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
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.
The signage at the
turn off of the N91 highway onto the road to the Col de la Croix de Fer.
What a name!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the several tunnels
through which the road from the Croix de Fer to St. Jean passes.
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?
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!
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.
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.
One and only one thought:
get to the top.
This is the road switchbacking
up the far side of the drainage visible in the photo 2 spots above.
This spectacular view
is a reward for ascending the switchbacks in the photo above. The
ubiquitous tombstone marks the 6 km to go point.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The glacier from the
Col du Lautaret. The Lautaret is very beautiful and a heavily
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
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.
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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