Pain, Suffering and Exhilaration on the Galibier


4000 vertical meters (over 13,200 feet), 170 km, 7 hours rolling time, no shortcuts.  That's a pretty big ride for a 40 year old geology professor, but I determined to do it my first day in France.  Its a fairly straight forward loop that links two deep, roughly east-west trending glacial valleys that are separated by high peaks: from Bourg d'Oisans, head west for a handful of kilometers towards Grenoble on the highway, turn right on route D526, ascend the Col de la Croix de Fer, descend to St. Jean de Maurienne, turn right and take frontage roads east along a deep valley for about 8 km to St. Michele de Maurienne, turn right and climb for 34 km to the Col du Galibier, passing over the Col du Telegraphe on the way, descend to the Col de Lautaret, turn right and descend - minus a few sharp upturns in the road - to Bourg d'Oisans.  

Getting to Bourg d'Oisans was the first part of this adventure.  After 2 weeks of fabulous riding in Italy, my friends Edwin, Fred, and Sterling had abandoned me on the 27th of July to return to their children, wives and jobs in California and Utah.  The trip to the Bourg began with Fred and I dropping Edwin and Sterling at the Milano Malpensa airport and returning our rental van.  Fred and I then hopped on a shuttle bus that took us the 50 or so kilometers into the Stazione Centrale in downtown Milano.  Fred and I then said our goodbyes before he headed to the Linate airport and I ventured into the station in search of the TGV to Chambery, France.  I somehow made it through the crowds and up the escalator with my wheeled duffle in one hand and 50 lbs of bike bag on a shoulder.  The Italian train workers had held a 24 hour strike the prior day, so the station and train were packed and tempers were flaring.  I was glad that I had a reserved seat and with some help from two very friendly Parisiens, found space for my luggage as well.  Later the women from Paris joined me and we had a nice conversation until I departed the train in Chambery.  From Chambery I took a train to Grenoble, where I caught a bit of live Tour coverage while waiting for the bus to Bourg d'Oisans.  Finally in the Bourg, I was faced with dragging my gear 3/4 of a mile to the Hotel de Milan where I hoped to have a reservation.  After completing that task there was time to assemble my bike and take it for a 40 minute spin that included a visit to the bottom hairpin of the climb to the ski station at l'Alpe d'Huez.  A nice dinner, ice cream and live music with Vince and Leslie, friends from San Luis Obispo, followed the spin.  Then it was back to the hotel to get everything ready for the big ride the next day.  

I knew the ride was big when I conceived of it while staring at a map in Salt Lake City the winter before.  There are some alpine - sized climbs around Salt Lake City, namely Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon, and I had on several occasions done both of them in a day.  However, this ride offers 700 m more climbing than the Cottonwood Canyons duo.  Also, and probably most importantly, the ride was an unknown quantity; I didn't know the climbs, the weather, or sources of food and water.  On the plus side, I came into it with improved fitness following two weeks of riding in Italy and the I had dreamt of riding these climbs since I was a teenager.  No doubt all of these factors, plus the hot conditions led to the exhilaration and suffering that I felt on the Galibier.    


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The signage at the turn off of the N91 highway onto the road to the Col de la Croix de Fer.  What a name!


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The lower slopes of the climb to the Col de la Croix de Fer are forested and steep.


The climb to the Col de la Croix de Fer begins gently a few kilometers after turning off the highway to Grenoble.  After a few kms of the gentle grades - almost false flats - the road begins to climb seriously.  It takes you up a set of switchbacks onto a dam, along a reservoir and through dense forests on its way north along a river valley.

I rode some solid tempo getting to and then climbing the Croix de Fer, as I climbed at 16 to 17 vertical meters per minute.  Bear in mind that according to Jonathan Vaughters (Cycle Sport, August 2002), something closer to 20 vertical meters per minute (vmpm) is required to ride in the autobus/grupetto in the Tour, but for me 16 to 17 was a quick pace on a ride of this magnitude.  The inspiration for this tempo was threefold: caffeine, dropping a pair of Trek-riding Walloons who were more interested in staying ahead of me than chatting, and I was riding on the Croix de Fer, goddamnit!  I did this as the day became very warm and humid, and dripped my way up the lower slopes towards the Iron Cross. 




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The sign says something like, 'Attention / Do Not Pass This Sign / Frequent Rockfall / Danger of Death.'



After passing through the small town of le Rivier d'Allemont, the road dives down the river it has paralleled, climbs steeply up the far side, and passes some dangerous rockfall areas.   That's where the sign pictured above is located.  Two Walloons (French - speaking Belgians) rode by as I took this and some other photos.  They repeatedly looked over their shoulders to check my position and upped their tempo - to the point that the faster of the two dropped his buddy.  Their behavior gave me motivation to reel them in.

Beyond the steep climb out of the river valley, the road climbs into rugged , treeless mountains and by another reservoir.  The scenery along this upper part of the climb is wonderful.  The French seem to like their reservoirs.  France owns little in-the-ground oil, and has a well developed nuclear power industry, along with their hydro-electric capabilities.  


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The upper reaches of the climb to the Croix de Fer.  This is just past the large reservoir.  The Col du Glandon is in the notch to the left, and the Col de la Croix de Fer is to the right.


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The Col du Glandon is only a short distance off the road to the Croix de Fer and it is spectacular.


Near to the summit of the Croix de Fer, I took a short detour to the Col du Glandon, another famous alpine climb.  My plan was to U-turn at the Col du Glandon, and continue on over the Croix de Fer and grab a quick frommage et jambon sandweeeech in the valley on the far side of the Croix de Fer.  So after a quick stop for a couple of photos at the summit I remounted and rode on.  


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The view back towards the Col du Glandon from the Col de la Croix de Fer.  A portion of the road cut visible in this photo is visible in the far distance of the photo of the upper reaches of the climb, which is a few photos back up the page.




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One of the several tunnels through which the road from the Croix de Fer to St. Jean passes.


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There is no light at the end of this tunnel.  Beware of tunnels with no light at their end.  They may bend sharply.



The descent of the north side of the Croix de Fer is very tricky.  It contains variable, broken pavement, a wide variety of turns, and numerous dark slick tunnels.  On the descent I caught a (rather cute) French woman working her way down at a quick pace.  Soon after giving her my best 'bon jour,' as I passed, I stopped to shoot the pair of photos above, which were taken from the same spot.  The first is the view back up the road, the second photo is the view down.  The french woman passed me as I was remounting and led the way into the blackness of the downhill tunnel - she with her sunglasses held neatly in her teeth, mine low on my nose.  Near to the far end of the tunnel, she suddenly was hard on her brakes - there was a 90o right turn hidden in the blackness!  She locked and feathered her rear brake 2 or 3 times, agilely drifting her bike, before coming to a stop propped against the far rock wall of the tunnel.  She dealt with the situation nicely, although it was pure luck that there was no oncoming traffic.  I had no idea how to say, 'nice drift, are you OK, what's your phone number?' in French so I just smiled and rode on.  

Soon I was in St. Jean de Maurienne, where after 15 minutes of riding up and down its hills I realized it was Sunday afternoon, and everything was shuttered tight.  Plan A, which was to get food and much needed liquid in St. Jean quickly was cast aside in favor of plan B.  The problem was that there was no plan B.  You might think, seeing as I am from Utah, that I would have anticipated the  closure of commercial establishments on a Sunday.  Somewhat dismayed by the near-empty state of my water bottles, the Houston-like weather conditions, and aware that I should already have drunk much far more liquids, I rode on.  The temperature and humidity were suffocating; St. Jean is at only 550 m elevation, it was the hottest weather in weeks, and I was coming off 2 weeks of cold, rainy weather in Italy (whine).  

On the outskirts of St. Jean I found an Esso station open for business and displaying a sign that said 'sandwiches.'  I entered, and after some effort discovered that sandwich is pronounced something like 'sandweeeeeech' in French and that there were no sandwiches, sandweeeeeeches, or any other substantial food in the Esso station.  I settled for 1.5 liters of water, 2 cans of Lipton iced tea and a bag of Peanut m&m's.  Would that get me over the Galibier?

    


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The beginning of the climb to the Galibier.  The distance: 34 km.  The total vertical gain: 2120 m.  The experience: priceless.


By the time I was at the bottom of the Telegraphe/Galibier duo, I had something like 4 hours and 5500 vertical feet of hard riding in my legs and was facing 2120 vertical meters (7100 feet) to reach the summit of the vaunted Galibier.  This was no Tunitas Creek!  Hell, this was no Little Cottonwood Canyon, nor a Sonora Pass - it was the two of them put end-to-end!  Yeeehaw!

In St. Michele de Maurienne, the town at the foot of the road to the Telegraphe/Galibier, there was an open cafe.  But I couldn't bring myself to stop.  I was mentally ready for my climbing assault, which I knew would begin immediately upon turning right because I could smell the brakes of the cars that had just come down the road!  


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What, me worried?  Nah, not with a cycling cap that says 'Colombia' on it.  


The Telegraphe/Galibier pair have qualities of 2 separate climbs and of a single climb.  Based on a vertical profile, they appear to be more or less a single climb, with the Telegraphe just a weigh station on the road to the Galibier.  But on the road they do feel a bit like two climbs.  There is a sharp little descent and a few generally flat kilometers - punctuated by some steep ramps - following the Telegraphe.  Its far more of a break than you encounter on climbs like Camino Cielo near Santa Barbara or Big Cottonwood in Salt Lake.  However, to gain the Galibier and complete a loop, you must ride both climbs, the whole road, so you can't have one climb without the other and the descent off of the Telegraphe is as much a nuisance as anything.  In that sense they feel like one climb, both when you look at the sign that says 'Col du Galibier 34 km,' and when you ride it.

The Telegraphe begins abruptly from St. Michele.  It initially climbs past houses, but soon is in thick woods.  It felt steeper than the 7 to 8.5% shown on the profile in Atlas des Cols, but perhaps that was the heat affecting my mind.  The road switchbacks and winds its way through woods, before making a long loop along the mountainside to the Col du Telegraphe.  The Col itself is fairly non-descript, marked by a cafe and resort/hotel.  I quickly bought 3 Oranginas and some postcards in the cafe, then headed off in search of the Galibier.


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About 9 km from The Col du Galibier.  Not far ahead, the road bends to the right, crosses the drainage on the right in this photo, and begins its final assault on the summit.  No trees at this elevation.


The first few kilometers of road past the Telegraphe descend at a moderate grade, then the road passes through the town of Valloire, stair steps upwards over another few kilometers, then begins the long mostly 8 to 9% grind to The Col.  For many kilometers, it climbs incessantly along the left side of an alpine glacial valley.  Finally, with about 7 or 8 km to go, the road bends to the right, crosses the valley, then leaves it by swithbacking up the far side.   At that point I was beginning to fatigue, but had about 660 vertical meters to go.  The road gains those 660 meters (2200 feet) at 8.5 to 9.0%, which is something like the steep portion of Tunitas Creek but twice as long and at much higher altitude.  Even though I am accustomed to riding at altitude - in the Wasatch we have cols 1000 feet higher than the Galibier - the altitude really sapped my strength over the final kilometers.  


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One and only one thought: get to the top.


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This is the road switchbacking up the far side of the drainage visible in the photo 2 spots above.  


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This spectacular view is a reward for ascending the switchbacks in the photo above.  The ubiquitous tombstone marks the 6 km to go point. 


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After switchbacking out of the glacial valley, the road straightens again.  Near the summit, the road gains the top of a subridge that extends from the major drainage divide that the col crosses.  The road follows the subridge until it intersects the main ridge, which it switchbacksup  to gain the summit.  This photo was taken from the subridge and shows the final set of switchbacks and the col (the low spot on the skyline).  The ramps connecting those switchbacks climb at about 9%.  Despite my fatigue and complete lack of strength, I forced myself to ride near my limit - which was a paltry 12 to 16 vmpm - because I have wanted to ride the Galibier for many years and I wouldn't have had it any other way.  Not to mention that a pesky Swissman was trying to chase me down.  




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The summit is beautiful and rewarding.  I conversed with several people, including 2 elderly Frenchmen who were thrilled to meet an American with such passion for their roads and mountains.  Too much time, however, passed by me on the summit before I headed down.  The result was a chill and cramps in a variety of muscles - quads, triceps, neck.  I bundled up and headed down with the muscles in the back of my neck locked up solid.  The refuge at the south entrance to the tunnel under the mountain a kilometer down the road offered a 1 minute respite and 3 much needed Oranginas.  The descent was fun and beautiful, although I was very fatigued and not 100%.  The narrow, fun road over the Galibier soon reaches the Col du Lauteret and the main highway that connects Grenoble to Briancon.  I turned right onto it and hurried on with oodles of traffic headed home on a Sunday afternoon.  


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The view back down on the climb from the summit.  The short section of 4 lane road is the entrance to the tunnel under the col.  Beyond the tunnel entrance and lodge is the subridge with the road on it, and beyond that is the long stretch of road that connects the set of switchbacks in an earlier photo with the subridge.

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This is a shot of one of the glaciers that overlooks the Col du Lautaret.  It was taken a few turns down from the Col du Galibier.  The Col du Galibier is about 600 m higher than the Col du Lautaret, and the two sides of the Galibier climb have very different characters.


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The glacier from the Col du Lautaret.  The Lautaret is very beautiful and a heavily trafficked highway.  


The Lauteret is uncompromisingly beautiful: barren alpine slopes, dramatic glaciers, exhilarating turns, but the traffic was unrelenting.  I rode quickly and was grateful for the ever warmer air.  Soon I was sweating again and stopped to remove my leg warmers and jacket.  The warmer, thicker air and infusion of Orangina into my blood returned my strength and dispatched my cramps, and as the road flattened I was able to turn a big gear and even carry solid tempos over the steep hills that guarded the approach to Bourg d'Oisans.  I reached the Bourg 9 hours after departing, too late to see the Tour finale on the Champs d'Elysees, but in time to catch up with some friends for a nice dinner of pasta and trout.  
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The profile of the Col de la Croix de Fer, slightly modified from the Atlas des Cols des Alps.  The gradient (given in percent) of each one kilometer section of the climb is marked along the profile.  

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The profile of the Cols du Telegraphe et Galibier, slightly modified from the Atlas des Cols des Alps.  The gradient (given in percent) of each one kilometer section of the climb is marked along the profile.  


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