Second trip to the Alps
In 2014 I came to the Alps the day after the Tour De France had departed Yorkshire. It rained from the first night in Geneva., only brightening on the morning I was leaving. Most of the time it was impossible to see more than a few hundred yards. It was also cold, with snow on the Iseran. I felt I had to do it again.
I arrived in Geneva on Saturday afternoon in the middle of a heatwave. I managed to carry my box and panniers from the station to the hotel. The train trip is free whereas the taxi fares were 50 euro plus. I arrived dripping with sweat, a state I would be in for much of the week. In the evening I went to an area called the Carouge which was very pretty but low key. I had an excellent meal at the cafe De Marché. Particularly good was an artichoke stuffed with green beans and smoked duck.
Geneva to Beaufort – 105km – 1815m ascent
I set off from Geneva at about 8.30 the following day on a busy road as far as Annemasse. At that point I was due to pick up quieter roads but unfortunately the D2 had been dug up. Instead I took the D1006 to Bonneville. From there the journey became more scenic. The road climbs slowly through a deep gorge before moving into more mountainous terrain. I stopped at La Clusaz for lunch and then pressed on to the Col de Aravis. There had been a steady stream of cars going past me and the col itself was packed. From here the traffic thinned out.
It is a quick descent to Fiumet where the climbing starts again. I filled my water bottles again as the afternoon heat reached its height. My Garmin registered 102F. The descent from the top of Col de Salsices was like being put under a hair dryer.
I arrived is Beaufort at about 5pm and stayed at the hotel De Gran Mont, which was typically French, with no English spoken and blankets on the bed. It was also typical that the local restaurant, La Table du Berger, was very good with a very reasonable menu.
Beaufort to Val d’Isere – 71kms – 2322m ascent
I had climbed the Cormet De Roseland in filthy weather four years ago and had still been impressed. This time the weather was beautiful and having set off quite early the temperature was fine. The first part is mainly wooded but when you reach the reservoir it opens up into a grand mountain scape.
There is a fine 8 mile descent to Bourg Saint Maurice where I stopped for a sandwich. By this point the day was very hot, so I filled up again with water.
The ride up to Val d’Isere was the least enjoyable part of the trip. It's a busy road with a lot of trucks. At 30kms long, in boiling heat, and nowhere obvious to stop along the way, it turned into a slog. I was worried about running out of water but managed to get a refill from a workplace.
For all the attempts to market it as a summer resort, Val d'Isere was quite empty, with a lot of hotels and restaurants closed. My hotel, the Bellier, was pleasant and I had a decent if quite expensive meal at La Baraque. The evening was cooler with some rain. I watched the Japan Belgium match with some excited Belgians, which made it more enjoyable.
Val d’Isere to Saint Michel de Maurienne – 90km – 1394m ascent
I set off at 8.30 up the Iseran. Breaking at Val d’Isere gave me the opportunity to enjoy the 12km to the summit. It was fairly quiet, with great views back down the valley. Having reached the summit, I saw skiers still using the glacier. It was amazing to think that the road had only opened the week before. The temperature had melted nearly all of the snow.
The descent from Iseran to Bonneval was one of the highlights of the trip. I stopped at Bonneval for a sandwich, after which the road is less dramatic but still very scenic. For the one and only time during the ride, the clouds gathered. I stopped for an ice cream and there was a brief downpour, which I managed to avoid. Rather than following the valley floor road, as in 2014 I took the panoramic route to Modane, this time with the bonus of being able to see. It’s a lovely route with almost no traffic.
At Modane I had no option but to rejoin the main road, which was very busy due to the closure of the motorway. There is a hard shoulder for cyclists but trucks hurtling by at 100kph isn’t much fun, so I covered the distance as fast as I could.
I stayed at the Marintan, which was a very friendly hotel, well set up for cyclists. Saint Maurienne, like a number of valley alpine towns, seem out of keeping with its surroundings, dominated by a busy narrow road. The eating options were very limited and I ended up in a no choice small restaurant having a homemade lasagne at Chez Karine. In the evening it rained very hard but I was safely back in the hotel watching England beat Columbia on penalties.
Saint Michel de Maurienne to Alpe d'Huez – 93kms – 3318m ascent
The ride to Alpe d'Huez was always going to be the toughest part of the tour and so it proved. I went steadily up the Col de Telegraph and then refilled with water at Valloire. Whereas Iseran had few cyclists on it, by the time I reached Galibier the road was full of people doing the ride. I tend to prefer more isolated roads but there is no denying the grandeur of the climb.
The Col was packed with people stopping for the obligatory photo in front of the sign. The descent to Col is dramatic and then levels, following the valley floor. I stopped to eat in Graves and refilled my bottles. By mid afternoon it was extremely hot and this began to affect me.
Unfortunately the minor road which avoids the tunnels was closed but I wasted some effort trying to find it. As planned, I rode up the Col de Sarenne, rather than continue on the valley road. The start of the climb is steep and had no shade, so was exhausting. I filled my bottles again in a café in a small village. The road is very beautiful and had virtually no traffic. Not a single cyclist went by me. Having climbed Alpe d’Huez a few years ago, this is a much more attractive and enjoyable route.
Despite having filled up my bottles, I ran out of water at the very top of the climb and was parched with thirst doing the last few miles into Alpe d’Huez. Busier than Val d'Isere, nevertheless it still felt out of season. The hotel, Le Chaix, closed overnight and required a passcode to get in. I had a reasonable meal in the village, although I could not eat outside as it rained again.
Alpe d’Huez to Grenoble – 102km – 1189m ascent
The final day was planned to be a bit easier but was also the only one with a deadline, as I wanted to get the direct train back to Geneva. I left at 8 without breakfast and headed down Alpe d’Huez. Even at that time in the morning there were plenty of cyclists climbing it. The ride continued over the Col d'Ornan. The climb is quite gentle and was peaceful at that time of the day. Having descended it, I finally stopped for breakfast at Le Perier.
I followed the D26 to take me to La Mure, which looked like a pretty town in which I would have stopped had I had more time. I then took the D529, which is quiet and whilst without the drama of the previous days, very scenic.
A ride through Champagnier, avoids taking the main road into Grenoble, and brought me to the outskirts of the town. Designated roads and cycle lanes then took me all the way to the station. I made it with bags of time to spare.
Having arrived back at my hotel in Geneva, the Ibis Centre Gare, when I asked for my bike box, they discovered that someone at the hotel had mistakenly thrown it out. The manager was clearly mortified. I explained that sometimes bike shops might keep boxes if they had deliveries and he phoned around, tracked one down and then made a one and half hour round trip journey to collect one. This, of course, made my appreciation greater than had they not made the mistake in the first place.
In the evening I ate at the Café des Bains, which was expensive but very good. It rained once more in the evening.
Return and Final Thoughts
My flight the next day was not until 2pm, so I had a chance to wander around the old town in the morning, before retracing my journey by foot and train to the airport.
It was a great cycling trip, with many unforgettable roads, in pretty much perfect weather during the days. Given the cycling pedigree too, it feels a must-do trip. Later in July, I was able to watch the Tour climb the Cormet and finish on Alpe d’Huez. The negative is not the cycling but the quality of the towns which punctuated the trip, which, with the exception of Beaufort, lack for charm. This may not be important to some but is to me. That said, it will not deter me from returning to the area at some point, such is the draw of the roads.