Bourg d’Oisans is a long way to go to just to spend 1hr 35min 25sec labouring up the side of a mountain. l’Alpe d’Huez is a great bucket-list climb for sure, but that’s not the only ride in the neighbourhood. I can vouch for the fact that doing it and nothing else would make for a very satisfying trip. But that would be a bit like going to all the way to Paris just to grab a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower: it’s part of why we all go there, but there’s so much more on offer. So what do you do once you’ve ridden up l’Alpe d’Huez? Go ride up some more mountains, that’s what!
As I said in my previous post, our trip to the mountains was very much an under-cooked, cram-it-all-in-at-the-last-moment affair. But once Mat and I reached the top of that bowel-curdling, lung-scorching giant of cycling, we were on the hunt for adventures. We’d let go of any pretensions of cycling awesomeness and were very much of the mindset that if a climb took twice as long as we thought it would then that was great because we got to spend twice as long as we thought we would riding our bikes in the Alps. And who wouldn’t want that?!
In the half-arsed planned for our trip I’d had the good fortune to stumble across a great website run by a guy named Will, called cycling-challenge.com. By the look of it he has pretty much ridden every road in the Alps, photographed and written about them all, and put some very handy maps on his website. It makes it clear that Bourg d’Oisans – the little town at the base of l’Alpe d’Huez where we were staying – was the perfect base for a few days of alpine riding.
Based on Will’s tips Mat and I figured that once we’d done l’Alpe d’Huex we might spend a nice afternoon having a crack at another great Tour climb, up to the Col de la Croix de Fer. To get there we followed Will’s advice and, rather than just head back down the hill, hung a right at about turn 16 and took the D211B ‘balcony road’ along the cliff, and down to Allemond for lunch. My word, we were glad we did because that road is a beauty. (Map here). The views are simply stunning, the road was almost completely clear of cars and, with our legs still a-glow from the over-exertion it took to get us up there, we were feeling pretty happy I can tell you.
The ride down really was nice: not too steep, and in the autumn sun it was hard not to feel pretty satisfied with life. We found a cracking spot for lunch in Allemond, loaded up on a hearty bowl of couscous and four-meat stew (and yes, a self-congratulatory beer or two). Sitting in the sun it really was about the most perfect lunch you could ask for and so, loins-girded, we headed for the “col of the iron cross”
It was pretty clear once we started off that a combination of the morning’s exertions, possibly one too many beers over lunch, and actually a pretty hefty climb would mean that our ride would be tougher than we’d hoped. In fact, we had to stop for a bit of a rest by a very pleasant and burbling mountain stream. If we’d stayed there longer we would have had a nice nap in the grass, coddled by the warm autumn sun.
The lower parts of the road up to the Col de la Croix de Fer aren’t super steep, but they’re a steady grind. If we were fitter and hadn’t just done a tough morning’s ride it would have been lovely. But we really were starting to feel pretty shelled. We’d been seeing signs the whole way up saying the Col was closed because of snow. So when we got to the hamlet of Le Rivier d’Allemont and saw that actually the road really was closed, we feigned disappointment but were actually pretty pleased to be able head home for a cup of tea and a lie down.
Bourg d’Oisans is a good base, and once we’d had a bit of a nana-nap, we gave it an explore – slightly bow-legged, for sure, but prideful nonetheless. By chance we stumbled across a really good craft beer brewery (By chance? Who am I kidding! My beer/whisky homing-pigeon instincts never let me down…), had a great yarn with the brewer, and bought as much beer as our newly enfeebled arms could carry (which was basically a six-pack. Sad but true.) If you’re ever in town, have a chat to François at Les Bières de l’Oisans and he’ll sort you out no worries.
Sitting on our balcony, drinking some really nice beer and listening to the church bells and village sounds as the sun set over the snow-kissed alps around us, it was hard not to feel pretty content.
Day 2: Climbing to La Bérarde
We’d been a little nervous about the weather – forecasts had predicted snow and freezing temperatures for the weekend we were there – but Day 2 dawned fine and clear. I’d like to say we scampered delightedly down the stairs to greet the day, but who am I kidding; there was still quite the gap between our mental enthusiasm and physical readiness.
But it was like Will’s website was reading our mind: “Are you visiting Bourg d’Oisans but searching for something quiet, scenic ….. and easier than Alpe d’Huez?” Why, that sounded exactly like the kind of ride we were looking for, and the suggested ride up to La Bérarde did not disappoint. If you asked me to define my idea of cycling heaven, then riding to La Bérarde on a sunny autumn day would come pretty close.
Thanks to some dodgy Google Maps navigation, we got off to a very scenic but clearly incorrect start:
Once we’d figured out we were on the wrong side of the river and retraced our steps to where we were supposed to be heading, things just got better and better. Early autumn really is a wonderful time to ride in the Alps. Sure, snow will close the high passes so if you’re after gut-busting cycling epic-ness they you’re best off in Summer. But in autumn the roads are very quiet, and the autumn leaves will give just about anything you do there a gorgeous golden hue that’s pretty hard to beat.
The road up to La Bérarde is a dead end, and so there’s basically no traffic. In summer it must be heaving with hikers and climbers, but when we were there it was like a ghost town. The gradients are mostly pretty gentle by Alpine standards. There are a couple of steep pitches – including one with a few nice hairpins to remind you of where you are. Bit apart from that it’s the kind of ride that let’s you know you’re working, but not so hard that you’re starting to regret your life choices.
The road meanders beautifully alongside a river, and the views of that with alpine giants in the background really are rather pleasant. With photo stops and “holy crap that’s a beautiful vista” stops it probably took us a couple of hours to get to La Bérarde itself, and the village at the top was completely shuttered when we arrived. But we’d spotted a few signs of life back down the valley, and managed to find a spot at the village of La Ville for some decidedly dodgy turkey stew. I’m not sure what was really contributing to the anxious feeling in my bowels on the way home – the stew, or the looming stormclouds. But we managed to make it back to La Bourg d’Oisans just as the rain that had been forecast started to fall, and it looked like there might have been snow right behind it. We couldn’t have timed our ride better.
Riding in the Alps is a ‘bucket list’ item for pretty much any cyclist, for good reason: it’s blimmin’ amazing. When I first arrived in France I had visions of spending weeks down there, ticking off the epic alpine climbs one after the other. But the Alps are just far enough away from Paris, and things here like family and work too appealing, that looking back the gap between the dream and the reality was always going to stay tantalizingly large.
Maybe I should blame the beautiful aumtumn colours, or the sense of we-only-just-squeeked-that-in-before-the Winter of COVID, but I was feeling a pretty contended bittersweet autumn vibe as we packed the bikes onto the car for the drive home to Paris. There’ll be a word out there somewhere that sums it up. It’s happier than melancholy, but with a good dose of something wistfully sentimental, with that feeling that you’ve had a taste of something fantastic that you’d really like more of, but know you can’t but you feel pretty happy to have had even that. That leave-them-wanting-more vibe is a pretty nice way to look back on our trip.
As the great Matt Hayman says – Always keep riding. You never know when things are going to come good. And go ride your bike in the Alps. Really. You won’t regret it.