A Lesson Learned: The Alpe d’Huez and the Col de Sarenne


Me at Alpe d’Huez

One of the stages in this year’s (2013) Tour de France did several things that had never been done before.  First,  riders climbed the classic Alpe d’Huez twice in one day.  They accomplished this by doing something else that had not been tried in the Tour de France.  After the first climb of Alpe d’Huez they descended the Col de Sarenne, looped back around on the D1091 and rode to the finish at the top of Alpe d’Huez the second time.  The Col de Sarenne had never been ridden in the Tour before because it was thought the road was too narrow and too dangerous.


The descent on the Col de Sarenne

Several years ago my wife and I had the chance to ride for five days in the French Alps.  Our plan was to ride as many of the climbs that are often used in the Tour de France as possible.  With that in mind we climbed and descended Les Deux Alpes, the Col du Lautaret, the Col du Galibier and, of course, the Alpe d’Huez on our first two days.

Like many cyclists, we had been dreaming of these climbs for a long time and were thrilled to have the opportunity to actually do them ourselves.  But after two days we discovered something unexpected.  We were a little bit bored and a little bit disappointed.  The climbs were difficult, but they were not all that difficult.  The roads, for the most part, were wide, well maintained, and filled with cyclists along with cars and trucks that respected cyclists.  The scenery on the climbs was a bit on the bland side.  Often the road getting to the climb (the D1091 in most of these cases) was gorgeous but the climbs themselves presented more or less generic alpine scenery.

View on Col de Sarenne

View on Col de Sarenne

We passed many other roads winding off into the mountains and began talking about alternative routes with people who lived in the area and with cyclists who were familiar with the local road network .  Almost every one of them recommended the Col de Sarenne.

We took their advice, abandoned our original plan, and rode the Col de Sarenne the first thing the next day.  It turned out to be exactly the right thing to do.  The Col de Sarenne is a spectacular climb and descent.  We found it to be markedly more difficult and immensely more interesting than Alpe d’Huez.  The climb was tough, the scenery was breathtaking, the descent was heart stopping.  We loved it.

For the rest of the trip we rode routes that were recommended to us by people who knew the area.  Every single route we took provided us with special cycling experiences ranging from wild and extraordinary scenery, to difficult and enjoyable climbs and descents, to a small, beautiful village at the end of a road deep into a gorge.

Laura at the beginning of the climb up the Col de Sarenne

Laura at the beginning of the climb up the Col de Sarenne

We learned an important lesson on this trip.  If you’re going to be doing some riding in an area with great cycling opportunities, talk to the people who live there and ask for their recommendations about where to ride.  They will certainly tell you about the famous or well-known rides but if you’re lucky they will also tell you about rides you’ve never heard of that may well end up providing your most cherished memories from the trip.

3 thoughts on “A Lesson Learned: The Alpe d’Huez and the Col de Sarenne

  1. I really enjoyed reading your input on the Col de Sarenne, which I also enjoyed riding a few years ago as well. I am also an avid cyclist from Burgundy ( France) living in Vancouver (female). Watching stages 15-19 of the TDF this year was also very interesting. The best rides indeed are the ones provided by local, I totally agree. I wish my husband was as an avid rider than your spouse !!! Lol. I got him a bike but, boy, he hates getting on it , however, he always loves it at the end !! As long as there are no hills!

    • Thanks for the kind words. I can’t count the number of riders who have come up to either Laura or I and said they wished their partner was as into cycling as Laura and I both are. Being able to share cycling with your partner not only makes it so much more enjoyable, it removes cycling as a source of contention in the relationship. I’ve known many riders whose partner was initially very supportive when they took up cycling because they were getting into shape, getting healthy and so on. But then as the joy of riding took hold and it began taking up more and more of the cyclist’s spare time, the partner began to feel like they were no longer as important and time spent on the bike became an issue in the relationship. It’s hard.

      • Man I agree finding time awya cycling becomes the real challenge! Family and household commitments seem to take over-but when you do get to ride I think you appreciate the freedom more. Regarding the local knowledge of the area isn’t that true in so many aspects of travel? Off the beaten path is usually where you’ll find the best attractions, the most scenic vistas, and the most excuisite foods. The tourist traps are always over crowded-overpriced and over-hyped! Soemtimes its best to leave the romanticized notion of places like Alpe D’Huez in the mind wher there simply are no limitations and thus dissappointments!

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