Up, Up, and Up a little bit more. Taking on The Galibier
Day 3 of the University of Bristol Cycling Club's tour of the French Alps saw us take on the iconic Galibier (2642m). Read on to find out how we faired, relive the highs the lows of the ride and feast your eyes on some great scenery.
If the previous two days of riding were anything to go by, (Alpe d’Huez, Col de la Morte & Col d’Ornon) then today was going to be tough. With two days in the legs, it was even more of a struggle to rouse our fatigued bodies from the comfort of our beds and in true UOBCC style our aim to be up and on the road by 10am was an ambitious one. Porridge, croissants and a combination of nutella, jam and cheeses on baguettes were stuffed inside our greedy stomachs in desperate preparation for the intimidating day looming ahead.
Eventually we ran out of excuses to postpone the inevitable pain any longer. So a full 45mins behind schedule we rolled out from Pourchery down the 2km 10% road we were beginning to loathe, and into Bourg d’Oisan to meet Hattie and new recruit to the team, Theo. The label of “new recruit” in this instance is very misleading, because, even though Theo is not part of any cycling club, he was by far the best climber in the group (probably thanks to having been based in the region for the previous year as he studied in Grenoble and as we met up with him he was spending the summer living in Bourg d’Oisan as a cycling tour guide). Luckily for us he plans to quit rowing and join UOBCC this coming September! Watch out for UOBCC at BUCS hill climb.
A minor miscommunication yesterday lead half the group to believe that the Col de la Morte was only 5km long instead of the brutal 11km of 8% gradient to the summit. After the suffering endured in those final 6km where I passed a couple of my mates who had burnt out at 8km begging for the top to be 200m round the corner, everyone ensured they had a good idea of what we would actually be tackling today to avoid being caught out again; that said, even with the profile in front of us it was very difficult to comprehend 40km of uphill riding. There is something distinctly unnatural about starting at 700m elevation and knowing you’ve got to find some winding road to climb 2000m up into the air to reach the top. Why would a road go that high?
Between Bourg d’Oisan and the start of the uphill section there is a flat well tarmacked road that we hurtled along in a pace line of 7 UOBCC riders with Theo immediately showing his strength by leading for most of the 5km section. Rounding the bend at Le Clapier the climbing begins. There was very little to test the legs in the first 10km with the rolling road only rising 300m up to Barrage du Chambon (3% avg). The split in the group came as a 6% incline combined with the first tunnel of the trip resulting in Hattie being distanced slightly and Tom, Mat and Henry all needing to stop to fiddle with their lights for some reason, which held them up for an inordinately long time. This left me holding on to Theo’s wheel and Hattie in no man’s land.
After regrouping at the dam, we continued through more tunnels and in anticipation of the further inevitable splits as the going only got tougher, we agreed to meet again at La Grave 12km further on and another 400m closer to the clouds. La Grave provided some excellent views as we gazed towards the snow capped peaks and Glaciers beyond 3000m. There was a cable car receiving a lot of action as many skiers returned for lunch having made the most of the Glacier before the snow and ice all turned to mush in the sun. I was not at all jealous of the skiers hauling their skis and boots past us dressed in all their cold weather ski gear. I’m sure such insulating kit is truly necessary when you’re out at the crack of dawn at 3500m but when it's approaching 1pm on a scorching day in June, I can only imagine it to be uncomfortable and particularly sweaty inside.
The rest of the group joined Theo and me at La Grave and we took a further 20 minute break before we set off on the 3rd of 4 sections on the route to the Galibier. The Col du Lautaret marks the start of the final 8km of ascent, and is seen as the official start of the Galibier climb. Reaching here was an achievement in itself as it marked highest point of the trip so far, 2058m; soon to be broken of course, but not to be taken for granted. Last minute refuelling ensued and the ice-cold water provided some respite from the insistent heat of the day.
Our delayed departure was coming back to haunt us, as we began our final ascent at the hottest part of the day. We had learnt that when it came to alpine climbs it was a matter of taking things at your own pace. Otherwise you were in danger of blowing out and not actually reaching the top. Hattie and Mat were destined to form a small grupetto and take heed of the warnings to pace themselves up the climb. Henry, Sam and I all tried to be heroes and stick on 'Quintana’s' wheel (aka Theo), however within 1km, much like any mortal taking on the impossible, in quick succession we all failed. Fortunately we managed to form a solid group of three to regulate our pace on the proceeding 7km. Tom was left in no man’s land to battle up on his own. This was a gentle relief to the rest of us, since his new style of alpine climbing involved severe accelerations, sometimes punctuated with a vocal “Attack!” followed by throttling back and almost stopping as he regained his rhythm; something which provide devilishly difficult to draft and rather off putting to have sprint out of your slipstream and then slow almost to a stop further up the road. Needless to say he’s a strong rider on his day, but rather an odd ball.
The scenery on the climb was unlike any we had encountered previously. All around us was patchy snow, with some even protruding onto the road causing it to become worryingly narrow (if you were in a car). The road surface up there gets battered and therefore is regularly replaced, which leads to a smooth but slightly slippery fresh surface, especially as you enter the final 3km. I must have missed where we agreed I would take on the role of pace man and shelter the other two from the cold sharp gusts of wind that were swirling around the mountainside. I’d like to believe that the pace was too high for them to pop out and share the load, but with Theo becoming an ever smaller spec further up the road, I knew I was in no position to gloat about climbing legs being on form.
I vaguely remember seeing “red snow” which I thought was rather sinister at the time. I later recall seeing the same and then shifting my shades down my nose to see over the top, only to realize it was indeed the traditional white snow. I think it must have had something to do with the polarized lenses. Henry and Sam spotted a Marmotte, but I wasn’t 100% with it at that point, and despite looking long and hard in the direction of the enthusiastic pointing I couldn’t make out one rock from the next.
Finally, 40 minutes after leaving the café at the Col du Lautaret, we summited the climb; not before both Henry and Sam had launched a cruel attack in the last 100m to leave me straggling over the top in 4th, truly and utterly exhausted. My body felt like it had reached its limit. I was very, very glad that the way home was almost all downhill.
The views from the top are magical. It’s difficult to capture the purity up there with a crummy compact camera, however I know that the pictures I have in my head will not be easily forgotten. Within no time at all, the peace was broken as we cheered Tom to the summit… then the cold hit. I wish I’d bought some leg warmers before the trip. Today was a day where I really could have done without my legs feeling like granite. I was shivering despite pulling on full finger gloves, arm warmers and a waterproof jacket for extra warmth. The summery heat that earlier put us into difficulty through overheating provided little comfort on the exposed peak. I’d hate to think how cold it can get up there on days that aren't so nice. Brrr.
When Mat and Hattie caught up, we hustled them along into the customary group photo and encouraged view taking to be as speedy as possible to avoid frostbite in the nether regions. Fortunately this went down very well with everyone, and in no time we were weaving our way back to the Col du Lautaret café.
If I could give one bit of random advice to another rider thinking of tackling the Galibier and dining 8km down from the summit, it would be to not fill yourself with chips. For one, they’re a rip off at €5 for a portion. And secondly they sit like a lump of mud in your stomach the entire way home, occasionally sloshing around when you introduce some much needed fluids. Eurgh. Not a good experience. Oh well. You live and learn.
The ride was brutal, the temperature control was on a wide ranging scale, and we stepped atop the third highest road in the Alps. But today only makes me even more excited about climbing even greater climbs and taking on tougher parcours in future rides. I think it could well have opened the floodgates for some crazy adventures.
Since returning from Alps I have kept up my cycling and as we find ourselves in the first week of August I have recently completed my furthest ride, 187km in 6hrs with only 2 mates for company. I have entered my first Sportive which roughly follows a stage of the Tour of Britain, in which I will take on 100 miles of Staffordshire’s finest countryside. And to top all that, I will be riding Coast to Coast in a day for charity (220km with 3000m of ascent). Thanks to the Galibier and the other Cols tackled in our week in France, I feel as though anything is possible. Fingers crossed I can complete all my challenges.