Thursday 21 August 2008

Tour d'Enfer Day 5: Welcome to the Galibier!

Lost Boys Riding the Col de la Telegraphe

The view climbing from St-Michel-de-Maurienne

There are certain climbs so strongly identified with the Tour de France that any true cyclist is moved by the mere mention of them. To me the three greatest are the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, Mont Ventoux, alone in Provence, and the Galibier, the monumental ride in the Alps. When planning the Tour d’Enfer all these months ago I was thrilled to think that I would someday ride the Galibier, a bigger thrill than the Alpe d’Huez and probably equivalent only to the Stelvio, the Giro d’Italia legend I rode in 2005.

What makes the Galibier so special? First crossed by the Tour in 1911 on what must have been a real goat track, the pass has been a regular feature of the race and identified with the greatest heroics of cycling. Gino Bartali became a star here in 1937. Since 1947 it has been on the Tour route no less than 31 times–it should have been 32 but the terrible weather in 1996 meant cancellation of most of the long stage from Val d’Isère, including the Galibier. This was the stage where Bjarne Riis took the Yellow Jersey, dashing Miguel Indurain’s hopes for a sixth Tour de France. And it was last crossed by the Tour yesterday, July 23.

The Thin Man on the Telegraphe

The Galibier is attended by lesser passes to the south (the Col du Lauturet) and the north (Col de la Télégraphe). If you consider the town of St-Michel-de-Maurienne to be the start of the climb, leading then over the Télégraphe, the climb is 34.8 km (21.62 miles) long, averaging 6.1% with a total gain of 2120 m (6955 feet). The maximum grade is at the summit itself and is 10.1%. Often the highest point of the Tour de France, the summit is at 2645 m (8677 feet) ASL

Now accustomed to German order and efficiency, we had our bikes loaded into the trailer rapidly and left Briançon early. Udo drove us around the mountains on the route we had driven in on, passing through the Frejus tunnel again and stopping after 90 minutes or so just outside St-Michel-de-Maurienne at a supermarket. Barry’s dream of bananas came true as we loaded up the bus with fruit and downed a few before assembling our bikes and then finding a washroom, an occasional challenge on this trip. But we were rolling out in the cool morning air along the N6, which was fairly busy but caused no anxiety.

Lost Boys unable to resist a col sign

The directions for the day were simple: turn left on the D902; climb the Télégraphe; climb the Galibier; turn left on the Col du Lauturet and roll down into Briançon and back to the hotel. The road had been closed earlier in the day to vehicles, which we were to learn is fairly common around here when the Tour de France is in the vicinity but Udo came on our route with the bus as the noon opening of the road at the other end would take place while we were riding.

Dr. Chef in Valloire

It was a truly beautiful day as we began the steady climb, with some nice curves in the road that took us high above the River Arc. We had a break at the summit of the Télégraphe, and some of the group stopped for a coffee, but the rest of headed onwards on the short descent towards Valloire and the beginning of the climb to the top of the Galibier.

The Galibier is impressively long and you have a great deal of time to contemplate the scenery as you roll relentlessly upwards. The landscape opens up around you and for a good part of the ride you are riding on a plain, surrounded by the high mountains. Up ahead we could see a paraglider flying near the peak. After we passed a bend in the road at Plan Lachat around the 23 km (14.3 mile) mark the road pitched up to around 7% and kept on going. The last 8 kms of the climb are brutal, averaging around 8.1%. The summit featured one more little pitchup, bringing the grade to over 10%–ouch! We had left the paraglider behind us: we were now far above him!

The last section of road had lots of curves and a surprising amount of traffic. The road split at 2556 m ASL as larger vehicles were required to take a short, single-lane tunnel instead of going up to the summit. Oddly enough, the tunnel had been on the original road across the Galibier, so all the early Tour heroes would have ridden through it. It was closed in 1976 for reconstruction (opening again only in 2002!) and the current summit road was built, taking us up to the 2645 m ASL. On the last turn, I passed a car and trailer that seemed to be stuck. It was blocking traffic and other drivers were trying to reposition themselves. A heavy, metallic smell was in the air and I suspect that the driver of the car and trailer had burned out his transmission.

The view from the top was fantastic, with snow-covered mountains around us, although there were the usual summit crowds with motorcycles and cars and even a guy with massive arms riding a handcycle. After catching our breath, if that is what you can call it at 2600 m, we launched out towards the Col du Lauturet, with the road beginning to drop at 12%. Before negotiating a fantastic set of hairpin turns we passed the southern portal of the tunnel and there saw the monument to Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour de France. A wreath is put there every time the Tour crosses the Galibier and it was sitting there, marking the peleton’s passage the day before. But enough resting: time to descend!

Frank at speed

The descent to the Col du Lauturet was fantastic. Less technical but still full of turns, it was exhilarating to get up some speed for nearly 9 kms. Frank was ahead of me but for once I could keep him in sight as the road was better for someone with my limited bike-handling skills. Heike joined us at the crossroads. We decided to let the others eat at the top of Lauturet and we would just head back towards Briançon and stop en route.

Frank going even faster

We shot down the rather busy N91, whipping through a tunnel without a second thought, and rocketing along the Vallée de la Gusiane, the little river on our right as we easily kept pace with the cars. After 10 kms (6.2 miles) of pure speed we came into the charming little village of Le Monêtier-les-Bains, only to discover that since it was mid-afternoon the pizzeria that Frank had been looking for was closed. We drank some beer at an English-style pub, which, it turned out, also had no food. But our resourceful waiter organized lunch for us at the local creperie, but our food was brought over by the man from the restaurant so we did not have to move!

Well-fed, we continued on the N91 , again downhill all the way, and passed St-Chaffrey, where I had begun the climb up the Col du Granon (had it only been yesterday?). Soon we were back in Briançon, having enjoyed another epic day. On this, our last evening in Briançon, we sat outside for dinner and had excellent beer. The Badger and I walked around the old town and we found an Italian artisanal ice cream place and celebrated our conquest of one of the greatest climbs ever.

A few years ago I watched on television as Michael Boogerd of the Rabobank team crossed the Galibier to win that day’s stage, grinning like a madman. Anyone riding across the Galibier on the kind of day we had would have done the same.

1 comment:

Will said...

One of my very favorite climbs - the last part from Plan Lachat is truly amazing.

Are you the guy that put the Canadian flag sticker on the bottom left of the Col du Galibier sign?