.  The trip was thru Trek Travel which offered nine separate trips wrapped around the 100th anniversary of the Tour.  All the trips offered different degrees of difficulty and length.  The Classic Climbs trip was the most challenging with eight classic climbs and one ride through the lavender and sunflower fields and ancient cities of Provence.

Why did I pick this trip versus many of the others that were more of a bicycling wine and culinary tour is a question that I asked myself many times on each of the mountains.  Also, as many of you that have ridden with me know I am not fast when climbing any of the hills in San Diego County.  But after watching the Pros climb these mountain for many years on TV I felt that in order to get a real flavor of the Tour I would need to ride the mountains.

Our group was a widely diverse bunch from every part of the United States, from California to New York City. Having never met, we all had heard of Trek’s Tour de France-oriented trips, and we all elected to take on Trek’s biggest challenge, the Classic Climbs of the Tour de France trip.

Day One.
The group departs the hotel on the ride out to Col d’ Soulor and Col d’Aubisque the scenery is lush green with beautiful streams alongside many of the roads.  But after about 20 miles the road turns and starts climbing at a 10% grade for almost 7 miles. After summiting Soulor we transverse over to Col d’Aubisque where we turned around and headed back to Soulor.  Aubisque will go down in history where, in 1951,  Dutch rider and leader of the race, Wim van Est missed a turn and went over the guardrail, fell 150 feet and landed miraculously on a ledge no bigger than a seat. Had he not caught himself, he would have fallen another 1,500 feet to his death.  Undeterred, van Est clambered back up the cliff, re-entered the race and, although he lost his yellow jersey that day and never regained the lead, he became an unforgettable symbol of the toughness of the Tour de France riders.  As our group reaches the top of Col d’ Aubisque and turn to descend back down it begins to rain. Everyone is cautious during the descent in order to not have the same fate as van Est. We transverse back to Col du Soulor where we stop for lunch at a mountaintop restaurant. By the time we finished lunch the rain had stopped and we began our descent down Col du Soulor back to our hotel, occasionally having to dodge the cows, sheep and donkeys that were on the road.

Day Two.
We depart the hotel on the ride out to Col du Tourmalet.  In June Yahoo Travel listed Tourmalet as one of ten toughest rides in the world. 1910 was the first time the Tour visited Tourmalet and it’s the most visited pass in the Tour with 82 stages either finishing at the summit or passing through the summit.  Again the scenery is beautiful and the narrow country roads have no traffic.  On the ride out to Tourmalet we pass through the village of Campan.  As we pass houses and businesses I notice these life size dolls, “Les Mounaques,” on porches, balconies and in windows. Evidently in the 17th and 18th centuries when a couple would get married in other than “normal” (whatever that means) circumstances the towns people would place these life size dolls on the porches and lawns.  Campan is at the base of Tourmalet, it is 90+ degrees and 19 miles to the summit.  The climb starts out at a modest 4-5% grade but after 6 miles begins a 9-12% grade to the top.   With 10 miles to go to the top I’ve drunk all the water in both my water bottles.  It is 7 ½ miles to the ski village of La Mongie and it is still 90 degrees.  After another 2 miles I realize if I don’t find water I will not make it to La Mongie and would need to turn around and head back down to Campan for water.  Doing this would dash any hopes of summiting Tourmalet.  Just as I’m about to turn around I see a rider 50 feet in front of me cross the road towards a car parked on the left side of the road. As she approaches the car the driver gets out opens the trunk and hands her a bottle of water. I decide to cross over and see if I can get water.  As I pull over I pull out my water bottle and the driver realizes I need water.  Even though he spoke no English and I spoke no French he not only filled my water bottle but pushed me off and I was back on my way to the top.  I stopped in La Mongie to fill both of my water bottles and there were several other riders from my group filling their bottles.  We all departed together to ride the final 2 ½ miles to the top.  After numerous switchbacks and dodging goats and sheep on the road I summited the Tourmalet.  At the top is a statue of Octave Lapize who won the stage (and the eventual Tour winner) in 1910.  Upon arriving at the summit Lapize got off his bike, dropped to the ground and screamed at the Tour organizers “You are assassins! Yes, Assassins!” After taking some pictures those of us that summited together rode back down to La Mongie and had lunch at an Irish Pub.  While sitting outside eating I noticed an awning that had “Pain” written on it. Pain is the French word for bread and I thought how appropriate that they would be selling pain there. After lunch we began the descent down to Campan and the ride back to the hotel.
Tom atop Col du Tourmalet
Tom atop Col du Tourmalet

Day Three.
We departed the hotel enroute Hautacam.  Hautacam was first visited by the Tour in 1994 and there has been four stage finishes atop of Hautacam. It was on the climb up Hautacam during the 2000 Tour, in appalling weather, that Lance Armstrong took off up the mountain leaving all his challengers four minutes behind.  While the stage was won by Spanish rider Javier Otxoa, Armstrong was never challenged after this and won the Tour by over six minutes.

As we departed the hotel it was raining. After the heat of yesterday’s ride the cool rain was a welcome relief. As we approached the base of Hautacam the rain began to pour down.  Hautacam is another brutal climb just under 10 miles with many sections of 12% plus grade.  Half way up it began to lightning and thunder.  Upon reaching the top we take in the spectacular views of the green mountains that surround Hautacam.  The Tour finish line is in a parking lot of a ski resort. As the rain continues to fall it is decided that we would ride the sag van back to the hotel verses biking down the mountain in the rain.  After returning to the hotel we ate lunch, packed and boarded a bus for the 6 hour trip to Lourmarin in the Provence district of France.

Day Four.
It is Sunday, the day we climb Mont Ventoux and watch stage 15 of the Tour.  Additionally, it is Bastille Day and for the 400,000 people watching the stage along the road up the mountain, some of whom have been camped out for a week, it is going to be a day of celebration.   Ventoux, dubbed “The Giant of Provence,” has many sections with gradients of 14%.  In the 1967 Tour British cyclist Tom Simpson broke away from the Peloton early and was leading the stage when only a kilometer from the top he zig zagged across the road and fell. Lying on the ground he yelled “On, on, on!” several spectators helped him onto his bike and he rode for another 500 meters before falling again.  Simpson died with his hands still clutching the handlebars.  Near the summit there is a granite memorial that pays tribute to Simpson.

Our group departed the hotel at 6:30 on a bus and headed to a Chateau approximately 20 miles from the base of Ventoux.  Once we depart the Chateau we got on the road the Tour will be following to Bedoin which is at the base of Ventoux.  The road is lined with spectators sitting in the lawn chairs with tables full of bread (Pain), cheeses and of course wine.  They are waiting for the Tour, even though it will be 7 hours before it pass through here.  When we reach Bedoin it is pandemonium.  All cafes, shops and sidewalks are packed with people along the Tour route.  The street is packed with walkers and other bicyclist.  Fortunately, the police had shut down the road from Bedoin to the summit of Ventoux to all but official vehicles on the Friday afternoon before the stage. Every available square inch, along the road to the summit, that you could pitch a tent, park a car or RV was taken.  As we began our ascent it was as if we were in a tunnel of sound as the spectator’s yelled encouragement to us. Occasionally spectators would run along beside us shouting “Allez! Allez!” and push us on up the mountain.  Some spectators would raise a glass of wine or Champaign in a toast to us. Even though the temperature was in the high 80’s, with the cheering crowds and party atmosphere, I did not feel the pain that I felt going up Tourmalet.   The higher we climbed the more boisterous the crowd became. People were painting the names of their favorite rider in the Tour on the road. Dodging the freshly painted names, the walkers, other bicyclists and official vehicles going up and down the road became just as challenging as the climb. Additionally, even though we were 5 hours ahead of the peloton, the police could completely shut down the road if they determined the crowd was getting too large to manage. We needed to get up to the summit and back down to our viewing spot, which was about 3 miles down from the summit, before the road was closed.  The first 8 miles of the climb is through a forest with shade covering most of the roadway. Three miles from the summit we breakout onto the barrow moonscape dome for which Ventoux is noted.  We are lucky today because there is no wind.  At times the wind can reach hurricane force over the top of Ventoux.  After 2 hours of climbing we summit Ventoux.  Once there we have little time to bask in our achievement knowing the road could be shutdown to all traffic at any time.  Three miles down is our viewing spot with the food and refreshments.  We make it to our viewing spot and began the 3-4 hour wait for the Tour to come by.

Two hours before the arrival of the Tour the parade of sponsor floats began passing by.  The floats would toss out samples of their products to the crowd of spectators who had begun to get worked up into a frenzy.  As the Pros began their climb up the mountain Sylvain Chavanel, Omega Pharma Quickstep, was the leader 1:30 ahead of the peloton.  Soon the peloton, which was spread out all over the mountain, overtook Chavanel.  Just prior to our viewing spot Froome drop Contador and it was a race between Froome and Quintana with Froome outlasting Quintana and wining the stage.  An hour after the last rider passes our viewing area they open the road for us to depart.  The ride down Ventoux dodging walkers, RV’s, and other bicyclist was wild. Once I made my way down the mountain, back to the Chateau and got on the bus, to ride back to the hotel, I was drained by one of the most exhilarating days I’ve ever had on a bike.

Day Five.
Is a recovery ride through the beautiful ancient towns of Provence, an easy ride before moving to the mountains of the Alpes tomorrow.  We biked through Provence touring the ancient towns of Bonnieux, Roussillon and Gordes.  Biking through the beautiful countryside is breathtaking. As we ride we pass by lavender fields, sunflower fields, windmills and vineyards.

Day Six.
We depart Lourmarin early in the morning by bus and head to La Grave in the Alpes. We arrive at the Edelweiss, a beautiful bed & breakfast, at the base of Mont Chazalet in the Alpes.  We are served lunch at Edelweiss by the owners Robin and Marlon, a couple from Scotland that owned the Edelweiss.  The lunch is delicious and the setting on the patio with the views of the snowcapped Alpes all around us is stunning, we all know that once lunch is over we will be getting on our bikes and climbing the Col d’ Chazalet and Col Du Lautaret.  We will be doing 5600 feet of climbing before we reach our hotel, Glacier, at the top of Co du Lautaret.   While the climbs were steep, 9-11% grade, the scenery was magnificent and the temperature was very cool compared to the Pyrenees and Provence, which made for some enjoyable biking.

Day Seven.
We depart the hotel parking lot and immediately begin climbing up the south side of the Col du Galibier. Col du Galibier was first introduced to the Tour de France in 1911.  Since 1947 Galibier has been crossed 31 times with one stage, stage 18 finishing on the summit in 2011, which at 2645 meters is the highest stage finish ever in the Tour.  The stage was won by Andy Schleck who brook away from the peloton with 36 miles to go.  While Schleck failed to take the yellow jersey on this stage he would take it on the next day, stage 19, when the Tour climbed up the backside of Galibier, descend down the front side and finish on the summit of Alpe d’Huez.

As we climb Galibier the weather is cool and getting colder as we climb higher. By the time we reach the summit the temperature is in the high 30’s.  At the summit we could look down the backside, north side of Galibier to the town of Vallomire 16 miles below.  The descent down to Vallomire was fast and challenging with the switchbacks and steep grade. Knowing that that we would be climbing back up this side to get back to the hotel took some of the fun out of the descent.  We passed through Vallomire and climbed up Col d’ Telegraphe before stopping for lunch and turning around to ascend up the north side of Galibier.  The ride backup was steady only stopping to view the memorial to Marco Pantani about 4 miles from the summit.  As we approached the summit it began to rain.  As we reached the summit we only stopped to put on our rain gear for the descent down to the hotel.  As we approached the hotel the skies really opened up and the rain poured down. Also the temp was dropping fast.  Hundreds of cyclist had gathered around the hotel and were trying to find shelter from the rain.  They were huddling under any awning or overhang they could find.  Most of these are riders who had biked Galibier and were headed on down to La Grave or Briancon.  After about an hour of hard rain daylight began to fade and many of the riders got on their bikes and departed on down the mountain in the cold rain. One lesson I learned riding in the Pyrenees and Alps is that you have to be prepared for any type of weather. It can be 90 degrees at the base but cold at the top of these mountains.  Also, rain, even snow, can blow in at any time.
Col du Galibier

Day Eight.
We departed the hotel parking lot and descended down the south side of Col du Lautaret to the town of Briancon enroute to the Col d’Izoard.   Izoard has been crossed 32 times by the Tour since it was first introduced in 1922.  There has never been a mountaintop finish on Izoard but there has been many Tours lost by great riders because they cracd climbing Izoard.  The town of Briancon at the base of Col d’ Izoard, Col du Lautaret and Col de Montgenevre has hosted 22 start and finishes on the Tour. Also it has hosted many Giro d’Italia and Dauphine Libere starts and finishes.

Our 20 mile descent from our hotel down to Briancon was fast with a smooth road surface and we only had a road repair crew about 5 miles out of Briancon to contend with.  The ride through Briancon to the start of the climb up Izoard was another matter. We had to contend with the most traffic, and a lot of it truck traffic, of the whole trip as we worked our way through the city.  Arriving at the start of the climb we regrouped with everyone shedding their arm warmers and any other cold weather gear they were wearing.  The climb to Col d’Izoard was 15 miles with the first mile an 11.5% grade. After 2 miles the grade levels out to a nice 3-4% grade for several miles then gradually increase back up to 10-11% for the last several miles.  The road up the mountain was tree lined and one of the riders that I was riding with from Colorado said that this climb was like riding in the Rockies.  As we climbed we rode in and out of rain showers which made the climb more tolerable. When the sun did break out at times, swarms of flies would fly around my head making it difficult to inhale deeply without sucking in a few flies.  Approximately 1mile from the top we broke out of the trees and on to a moonscape similar to that on Ventoux.  There is a small cycling museum at the summit which we toured.  At the summit the rain began to pour down so we decided to stop at a Refuge Napoleon a restaurant one kilometer below the summit have lunch and wait out the rain. After over an hour the rain was still coming down so it was decided that we would load the bikes in the sag van and ride the van back to the hotel.

Day Nine.
The final day of our tour of the classic climbs of the Tour de France is a climb up Alpe d’Huez. We depart the hotel parking lot and descend down the west side of Col du Lautaret 25 miles to Bourg d’Oisans. In Bourg we will watch the Tours stage 19 start before we climb the Alpe d’Huez with its 22 (yes 22) switchbacks.  The pros climbed Alpe d’Huez twice the day before for stage 18 with Christophe Riblon passing Tejay van Garderen with one and a half kilometers to the finish.    The Alpe d’Huez was first introduced to the Tour in 1952 and has been either transversed or been the finish of a stage 28 times since it was introduced.  With its switchbacks the Alpe d’Huez has become the most famous climb in the Tour.  The switchbacks start at 21 near the base and are counted down as you climb up the mountain.  While most commentators talk about 21 switchbacks on the climb, there are actually 22 because of switchback 0 (zero) at the top in the city of Alpe d’Huez.

As we descend down the Col du Lautaret the scenery is spectacular as we following a deep river gorge to Bourg d’Oisans. We arrive in town just as the team buses are arriving and the teams begin their warm ups before the start of stage 19, Bourg d’Oisans to Le Grand-Bornand.  We stroll around watching the riders warm up talking to several of them. Some in our group get autographs from the riders.   After about 40 minutes the riders start moving toward the start line with the leaders in the Yellow, Green, Polka Dot and White jerseys moving through the teams to their places at the front.  I with several others in my group are standing right outside the metal barricade next to the ceremonial start line.  Right on the inside of the barricade across from us was Cadel Evens.  While he was very receptive of cheers and good luck shouts from the crowd around us, being 1 hour and 18 minutes behind the Yellow Jersey he had the look of defeat in his eyes.  After the ceremonial start we headed back to the area we had left our bikes to begin our climb up Alpe d’Huez.

The day was cool and overcast making it ideal for the climb. For the first 6 miles there were cars and RVs backed up still trying to get off the mountain after watching stage 18 the previous day.  Also, there were hundreds of bicyclist either going up or coming down.  The switchbacks seemed to click off fast and I never felt the pain or suffered the way I had on the previous seven climbs.  This could partly be due to the significances of the climb and knowing this was the last climb of the trip.  The roadway and the stone walls along the roadway are painted with the names of the many pro riders that have climbed the Alpe d’Huez over the 28 Tour visits to the mountain.  I rode around switchback 1 (one) and into the town of Alpe d’Huez. I continued through the town and rounded switchback 0 (zero) and on to the finish line of the previous days stage 18.  I stopped at a deli to get something to eat and while eating the rain began to fall so I headed down to the town of Alpe d’Huez were the group was meeting at the Trek store. After standing around for about 30 minutes waiting for the rain to let up several of us decided to head back down the mountain.  The ride down in the rain, dodging cars still trying to get off the mountain, and the other bikers was challenging. Once at the base we decided to load the bikes on the sag van and ride it back to the hotel on the Col du Lautaret.

Once back at the hotel the group had a reception to say our goodbyes and thank the three Trek Travel guides for the great job they had done. For me, the next day I would take a taxi from the hotel to the Briancon bus station where I would catch a bus to Oulx, Italy then a train to Florence to meet my wife.  After hooking up with her we would drive out to a villa north of Lucca, Italy for a week of rest and relaxation.

Final Thoughts.

For anyone who is a bicycle enthusiast  I highly recommend traveling to the bicycling mecca of southern France.  You don’t have to do the classic climbs of the Tour; there are many regions that you can bike for 40 – 50 miles with minimal climbing. Whether you’re biking is a self-guided tour or a tour with one of the many Tour companies that operate in Europe you will fall in love with the beautiful scenery, the lightly traveled country roads and friendly people.  Not once during the entire trip did a car zoom by blasting its horn in anger or cut in and out between the bicyclists.  Drivers would patiently ride behind us until it was safe to move over to the opposite lane and drive around us.

For all the photos from Tom’s trip, click here.