Fatty Goes to France, Part VI: Alpe d’Huez

09.28.2011 | 10:21 am

A Note from Fatty About the GranFondo Contest: Congratulations to Michael K of Southern California; he and his girlfriend will be getting the full-on deluxe treatment at Levi’s GranFondo this weekend!

I haven’t drawn the other three prizes yet; I’ll do that today. So just because you haven’t heard from me doesn’t mean you haven’t won!

A Note from Fatty to People Who Are Going to The GranFondo: Hey, we should all go to the Armstrong Redwood State Natural Reserve on a hike on Friday afternoon, and maybe go to the Gran LaFonda handmade bicycle show Friday evening. Send me an email so I can put a list together and get ahold of you with the where and when.

A Late Start

The day started rainy. Like, miserably coldly rainily rainy. I was trying to be philosophical about it, though. Trying to tell myself things like, “Well, I knew it would have to rain on at least one of the rides.”

That wasn’t helping, though. The Alpe d’Huez was the most famous of all the rides we’d be doing in this trip, and I wasn’t all that excited about racing riding it in the rain.

Andy announced that we’d start the ride a little later, because the weather report showed that the rain might be slackening — or stopping altogether — within the next hour or so.

And, amazingly, it did. But it was still cold, still looked like it might start raining again, and we had a 2000-ish foot descent from La Grave to get down to Le Bourg d’Oisans, the village at the base of the Alpe d’Huez climb. So we bundled up: Smartwool base layer and and armwarmers, tights, jersey and rain jacket.

The ride plan was actually a little shorter than some of the other days: drop down to Le Boug d’Oisans, climb the Alpe d’Huez, drop down the other side, and then climb back to La Grave.


just 53 miles, with around 7000 feet of climbing.

By the time we got to the village — “the Bourg” as we called it — the sky had cleared. The day had turned warm.

Things were looking much better. We ditched all our cold-weather riding gear in the follow van (having a follow van is the ultimate in cycling luxury).

We were in no hurry to get started on the climb, though. After all, it was (now) a beautiful day, we had a lot of riding ahead of us, may as well relax for a bit.

So here’s The Hammer, relaxing at a cafe:


And here’s Andy Freaking Hampsten, looking at a photo of some famous guy racing the Alpe d’Huez:


And here he is taking a closer look and realizing it’s him:


And here’s me, considering the possibility of glory on the Alpe d’Huez.


Or something like that.

Fighting the Urge

After hanging around for a while — some people bought local jerseys at a bike shop, but The Hammer and I did some currency conversions in our head and got serious sticker shock, and hence bought nothing — it was time to get started.

It was time to climb the Alpe d’Huez. I swear, I got a little tingle just typing that.

After attacking the Mont-du-Chat climb without The Hammer, and then riding the Col-du-Glandon with her, I had pretty much decided that it was more awesome to ride and experience these things together. But as the small group I was riding with — Shawn, Heather, The Hammer, and I — got near the base of the climb, I reconsidered.

“I really want to ride this at my limit,” I told The Hammer.

“I really want to enjoy myself and take pictures,” The Hammer told me.

“Do you mind if I go for it?” I asked.

“Of course not,” she replied. “See you at the top.”

The Climb

I saw the sign that indicated the base of the Alpe d’Huez climb, punched my GPS’s Lap button, and Shawn and I started the climb.

The Hammer took a picture of me as I went.


As far as the climb goes, well, it’s steep. I mean, check out the elevation profile, beginning at about mile 20.


The thing is, though, only the first couple kilometers feel really brutal. After that, the switchbacks come pretty often:


And those switchbacks give you a nice twenty-second reprieve.

Now, the most distinctive — and wonderful, as far as I’m concerned — feature of the Alpe d’Huez is that after the first couple kilometers, the road is painted with names. Everywhere. All the way to the summit.


And since my head was down, looking at the pavement, those painted names were pretty much the only thing I saw.

I didn’t stop for pictures. I didn’t talk with any of the people I passed. I didn’t take a good look at the church on Dutchman’s Corner.

I just rode my heart out. Tried to be as fast as I could possibly be. And, for what it’s worth, I think I did pretty well. I passed dozens — maybe hundreds — of cyclists. Meanwhile, not a single person passed me. Even Shawn dropped off, leaving me to get to the top alone.

Luckily for you, however, The Hammer did take pictures during the climb, and has a much more lucid recollection of it. So you’ll definitely want to read her recap of the day at the end of this post.

The Summit

I looked at each switchback sign — on the Alpe d’Huez, switchbacks are numbered — counting my way to the top.


I was hurting so much. I wanted desperately to get to the top, to finish.

Simultaneously, I didn’t want this climb to end, ever.

Putting in a truly maximum effort does crazy things to your head; the pain is canceled — kind of — by pride in what you’re able to make your body do.


All the way up the climb I read, everywhere “ANDY, ANDY ANDY.” Such was my dementia that for about two thirds of it I thought, “How cool that they’re still honoring Andy Hampsten by painting his name on the road.”

And then I remembered there’s more than one Andy, and mentally facepalmed.

A couple of times during the climb I tried to do mental comparisons to where I normally ride. And to be certain, there are just as demanding — in fact, even more demanding — climbs all around my house.

But there’s something about the celebrity of the Alp d’Huez. Turning yourself inside out where the icons of cycling have turned themselves inside out.

Knowing this was (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, I went harder than I think I could have otherwise.

And then, there was the banner. The finish line. I rode under it, resisting the urge to throw my arms in the air, because there were a lot of people sitting, watching from a nearby outdoor cafe and I didn’t want to look like a fool.

The Summit, Take 2

I stopped, rested for a few minutes. Then I realized:  I had forgotten to stop my stopwatch. So I punched it then. 56 minutes. Minus a few minutes for forgetfulness, so 53-ish minutes or so.

I felt a little bit bad that I had missed my opportunity to get an accurate measurement of my finishing time, but at least I knew that the Alp d’Huez takes, more or less, about the same amount of time it takes to get to the top of the Alpine Loop back home. Which made sense, because the effort and amount of climbing are about the same, too.

Then the thought occurred to me, I should turn around and ride back down to where The Hammer is, and finish riding up with her. I rode down the (surprisingly short) distance to where she was climbing up, and we finished the climb to the Finisher’s banner together.

This time, though, we took pictures. Here’s The Hammer as she approaches:


And here she is, under the banner, asking if I got the shot when she threw her arms up in the air.


The answer, of course, is “no.” I did not get that shot. But she was fine with this one.

Then I handed her the camera so she could get a shot of me going under the banner:


Whoops. Hit the trigger a little soon. So she asked me to go under again.

I complied:


Summit, Take 3

By now, all the people in the outdoor cafe were laughing their heads off at us. I couldn’t understand why. Sure, we were obviously doing touristy photos, but thousands of people probably take this shot at the summit every day, right?

And that’s when Shawn caught up with us and said, “You’re not at the summit yet. That’s another kilometer uphill.”

Oh. In other words:

The little dip you see is where I went downhill to meet The Hammer so I could ride back up with her.

So. We got back on our bikes and rode to where the real summit is. Which does not have a banner, nor a little podium prop like the fake summit. It’s kind of plain, actually.

I contend that the fake summit is more awesome than the real summit of the Alp d’Huez.

Picnic and Back Home

We weren’t done with our riding for the day — far from it, really. We still had a climb of about 600 feet to get to the descent, called “Route Pastorale du Col de Sarenne.”

Which called for a picnic on the summit of the Alpe d’Huez. Here’s me, eating:


And me, getting something else to eat:


And me, eating some more:


Gee, I wonder why my nickname’s “Fatty.”

Next, we rode up to the highest point of the day’s ride, the Vallee du Ferrand:


As we began the descent, I was astonished at how steep sections were, and how long of a descent we were taking. Look at that road winding on and on below us:


My “Every descent implies an ascent” alarm went off inside my head, and I hoped we wouldn’t be descending for too much longer.

Oh, and here I am, somewhere along the descent, holding a giant rock:


By the time we climbed the road back to La Grave and our hotel, I was wiped out. It was only afternoon, but I was ready to eat and then get to bed.

The vacation had settled into a routine: Wake, eat, prep, ride, eat, rest, eat, sleep. There wasn’t much time for anything else. And I couldn’t have been happier.

We had two more days of riding. The final day would be the Col du Galibier.

But the day before that, there would be a disaster.

The Hammer’s Take

Here’s the letter — and photos — The Hammer wrote about our day on the Alpe d’Huez.

Well amazingly the rain abruptly stopped and after breakfast we prepared to descend into the city of Le Bourg d’Osians. This is the gateway city of Alpe d’Huez and home of one of Andy’s favorite bike stores. We bundled up in all of our warm bike gear and raced down the valley to Le Bourg. The temperature was quickly warming up and we didn’t need the warm stuff for long. That is the advantage of having a van following you, you can pick and choose what you want to wear.

Here is Elden contemplating what type of pastry he would like to try before heading out for the monster climb of Alpe d’Huez.


Elden had forewarned me that I would be riding up Alpe d’Huez on my own. He really wanted to ‘pour on the gas’ and see how fast he could climb to the top. He wanted to feel like a pro racer as he switch backed up the road.

I, on the other hand, wanted to take in the experience–take pictures, enjoy the view, etc.

Alpe d’Huez consists of 21 switchbacks and is approximately 8 miles long. Each switchback is labeled with a number and the elevation. It also has a name of a cyclist that won an Alpe d’Huez stage in the Tour de France and the year he won it. It is very helpful as you climb up the mountainside.

Here is a picture of the first few switchbacks.


I was warned that the first 3 switchbacks were extremely steep (10% grade) and after that it mellows back down to a 5-8% grade. I started off with 3 other riders (Elden being one of them) and they quickly dropped me. I didn’t mind, I was enjoying myself. I wasn’t going slow either, there were plenty of other bikers on the road and I was quickly passing them.

After the first few kilometers, the road wasn’t as steep and I really turned on the power. If I was running the RAGNAR, I would have counted the bikers that I passed and would refer to them as “road kill”. If this had been RAGNAR, I would have had over 50 road kill. I was burning up the Alpe d’Huez!


THis is switchback seven, also called Dutch Man’s Corner. You can see the base of the ski resort-”the top” in the saddle of the two hills.


On Dutchman corner, there is a small village-complete with old church and cemetery.

Here I am posing with Andy Hampsten’s switchback sign! Only 5 more switch backs to the top!! Yeah!


The sign says I’ve made it…at least to the closest side of the village. I still have a few kilometers before I reach the top.


I met Elden here. He had made it to the top and returned to ride with me. What a sweet man.

Look at all the switchbacks that I have done…just a few more left


The roads were still painted with encouragement from fans from the last Tour of France. Too bad my name is not Andy or Frank or Alberto!


Yeah! Elden takes the stage! But not really….This is a fake finish line to get you to stop in the village and buy a beer. The top is still a few kilometers to go!


It’s Lisa who Wins the mountain top finish of the Alpe d’Huez! We celebrated by drinking the most expensive coke of our lives…4 euros for a can of coke! ($6).


The descent down the back side of the Alpe d’Huez actually started off with a 600 ft climb! The road was pretty messed up too. It had big cobblestone trenches built into the road to help with drainage. It made for a vey hairy descent once we hit the real top!  

Elden starting the switch backs down the back side of the mountain:


Taking in the view:


One of the many mountain lakes we passed on the return trip to La Grave. The water is a peculiar bluish green!


The water from the glaciers and snow come rushing off the rugged mountain sides!


Now we’re about to head out on today’s ride — it’s supposed to be an easier day, since tomorrow we ride the Col du Galibier — another famous Tour de France stage!


  1. Comment by BIKING JIM | 09.28.2011 | 10:41 am

    WOW, thank you my god those pictures are beautiful and I cant wait until I can have my own. Some day maybe we’ll share stories, until then those pics are absolutly breathtaking. Thanks again- Biking Jim

  2. Comment by davidh-marin,ca | 09.28.2011 | 11:01 am

    What, no picture of the Pastry?? Great write up of the adventure.

    When does the ‘coffee table’ book come out so we can get a copy? May I suggest a title; ‘My French Bicycle Trip’ because I think we were all there with you.

    THE HAMMERS(sorry cant do the color thing) letters have been a welcome addition to the story, a cultured perspective oft needed in this blog.

  3. Comment by Chris | 09.28.2011 | 11:03 am

    Fatty, great series. Making me very jealous.

    Do you use a Garmin? Have you tried Strava? It sounds perfect for your competitive spirit. Strava allows you to create a segment (like the climb up Alpe D’Huez) even if you didn’t set a lap. And if someone created a climb segment, it matches your GPS to that climb automatically.

    And no, I am not getting paid by Strava…

    I do use a Garmin, but I haven’t tried Strava. Lotsa people saying good things about it, though. I’ll have to look into it. – FC

  4. Comment by Clydesteve | 09.28.2011 | 11:10 am

    Fatty you neglected to mention your time to the real top of the Alpe. Or is it too painful to recount after all the fooling around at the false top?

  5. Comment by Brian in VA | 09.28.2011 | 11:12 am

    I find myself living my life vicariously through you, Fatty! Thanks for going for it up Alpe D’huez! That’s exactly what I would have….a lot slower….and with less style.

  6. Comment by Ingriddeke | 09.28.2011 | 11:14 am

    Riding this mountain is on my wishlist. In my homecountry The Netherlands there is an organization that organizes Alp D’Huzes every year. That means that dutch riders climb the Alpe D’Huez 6!!!!!! times on the same day to raise money for cancer-research. This year they raised 20 million Euro. Their motto is: giving up is not an option!!!!! http://www.opgevenisgeenoptie.nl/ One day I hope to ride this moutain myself to support the fight against cancer. You do a great job raising money for the fight against cancer and I admire you for that. I read about all the people who got the Fatty Gear already. Mine is still somewhere between the US and Europe. Can’t wait to wear it with pride.

    That would be the coolest event ever. I would love to be part of that. – FC

  7. Comment by LauraS | 09.28.2011 | 11:35 am

    Another endorsement of Strava. I think it’s awesome. It ranks you against others doing the same segments, and you can filter by age group or weight class. Since there’s not that many women signed up, it makes me look pretty fast!

  8. Comment by roan | 09.28.2011 | 11:36 am

    Again a great posting, luv the pics. I would have skipped the $6 can of Coke (don’t drink that stuff anyway). What do they charge for water ?
    The HAMMER…road kills, I need to start using that term. Maybe not, I might be dealing with negative numbers.
    So has your riding in Alpine, UT improved since your return ?

    We haven’t ridden on the road since we got home from France. Literally, not a single time. Autumn is for MTB in these parts. Soon enough the trails will be muddy or snowy and we won’t be able to do anything BUT road biking. – FC

  9. Comment by davidh-marin,ca | 09.28.2011 | 12:43 pm

    “That would be the coolest event ever. I would love to be part of that. – FC”

    Already he’s planning his return.

  10. Comment by John Doe | 09.28.2011 | 12:54 pm

    Forgive me father for I have sinned…I’ve come to realize I read Fat Cyclist to catch a fleeting glimpse of The Hammer. Please forgive me.

  11. Comment by SteveS | 09.28.2011 | 12:57 pm

    I have a new-found respect for the Alpine Loop. I had no idea it’s climb was comparable to the Alpe d’Huez. But which side? AF or Provo canyon?

    BTW, I’m totally jealous of this trip–I used to live and work in Chambéry and Aix-les-Bains, but wasn’t into cycling back then and didn’t know what I was missing living so near such great riding opportunities. Cheers.

  12. Comment by skippy | 09.28.2011 | 1:11 pm

    Glad that @ingriddeke confirmed my earlier comment on the ” 6 climb Cancer Fund raiser ” ! Problem for me is that this event it is usually done by ” Sponsored teams ” who have donated a minimum of 50000euros ! Great entertainment at top and bottom all day and some of the Teams really lay on their Hospitality so how the racers manage 6 climbs defies my effort !
    Late that afternoon i came across an English tour group that transited thru the tunnel from La Grave and the rutting in the dark caused one to crash with CB and other complications necessitating a visit to Grenoble .
    THanks for the official website for ” Alpe d’Sueze ” and i hope that ” Team Fatty ” decides to put a team together for Mid June each year .

  13. Comment by Christina | 09.28.2011 | 1:22 pm

    Life is way too short to not throw your arms up under the finish line (even if it was false). Never ever worry what people who live across the globe or across town will think.

    This has been so awesome to read!

  14. Comment by AngieG | 09.28.2011 | 1:30 pm

    For all the Fatty’s coming to the Fondo, please make sure you stop by the You’ve been dropped line in registration and say Hi!!!

    If you need anything while your here, please feel free to look me up.

    Looking forward to seeing you all in a few days!!

  15. Comment by AngieG | 09.28.2011 | 1:48 pm

    @Justin L- email me and I will mail your Fondo goodie bag and T shirt to you. angie@bikemonkey.net

  16. Comment by Dustin | 09.28.2011 | 1:56 pm

    This ride is definitely on my to-do list. Hardest “long” climb I have done is the road up to Sierra Blanca in Ruidoso, NM (up to Ski Apache), oh and the Tour das Hugel in Austin, TX; stick around after the LAF Challenge and try it :).

    For comparison what equivalent time does it take the pro’s to cover the same 53′ish minutes?


  17. Comment by AngieG | 09.28.2011 | 2:12 pm

    @David-Marin- I have been very busy working with the rest of the amazing Bike Monkey staff ensuring all you Fondo riders are well taken care of.

    Sorry I didn’t get a chance to respond to your post from a few days ago until now. If the Fatty’s want to get together, I can see if maybe Mary’s Pizza Shack (downtown SR) would work. Check with FC and email me at angie@bikemonkey.net

    See you in a few days.

  18. Comment by davidh-marin,ca | 09.28.2011 | 2:20 pm

    @angieG You’ve been busy? I thought you knocked out this kind of stuff before lunch.

    Fatty- I think Angie is offering a place to show your ’slides’.
    I’m cleaning the basement (yes some houses in California have basements) and will get back soon to you.

  19. Comment by GenghisKhan | 09.28.2011 | 2:57 pm

    Hey Mr. Fatty,

    Thanks for the pics and write up. It’s nice to see a local (Utha County) comparison for the Alpe d’Huez. If you get a hankerin, you should post comparitive stats for the climbs you did against the Alpine Loop; e.g. distance, elevation gain, steepest grade, etc.

    Thanks and happy trails!

  20. Comment by Patrick #4091 | 09.28.2011 | 3:24 pm

    Fatty, that’s a bloody good time from what I’ve heard for getting up Alpe d’Huez, well done!

  21. Comment by Justin L | 09.28.2011 | 4:02 pm

    I sent you an email, you are awesome. I love everyone here. I also got my fat cyclist gear today, love the hidden message!!!!! Now i am in on it too……..

  22. Comment by Dustin | 09.28.2011 | 4:49 pm

    After looking it up on wiki it appears Greg Lemond is only 5 minutes faster the fatty :) –


    Not sure if your time was measured over the same distance or not.

  23. Comment by Bryan (not that one) | 09.28.2011 | 5:41 pm

    What did you do with your bike tires from the trip? I think I would frame them with a sign: These tires were ridden by Fatty on Alpe d’Huez. You may even still have some Alpe d’Huez chalk/paint embedded in the rubber. In the center of the frame put one or more pictures from the ride.

  24. Comment by Joe L. | 09.28.2011 | 10:30 pm

    YASUH (Yet Another Strava User Here)…. please use it. Ditch that POS (you know what that one means) Garmin Connect website. Uploading this ride to Strava will be really cool because you will immediately be able to compare your ascent up Alpe d’Huez to any other Strava user who has climbed it.

  25. Comment by Mike Jacoubowsky | 09.28.2011 | 11:21 pm

    Great rides! Next time you visit Alpe d’Huez, you’ve got to check out D219 across the valley. You’ve seen it as you’ve climbed Alpe D’Huez; it’s that scar along the side that disappears into long tunnels. My son and I did the ride just prior to riding up Alpe d’Huez the day of the TdF.DSCF8442_cliff.jpg. Incredible 6 mile climb, with two long unlit tunnels, literally carved into the side of the mountain. All to serve a village of 15 at the top. Only in France! –Mike–

  26. Comment by skippy | 09.29.2011 | 12:58 am

    Photo from the Dutch Cancer Fund raiser on Alp d’Huez in June 2011AlpD’Huzesand handbikes

  27. Comment by Paul Guyot | 09.29.2011 | 7:02 am

    Showed this post to Bucky…

    “Dad, we HAVE to go ride that. I want to see if I can beat 53 minutes.”

    “I think it’d be more fun to go slow and take pictures and stuff.”

    “Why would anyone would want to go slow up Alpe d’Huez?”

    Bucky and Fatty – cut from the same lycra.

  28. Comment by Dave T | 09.29.2011 | 9:43 am

    What a great post on a fantastic day, I love the pictures.
    Good luck to everyone going to the Fondo this weekend. We wish we could come but, Rob is having trouble on the trike and I need to make some more changes before we attempt another long ride. Maybe next year.

  29. Comment by Rich | 09.29.2011 | 1:02 pm

    ummmm… Leaving us hanging on the “disaster”??? Is that how you repay your loyal readers? Harrrummph, I say to you, harrrumph.

    Awesome post.

  30. Comment by GJ Jackie | 09.30.2011 | 2:54 pm

    @Paul Guyot and Bucky: “Why would anyone want to go slow up Alpe d’Huez?” PRICELESS!

  31. Comment by SteveS | 10.1.2011 | 10:40 pm

    This post inspired me to do the Alpine Loop today. I went up the Provo Canyon side in 51:23. Gotta love the AL!


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