My ride up the Col du Galibier

About two weeks ago, I called my friend in Zurich and mentioned that I'd like to ride the Col du Galibier. I knew that it was fairly close to where I live and would be a good one-day ride. So when this past weekend arrived, we set out to tackle another infamous Tour de France climb.

I looked at the climb profile and thought that it didn't look bad at all. Sure, it's a lot longer than l'Alpe d'Huez but it's no where near as steep. It should be a lot easier. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Doug caught the train from Zurich and got to Neuchatel around 8am. So we got an early start this time. We hit the road around 9:00am and drove the 300 kilometers to a small town called St. Michel de Maurienne. It's a very small, but pretty town in this very narrow valley. We parked at the empty train station parking lot and set out.

To reach the Col du Galibier, you must first climb the Col du Telegraphe. The Telegraphe is not a terribly difficult climb according to the course profile but combined with the Galibier, it becomes a killer.

Not knowing where the climb started, we or course, parked at the worst place possible - the very base of the climb. We seem to have a knack for finding some of the worst places to park. So we started climbing the Col du Telegraphe cold. After about 1 kilometer of climbing, the views began to get better and better.

The Col du Telegraph is so named because at the very top of the climb is a series of radio and TV towers. It's a rather large cement structure that can be seen for a long way. So as we began the climb, we could see our goal way up the mountain (you can see the towers at the high point of this picture).
The day started out rather wet and rainy but as we climbed, the scenery got more pretty and the weather warmed up and the roads dried up.

Finally, some confirmation that we were getting somewhere - a sign. We had climbed 10 kilometers already and only had three to go to the Col du Telegraphe. After the Col du Telegraphe, there is a small downhill of about 150 meters vertical in 5 kilometers into the small town of Valloire. It's a very small town that is quite obviously a ski village. Looking around the town, there is nothing but ski shops and ski lifts. Notice though we have another 25 kilometers to the Galibier.

From these two photos, you can just about see that we're right about level with the TV antenaes so we're just about there. The views are so fantastic I have to stop and take some pictures.
Finally we reach the top of the Col du Telegraphe. Not really what I expected. It's not your typical mountain pass but I guess since it's just the prelude to the Galibier and pretty low comparitively, it should look a bit different. It's got a nice little garden and a restaurant - very pretty. Just behind the trees in the picture on the left, is the set of television antenaes that we saw for a number of kilometers.
After the short decent into Valloire, we come upon the sign that we've dreaded all day - the infamous Col du Galibier. And wouldn't you know it, it's open (according to the sign).

After a few kilometers of fairly steep climbing, I came upon the nice little river that is flowing down the valley. The flowers and the mountains were so pretty that I stopped for a quick picture. The valley at this point is starting to level out a bit. We're at the part of the climb on the profile that says 3.5 to 3.7 percent - a nice little grade. It was at this point that a man who lived in the valley, popped out of his yard to yell "Allez! Allez!" (Go! Go!) at Doug and I. Very cool as this would never happen in the US.

After a few more fairly steep kilometers climbing, the terrain and vegetation really started to change. It went from a nice shady treefilled climb to a treeless, fairly barren landscape. There were big open fields filled with sheep grazing. It's very difficult to see but in the picture on the left, those little tan dots are sheep grazing. The climbing continued like this for about half an hour. Not really very steep (around 7 to 8 percent) but long. The temperature at this point was also getting a bit cooler.
After what seemed to be a particularly brutal portion of the climb, I reached the sign in the picture on the right. It says that I have 8 kilometers to the top of the Galibier. That was a bit disheartening since I thought I was closer than that. You can see the road on the hill on the right side of the picture about halfway up.

Before leaving I studied the course profile so that I'd remember the hard parts. Since I had just done a tough section, I thought that I had finished the 10% section close to the top. Was I ever mistaken. The section you can see on the picture at the right is the 10% section on the course profile. It's a very brutal section made worse by the elevation. At this point, I'm at 1960 meters (6400 feet) above sea level so the air is getting thin fairly quickly - at least for a sea level person that is.

The last 8 kilometers were the toughest part of the climb. You're tired, it's steep but worst of all, the air is getting really thin. I noticed my speed was dropping pretty quickly. From the very bottom of the Col du Telegraphe, I rode up the climb in a 39x23. Sometimes I actually would shift up to my 21. It wasn't that hard. I had a 26 on the back and at this point I was actually considering using it. But I didn't. I still suffered a bit more.
The picture on the right shows this little house/restaurant/store. It appeared that they sell area specialities. I didn't stop in to find out though. At this point, there are about 5 kilometers to go.

This picture shows the actual top of the climb. The little dip in the picture on the left is the actual top of the Col du Galibier. As you can see, there is quite a ways to go. I'm at around the 4 kilometers to go point. At this point, I'm hurting really bad and finally did drop down to my 26. It was just too steep and the air too thin.

Finally!! The goal is reached. The picture on the left shows the decent on the other side of the Col du Galibier. At the top, I found that I had actually done the easy side of the Galibier. The easy side is 10% while the other side is 12%. Very difficult, but it's much shorter.

At this point, it's quite cold. The temperature I would guess is down around 5C (40F) and it's very windy. I stop to take one more picture back the way I came up (at left) and I begin to decend. Doug isn't too far behind but he's just as cold and we begin the long descent back to the car.

It's a fun descent. The 8 kilometers of decending is tough. Many switchbacks and very windy. We both take it kinda easy. I'm shivering and Doug has less clothing than me so I know he's cold. After we pass the 8 kilometer mark, the descent becomes quite fun. It's reasonably straight and not too steep so we let it fly. At one point, I hit right about 80 kph (around 50mph). Once we hit Valloire, we have a small climb back up to the Col du Telegraphe. After that, we decended back to the car.

Check out Doug's web site for some more pictures.