Finally a write up for Velo Vercors - A long one but well worth the read..
posted 18 Jan 2016, 15:11 by Matt Reynolds
So thanks to George for the write up.
Ride one – Leoncel
The first ride was a nice entry, out of the front door of VV and straight onto the climb to Leoncel to the south west. A nice gentle 4% average gradient. But 16km long. The pecking order was soon established as we climbed the winding wooded valley – Laurent, Matt and Chris (aka the Young Ones) out front, Claire and myself at a distance, and Andy a little way behind us. An hour or so later we arrived at the col. A welcome first beer/coffee and we took in the view – roads to the east and west going ever higher that we would revisit later in the week. Then the adrenaline took over and a berserk descent back, carving around the bends, brushing the rock faces. Just like you see on the Tour (no, really). If there’s one thing to learn on a trip to the Alps, it’s how to descend properly – and you will have plenty of opportunity. In too short a time, we were back. We’d arranged for Teresa at VV to cook us a four course meal that evening, so it was time to relax. I don’t think we’d seen more than a couple of cars outside of town all afternoon. [No Strava link here, my Garmin ate the ride.]
Ride two – Gorges de la Bourne, Col du Rousset, Combe Laval
The next day, we’d booked a guided ride with Roger Dunne (who sadly died in the autumn). He wisely chose a longish challenging route, but one that wasn’t stupidly difficult, so that we could gauge how difficult the riding would be and pace the rest of our week accordingly. So, after a short ride over to Pont-en-Royans, we turned into our first spectacle, one of the main Vercors gorges, the Gorges de la Bourne. The first part of the climb was about 8km at 5%, surrounded by towering cliffs on both sides, but quite wide as this is a big river. We re-assembled at Rencurel and continued up the false flat as the gorge crowded in on each side, through a couple of short tunnels, until we emerged at a bridge across the river. Here the road further up the gorge was shut for road works (and the upcoming Tour de France), so we doubled back down river, through couple of tunnels until we started upwards into the trees and the next climb, another 4km at about 5% onto the plateau. We emerged onto open farmland and a quick freewheel took us to St Martin-en-Vercors and a welcome coffee.
A short rapid descent to the top of the next gorge followed, and then we turned off to continue straight ahead, due south through St Agnan-en-Vercors. This was a long 15km false flat, slowly ascending a broad flower-filled valley – nice and easy. At the end of the valley we started the next climb up to the Col de Rousset. Our side was just 8km at 5%, the col is better known for the climb from the south, which is 14km of spectacular hairpins from Die. The view from the top was wonderful, and then we retired back to the ski station for another coffee.
From there we had a quick hop over the adjacent Col de Saint Alexis and then a fast descent to Vassieux-en-Vercors, on the plateau proper, and site of a large WWII monument to Resistance fighters killed nearby. Onto the next climb, the Col de la Chau or Chaud Clapier, another 7km at 6%, and another fast descent on ultra-smooth roads, down to the Col de la Machine. Here we find the most spectacular view of the whole trip, the Combe Laval. From the col, the road descends gradually, cut and tunnelled into a sheer 600m cliff over a distance of over 2km, with a view across the Combe to a similar cliff opposite. There a plenty of viewpoints to stop at but, not liking heights, I creep along to the final, slightly safer viewpoint. After gathering our breathe, we drop almost vertically down a sketchier descent to St Jean, which is just a few km away. Today has been a 105km ride, with 1800m of climbing (https://www.strava.com/activities/311028987/) and a most spectacular day … time for a beer and some home cooking.
Ride three – Gorges du Nan
The next day we’d chosen to go north to the Gorges du Nan. The ride starts up the valley, a nice flat ride of 30km – except that overnight the wind has got up and it’s a stiff northerly. The temperature is 25 degrees, but it feels a lot lower, and it’s hard work on the front. A quick break at Cognin and we turn through the village and towards the gorge. The climb is 17km at almost 7%, the total climb being just about the same as the Alpe, so a good test early in the trip.
The start is straight into a 10% climb through some woods to the left of the gorge, up a couple of hairpins. Then we turn left into the gorge proper and a tremendous view opens up. The road is now carved into the left-hand side of the vertiginous gorge, still rising at 6%, cut through short tunnels and overhangs, and always with a great view across and up the gorge. This goes on for 4 spectacular km.
Then across one branch of the river, back into the woods and we zip-zag up the right hand side of the valley to another viewpoint, and then into fields and Malleval village comes into view. We continue climbing above Malleval when it all starts to go pear-shaped as we re-enter the woods. I’m completely out of energy and starting to pedal squares. Claire rides off and puts 7 minutes into me over the last 3km to the col. This must be The Bonk. The last couple of kms is a false flat, but I’m almost track-standing my way to the top. The col is freezing – only 10 degrees minus a lot of wind chill even though we’re still in the trees. The Young Ones have gone on to find warmer shelter. Then we get a text from Andy, who’s also suffering, got lost leaving Malleval, and says that he’s going back.
Claire and myself descend as fast as we can without freezing into the next valley. It’s beautiful, but still cold, and we can’t find the Young Ones, so we continue down the valley, all the way to the junction at Rencurel. There we find a café and feed up with ravioli and warm up with some hot coffee.
A while later, after we’d regained our warmth, we ventured out and took the simple descent down the Gorges de la Bourne to get home. Then we find out that the Young Ones had dived into a café near the col that we hadn’t seen, and made their own way back. The ride has been 85km for over 1500 metres of climbing (https://www.strava.com/activities/311510270). But a lesson had been learnt. Riding big climbs on consecutive days is demanding. Andy, Claire and myself decide that we won’t do it from now on, but will have rest days between each major ride. It still gives us plenty of opportunity, but this is a holiday.
Ride four – Col du Tourniol, Col de la Bataille
The plan today is to do another big climb, to the south east again and up to Leoncel, but this time via the Col du Tourniol. The start was a nice easy valley ride of some 29km to the base of the climb. At least that’s what it looked like when we planned it. However one thing that we’d not worked out was that the profile of our rides was being distorted by the long climbs that they contained. So our “flat” ride contained a nasty little 4% gradient that climbed 200 metres up to a low col.
After a few grumbles we were onto the main climb of the day – the Tourniol is 12km at 6%, a nicely even gradient climbing up through woods. The lower gradient meant it was much more comfortable than Monday’s ride, and it made for a nice relaxing climb with time to chat. Although the Young Ones didn’t thank us for that as they waited at the col for a quarter of an hour before we arrived, sheltering behind some rocks. The temperature was again quite variable. Almost 20 in the valley, rising on the slopes, but feeling really cold on the cols with the strong northerly wind, even though it was 12 degrees.
A short while later Andy arrived and we beat a rapid retreat down a short descent to Leoncel to find the bar that we’d stopped at on the first day. Except it was shut. So here we split up. Andy wanted to conserve his energy for the Alpe, so took the direct route back. The Young Ones were desperate for food and coffee, so descended to the south as we knew there was a restaurant lower down in that direction. It was a bit further than we thought, so they had quite a climb back. So only Claire and myself followed the intended route.
This took the ridge road east of Leoncel to the Col de la Bataille, and another 8km climb at 5%. This started initially through woods, and turned out to be a rather uneven climb, with short ramps and false flats, so it was hard to get a rhythm going, but eventually we opened out onto the ridge, a short tunnel and the col. It was freezing again, with a howling gale across the col that made it hard to hold the bike upright. The views were spectacular into valleys both north and south, and along the ridge to the east. But after some quick photos, this was no place to stop, so we were off again. The road now descended and then traversed the edge of the northern valley, offering continually changing views. Eventually we reached the turn off to the Col du Pionnier, and then we had a rapid descent down to the hamlet of Bouvante – where we finally found a café! At last we got properly warmed up, and a while later we took the short road back to St Jean. In all the ride was only 85km, but had almost 2000m of climbing (http://www.strava.com/activities/312837906/), so another good effort to get us ready for the ultimate target of the trip.
Ride five – L’Alpe d’Huez
The final day was devoted to the classic climb of the trip – l’Alpe d’Huez, 14km, 1100 metres of climbing, 8.5% average, 10% for the first few hairpins. We piled into the vans and drove past Grenoble up the valley towards the start of the climb at Bourg d’Oisans. We stopped a bit earlier, though, at the junction to Allemond which is where the climb to the Col du Glandon starts. There’s a convenient large lay-by and toilets here, which leaves us a nice 9km roll into Bourg to get the legs warm.
Because the forecast was for good weather, we’d set off earlier then originally planned to avoid the heat of the day, so we’re rolling by 10:30 and it’s already 24 degrees. A quick stop in Bourg and we’re away onto the Alpe, and immediately we’re split into the usual order. We’ve been through the tactics beforehand. Dead easy for the first 3 or 4 hairpins to La Garde, which is the steepest part, steady through the middle section to Huez, and then see what you have left.
Bizarrely the hill is full of Dutch cyclists and walkers in matching jerseys who seem to be doing some kind of charity event – why walk up the Alpe road when there are some nice footpaths? Some of the Dutch are off their bikes after a couple of hairpins, which was ominous. I settled into bottom gear and nice high cadence, already 50 or so metres behind Claire. Suddenly we’re already at La Garde. How can it be so easy? Well the ultra-smooth road helps, as do the flat sections around each hairpin, where you can release the constant pressure on your legs. But then I remember not to get ahead of myself – a long way to go yet – and settle back into my rhythm again.
As we zig-zag up the harirpins, the view of the valley opens up – it only gets better. As well as the Dutch, there are a few other riders on the Alpe. I get passed by a couple who are going really well. Later another rider eases past me, but I get the inner satisfaction of re-taking him a few hairpins later. Dutch Corner arrives, then Huez village, and we move from the vertical section into more open fields, and the Alpe village is now visible above us.
There’s a steeper ramp out of Huez and then we’re into the final section. Claire is still only a hundred meters in front of me, so it’s time to see what I’ve got left. It’s in vain. Claire has used her experience on Ventoux and other French climbs and paced it better. She only moves further away from me. But I’m doing OK. Although the hairpins are further apart now, everything seems to go much quicker – it must be the adrenaline. Around the last hairpin and then the gradient starts to ease off. Into the lower village and it’s into the big ring and as much of a sprint as I can manage. Laurent, Matt and Chris are already settling in at the café opposite the tourist office that marks the finish of the timed climb (you can buy a chip in the Bourg tourist office and get a certificate when you return it) – they’ve finished 20 or 30 minutes before me.
But it’s not the end. The “proper” finish is where the Tour stage ends – another km or so to go. So it’s down the gears for another couple of hairpins, before it’s back into the big ring for the flat transition to the east side of the upper Alpe, the final roundabout and finishing straight. I’ve done 1hr 26 for the timed climb, 1hr 33 for the full climb. Laurent and Matt cracked the hour, Chris just over, Claire was a couple of minutes in front of me and Andy a quarter of an hour behind. The temperature had hit 30 on the way up – a good move to start earlier. Time to cool down with the others and refuel.
After a brief shop, it’s time for some more descent madness. This has to be the best fun and, despite quite a bit of traffic, much safer than previous descents as the roads are so wide and smooth, and most of the traffic seems to be used to bikes flying past them. The weirdest thing is the fact that, for the first time, I should have been changing down on each hairpin. They’re so flat that I’m over-geared on the exits. They’re also so wide, and with big run-offs, that finding the fastest apex is sometimes a bit difficult. Accordingly I mess up a few hairpins, but on each straight we’re at 70kph, sometimes over 80. I get blocked by a tour bus towards the bottom for a couple of hairpins. But it’s all over too quickly, just under 14 minutes at a shade over 50kph average. Later we find that Laurent, who was half a minute faster, had third fastest time so far that year, I had fifth.
The Young Ones hadn’t had enough though. While Andy, Claire and myself celebrated with a well-deserved ice cream in Bourg, and then rolled back to the vans (http://www.strava.com/activities/314166944/), they had decided to ride all the way back to the Vercors! Although it was an extra 120km, in theory it was downhill all the way. Except they got a bit lost crossing Grenoble and ended up doing another category 2 climb by mistake … there were some heavy legs when they got back. However, as this was our last night, we’d arranged for Teresa to cook us another four-course meal, so there was plenty of time for relaxation that evening.
We had planned a short ride on the Saturday before leaving, but we looked at each other in the morning and were all thinking the same thing. Tiredness had got to all of us, so we decided on a nice easy morning with a coffee in the village. We re-booked Eurotunnel for an earlier train and set off. It meant that, rather than having to travel overnight again, we were back in the country just after midnight and home some time after three in the morning, without any problems.
Overall everything had gone pretty well. Lessons to be learnt? Well, not to underestimate the workload of big climbs on consecutive days. Also to be aware that a thousand metres of altitude can make a 15 degree temperature difference. So carry those gilets and arm warmers. But the accommodation was great, and the travel easy enough. To make things simpler, all the costs had been equally split – we’d just had a big kitty for everything once we arrived – and we’d split the cooking, so it was remarkably hassle-free. Plus we had the smooth, almost traffic-free, roads and gorgeous countryside. Obviously time to start organising the 2016 trip.