We were running out of time. Even though we had ridden the Ornon, Oulles, Les Deux Alps, Notre Dame and Alpe D’Huez to this point there was one climb that I wanted Iain to experience before he went home. Le Galibier. This is the highest ridable peak in the area at 2642 meters and is an 8 km climb up from the Col du Lautaret which is at 2058 meters. I knew the ride itself was a different challenge to the others but also that the views were breathtaking, surpassing the amazing terrain that we had already witnessed.
Day 2 of the Tour De France festivities were under way so we had to consider the timings so that we would not miss out. The previous day saw the climb to Alpe D’Huez which saw an exciting climax and was eventually won by Geraint Thomas to the chagrin of the Dutch support in our campsite. This day was the roll out from Bourg d’Oisans scheduled for around 3pm. The others had planned to get into town early and meet the riders while they prepared for the race and take a few photos. This meant we had to get out of Bourg early before they closed the road and drive through the mountain pass to get to our destination. Then we had to complete our ride and get back in time to enjoy the festivities and watch the roll out. Could it be done?
The plan was to leave at 8am and drive to La Grave and ride from there. It was just short trip of 10 kms to the base of the Galibier from that starting point and then an 8km slog straight up to the top. One of the other challenges of this climb is the lack of oxygen at altitude can start to affect you. Without realising what is happening your legs start to hurt and your lungs just don’t feel like they are working. No matter how hard you try you can’t seem to take in enough oxygen.
We took the wheels off of the bikes and carefully put everything into the car, separating the frames with a couple of blankets. Track pump, shoes, food and water, phone and all the other important gear, check! It was time to go. We made good time driving through the mountains with very little traffic to slow us. 30k in we reached La Grave and drove straight through the tunnel at the back of the ski station and stopped in a lay by. There we unpacked the bikes and set everything up ready for the ride.
We set of at a nice easy pace, slowly getting the heart rate up and finding a rhythm. I was feeling extra cautious for this ride so I swallowed a gel just to give me a little boost, psychological more than anything at that stage. The gradient up to the Col du Lautaret is not particularly challenging in the grand scheme of things. It averages around 4% so 10k of this slope should have us warmed up and ready for the big one. We pass a tiny little village called Villar d’Arene about a third of the way in and both of us are going well.
As you climb this ascent it slowly opens out on the left and you can see part of the south side of the Galibier. What a beautiful sight it is. This area is smack bang in the heart of the French alps and everywhere you look is snowy peaks, ski stations and spralling mountain meadows. We are steadily approaching the Col du Lautaret and I’m starting to get nervous. There is a brief incline gain and then a sharp drop and climb back up and then we arrive.
This is the base of the Galibier and the very top of the Lautaret. At 2000 meters this is fairly high on it’s own. My nerves are getting the better of me a little so I decide to go for a fail safe. I purchase a can of coke from the shop and swig it down. This is obviously not very good for you long term but will guarantee me strong legs to make this climb in solid time. I would also like to be able to keep up with Iain for once and share in the glory of climbing Galibier. I finished the coke and found a bin to dump the can. Ready to go! Burp! Ooops, excuse me! That’ll be the coke.
The start of the climb heads north and then peels away west for a bit. There is a large rock face hiding the second part of the climb that you have to navigate around. At about 2k into the climb you complete the first section and with the rock face on your left you swing around into the second section. This is like a giant bowl that you ride around in a clockwise direction but generally heading north. The average gradient is around 7% and it’s tough but as long as you stay out of the red then it’s manageable. Iain seems relaxed and in a rhythm and I have settled down and am riding well too.
The thing with the Galibier is the closer you get to the summit the steeper the incline. Even if it starts off at a modest 7% average the finish is at just over 12% and it will destroy you if you haven’t left enough in the tank. On one occasion that I climbed this great mountain my mother and father were driving up with Jayne and Jaime. When driving up the last section and with the car in first gear and struggling my mum asked Jayne if i was actually going to climb to the top. When Jayne said yes my mum burst into tears and asked ‘how?’
We were both starting to get heavy legs at the 5k point and I was running out of water too. We were coming up to the tunnel section and a little cafe called The Chateu de Galibier Refuge, so we stopped. You can see a 360 degree view when you click on the link. There is nothing else on this climb. The landscape is almost lunar and vast. It is a sight to behold for anyone whether cyclist, hiker or a tourist by car. We purchased the water from the cafe and topped up our bottles. Iain had a quick look at some of the mountain clothing on sale outside the shop and then we carried on.
There were a few cars queued up, waiting to go through the tunnel and out the other side, so we had to navigate around them and split off to the right. The increase in gradient is apparent straight away even though it has yet to reach its full incline. The tarmac had been freshly laid and was lovely and smooth. This helped our rhythm and tempo. At this point you can see the top and that also gives you a little motivation and encouragement.
The only people we were meeting were in cars or riders that had started their descent. You always give them a glance and sometimes a little wave. If they are confident enough to take a hand off the bars then you may get a wave back. All the while you are looking at them thinking how lucky they are to have completed their task and were now enjoying the fruits of their labour by descending the mountain. It’s funny in a way that you know they were looking at you remembering the suffering that they endured to get to where they are now.
Both of us were heads down, not talking to each other, conserving our remaining strength for the final push. Both taking it in turns to be on the front. There was less than a kilometer remaining and a few sharp switchbacks to contend with. I’m turning each pedal stroke with the buildup of lactic acid stinging my calf and thigh muscles. How long will my energy hold out?
200 meters to go and I am out of the saddle just to add the extra torque to keep moving. If I stopped pedaling I would just fall to one side and not get up for a while. I can see the tiny little platou at the peak. The thin air is burning my lungs. As much as I care about how Iain is getting on, right now all I can focus on is left foot, right foot and fighting the urge to stop and get off. We’re close and I can hear other cyclists encouraging us to push to the finish, which is typical of the attitude in the area. Everybody is in this together.
One last effort and I drag myself up to the top and just slump over the bars.You slowly realise that you have made it and the exhaustion, lack of oxygen and emotion kick in.Iain pulls up beside me and it’s as much as I can manage to lift my arm and fist bump him. As you start to recover you notice how much colder it is at 2600 meters. The top of the climb is pretty small. The road literally bends around a rock and then drops down the other side. There is a small car park that has space for about 10 cars and that is it. But what you have got is a view of the alps that is truly spectacular. You can see for miles around looking over the peaks of the other mountains nearby. You really feel like you are on top of the world.
Some pictures of my previous visits
On reflection we were both really proud of our ride and the achievement of reaching this huge summit. This was Iain’s first time on this type of ascent and I know he was really happy and pleased that we took the time out to attempt it. It is a unique climb and even though he is super fit he has limited experience on a ‘rodie’ and found it a big challenge. We took some photos and then prepared ourselves for the descent.
The Galibier descent is quite tough for a number of reasons, one being that there are several blind corners after longish straights that you have to be careful on. I have always finished it with very achy fingers and wrists from all of the hard braking entering each corner. The tarmac is very smooth for the most part but you have to watch out in other places that are of poorer quality, so you have to remain switched on. Unlike many of the other descents in the area, this one doesn’t have too many sheer drops to worry about so for the nervous descender it’s a chance to let go a little more.
Iain was descending very confidently for a rider that has never faced this kind of drop before. We stuck together down the really steep stuff keeping a reasonable pace but I was champing at the bit to go for it. I gave Iain the nod and I accelerated off. The terrain becomes a bit of a blur. I was passing other descending riders and the ascending climbers look at you with envy of a job completed and the reward underway. I managed to check on Iain a couple of times but after a few minutes I was in a section of the mountain all on my own. There were a few cars and other vehicles to contend with but nothing too crazy.
With about 2/3rds of the descent completed I stopped to wait for Iain to catch up. A couple of the other descenders went past me and then Iain appeared with his head down doing a decent speed. As he whizzed past he said something that made my day. He said ‘I can’t get this smile off of my face!’ Music to my ears. Iain has the buzz and feels the same way as I do about the whole experience. It is something that has become so important in my life that it means an awful lot when others appreciate it.
Here are some of my Strava records for the ride.
We finished the last third together and blasted straight down the Lautaret to the car. Still buzzing we dismantled the bikes, packed up and drove off back to the campsite. Time was of the essence as the roll out for the Tour De France was not far away and we didn’t want to miss the festivities. The race was on.
More details of the rest of the day can be found in this post.
Here are a couple of snaps from the Roll out.
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Thanks for reading.