Now that my ‘race season’ has finished, I’m scouring Strava for new routes and climbs I can do before the winter approaches and my choice of rides is severely limited. For those of you who haven’t used Strava before, it’s a web based tool where you can track your rides by downloading GPS data and then compare your times over routes and climbs to other people. You can also see other people’s routes and the most popular ones are turned into something Strava calls segments. These are usually climbs, but can be any section of road such as a sprint into a town up to full race routes. You can open up Strava and based on your location, it will show all the segments in the area. You can move the map around to explore other areas too, and after your ride see how you did against everyone else. The person with the fastest time gets awarded the KOM, or King of the Mountain. It’s worth nothing except for bragging rights, but I find it a useful motivational tool for training, and also to be able to easily compare your performance over set routes.
So having found a route which added a 6 km climb onto the ride up to Vaujany (a local ski resort), and a climb up to a very nice lake above Alpe D’Huez, I was browsing the Explore function in Strava when I was reminded that I had never ridden up to Villard Notre Dame, which is a climb that starts only 1km from my house! The reason I’d never done it before is that it has unlit tunnels, which I’d tried before without lights but had been defeated (they are pitch black!). As I have plenty of bike lights, but I had no idea where they were (packed away in one of the many boxes we shipped over from New Zealand) I had no intention of buying another until we unpacked. Well that took about 1 year (quite a bit longer than I expected!) after we had to move to a larger place, but I finally had my bike front lights and decided to give it a go.
It’s a fairly tough climb on paper – shorter by a few kilometres than Alpe D’Huez, but steeper on average at just over 9%. Like Alpe D’Huez it is a fairly consistent slope, with no let ups or shallower gradients where you can take a break. It starts round the back of Bourg D’Oisans; where you’d never find it if you weren’t specifically looking for it. That was reflected by the lack of traffic – the only other road users I saw during the whole ride was one moped, and another cyclist! (it happened to be my friend Lynne, so we stopped for a chat – no problems to be in the middle of the road for 5 minutes!).
The first tunnel you come to is more like a passage through the rock…..no need to worry about lights for this one! It’s the first of four tunnels on the climb, with the middle two being a decent length.
This next tunnel is the biggest, at 365 metres long. It isn’t straight, so when you go in you can’t see the exit. So the light level drops and drops…..soon all you can hear is the sound of water dripping and your own breathing….you definitely want to put your lights on at this point!
There are a few potholes in this tunnel so again the lights are invaluable….I do know people who have gone through without lights – but that involves walking with one hand trailing the right hand side of the tunnel to make sure you don’t crash into a wall – not my preferred method thanks!
Once out the other side of this tunnel the next section of road is cut into a sheer drop, and also passes under a few overhangs. You get a great view back down the valley towards Bourg D’Oisans but you’re probably not going to be looking behind you – more likely concentrating on the road and view ahead, as there are some sheer drops to the left. From then on the road enters a forest and is shaded for most of the rest of the climb – very welcome on a hot day. After a few more kilometres of climbing and some great views you reach the small village of Villard Notre Dame. You can stop here and call it a day, or continue on up the smaller road to get to the top of the climb. There is a fair amount of gravel on the road so you need to take it easy (well certainly on the way back down, anyway). After another few kilometres climbing and a fair few switchbacks you get to the highest point of the road, and I decided to call it a day. It also had some pretty good views and an excellent rock to sit on whilst I had a drink and a cereal bar!
The road continues on towards Villard Reymond, but as the road gets less well surfaced is better tackled on a mountain bike. The better way to access Villard Reymond on a road bike is to head up the Col D’Ornon and take a left turn about half way up. You can see the other ‘Villard’, Villard Reculas in the distance in the centre of the picture to the left – this is the village on the ‘back way’ to Alpe D’Huez, which is the town on the right of the photo.
Cycling Ascents – Bourg D’Oisans based Cycling in the French Alps.