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.

A New Strategy in the Tour de France?

Sagan wins stage 7 3Peter Sagan is a polarizing rider.  On the one hand his juvenile attempts to draw attention to himself with last year’s ridiculously self-conscious displays on the bike when he won a race and this year’s grabbing of the podium girl’s ass and his proud display of his “My cock + your pussey = good times”  t-shirt are an embarrassment to himself, his team and his sport.  On the other hand, he is an immensely talented and unique cyclist.  Sagan is a top-tier sprinter who often falls just a bit short of winning against sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel (although he has and can beat either of them on occasion).  However, unlike any other top-tier sprinter in recent memory, Sagan can ride with the leading group over Cat 2, 3 and 4 climbs.

Sagan’s unique combination of sprinting and climbing abilities opens up the possibility of a very different approach to winning the points jerseys in the three grand tours.  Traditionally the sprinters competing for the points jerseys have relied on winning sprint stages behind strong lead out teams.  Sagan’s Cannondale team demonstrated an entirely different approach to locking down the points jersey in the 7th stage of this year’s
Tour-de-France-2013-Stage-7-profileTour de France on July 5th.  Stage 7 featured a Cat 2 climb about half way through the stage, a little more than 100 km from the finish.  Cannondale took the lead and drove the peloton with a hard pace over the climb.  Sagan could do it; Cavendish, Greipel and the other sprinters could not.  The sprinters fell about 2.5 minutes behind Sagan and the Cannondale-led peloton.  Their teams fell back to try and bring them back to the peloton after the climb, but Cannondale set a ferocious tempo and when 90 minutes of chasing did nothing to close the 2.5 minute gap, the sprinters gave up.  The result was that Sagan had no strong competition and he won both the intermediate sprint for 20 points and the stage for 35 more points while his competitors for the points jersey won nothing.

Cannondale may have demonstrated a unique approach to winning the points jersey that is perfectly tailored to the talents of their unique sprinter.  Compete in the sprint stages but don’t build your team for them.  Sagan is a talented enough sprinter to finish in the top 5 on most Cannondale 2sprint stages without the benefit of a strong lead-out team.  Build the team to do just what they did today; control the peloton and ride hard tempo on intermediate mountain stages.  Sagan loses a relatively small number of points to his competitors on the sprint stages  but he gains a massive point advantage on stages that feature any kind of categorized climb that is difficult enough to defeat the pure sprinters.

A team built along these lines with Sagan as the team leader is going to be very difficult to beat for the points jersey in any of the grand tours as long as the other sprinters can’t climb and come to these races with custom built lead-out teams.