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What's it like to climb Alp d'Huez?


Recently we were lucky enough to have a bit of a trip to the French Alps. It’s always a joy to travel to the mountains especially when summer has firmly taken hold and the sun has gripped the valleys and the peaks. One of the highlights of our trip set the question, What is it like to climb Alp d’Huez?

The famed 21 switchbacks of Alp d’Huez rise for just shy of 14km from the valley of  Bourg d’Oisans up to the giant ski resort of Alp d’Huez and is instantly recognisable for all cycling fans who have followed the Tour de France and our route for the day began from the top taking in the loop that Le Tour used in the centenary edition in which they  climbed the monster not once, but twice!

The top of the Col de Sarenne. Pastures new!

The route itself took me from the resort down to the east, past the insane airport at Alp d’Huez where the runway seemly goes off the edge of a cliff, across the Col de Sarenne which winds its way through a beautiful valley before twisting and dropping to Le Freney- d’Oisans. The real shock here was the narrowness of the descent. Imagining a large race coming down these same roads was frankly stomach churning. The switchbacks were tight and gravelly and at times the drop to the valley floor was really exposed and open!

The descent does level out and comes out at the stunning Lac du Chambon which serves as a gateway to Les Deux Alpes should you be so obliged! But we weren’t so we carried on to the beginning of our personal battle for the day along the valley floor surrounded by the mountains that towered around us. Again all I could think of was that this was bad enough, but imagining racing along the valley, knowing that you had to climb one of these, must be very daunting indeed!

The spectacular Lac du Chambon greets you at the bottom of the descent.

And so it began. The first ramp of the climb comes without warning. I guess this is a funny thing to say bearing in mind its fairly obvious that you are going to climb a mountain, but as you turn the corner the road really does ramp up quite suddenly! And it doesn’t really stop! The fastest recorded ascent of Alp d’Huez was by Marco Pantini in 1997. He completed this in 37:35. Almost twice as quickly as my effort! It is only when you see these giant climbs for yourself that the ferocity of these sort of performances really hits home. The average gradient of the climb works out as a touch over 8% with a maximum gradient of 11.5%, not the steepest, but don’t be fooled, not that you can be! This is a monster! 

This is insane. Having climbed this now in the flesh, this just seems all the more remarkable.

With each switchback come ramp after ramp after ramp. What was really noticeable about the climb was that the majority of it was on the edge of the mountain itself and the drop was pretty staggering. It is incredible that once at the top you find yourself in the resort itself and the importance of the road as a transport link rather than just a personal challenge becomes apparent. As the climb scales the side of the mountain it eventually winds into the village of Huez, made more distinct by the historic church en route as you close into the summit. Eventually the road begins to level off and takes into the grasslands and meadows at the top before getting into Alp d’Huez itself. The sheer volume of cyclists that use the route means that the road signs in the town actually direct you along the TdF route and a sign in the town marks exactly the finish of the climb at the top of the town amongst the numerous apartments and hotels that strangely lie largely untouched during the summer.

Our route. Available here

With the arrival into the town our short loop was complete: 32 miles and 7,500ft of climbing. Enough to deserve a coffee and a baguette!

Alpe d’Huez stats

Location: Alps, France
Distance: 13.8km
Average gradient: 8.1 per cent, steepest part 11.5 per cent
Maximum elevation: 1850 metres
Fastest recorded ascent: 37 minutes and 35 seconds by Marco Pantani during 1997 Tour de France