Stage 12 and our biggest day / by Galen Stilgebauer

Stage 12 of the Tour had the riders leaving from Albertville and racing over the Col de la Madeleine, the Col de la Croix de Fer, and finally finishing up the iconic Alpe d' Huez.  As perhaps you've already read in my previous blog, we climbed the Col de la Madeleine the day before and I had really struggled on that mountain.  I've been cycling long enough to know that one day you can be hurting and then the next your legs can come around.  About half way up the Madeleine, I knew that I didn't have it on that day and I would just try to ride at a pace that would allow me to finish the climb and hopefully have something in the tank for the next day.

Back to stage 12.  The three of us had spent the night in Les Deux Alpes, and had a delicious dinner and a plentiful breakfast.  Feeling frisky and ready to take on the day, I asked Ann if she would be willing to drive to a point halfway in between Allemond and the beginning of the climb of Alpe d' Huez.  This would allow Spencer and I to get in a wonderful descent down to the valley road that would eventually lead to the climb of the Croix de Fer.  


Ann and I had the opportunity to climb the Croix de Fer back in 2013.  On that occasion, we were on a guided trip with rental bikes.  In my estimation, those bikes did not have appropriate gearing.  I seem to remember having a compact with an 11-25 cassette on the back.  We now run a compact 50-34 with an 11-32 for Ann and a Mid-Compact 52-36 with an 11-32 for myself.  Back in the day it was envogue to grind your way up a climb.  Modern technique and technology allow for "easier" gear ratios and allow one to pedal at a higher cadence thus preserving ones' knees.  The way I look at it is we are still pedaling up these mountains under our own power.  It seems that many of the Euros have embraced the Ebike.  Most of the ones that we saw were of the mountain bike variety, but more and more, road bike versions are showing up across the brands.

As Spencer and I reached the valley floor, the roadsides were packed with people getting their bikes and gear ready for the assault up Alpe d' Huez.  We would get there eventually, but first, the Croix de Fer.  As I mentioned, Ann and I had climbed this 5 years priviously and it was a real challenge. it was our first time up a proper Alpe. Until this day, I had never seen my Garmin go into auto pause due to me moving so slowly.  Five years later and tens of thousands of miles in our legs, I felt that we'd have a little more success this go around.  On our way along the valley road, we collected Ann, and the three of us continued together towards the high point of the day.

We seemed to be cruising right along.  The miles clicked right on by and before we knew it, we would arrive at the small village of  Le Rivier- d' Allemond about halfway up the climb.  There is a bit of a cruel section of road here.  It dips down for maybe a kilometer or so and then punches you in the face with a 16% gradient that seems to go on for longer than it should.   


A few switchbacks later, you find yourself at a false summit, riding along a beautiful dammed lake.  There have to be at least 10 different waterfalls emptying themselves into this lake.  All the hillsides are a lush green and all I could hear were the cow bells off in the distance.


One of the many great things about riding over here in Europe are all the roads.  There seem to be roads everywhere!  Multiple routes up, down, and across the landscape.  I've grown quite use to the roads in America.  Super wide and usually with a one way in, one way out type of scenario.  The roads here are better.  The sense of exploration is greater.  On the way up to the Croix de Fer, you come to a restaurant on your left.  If you take this left, the climb becomes the Col de Glandon.  It is a spectacular climb in itself, but not on the menu for today.  As we reached this intersection I made a quick check of the time.  We were getting dangerously close to the time that we'd need to turn around if we were going to try and make it up Alpe d' Huez. 


The thing is, the summit of the Croix de Fer is like right there.  Five or so more minutes of pedaling and we could all say that we did the climb.  We pushed on. 


We made it to the top and took our opportunities to take photos etc.


Now that we'd knocked out this portion of the ride it was time to get moving.  I didn't want to get caught up on these slopes and miss the race ascending the final climb.  I only had one objective in mind and that was to descend to the car as quickly as possible and collect some of my camera gear and then make our way to Alpe d' Huez.  

We reached the afore mentioned restaurant and were "greeted" by a French policeman.  He told us that we would have to walk our bikes down the mountain if we intended on continuing.  This was pretty much out of the question, but I wasn't going to waste time and energy arguing in a language that I barley understood. We walked for about 100 meters and then threw a leg over the bike and descended like our lives depended on it.  Ann told us to go ahead as she has a hard time keeping up on the descents.  I've mentioned previously that I don't climb very well. The opposite holds true when the road points downward.  Spencer and I were flying!  At times tickling 60 miles per hour.  It's interesting to me, some police want you off the road and off your bike, others don't really seem to care.  I wasn't planning on stopping to find out which were which.  I was on a mission.  The thing of it was, the caravan wasn't even set to take off from the start for another hour and then the racers would follow behind by almost 2 hours.  It was time to get to the car already.

We made it to the car with little difficulty and I was moving like a man possessed.  Camera bags being unzipped, gear being loaded into my frame bag and a lukewarm Fanta being slammed in preparation for the final ascent of the day.  I'm not even sure that I asked Spencer if he was ready.  I jumped back on my Traildonkey and pointed myself towards the base of the next climb. We had already been on the bikes for 4.5 hours but I felt like I was just getting started.  What a departure from how I felt the day before.  

We moved along the flat valley road like a two man TT.  Spencer later told me that he felt like we were racing.  We kind of were.  We made it!  We were on the lower slopes on the fabled Alpe d' Huez.  It was now a matter of how far we could make it up the climb before we were told to get off our bikes.  It's a constant battle, believe me.  It was so hot!  I kept on thinking that I was getting a flat tire, but it was the tar filling the cracks in the road that was melting under the extreme temperatures.  

It was a bit strange to me how calm the roadside was.  When Ann and I were here in 2013, it was a total free for all.  There were people all over the road and it seemed like total chaos.  This go around there were barriers off to one side of the road and most people were hiding in the shade and rather subdued.  This climb is not really all that difficult by itself, but after the day we'd already had and what the racers had in their legs, it would be a challenge.  A few K's up the road we found a nice waterfall of sorts.  I wasn't about to drink from it, but I was more than willing to fill my one empty bottle and douse myself in an attempt to bring my temperature down.  Upon remounting our bikes, there was Ann!

Just a few more switchbacks and we'd be at the fabled "Dutch corner".  It's usually pretty wild here and there's plenty to look at as well.


With just a few remaining kilometers to the end of the race, we were finally forced off our bikes.  It was perfect timing in any case because I wanted to end up stopping where there is a road that descends back to where Ann had parked our car.  There were also a couple of bars where we could get food and some well deserved beers.  I'm always wondering about the "perfect" place to get some shots.  You simply can't be everywhere.  I always seem to come away with images that make me happy.  A few beers and a sandwich later, I was primed and ready for the race to come through.  I made my way down tho the roadside and found a spot to shoot.


One by one the race leaders mad their way through the spectator lined road.  It's truly incredible how fast these guys can go up after racing for so many days in a row and this many hours already on the bike.


And just like that, it was over.  The final riders came through, the seemingly endless strings of cars and race vehicles disappeared up the road and the fans filled the roadway to begin their way back down the mountain.


The three of us went back to where we'd left our bikes and headed back to our car.  The side road I'd mentioned earlier was perfect!  Almost no crowds and we were down in the valley in no time.


All that was left was to pack up the car and do yet another drive onto the next chapter of our adventure.   The following day we would have a recovery day of sorts.  Next up for us on the tour would be stage 14.