Col de la Sarenne; an “Audax Fail” but a “Touring Success”

After our late afternoon / early evening ride of Alpe d’Huez the day before, Suzanne opted for a day by the pool in the sunshine and left me to choose my own ride for the day.  I had in my possession a Brevet Card and route instructions for a 50km (56km) Permanent Audax, “Alpe d’Huez Circuit“, so the morning’s riding had clear instructions to follow and a chance to complete my second Audax ride.

It was a beautiful clear sunny morning, cool and yet with a promise of warmth.  I set off again on the D1091 from Rochetaillée to Bourg d’Oisans but this time stopped in at the Tourist Information for a timed stamp and signature.  As this doesn’t open until 9am it was 9:15am when I set off again to the base of Alpe d’Huez for the second time in two days.  As I passed the 0km mark for the timed climbs I glanced at my cycle computer and noted that it was 9:25am, and then I set off at a steady pace.  For the climb I kept between 9kph and 10kph which felt hard but not impossible and allowed me to watch the scenery unfold while still requiring a constant effort.  No time for photos on this climb as I focused on the breathing and pedal action.  I had been reading Obree’s training book, “The Obree Way” and was thinking about my breathing in through the nose and trying to pedal in circles.  It worked really well, pulling up on the pedals is difficult when you first try it, but after a bit of practice it becomes part of pedaling as a whole and just one section of the pedal stroke.  Instead of just pedaling down at the front of each stroke, include a forward motion at the top of the stroke and before long you are spinning instead of pedaling.  I’m sure others could explain this better… Graeme Obree does in his book.

As I passed under the “Arrivée” sign marking the end of the timed section I glanced down and saw 10:35am; I had a 70 minute climb under my belt – so Marco Pantani was twice as fast as me!

After a drink a gaining a control stamp from the bar I set off on the rest of the curcuit, assuming that Alpe d’Huez was the highest and hardest part of the climb.  A lesson to look at the map in more detail in future!

From the resort I rode the wrong way along a one-way street up a short sharp incline to reach a school area, the top of the resort and the airport.  I couldn’t believe how much more there was above the resort as yesterday we’d turned round and kept facing the direction of the valley.  From this direction the mountains opened out and I was struggling to cycle more than 50m without stopping to take another photograph.

More mountains behind the resort

Not a runway I’d be happy landing on.

The route down into Gorge de la Sarenne

Across the Gorge de la Sarenne

The road surface was much more English than the playground which is Alpe d’Huez.  The road is a narrow singletrack road, with gravel and an uneven lumpy surface so I took care and used the brakes, pulsing them to keep my speed right down and picking my way along the road.  The reward was stunning scenery though, and I felt like I’d found something no one else knew about (apart from Audaxers).  There was not another other cyclist on this road and I descended to the bridge at the top of the gorge where I became a little disorientated.  I thought that there would be no significant climbing but the road down the gorge didn’t look like a proper place to cycle and the road that carried on went significantly up.  Finally I spotted a small walker’s sign which indicated that Col de la Sarenne was indeed higher up the road.  I smiled and cycled on.  This was still not a steep climb and the road surface wasn’t too bad, eventually I came up to the brow of the road and met a fellow cyclist right at the top coming the other way.  “Bonjour, parlez vous Anglais?” I asked.  “Of course mate” he replied.  We talked briefly about the climbing in each direction and he took a photo for me.

At the top of Col de la Sarenne, 1999m
Looking at the map later I saw that although the Tour finish line is 1,860m the resort is slightly lower and the Col de la Sarenne is 1999m, so I had done quite a bit more climbing to get here, but it was worth it.  The isolation, the views, the fresh air – it was beautiful.
Setting off on the descent I had to be very very careful.  The road was still narrow but the surface was much worse this side of the Col and there were some rocks too.  If it wasn’t for the heat and sunshine this would pass for a North Yorkshire Moors descent.  But much much longer.  The hairpins are still flat, but there is a lot less room.

The road snakes away and down very quickly.

The roof of this house was dented by the rock – although I suspect the rock was here first.  Scary to think it might have rolled there after the house was built.

Brilliant isolation.
As I dropped further I started to find villages and tourist attractions and then the road surface started to smooth out and the hairpins ceased so I was able to pick up speed safely.  I also noticed more and more riders coming up to Col de la Sarenne this way.  I think they had a harder climb than me, but their descent down Alpe d’Huez was going to be a lot easier.  I was looking for “Deux Junction”, which according to the route sheet was the location for my next control.  Unfortunately I didn’t check the Brevet card which had the control listed as Lac du Chambon.  So I shot through Chambon and it’s lovely cafe’s thinking I was behind schedule and miles from home.  Here was where I failed to complete the Audax but I didn’t yet know it.
There was a nice road over the top of the dam holding back Lac du Chambon and it was dizzying to look over the edge into the gorge below.  As I joined the D1091 looking for “Deux Alpes” and “Deux Junction” I found a series of tunnels which were interesting to descend through at speed.  You could see right through them of course, but they were long enough to echo to the sound of my singing.  Up ahead were two sporty looking types and unable to resist a chase I set off after them.  This was a main road descent, very wide and very nice surface.  The road followed a cliff balcony for some way and dropped down through a curved tunnel which was quite a surprise although the tunnel lighting helped me to follow the curve until I could see the light again.  I would have preferred to have my Dinotte lights with me.
As the road flattened and I caught the two other riders I kept my head down pushing for “Deux Junction” but before I knew it found myself at the base of Alpe d’Huez again.  Now I knew I’d messed up my Audax, but I wasn’t at all bothered – the route had been amazing and I felt on top of the world.  I stopped at a cafe for a drink and then pootled back to the campsite to pick up Suzanne and come back once more to Bourg d’Oisans for lunch.  I had covered 68km in 3hrs 29mins ride time, and 4 hrs 20mins total time – so my Audax average was 14.5kph, which was well within the 7.5kph to 25kph allowance.  Pity I failed the requirement of gaining controls to prove I’d done it.

A great place to study Geography!

Alpe d’Huez in the middle of the picture.

Tete de la Course – a healthy place to eat.
As I plot this route I realise a second Audaxing mistake – I was supposed to follow D211A to La Garde, but I stayed on the D1091 which was a much easier route with less climbing.

Route profile (with x-axis in km)

I’m not too concerned about the failure though, as the title says, this was an Audax Fail but a Touring Success.

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