l'Alpe d'Huez Mountain Biking

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Holiday on Ice

Kate flies past, carving turns on the hard piste. I follow in her wake, particles of ice momentarily rest on my glasses before melting. We catch a solitary skier on the track back to the village. I shift down, low gears to cope with the surface. Over the bumps I get some air and I'm past. The skier stops in a plume of snow. Yanking off his goggles he shouts after us. "hey, it's the wrong time of year for MTBing!" A snow banked turn and we are out of ear shot. In the deep gorge frozen footprints turn the snow into a giant washboard. Kate's suspension slurps up the ruts, my bottom tries the same trick, somewhat less successfully. Here the only sound is the beat of our tires on the hard snow. The track crosses a river, still flowing in the unseasonally mild weather. Mist hangs over the surface turning the low sun a waxy yellow. Care is needed as the damp air forms unseen ice on the snow. Descending, the pine trees slowly lose their winter coat and the track turns into hard packed sand. Climbing the 100 yards to Huez we are surrounded by stone houses that stand before the last few hairpins of the most famous climb in cycle racing. But the skyline is dominated by a view unseen by Tour de France competitors. In the distance the vast snow covered mountains of the Oisans sit silhouetted in the afternoon sun. A sea of cloud covers the valley. We feel like the gods themselves. Maybe it's not the correct time of year to be out on a bike. But the first rule of Mountain Biking is that there ain't no rules.

I don't care what anybody says, something fundamental separates us Anglo-Saxons from our European friends. The French live by the seasons. Perhaps it has something to do with their medieval farming (or medieval toilets). Mountain Biking is a summer sport, it's one of those tablets of stone things. The suggestion of a bike trip in the mountains on New Year's day is about a welcome as a bottle of warm wine. It's just not done, except by those crazy British types! No matter that in our topsy-turvey weather the sun god has shone long and hard the last few winters.

It was in this climate that we booked a Christmas ski/drive holiday with one of the ferry companies. We'd decided on l'Alpe d'Huez, more because of the links with cycling history than for the skiing. However some English friends had reported excellent snow conditions in November. A quick call to the tourist information confirmed the good quality of the pistes, "weef a big dump expected at zee weekend". Despite these reports we decided to chuck the mountain bikes in the back of the car, we had the room and they would be useful for getting about the village.

As we drove along the new autoroute to Dijon (by-passes Paris and blockading lorry drivers) the sun appeared and grew steadily stronger. We stopped overnight in Beaune, the capital of Burgundy wine. This is one of the few historic centres in France that hasn't been trashed by miles of concrete hypermarkets and bill boarding. The cobbled streets are also a good test for anyone who got some shocks in their Christmas stocking. Sunday's leg down to Bourg d'Oisans took just over 4 hours and avoided the previous day's 90 mile tailback from Lyon to the Alps. Be warned, Saturday is the normal changeover day at ski resorts and horrendous queues into the tight mountain passes are normal. After Bourg a left begins the climb of the famous 21 hairpins to the ski village. Pasture, pine woods and rock face greeted every turn. The village, which had looked halfway attractive in the brochure, appeared like an inner city housing project juxtaposed on the mountain side. Still at this level (1850m) there was snow on the slopes.

Dawn broke clear and sunny. The chairlifts creaked into action and we headed for the pistes. It was bitterly cold sitting on the lifts. The snow on the 3100m Pic Blanc was like an ice rink tilted at 30 degrees. I tried to imagine the route taken by the summer MTB race. Competitors are ferried up to the thin air by cable car. The cyclists then descend over summer snow, scree and ski trail to the valley below. The best, or most reckless, cover the 2400 metres of elevation in under an hour, the worst take three. But for now one fall could mean bruised or broken bones. Lower down the slopes were patchy, summer brooks still flowed and sheep bleated at passing skiers. Contrary to wishful thinking by the Tourist Office the last snow had fallen on the 11th of December and so it would continue until mid February.

That evening we studied the piste plan. We'd noticed a number of tracks that day and managed to locate some of them. One route started at Huez village and followed the course of the Sarenne river through a pine forested gorge. Chocolate box stuff.

The skiers had already been on the pistes for an hour when we breakfasted. Like us, the mid-winter sun gets up late and the thin air is decidedly chilly `til ten. We stowed the skis in the cellar and headed out on our bikes. They'd spent the night indoors, locked to a pipe. One thing we knew, be it weather, terrain or people you can never be too careful on holiday.

The road down to Huez was snow and ice free. The road maintenance and constant traffic keep it this way except when snow is falling. On one bend a Volkswagen was concertinered into the cliff face. Probably a victim of the French love of overtaking on corners. A crowd of Gendarmes stood around the wreck smoking Gaulloise.

Huez is the original village, consisting largely of traditional stone farmhouses. Agriculture was always at subsistence levels and in the past starvation in winter was an ever present threat. Today the farmers work the ski-lifts but despite the apparently high prices, the short season and high capital investment make living precarious. The battles between rival villages over land and lifts make Dallas look like kid's stuff. In the next valley the village of Oz came into some compensation money after a valley was flooded to form a reservoir. Without seeking planning permission they started to build an attractive valley resort with a cable car link to Huez's pistes. This would end the monopoly on the mountain side and the new resort would be nearer Grenoble. An injunction was sought. The mayor of Oz, realising that existence is 9/10th of the law, ordered the engineers to work faster. Too fast. On the 13th of January 1989 the cable car link to the Pic Blanc collapsed, killing the engineers on board. The ski resort is now completed but arguments over ticket prices continue. From the car parking at Huez a pleasant track leads to the Auberge Coombe Haute. This is part of Grande Randonee 54, which runs from Grenoble to Briançon. Marked as a cross country ski piste there hasn't been enough snow in the last few years for to practise this sport. The track forks after half a mile, the right fork crossing a stream. Riders should continue up the left hand side to the Auberge. The other track is partially used by skiers returning to the village. The Auberge is a good point to stop for a snack. Here onwards you will encounter the occasional skier until you reach the road back to the village.

Another good route to follow is the Sarenne road from l'Alpe d'Huez past Les Berger's car-park. You can then climb the snowy hairpins to the Hotel at the Mine d'Herpie. Alternatively carry on to the foot of the Col de Sarenne. A track leads up to the Col du Cluy and a wonderful view of the sparkling glaciers and craggy peaks of Deux Alpes. At Cluy we met a couple of young policemen on ski patrol from Auris. They were amazed to see two mountain bikers in the snow. We chatted for twenty minutes, they were doing their national service and had chosen ski duty instead of the Army. The officers claimed to be looking for people starting fires, a problem normally associated with dry Provence. Parting they told us they would try their patrols on MTB the next day.

The fit can descend down to Auris and along a balcony road to La Grave. The road cuts through the rockface in many tunnels and is peppered with stones dislodged by freeze thaw action. The road back from La Grave avoids the steeper sections of the Tour de France climb but still takes the better part of an hour.

In winter it's also possible to climb to the 1st cable car station above the village (in summer you can climb as far as the Dome de Petite Rousses at 2808m). You should follow the track used by the snow mobiles. Beyond a loop takes you down to the calm of Lac Carrelet and a sunny chalet with stunning views of the mountains.

Nothing special is needed for snow biking. Indeed the world mountain bike speed record of was set on a standard bike on a ski piste. As with other winter sports, extremities can get cold. Best to wear thick socks, gloves and a hat. However the winter sun is warm, thermal leggings and cycle shorts coupled with a sweatshirt and windproof top will keep the body warm. Factor 12 sports type sun cream is essential as are good wrap around shades (Hey, you gotta look cool). Knobbly mountain bike tires have an amazing amount of grip in the snow, the problem is on ice. Water is a lubricant for rubber and while the ice itself isn't slippery the pressure of a bike tire melts a tiny surface layer of water. The result is lethal. There are two solutions for ice-biking. Chains and studded tires. I've used chains but the extra width tends to interfere with the frame and brakes. Studded tires (IRC Blizzard) and chains are sold commercially but can be quite hard to find. However winter tires can be made quite easily. You will need a couple of old MTB tires and several hundred short self tapping screws. These should just be long enough to leave a few millimeters exposed when screwed from the inside out through the knobbles. Leave a centre track of rubber for riding on tarmac. Riders competing in the Alpine Ice-Bike series use a regulation 250 screws per tire. However a lower number will suffice, you just need to ensure that there will always be a couple of points in contact with the ice. Once finished the inside of the tire (the screw heads) should be covered with thick gaffer tape to prevent punctures. For our trip we just used normal tires. In any case a well fitted helmet should be worn at all times. Trying to rent a mountain bike (French VahTayTah or Velo Tout Terrain) in the resorts is difficult. Normally you will be told "c'est pas la saison". It's not the right time of year. We heard this all over the village despite the obvious lack of snow outside the window. A month and no snow later we were told that half the shops had started winter rentals saying, "Winter biking is great". Like downhill skiing inspired by the British.

Not all resorts favour winter biking. Deux Alpes (Alp is French for pasture) just across the valley from d'Huez has some great summer routes but the shallow slopes suitable for the winter are all high up and no lift operator will let you take a bike in season. What you need is a resort which offers ski de fond (cross country skiing) and winter walking from the village. The many villages of La Plagne are criss-crossed by miles of shallow trail. Meribel in the Trois Valleys also has possibilities, whereas in resorts such as Chamonix and Val Thorens you will be restricted by the steep valley walls. During the day you should avoid ski pistes proper although traffic will be lowest between midday and two when most skiers are sunning themselves in bars. Stick to the routes used by snow-buggies and walkers. After the lifts close some on piste fun can be had, especially where there are mogul fields! But watch it, the snow freezes rapidly after sunset and piste preparation machines are best avoided.

If you stay outside of the resorts Gites de France in Grenoble (Tel: 00 33 01 04 76 40 79 40) offer good value chalets and converted farm houses. If you have a car you can stay a little way out of the resort in more traditional and less expensive surroundings. The most convenient airports with International connections are Lyon and Geneva. The French TGV express train now goes as far as Grenoble with a journey time of 3 hours from Paris. From the Gare Routier at Grenoble there is a regular bus service to l'Alpe d'Huez.

In our six day stay we pretty much covered the resort, both on bike and on skis. The skiing was miserable but the biking was another experience altogether. Just seeing the surprised looks of the skiers and winter walkers was worth it. All the people we met reacted positively to the idea of snow biking, but then we didn't go barging into areas reserved for people who'd come to enjoy (or suffer) winter sports. The bikes let us get away from the crowded resort and beyond the range of walkers. It's an unforgettable experience, alone with a bike on a snow covered mountain track. Winter MTB'ing possibilities at l'Alpe d'Huez.

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