From Inside peloton: Climbing to Heaven

Words & images: Patrick Brady ( When the camper arced its way around the switchback and into view, my body reacted as if I’d been tazed. I can’t say how fast I was going, but my speed—technically somewhere between hauling ass and ill-advised—wasn’t my biggest concern; the…

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Words & images: Patrick Brady (

When the camper arced its way around the switchback and into view, my body reacted as if I’d been tazed. I can’t say how fast I was going, but my speed—technically somewhere between hauling ass and ill-advised—wasn’t my biggest concern; the fact that I wasn’t slowing down was. The switchback was less than 100 yards ahead and the camper seemed to hang in the turn the way snowballs headed for my face did when I was a kid.

“This could be bad,” was the thought that occurred to me.

Following the Route des Grandes Alpes from Geneva to Nice.

My hands were in the drops. I was pulling on the brake levers as hard as seemed prudent for a cyclist traveling as fast as I was on a rain-slicked mountain descent. Oh, yeah, did I mention that? It was raining. Hard. And while it was also cold—I mean like spring classics in Belgium cold—that didn’t factor in my ability to slow. Or not slow, as the case seemed to be.

I did begin to slow, but I wasn’t slowing quickly enough. How the brain does the calculus to figure stopping distance on a given slope and how that translates to finger pressure on brake levers is as mysterious to me as the mind of a woman (though far less delightful). The camper finished its turn and I realized it was no longer something I might end up under. But there was a motorcycle behind it. And behind it, another. Great. The camper was going so slow due to the steep pitch that the motorcycle moved with the unnaturally slow pace of a mechanical zombie.

Just as the motorcycle finished the switchback what should enter my view but—lo!—another motorcycle.

I mean come on, can’t a guy get a break, hey they seem to be stopping—thank God for that camper, okay, I’m going to split the motorcycles and head for the wall and maybe I can stop before going over the edge that might work, holy cow this isn’t my idea of fun—he’s shaking his head at me he’s got no idea I’m doing all I can to keep things under control.

I knew that if I tried to make the turn within my lane I was likely to end up on my hip.

Maybe I can turn just sharply enough to all but sideswipe the motorcycle and then carve wide into the oncoming lane—that could work but, oh great, there’s a third flipping motorcycle what are the chances, I mean come on, can’t a guy get a break, hey they seem to be stopping—thank God for that camper, okay, I’m going to split the motorcycles and head for the wall and maybe I can stop before going over the edge that might work, holy cow this isn’t my idea of fun—he’s shaking his head at me he’s got no idea I’m doing all I can to keep things under control.

There was really no point in stopping for a conversation with moto #3 about just why I had deliberately undertaken the action that was a) the dumbest thing he would see on his whole trip, and b) the story that would get all his buddies to buy him a beer that night. So, hands still in the drops, I stood up and pedaled around him, back to my side of the road and continued the single diciest descent of my entire life.

I was part of a group of 15 cyclists who were taking part in Erickson Cycle Tours’ Route des Grandes Alpes trip. Our itinerary involved riding from Geneva, Switzerland, to Nice, France, over many of the highest passes in the French Alps. Pretty straightforward.

We began the day in Albertville, the site of the 1992 Winter Olympics. This was day four of the trip.

I was in the process of descending the Cormet de Roselend, and near the Crêt Bettex there’s a sequence of 10 switchbacks. The road here is steep—generally between eight and 10 percent—and because it was raining, road grime was eating away my brake pads with the speed of piranhas on a goat. If I lived through the rest of the descent we would turn left at the town of Bourg St. Maurice and begin the climb to the ski resort of Val d’Isere.

Though the rain wasn’t typical, that day’s route was. It was a 69-mile ride with three Category 1 climbs, plus one Category 2 climb and a Category 4 climb, for a total of more than 11,000 feet of climbing. Let me put it in perspective this way: I consider a day with a ratio of 100 feet of climbing per mile to be a very difficult day. That translates to 10,000 feet of climbing over 100 miles. There aren’t a lot of centuries in America that throw that much climbing at you. This route climbed at a rate of 162 feet per mile. It was the single hardest sub-70-mile ride I’ve ever done. Hell, most centuries I’ve ever ridden weren’t half this hard.

Cold shoulders
I managed to finish the descent without any other truly death-defying moments, though I did find myself braking progressively earlier and earlier in order to maintain control in turns. I reached the roundabout that signaled the beginning of town and rolled into it because I couldn’t get the bike stopped in time. I ended up clipping out my right foot and taking a few steps on the curb—Flintstone-style—to bring me to a stop.

After moving my hands to the hoods I realized that I wasn’t stopping because I had eaten through the brake pads so much the levers were bottoming out against the handlebar. Who knew? I dialed in the barrel adjusters and—voila!—I had effective brakes again. I was freezing.

I made my way around the roundabout to a bar that would allow me to flag down the other riders from our group as they came into view. Chocolat chaud, s’il vous plaît. I was shaking so badly I couldn’t pick the cup up.

The other riders in our group opted to eat a sandwich or other snacks at the top of the Cormet de Roselend, so I was minutes ahead of them and was hoping to have time to get the hot chocolate in me and order a sandwich while enjoying the nearly warm temperatures in town.

I tend not to do well at altitude, so my game plan is always to minimize my time up high in the cold. I was concerned that trying to digest food on the descent would make me colder. Unfortunately, my companions hit town, ordered single hot chocolates and drank them before I could get the waitress to bring me a sandwich. We rolled out; my belly was empty and while some of my companions suggested we’d see a shop where I could grab something quick, I knew once we were on the climb to Val d’Isere I’d be without options. Of course, I bonked.

I made some mention of my personal idiot light being on and then dropped off the pace of our trio. We were roughly 10km from Val d’Isere, which is to say we were 20km into the climb. Bonking is something I’m particularly expert at; I’ve done it so much I can see one coming even before it arrives. Like most guys preparing for a new girlfriend to visit the apartment for the first time, I did what I could to button the place up. I downshifted and made sure I’d finished every scrap of food I had and polished off my bottles.

With 6km to go I reached the turnoff to Tignes. It seemed a safe bet that 1.5km away there would be a bar where I could get a bite of food and a Coke. I didn’t want to risk another 6km uphill and dig the hole deeper.

From the across the empty parking lot the bar looked closed, but I had to give it a try. The door swung open and dry ice smoke billowed out. Just one problem: it stank of cigarettes. On any other day, I would have let the door swing shut, but this was one day where I just needed to suck it up and order anything I could.

Two Cokes and a Nestlé Crunch Bar later, I felt vaguely human and made for Val d’Isere, the remaining kilometers to which proved to be remarkably easy, less for my restored constitution than for the fact that the road was essentially flat.

The meat of the Alps
In 1911, the year the Col du Galibier was added to the Tour de France, a bunch of car nuts dreamt up an adventure in which they’d drive through the mountains from Thonon-les-Bains on Lake Geneva (just east of Geneva) to Menton on the Cote d’Azur (near Nice). They would have to wait until 1937 for the completion of the Col de l’Iseran to drive the route in its ultimate form.

In its purest form, the Route des Grandes Alpes is 684km long and encompasses 16 different cols, including six above 2,000 meters (6,562 feet). The route includes the longest single climb in the French Alps, the north side of the Col de l‘Iseran, which is all of 47km—29 miles.

There are 13 climbs in the Route des Grandes Alpes that top out at more than 4,500 feet. From north to south they are: the Col de la Colombiere, the Col des Aravis, the Col des Saisies, the Cormet de Roselend, the Col de l’Iseran, the Col du Telegraphe, the Col du Galibier, the Col de l’Izoard, the Col de Vars, the Col de la Cayolle, the Col du la Couillole, Col Saint-Martin and the Col de Turini. Technically, the Col du Lauteret is included, but when crossing the Galibier what you experience is a seamless ascent or descent. That, in a nutshell is the Route des Grandes Alpes.

If you’ve ever inspected the itinerary of the typical tour company’s French Alps package, you’ll notice that only two of those climbs have familiar names, the Col du Telegraphe and the Col du Galibier. Most companies focus on just a tiny sliver of the Rhône Alpes; it’s not their fault, though. Americans are so hell-bent on riding l’Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Galibier that many fascinating climbs with great history get forgotten.

This tour was my big chance to ride two climbs I’ve dreamt about for 20 years, the Col de l’Iseran and the Col d’Izoard. The Iseran is the highest pass used in the Tour, not to mention a climb of Bolero-like length, while the Izoard is where Fausto Coppi sealed his reputation as the finest climber of his generation.

A nod to Tolkien
The itinerary doesn’t really get interesting until you are south of Cluses and begin climbing the Col de la Colombiere. It’s the first climb on the route notable for its use in the Tour de France. The Col de la Colombiere began only two miles into the ride and was our tour’s first Category 1 climb. It was a fine how-do-you-do, followed by two more: the Col des Aravis and the Col des Saisies. From the top of the Saisies another rider—a very strong cyclist named Eric—and I opted to take a smaller road down and while it had less traffic, I had forgotten that it averaged close to 10 percent, making some of the plentiful turns a touch hair-raising.

Eric and I arrived in Albertville early enough that our hotel was likely to turn us away. Most French hotels don’t want to check anyone in before 4:00 pm. We took the opportunity to stop at a little snack bar and get sandwiches. By the time we rolled the final 100 meters to the hotel, we felt quite revived.

Grabbing a meal immediately after our ride became a routine for the rest of the tour. I began to refer to it as “first dinner,” while our group meal became “second dinner,” as an homage to the hobbits’ practice of first breakfast and second breakfast in The Lord of the Rings. In practice, most days were long enough that we rolled to our hotel, grabbed quick showers and then headed out to a bar. It was amazing how many of our 15-strong group would arrive at the hotel within 30 minutes of one another.

There is an upside to a long climb, of course—the descent. A two-hour climb can yield a half-hour descent. I’m a nut for a great descent and the descents in the Alps are arguably the most entertaining anywhere I’ve ridden.

Years of watching Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen call the Tour de France on television have led many (most?) American cyclists to believe that the Alps aren’t terribly steep. Their constant mantra noting how the Pyrénées are steeper than the Alps has made the Alps sound like the rolling hills of the Plains States.

Believe me, the Alps are steep. The roads in the Alps are steeper, on average, than most mountain roads in the United States. In my experience, only the roads in New England approach or surpass the Alps in pitch, but rarely are they as long.

Fun factor
There is an upside to a long climb, of course—the descent. A two-hour climb can yield a half-hour descent. I’m a nut for a great descent and the descents in the Alps are arguably the most entertaining anywhere I’ve ridden.

What makes Alpine descents special is the care given to the road construction. Evenly radiused turns, smooth road surfaces, gently graded pavement, they enjoy the care of creation by civil engineers who take true pride in their work. These roads are marvels.

In France, mountain roads share the liquid nature of a wave. It is as if the roads of the Alps are asphalt expressions of the mountains themselves. There’s a reason for this: Road crews do little to alter the terrain itself. They don’t bulldoze the landscape to ensure a constant five-percent pitch. It’s easy to view the line the road takes down the mountain as if it was the ski track left behind by a downhill skier—lazy, flowing turns followed by occasional rapid-fire slalom stretches, easing back into sweeping arcs.

The day after my bonk was the sort of day that you want to go into fully armed. However, I arrived at the shooting gallery with a water pistol. Having already knocked out the first 30km of the Col de l’Iseran, we began our day with the final 17km climb to the top, a climb of enough difficulty that when it was used in 2007, the stage started in Val d’Isere and the climb was still considered hors categorie.

With roughly 3km left to climb the snow flurry started. It wasn’t bad and certainly wasn’t sticking to the road, but the soft white stuff had me wondering just how cold it had to be to snow instead of rain. I stopped only long enough to put on a jacket and snap a couple of photos.

On the descent I got into a tuck and clamped my knees to the top tube in the hope that I might be able to relax my upper body enough to avoid shaking uncontrollably. I wasn’t terribly successful; the first 2,000 feet of the descent my bike looked to be in a pronounced speed wobble, except in hard turns.

By the time I reached the bottom of the descent I had dropped more than 3,000 feet and the temperature had warmed a good 20 degrees. Such rapid temperature and pressure changes can be disorienting, rather like washing tequila down with absinthe. So when we walked into the total throwback bar full of ‘50s Americana, I couldn’t help but sing along with the Beach Boys’ arrangement of “The Sloop John B” playing on the jukebox—I feel so broke up I wanna go home … this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on. Of course, I didn’t want to go home, but the dissonance between what I knew most people would think was a bad time and the irony of singing along was too good to pass. Admittedly, the last two days had given me my fill of being cold and wet.

We followed the false flat of a river valley for more than 40 miles; we thought it would be easy, but due to a driving headwind the drop proved to require a fair amount of wattage. Eventually, we arrived at the day’s final rendezvous, the Col du Telegraphe. Rather than tackle the whole of the Telegraphe and the Galibier, we climbed the Telegraphe and dropped into the ski village of Valloire to spend the night.

I finally had the pattern of our trip down. It was, more or less, climb-descend-climb-descend-climb. The next day was the climb of the Galibier followed by the descent into Briançon. At the edge of town is the climb up the north side of the Col de l’Izoard. That was followed by another screamer of a descent (our warmest yet), and then the climb up to the tiny village of St. Veran, in the Queyras, a remote area right on the border with Italy.

After taking a full day off to rest my legs, I joined the others for an easy spin up the Col Agnel, which is to say we spun our smallest gears for eight miles up to the border with Italy, some 2,500 feet of elevation gain—to 9,003 feet. After reaching the top we dropped two miles into Italy and around a bend so we could get a better look down the valley.

Because the road was used by the Tour de France in 2008, the paving was, shall we say, magnificent. As terrific as the descent of the Agnel was, it was a dull imposter when compared to the Bonette the next day. It felt as if the first 46 miles of the ride was really just a warm-up to arriving at the Bonette.

Much of the Col de la Bonette rises above the tree line, resulting in views so spectacular it gives those who climb it the need to look down at their feet just to make sure they really are riding a bike. The descent is equally blessed by the lack of trees, and while riders don’t spend their time looking around at the views, the treeless expanse pays a different dividend: uninterrupted views of the road ahead.

At times I could see more than a half kilometer of road ahead and note whether or not any cars were coming. With so few cars on a road that remote, I was able to use the entire width of the asphalt in turns and with the exception of the occasional switchback, I was alleviated of the need to use the fun arresters. Turns became a kind of artful line, as if I was an expression of a painter’s brush, simply describing the terrain at hand. The faster I went, the less I thought and the more my line became an expression of velocity. Descents on empty roads are thrilling in a way Disneyland will never be. They are the Zenest of Zen moments, meditations that can last nearly an hour in some cases.

By the time we reached the bottom we were more than ready for a cold drink and some food. Even so, had there been a gondola or lift chair that could have returned me to the top for yet another run down that road, I would have climbed on. To the degree that the descent of the Cormet de Roselend was everything that can go wrong in a descent, the Bonette was precisely why I adore descending; it was a nearly mystical experience that renewed my sense of wonder for the world.

More oxygen, please
The Col de la Cayolle was our final opportunity to cross the 2,000-meter threshold on the trip. At 7,631 feet in elevation, the climb to the col measured 30km and took me some two-and-a-half hours to ascend. However, because much of the climb wormed through a river gorge, the views didn’t change nearly as much as with other climbs. The final 5km are the steepest of the entire climb; the combination of the increase in pitch and decrease in oxygen made those last 5km tick by as if time was slowing down.

Our van was waiting at the top and as usual had a selection of Coke, Orangina, Gummi Bears, chips and more waiting for us on a small table. I’m a fiend for Coke with real sugar and it had fueled more kilometers of this trip than maybe was wise. There was a fair amount of conversation and while I recall hearing our descent was 32km, the question on my mind was just how long the climb to Valberg was. I was unfamiliar with the ski town of Valberg or the climb of the Col de la Couillole.

The answer came: 15km, 900m of climbing (2,953 feet) and no flat.

I had 47km to ride and it would take me two hours without stops—roughly 45 minutes to descend and then around 1:15 to climb to Valberg. As the shortest climb I’d faced in five days, I should have felt something akin to gratitude or relief, but a 15km climb is a long climb and I wasn’t feeling enthusiastic. Eric and I rode through the town of Guillaume as dignitaries held a ceremony to commemorate the placement of a statue in center of the village. I had little idea what was actually taking place, but couldn’t help but sit on my bike’s top tube and watch men in blue suits wearing dashing sashes make speeches. It looked like the armistice to me.

The moment the road turned skyward, I sat up and begged Eric to go ahead. What I soon realized was that the forest the road climbed into was the green of ferns and smelled new and lush, not dank like so many forests I’ve ridden through in the Deep South. By the time the forest opened, I was riding into town. Relief!

The final Category 1 climb of the trip was the Col de Turini, a climb almost entirely unknown to cycling aficionados, but utterly famous to rally enthusiasts. The Monte Carlo Rally runs a stage from La Bollène-Vésubie to Sospel, which was about half of our day’s ride. We’d climb the very road the cars raced (though they often race in snowy conditions) and then descend to Sospel down a thrilling serpentine that by my count included at least 18 switchbacks and numerous other bends before depositing us at our hotel in Sospel.

I had ducked inside a bar at the top of the climb to escape a bit of a shower; it was decorated from tile to beam with posters and competitors’ plates from the rally. Many of the posters went back decades—the stories the bar could tell. On the descent, I discovered the road was wet in some places despite bright sun; overhanging trees shielded the road from direct sunlight in a few places. As a result, I had to back off my enthusiasm just a bit; the road seemed wettest just prior to switchbacks.

Lower down, I began to smell the ocean; while I hadn’t been able to see it on the descent, when I checked the map I noticed it was less than 20km away. With the switchbacks out of the way I began to let the bike run, pedaling out of the turns and tucking once I wound out the gear. The thicker, salty air reminded me of home. I was going home.

Our final day’s ride was a traverse of the mountains just above Nice. The climbs were relatively short, but in 45 miles we enjoyed only a single 100-meter stretch that was both straight and flat. The closer we got to the hotel, the more I kept my head down, stayed in the big ring on rises and locked my hands in the drops. Seeing the sign for our hotel left me completely conflicted; I couldn’t wait to get off my bike, and yet at the very same time, I wanted to head back to Geneva and start it all over. This was one trip of a lifetime I realized I could easily do annually.

Special thanks to Erickson Cycle Tours for the opportunity to join their tour.

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