Col de Sarenne
(including Alpe d'Huez)

The climb up to Alp d'Huez is probably the most famous stage on the Tour de France. Its grand finish is located at a huge ski resort. On the other side of this mountain is a totally different world. Connecting them is the Col de Sarenne. One of its approaches includes the Alp d'Huez climb, and the difference between the two approaches is what makes this pass ride so unique.

 

01.(00.0km,715m) START-END EAST: jct N91- road to Alp d'Huez, just north of Bourg d'Oisans
02.(9.0km,1440m) D211B from Villard Reculas joins from left, in lower part of Huez
03.(10.8km,1587m) profile stays left at this jct, following Tour de France course, not direct approach via ski area
04.(14.2km,1801m) jct with alternate upper approach via ski area in upper Alp d'Huez
05.(15.6km,1858m) start of less developed road to Col de Sarenne
06.(20.4km,1829m) road crosses over small bridge over the Sarenne
07.(22.5km,1999m) TOP: Col de Sarenne
08.(29.5km,1394m) Clavens le Haute
09.(30.8km,1354m) Clavens le Bas
10.(34.0km,1175m) Mizoens
11.(35.1km,1053m) START-END SOUTH: route turns left onto N91, after reaching Lac du Chambon
12.(44.5km,735m) START-END SOUTH ALT: Le Clapier

Approaches

From West. The climb up to Alp d'Huez starts immediately from the roundabout on the north side of the river Romanche, outside Bourg d'Oisans. The town sits in one of the wider spots of the Gorge of the Romanche. This climb is perfect to show off the magnitude of this landscape, as well as remember favorite scenes from the Tour de France.

The first two switchbacks have the heaviest racing fan graffiti, one layer on top of one another. They are left for the rain to wash away. As soon as one layer recedes into the background asphalt, new names are added on top to spur on current racers. There are lots of cyclists with racing bikes laboring on the numerous switchbacks. Many of them seem to working very hard and don't seem to have an eye for the landscape. - Good thing I got my camera with me.

Seen from the lower switchbacks, the road on the opposite side of the valley leads to Villard Nortre Dame. It seems to be edged into the cliff along a ruler straight line, seen from this foreshortened vantage point. As the road rounds an old church tower with the belfry just above eye level, the valley takes a step back, and so the road also enters into a new bowl in the landscape.

One of the next switchbacks contains a memorial headstone dedicated to Joaquim Agostine 1943-84. An adjacent banner reads: "Every Wednesday: Timed climb of the 21 levels". That's not a translation. The sign is actually in English. Actually a majority of the people passing me seemed to speak English too. While photographing the monument, I noticed there is also a toilet in the woods here. Just a seat with receptacle, no cover, apparently for cyclists usage.

Switchbacks come, switchbacks go. The valley takes another step back and the road enters the first signs of approaching resortdom. Finally the road splits into ski lift bound traffic on the right and "Itineraire Tour de France" bound traffic on the left, bound for uptown Alp d'Huez so to speak. Both can be used as approach to Col de Sarenne. The ski lift route is a little shorter, but once up here, who would not want to check out the scene of this curious resort landscape, where so many races have been decided.

The last km of the course still climbs, now flanked closely by cafes, hotels, offices and other businesses. It's a town  of countless small box shaped houses. They all seem to sit on top of one another and crowd in the road, and through the middle of this cubist landscape threads a ski lift. The road tunnels partially under all this in one last switchback, all very much like a toy world. You may recognize the scene from a million TV shots. A tour de France banner over road remains up permanently. The road is densely lined with small open businesses. But fortunately all the inflatable advertising gizmos are gone.

The change in scenery is near. The road to Col de Sarenne can be found by riding higher into the ski resort hotels, heading for the highest one of them all - the Club Med hotel - or following signs for the airport, which here is also labeled with the curious name "altiport". If all else fails, look for parking lot 4 also works, and at the end is a very different world - and a very different road - barely paved where the patches on top of the patches didn't hold. We now head above treeline.

Col de Sarenne
descending to Claven-en-haut from Col de Sarenne

From the start of the patchwork road, another road can be seen far to the right crossing a gap between two mountains. This route turns out to be unpaved, and is not the Col de Sarenne route. Instead the Col de Sarenne route drops, and then follows a shallow treeless tundra valley towards the left to the summit. The altitude here is just a little higher than Alp d'Huez. "You're almost there" said one rider to me passing in the other direction. I was surprised that he made no attempt to communicate in French first. The view of three nearby peaks accompanies the cyclist to the top. But the distant views are hidden behind the slopes of this low grassy ravine. The highest of these nearby peaks is the Pic du Lac Blanc at 3327m. When I reached the summit, most of the clouds lifted from the Gorge de Romanche. But upsloping winds from the valley of the Ferrand still filled the eastern side of the pass with dense clouds.

Alp d'Huez climb to Col de Sarenne
   left: finish line for Alpe d'Huez climb                         right: memorial on lower Alpe d'Huez switchback

From South. (described downwards). But a little ways down the eastern side the view improves greatly, and the windblown clouds act like a soft filter on the light. The switchbacks of the road hang between the mountains dissolving into clouds, and snow on top. Houses with large tent like roofs hide in the crevasses below. A mountain face next to these houses shines like a metal surface in the curious light. It looks like a slip face of a former landslide.

About 1500ft below the top the road surface improves dramatically. Past the small town near treeline, the road goes by Claven-en-haut and then passes through Claven-en-bas. "Upper Claven" is worth a stroll through, just to see those medieval house corners, balconies and the fountain with the mountain background. Lower Claven has a WC next to the road, exiting the lower part of town. A sign instructs that the toilet is for sit down use only. The urinoir is not enclosed on the other side of the building. What great and cracy ideas will those French have next ?

Past this the descend is straight and fast, probably faster than on the switchbacks of the western side. One more town is likely to cause a stop, even if only to marvel at all of the flowers that bloom in June: Mizeon. Below the road crosses a dam and then meets up with N91 in the Gorge de la Romanche. This point is also the junction with the road to another famous Tour de France climb,  les Deux-Alpes. The profile follows N91 through several tunnels and some adventurous road constructions, also involving a small climb back towards Bourg d'Oisans, as far as the jct with the road to la Berarde in the Ecrins National Park.

I saw nobody else with a mountain bike on this loop. Because of this, everybody else was probably more concerned with the state of the road than I was, and I think that's the reason why everybody I saw rode the loop in the opposite direction. That way you make the descend on the good pavement.

History- Cycling - Tour de France

The climb to Alp d'Huez on the is arguably the most famous climb in the world for bicycle racers. As of 2012, since after WW2 the climb has been part of 27 Tour de France schedules. 1952 was the first time, and it was won by the Italian Fausto Coppi. It took 24 years for the tour to return to this climb. But since 1976 the climb is regularly on the schedule. Each of the switchbacks (here called levels) carries the name of a stage winner. Since Lance Armstrong won the climb, the number of stage winners exceeds the number of switchbacks, and now some switchbacks have two names. Lance Armstrong and Fausto Coppi now share a switchback. No word yet on what is going to happen to this situation since Lance Armstrong lost his titles.

The fastest time for the climb is still held by Marco Pantani during the zenith of the EPO doping period.  But measured best times over the years differ for other reasons too. For one thing the finish line has been moved over the years. Only three racers were able to win both this stage and the entire Tour de France. They were Fausto Coppi in 1952, Lance Armstrong in 2001 and Carlos Sastre in 2008.

Dayride with this summit as highest point:

Col de Sarenne: Bourg d'Oisans > Alpe d'Huez > Col de Sarenne > Clavens > Mizoen > N91 down Gorge de la Romanche > sp: 42.4miles with 5350ft of climbing in 4:30hrs (VDO MC1.0 12.6.13).
Notes: includes about 10 extra out and back miles on N91, and touring around Alp d'Huez

The last summit ride with different start and end points on this Extended Tour is on the page: Col de Morte

 

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