St. Jean de Maurienne-St. Michel de Maurienne-Col de la Telegraphe-Valloire-Col de la Galibier-Col de la Lauteret-Briancon-Col de la Izoard-Guillestre
77.3 miles 11,431' climbing
We awoke to deep blue skies, totally calm winds, and the day would prove to be just a little cooler than the past few.
Technically, it was a four col day, but we joined the Lauteret at the top. First off, we went up the Col de la Telegraphe, which many think of as just a prelude to the Galibier, but it is a separate climb. Coming off of the Telegraphe, one descends some three miles to the village of Valloire, which is where the Galibier starts. Total climbing for the two cols is 6900', with just the three mile break.
The Telegraphe spiraled up through the trees, and after approximately 3000’ of climbing, we reached the top and the nice views to be found from there.
The Galibier is a huge climb, and one that you wish would never end. It’s easy to understand why the Galibier, along with the Tourmalet, and the Alpe du Huez, are the three most famous cols of the Tour de France. In a nutshell, the Galibier was absolutely, incredibly awesome.
Out of Valloire, the Galibier starts climbing up through a long and deep valley, initially at about a 9% grade. Then the road just goes up, and up, and up, and it was almost totally devoid of cars. It was a perfect climb on which to listen to my iPod Shuffle, although at times I turned it off to hear the wind whistle through the trees, and the water rush down the stream that paralleled the road.
As you approach the end of the valley, you can look up and see where the real climb to the col begins. It kind of reminded me of riding on the North Cascade Highway from East to West. After you pass by Mazama, at one point you can look up to the right, and see a series of long hairpins that climb to the top. It was as such with the Galibier, and once I was in those hairpins looking down, I recognized the view. In the Tour, they always use the camera angle looking down from the hairpins, usually from a breakaway back to the peloton. I remember the shot of Vinokourov (cheater), with the camera looking over his shoulder, as he took note of his lead during the 2005 tour. From TV, I also recognized the café at the junction of the Galibier descent and the top of the Col de la Lauteret. We had a stop sign, but the tour riders go through a fast left hand sweeper that starts them on the road down to the town of Briancon.
About halfway up through the many hairpins, we encountered a magazine shoot featuring a number of professional motorcyclists. They were photographing the riders on sportbikes at extreme lean angles through the turns, and we saw the motorcyclists practicing the line through each turn before they barreled through it at high speed. Imagine the hoops you would have to jump through to (legally) pull this off in the US! As I was crawling up at less than 10mph, it made for a nice contrast, and there was never enough traffic to cause any problem at all.
At our lunch stop in Briancon, we were approached by a couple from South Carolina. Tim and I wanted to get back on the bikes before the heat built, but we chatted on with the friendly couple. They sounded very envious of what Tim and I were up to.
The Izoard started off relatively mildly with a tailwind and moderate grades, but it had a very hard, steep and long finish. The climb totaled around 3700’, and was yet another HC rated ascent.
On the Izoard, I didn’t use the Shuffle, as it was a metaphysical experience just riding the bike. Once again, with no cars, the only sounds were those of the wind and rushing water.
As long as the climb to the top of the Galibier had been, it was still astounding just how long the descent was. Basically, we rode downhill all the way to Briancon, a distance of 35km (22 miles). Dropping off of the Col de la Izoard, the first thing we noticed was just how much more arid it was on the south side. We were still a ways from the Alps Maritime, but already signs were evident.
The Izoard featured the smoothest road we had yet encountered, which made for a super fast descent, and the entire climb had a bike lane, not that it was needed, at least on this day. Maybe it was the afternoon heat, but I would see a sign showing a 6% grade for the next kilometer, and it would feel like 9%. Then I’d see a 9% sign, and it would feel like 6%!
It was truly an incredible day. The views from both the Galibier and Izoard were just stupendous. From the top of the Galibier, you could see approx. 100 miles to Mt. Blanc, the summit of which is the highest in Continental Europe at 15,774’ (4808m).
We had decided in the advance planning stage to go over the Col de Vars in the car, rather than add another col to a very hard day. It’s a good thing, because we wound up with a 1.5 hour construction delay.
Barcelonnette is a French town with a little bit of Mexican history, and as such, they play up the theme with Mexican restaurants and architecture. It seemed a little strange to be eating Mexican after so many days of Italian and French, but it was a nice change of pace.