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.
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.
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.
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.