Stage 4 - Monetier Les Bains - Alpe d'Huez
Climbs– Col du Lauteret, Col du Sarenne, Alpe d’Huez
Time- 4hrs 34 mins
The final day started with clear blue skies which was a great relief to all of us after the thunderstorms and heavy rain that had carried on through much of the night. Today we would be tackling the iconic Alpe d'Huez, but not before we had ticked off both the Col du Lauteret and the Col du Sarenne (essentially the climb on the other side of the hill from the Alpe).
Rob and I set off as the last of the group, glorified road sweepers, and rolled out onto the smooth and gentle ascent of the Col du Lauteret, a perfect 'warm-up' climb. The sun had only just reached the valley road so the air remained refreshingly cool while the peaks above were bathed in the early morning light. We made quick work of this gentle gradient which really opened the legs up for what lay ahead. But first, a fast, open and smooth descent towards La Grave featuring a few long tunnels which created a strobe light effect such was the dramatic change from sun to the dimly lit orange glow.
As we reached towards the valley floor a blaze of bright turquoise shot into view from the left, the rather eye catching Lac du Chambon, but eyes remained drilled on the road as we approached the turn to the Col du Sarenne.
Rather like the Alpe itself, the gradient on the Sarenne kicks up rather brutally for the first few kilometres before things settle down. As things dial back to a more civilised 7% the road suddenly starts to open up to reveal stunning views of the valley and he craggy peaks above. The road is narrow and the surface a little patchy but the almost complete lack of any cars allows you to slip into the tranquility of your surroundings, all the while churning the pedals to get ever higher. As I worked my way up the mountain in blissful solitude I came across my fellow curistas dotted up the road and exchanged some words of encouragement, cheered each other on and took some photos.
The Sarenne really saves some of its most challenging gradients right until the end meaning a real push to get to the top. Thankfully that also meant our lunch stop where the support crew were waiting for us and cheering us up the last few meters.
Once fed and re-grouped we set about the rough and technical descent and small climb that links the top of the Sarenne with Alpe d'Huez. We nipped across the main resort to take an alternative route down the mountain which would allow us to loop back around via the valley road to the foot of the climb. We all took a look around at each other - some nervous glances, some words of advice, hydration debates, checked the current KOM (oh, ok, never mind). Nothing left to do but tackle the famous 21 hairpins. As per all advice, it starts steep so take it easy and don't launch any attacks, so off flies Rob - not to be seen again until the bar at the top. I set about my own tempo and started to tick off these first few hairpins until things eased up just a bit. The road is wide, well surfaced and quiet busy as one might expect - quite a change from the 'serenity' of the previous climb. Soon enough I'm at turn 7 - the famous Dutch corner which turns into a euro party with a fog of orange smoke whenever the Tour de France visits the Alpe. Today our support crew were there to cheer us on and help us on our final push to the top. Time for a caffeine gel to try and amp things up for the finish. I was feeling good but still couldn't take it up to the next gear.
Three hairpins, two, one and then up and over the top to a cacophony of shouts, clanging cow bells and pink jerseys spilling out of the bar. I quickly nipped up to the 'official tour finish' where Geraint Thomas triumphed last year before making my way back down for a well deserved beer and an afternoon of cheering on the rest of the gang as they made their way up. The atmosphere and camaraderie was immense and built to a crescendo as the last riders arrived at the top of the Alpe. The sound of cow bells ringing and beer steins clinking rang out across the mostly deserved ski village. WE DID IT, every last one of us! What struck me at this point was the nature of the achievement; it was not individual at all, but rather an incredible collective effort. This, again, had me drawing similarities to the battle that many people face with a cancer diagnosis, thinking they are truly alone, but the amazing doctors, nurses, and researchers (and many more) form their support and treatment network.
In the five days since this group had come together I had witnessed some amazing feats of endurance, courage, staying power, commitment, friendship and support. I wholeheartedly doff my cap to Professor Ian Smith (one of the leads at the Cancer Research Centre at the Royal Marsden whose work is facilitated by the money raised from Le Cure) who, at the age of 73, ticked off every climb with aplomb - truly inspirational.