On the eve of this year’s Tour, a look back at a bucket list trip over the high cols of the French Alps
By Scott Downes
This year marks the decade anniversary of that time I threw up a little bit in my mouth while riding up Alpe d’Huez. It was barely a third of the way up the climb, on our third day of hard riding. I’d lost the wheel of my buddy Brian, was feeling bonky, and pedaling squares. I panicked a little, and too-aggressively downed a gel, which inadvertently kicked in a gag reflex. Suddenly it was recycled strawberry banana flavored gunk in my mouth, while huffing it up a 10% grade.
Three days earlier, my longtime friend Brian and I had set off on the bike trip of a lifetime – a long loop through the French Alps, riding some of the most famous climbs in the Tour de France.
It was one of those ideas that escalated quickly. We were already going to our college buddy’s wedding in Italy. We like to ride bikes. We were lifelong Tour fans. So why don’t we stop in the Alps and do some riding. We both grew up in the Midwest, and had never really done any proper climbing. So it was also the kind of thing where we didn’t know if we could do it or not, but we had to find out.
At a café in Le Bourg d’Oisans the night before our departure, we chatted with a group of Irish guys who had just completed the route we were ride. We asked a guy named Rogan how it went, and he simply said, “It’s a motherf****r.”
“We’re completely in over our heads,” Brian said the next morning, heading northeast out of town, towards Col de la Croix de Fer, as the reality of a twenty mile ascent started to sink into our minds and our legs. Passing through the tiny hamlet of Le Rivier, the road snaked along a difficult climb up to and past Lac de Grand Maison.
We rode past gorgeous green mountain pastures, rocky mountain faces, and glacial lakes that were not a color you see in the American Midwest.
At the summit, we took in the views and patted ourselves on the back for even making it this far. Neither of us could believe that this is something we were actually doing.
The descent off of Col de la Croix de Fer was a delicate balance between gawking at the views, and not crashing. I was riding fairly cautiously down the single lane road with hairpin turns, while Brian was mostly ignoring his brakes.
“You’re crazy,” I yelled.
“Crazy? What are you talking about crazy? I’m not crazy,” he replied.
He crashed on the next turn.
He had locked up the rear wheel, wobbled, and went down hard on his right side. There was that sickening thud you hear when a body comes to a sudden halt against something hard and immovable. Like a road. He was up almost instantly though, and, aside from a banged up thump and a large scrape on his hip, was mostly uninjured.
“Only 6 kilometers,” I mumbled with mistaken optimism, as we started our next climb up Col du Mollard several miles later. It didn’t seem that far, but it was a punishing climb that steepened the farther up we went. By the summit, I was out of water and felt completely cashed.
The descent off of Col du Mollard gave us more jaw-dropping views – steep roads, switchbacks, and tree-lined roads that finally opened up to reveal a breathtaking valley. We dropped down for several more miles into Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. The town was nice, and we passed quaint little courtyards and old French guys playing bocce ball in the park.
We should’ve stopped for lunch.
After winding through the valley along the A43 motorway toward Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, Col du Telegraphe was all that stood in our way between all the food and sleep.
Telegraphe was roughly seven miles uphill, and I felt like I was crawling the whole time. My legs were gone, each pedal stroke was agony, and I was as close to totally cracking as I’d been all day. The road seemed interminable, and every kilometer marker was just a soul-crushing reminder that we had a long way to go.
As I was weaving across the road, battling fatigue, and trying to pretend I wasn’t bonking, a small van drove by and a young girl stuck her head out the window to holler something in French I didn’t understand. She could have been cursing at me or telling me to get off the road, but I’d like to think it was a little encouragement from a stranger. Or I was hallucinating the whole thing.
I gathered myself as much as I could and tried to fight off some dizziness and nausea. Finally the end was near, and adrenaline helped me catch up to Brian’s wheel, as we finished the third and final ascent of the day.
Three fast and freezing miles down the road in the Valloire, we finally got to our hotel. I was broken, hungry, thirsty, cold, and had some serious saddle sores. We both had the shakes, and Brian’s hip was still bleeding.
We’d ridden some 70 miles, and climbed almost 10,000 feet, which at that point in our lives was the longest, toughest ride we’d ever done.
“I’m not right in all kinds of ways,” Brian said before we both virtually ate our weight in pasta and pizza.
The next day up Col du Galibier would be no easier. It was a cold, gray day, and the twelve or so miles of climbing we had ahead started literally out the front door.
Heading south on D902, we were both in awe of the views, up through the valley, along more mountain pastures and gunmetal peaks. Near Plan-Lachat, a dirt path went off to the left, but our road seemed to disappear altogether. Realizing it went straight up, I looked to our right, seeing super steep switchbacks rising.
“Is that where we go?” I asked.
“Don’t look at it,” Brian urged, like he was parent telling a kid not to look directly into the sun.
After Plan-Lachat, the climb up Col du Galibier was brutal—steep, unending, and with a headwind bearing down on us. Local cyclists dotted the road beneath us, on our tail. Car-bound tourists passed by in comfort. I weirdly felt stronger as we went up, though Brian realized halfway towards the summit that he’d been riding with a brake rub all morning.
Two French guys on motorcycles offered us congratulations at the summit. Everything looked like a miniature version of itself in the valley floor below. Snow-capped peaks marked the horizon in most every direction. We were all smiles and high-fives and still couldn’t believe we were there.
The descent back down towards Le Bourg d’Oisans was a long, moderate grade, and a thrilling ride. It was also freezing. We stopped at gift shop for warmth and additional, but insufficient, layers. And we dodged lories and potholes in the many pitch-black tunnels on the long stretch of road back to town.
We came back into Bourg d’Oisans feeling victorious. We caught a nap and found a grocery store to get fluids. And chips. We deserved an unhealthy reward and ended up devouring a big can of Pringles before dinner.
“Do you think there’s anybody who could beat us in a chip-eating contest?” I asked Brian.
“Not in this country,” he said.
On our third and final day, we rode Alpe d’Huez. It was like biking up a museum, except you can’t breathe and your legs are burning like a thousand suns. Most cycling fans know the stats well: 13.8 kilometers, 21 switchbacks, Dutch corner, the signs honoring Tour stage winners of the past. There’s not much more to say. It’s a hard climb.
We set out early in the morning, before the rest of the town was awake. It was cool and damp, and felt like early spring even though it was still squarely summer. Clouds socked in the valley, hanging low over the village. Brian and I pedaled toward the wall of rock wordlessly.
We passed under the banner, “Le Alpe d’Huez, Departe 13.8 km,” we set our clocks and stomped on the pedals, as the road tilted upward to 10, then 11 percent grades in the first few kilometers.
As we passed the first turn, Brian belted out, “Twenty-one! Only twenty to go.”
“Don’t f**king do that!” I screamed, not wanting to think about how far we had left.
“Ok,” he said. And that was the last time we spoke for the rest of the climb.
A few switchbacks later, he slowly came around me, and inched away gradually. I yo-yoed behind him, periodically trying to get back on his wheel. But I was running on vapors.
Around switchback 14, I downed some energy gel and that was when I threw up a little in my mouth. I do not recommend it.
We rode into the clouds at switchback 12. Having started so early, we were the only bikes on the road. It was the type of moment at a point on a climb that is utterly humbling. A few hundred meters later, when we came through the clouds and saw clear blue skies, I thought, this is where God rides bikes.
The closer we got to the top, the more spaced out the switchbacks became, and the worse my legs felt. I kept grinding it out, trying to catch Brian, but I couldn’t get there. My legs were on fire, and I was starting to come undone.
This wasn’t a race, but I couldn’t stomach cracking at this point. We’d ridden an incredible route together and that’s how I wanted to finish.
A short stretch of false flat gave me a little boost, and I dug in for a big effort, catching Brian as we swept through a roundabout and up the wide boulevard toward the sign “Tour de France Arrivee.”
Each year when Tour time comes around, I think about that trip. If the race route goes over Croix de la Fer, or tops Galibier, or finishes up Alpe d’Huez, I can’t help but feel some sense of immense appreciation that we got to ride there. Seeing the best bike racers in the world climb the roads that we once suffered up ourselves is an odd sensation, and one that seems unique to cycling. It was not the most epic journey, or the toughest route, or anything like that. But it was the bike trip of a lifetime, and I still can’t believe we got to do it.
A decade ago, we found ourselves at the base of three days climbing in the middle of the French Alps. We didn’t know if we could do it. But we had to find out. And we did.