Monday, August 21, 2006

The French Alps

For Kelly and I, July was spent seeing a few stages of the Tour de France and following the coverage on television. Seeing parts of the Tour was one of the things that we definitely wanted to do in our time over here.
So when Dave floated the idea of a cycling weekend in the French Alps, we jumped at it. A weekend in the Alps was tempting in itself, but the opportunity to cycle some of the climbs of Le Tour was too good to miss.

We flew into Geneva, on the Swiss side of the Switzerland/France border and hired a car for the drive down to Grenoble and Bourg-d'Oisans. It took four border crossings to leave Geneva!! From landing and entering Switzerland, walking through to the French part of the airport, driving the car out of the (French) airport onto Swiss soil, through Geneva and over the border into France.

Our drive went late into the evening, through a large storm around Grenoble, and we reached our accommodation in the little village of Venosc around 1am. Dave had found some neat rooms in a B&B chalet, Chalet Michelle, which is run by ex-pat Brits, Brian and Michelle.


Arriving in a storm, late at night, we didn't know quite what to expect waking up in the morning. I'm sure that Dave and I were thinking it was going to be a wet ride, but neither of us really wanted to admit to it the night before. It is fair to say that Kelly and I were just amazed at the spectacular views and glorious day that we awoke to. The skies were a perfect blue, sun beating down and the chalet just had the most amazing views up, down and across the valley. Karen, Kelly, Dave and I sat down to an ample breakfast and just absorbed the view from the chalet verandah.

I hired a nice carbon fibre Trek from the well stocked local cycling store. Now, I haven't ridden a road bike since leaving Australia in December and otherwise I only rode in Brugge, so I am quite anxious about riding a Tour de France climb and being on the bike for 4-plus hours. It was time to see how the gym cycling classes prepared me.

Alpe d'Huez is an amazing ride. It is a constant climb with a number of switchbacks, some more challenging than others. Dave's climb was marred by a flat after switchback 11, but he quickly recovered. I took it at a steady pace and reached the top feeling really good. Riding Alpe d'Huez makes you realise just what history and prestige it holds for the Tour.

While the two budding tour cyclists were making their way up the mountain, Karen and I spent the morning wandering around the small town of Bourg d'Oisans. There were many gorgeous little streets to explore and along our travels we were greeted by a sweet little French boy who immediately greeted us in French (unfortunately my attempt at a French reply was pitiful - every bit of French I knew disappeared right out of my head!!). We then took the more leisurely route to the top of Alpe d'Huez. After a bit of lunch with Liam and Dave at the top - they both looked quite relaxed and pleased with themselves when we met them - Karen and I made our way down the mountain back towards Venosc. On the way we stopped off at the Romanche River which, while looking very inviting, was absolutely freezing!

Feeling pretty good, Dave and I took a side road off the descent that wound up the valley's cliffs, and back down the valley floor. Roads like this one are barely wide enough to pass a car and bike and are too small for race events, but they are spectacularly scenic rides for small groups or tourists like Dave and I. As night falls, we arrive back at the chalet and have dinner at a French restaurant in Venosc and consume a couple of well earned wines.

Click on the photo to see more of Alpe d'Huez


Saturday was another glorious day in the Alps. The plan today is to top Col de la Croix de Fer with a small detour to Col du Glandon. Both of these passes are around 2000m, over 1000m higher than where we start. Today's ride is probably more demanding than Alpe d'Huez as it is a long, sustained climb. Wanting to make it all the way, we set off at a pace that could be sustained for the 3.5 hours of climbing.

The ride from Bourg d'Oisans is a steady climb. In some places the road dips back down into the valley, losing all that precious altitude gain, and back up the other side. It is a very scenic ride, certainly a lot more than Alpe d'Huez. Once we reach the summit the views are well worth the effort. There is a little cafe at Col de la Croix de Fer, but we opt instead for the one at Col du Glandon on our descent. It has to be said that the omelette au jambon was just what was needed to refuel, and the cheeky Leffe beer to wash it down was just supurb.

When the ride up the mountain is a steady climb, the ride down is a glorious glide through the corners - 30 kilometers of it. What a sweet feeling! Reluctantly I have to return my bike today, but I could so easily have kept it for another day or two. That ended to cycling part of the weekend. There are so many more rides on offer around Bourg d'Oisans that you could easily spend a week or more riding.

Click on the photo to see more of Col de la Croix de Fer

Karen and I started our Saturday with a 'short' hike up to the waterfall on the other side of the valley. Our short hike soon turned into a very long 4 hours+ hike up the one side of mountain, up into the valley above the valley we were staying in, along the river that ended in the waterfall and back down the other side. Sights along the way included the base of the waterfall, old stone house ruins, an old bush shack, a wooden bridge that crossed the river which lead to the waterfall, lots of slate rock, the rememants of a landslip that had taken out the track (we had to navigate our way through what should have been a track!), more house ruins, more slate and so many beautiful views.

One of the most amazing sights we saw was the huge chunk of ice we came across while crossing the landslip area. The ice was longer than the length of an average size car and we are guessing just as wide and still very solid. We found out later that the ice had slipped from the glacier at the top of the mountain with the landslip months earlier. After making our way back to the village we had a healthy hiking lunch of crepes and icecream, followed by some browsing (and of course purchasing!) at the local shops.

Brian and Michelle provide dinner for us tonight with ample wine to help recount the boy's cycling exploits and the girl's waterfall hiking and shopping of the day.


Unfortunately we didn't have enough time today to contemplate a conquest of another mountain on a bike. However we did take the gondolas and fernicular from Venosc, up to Les Deux Alps, and further up to the glacier and ice caves at 3000m. Les Deux Alps is a large ski resort town nestled in the valley between two peaks. The skiing area is huge in winter and in summer it has many mountain bike tracks.

On one of the peaks there is a permanent glacier and an ice cave. The ice cave is a series of tunnels with ice sculptures throughout. It was a fun experience - almost child like. The view from the peak gave an amazing sense of the enormity and expanse of the French Alps.

All too soon though, we had to leave and retrace our drive back up to Geneva leaving our little village and cycling back in the Alps. What an amazing trip! I'm sure that I will think back on the achievements and quaintness of the area for a long time to come, each time wanting just one more day to cycle in the Alps....

Click on the photo to see more of Les Deux Alpes

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