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Things that come to an end usually trigger an emotional review, especially those that were around for a long time.  Now that I am about to close shop here and move to the big city of London, I feel it is appropriate to look back on the rides I have taken.  Like any of the epics I have done in my three cycling seasons in Grenoble, the following paragraphs can seem to go on endlessly.  Once done reading I hope you will be filled with the same strange mixture of exhaustion and satisfaction that I always got from riding my bike.  Don't ask for too much, though.  In contrast to my other essays, this was written with an audience of one in mind.  Its primary purpose is to tickle my memory when I am far from Grenoble and maybe far from a bike.

I went to Grenoble for my first post-doc in no small part for the city and its surroundings.  Mountains full of outdoor opportunities watching over the French way of life – how bad could it be, really?  Well, let's not talk about this.  Let's talk about cycling instead, which was truly amazing.  In the two years and four months that I have lived in Grenoble, I have done most rides that I thought worthwhile.  I've missed no major climb in the immediate vicinity.  While the initial lack of a car and my continued reluctance to drive for hours before hopping on the bike kept me from conquering such monuments as the Galibier and the Col de la Madeleine, I enjoyed countless hours – weeks probably, were they all added up – in the mountains around town.  I explored the hills along the Drac, a bit of the Belledonne and the plains west of Grenoble, but most of the time I spent pedaling in the Vercors and the Chartreuse, two very different mountain ranges.  I would consider one most beautiful one day and the other the next.


The Vercors is a karstic limestone massif that rises abruptly south of Grenoble.  Getting in is hard because the climbs are long and steep for the most part.  From the east it is entirely impossible as there are no roads just hiking trails, some of which require a nimble chamois buck's rock climbing abilities.  However, once up and inside, the roads climb gently, passes are mellow, and an air of tranquility wafts aimlessly.  One cannot help but feel a thousand miles from the hectic bustle of the city.  The Vercors has been described as a plateau, but this is not entirely correct, or at least it does not do the mountain full justice.  While there are the calmest possible valleys stretching long miles high above the exterior of the Vercors, there are also sheer cliffs, dropping by more than 1000 meters in certain places, and abyssal gorges connecting the plateaux with the outside.  It is these gorges that were for me the main attraction.  In all cases, the roads have been hacked into the rock by intrepid engineers and master construction workers that seemed to have had only one thing on their minds:  imposing their will on the mountain.  This is of course the exact same spirit a cyclist needs to be in to find pleasure in mountain riding.

In the west of the Vercors, the Gorges du Nan and the Col de Romeyère are two prime examples of what I mean.  For both ascents, the rider needs strong legs and endurance as the roads climb about 1000 meters each, but he does not need to be afraid of rain.  Long parts of the road are covered by tunnels and natural rock galeries, leaving a passage that is not more than two meters wide and two meters high in some spots.  One side opens into a gaping chasm where far beneath water falls so wildly that its roar hurts the ear, while tranquil planes stretch far into the distance framed by rocky peaks to the left and right.  Everytime I rode either climb, I felt sorry for professional cyclists who would never be able to enjoy this magnificence because the caravane publicitaire would inevitably get stuck.


In contrast to the Vercors's airy lightness, the Chartreuse, also limestone but not karstic, is dark and daunting.  The massif has the general shape of a wedge, rising gently from the west, far from Grenoble, only to drop precipitously in the east, with cliffs more than a thousand meters high.  From Grenoble, the cliffs of the Vercors and the Chartreuse look rather similar, with the Chartreuse's being just a bit greener.  But what is behind these cliffs sets the Chartreuse apart.  It is less jagged, and its slopes are rounder and less barren.  Its gorges are shallower but eerily menacing.  Conifers stand tall and dense, and so close to the road that the sun rarely penetrates to the tarmac.  The sensation of impending doom is heightened by frequent unlit tunnels.  Outside the canyons, dark forests and fertile pastures cover most ground, only the highest peaks are bare naked rock.  The roads are excellent for the most part, and there is hardly any traffic to share them with.  One can ride for hours, the profound silence only broken by the calm hum of the tires and the quiet trill of a well-lubed chain.

The three obvious entry points, the Col de Porte, the Col de Coq and, a bit farther north, the Col de Granier are all exceedingly steep and rather long, gaining 1200 meters with average gradients between seven and nine percent.  Crossing them requires committment, confidence and, most of all, strong legs because once in the valley on the other side, there is no other way than climbing back out.  The only flat roads follow streams west, farther and farther away from Grenoble.  So it was only after multiple timid tries that I rode the Grand Tour de la Chartreuse, as I call it, 120km in and around the mountain with a cumulative elevation gain of 3500m, and even with this effort I have to stand accused of cutting corners, as I only included the Col de Coq and the Col de Granier in the itinarary and left the Col de Porte out.

Nevertheless, of all the climbs around Grenoble, it is probably the Col de Porte that I have done most often.  It started a mere three and a half kilometers from my apartment.  The road is in good shape – though corrupted by recent resurfacing – and not too busy, despite being the major gateway into the Chartreuse.  The first barely seven kilometers, up to the Col de Vence, are the steepest at 8.5%, and sometimes I would call it a day there and return via Claix.  More often than not, I would keep going straight up, through Sappey-en-Chartreuse, ignorning the road to the Fort de St. Eynard (3.5km at 10%), and finally arriving at the col after a bit more than fifteen kilometers of sustained climbing that hardly ever took more than one hour.  Only three times did I feel more ambitious than that.  At the col, a small road turns off from that main road and takes the undaunted up to the Charmant Som, a solid 1440 meters above town.  This adds six kilometers to an already long climb.  Three and a half kilometers in the middle are worth mentioning, as they average ten percent and cause great suffering.  Up on the Charmant Som are a chalet beaten by harsh winds but selling delicious cheeses and a parking lot that is always full.  The spot is apparently a popular starting point for day hikes.

Despite riding the Col de Porte a good two dozen times, the Col de Coq was dearer to my heart.  Its smooth surface and a gradient that never much deviates from its average of 8.4% make for a pleasant hour of climbing if the legs cooperate.  Over thirteen kilometers, first through sparse forest, then through two long and dark tunnels that stay extremely wet after rainy days, and lastly through pastures that invite meditation, the road climbs and climbs and climbs.  On the last three kilometers I was always zoning and did not notice much besides the light grey band of maccaddam in a blurry sea of green.  Eventually, the top is reached, a crude parking lot just underneath the majestic Dent de Crolles.  Many hiking trails start here, and the vistas into the Grésivaudan Valley and across it towards the snow-covered peaks of the Belledonne range are stunning even when the air below is heavy with pollution.

Since the descent on the other side of the Col de Coq is far from enjoyable, I would often abandon the climb after the second tunnel, six kilometers below the summit.  There, a road starts running north on a lovely plateau halfway up the eastern cliffs of the Chartreuse.  It boggles the mind to have a plateau bisecting cliffs, to find an oasis of horizontality that is invisible from the valley floor, a green plain framed by rock walls – going up on one side and down on the other.  The road, now rolling most gently, is 400 meters below the Col de Coq and about 1000 below the peaks of the Chartreuse, but 800 meters above the valley.  The vistas are open and endless and frequently dotted with the hang gliders that like to take off in St. Hilaire de Touvet.  Every now and then, roads drop into the valley.  The one from St. Bernard to La Terasse is a hilarious technical descent second to none in the area.


Getting to the Col de Coq is much less pleasant then the climb itself.  I would often use the rather dull half hour it took contemplating the idiosynchracies of French driving and traffic organization.  It might be surprising, but road rage and traffic offenses are big problems in France.  I have never seen so many people run lights long turned red.  Speeding is ubiquitous, as is aggressive driving in general.  Drivers get revved up easily, and sometimes shouting matches develop between them.  For their own safety, pedestrians and cyclists are advised not to force their rights but stand back and wait patiently for the cars to pass by, even at a green light.  As a side note, I see a curious parallel between dogs and French drivers.  The smaller dogs are, the more aggressive they are usually.  The French drive exceedingly small cars and, in my opinion, it shows.  The difference to the American West with its huge vehicles and laisser-faire attitude could not be bigger – and was always shocking to me.

Ways of addressing these problems and of increasing road safety have been implemented.  The fifteen flat kilometers leading to the foot of the Col de Coq illustrate some of them.  On the way, half a dozen villages and small towns are crossed.  In them, inevitably, the pavement is marginal.  Does the goverment provide less support for local roads?  But this is a route nationale.  One with frequent raised crosswalks, as it turns out.  One needs all one's concentration to maneuver this steeplechase and avoid puncturing, riding head bent down and gaze fixed on the ten meters of road right ahead, planning a strategy, like in an arcade game.  But this is real life, and it is dangerous for two reasons.  The French like to put coequal intersections into their towns, giving the right of way to traffic coming from the right even if one travels on a route nationale, the second most important kind of road in France after the autoroute.  These intersections are marked with signs indicating their coequality, but who is paying attention?  Certainly not me while I am focussed on avoiding the worst potholes, and quite obviously not the other drivers either.  I have never seen anyone coming from the right forcing their way.  It would lead to bad accidents.  So while the idea behind these counterintiutive intersections might be to slow drivers down, to make them pay attention, and ultimately to increase road safety, they have in fact the opposite effect, at least with respect to the third criterion.  And I've never seen anyone slow down, either.

One day, coming down from St. Nizier-du-Moucherotte, on the fastest descent connecting the Vercors with Grenoble, I had a run-in with a driver.  The road drops about 900 meters over 15 kilometers.  It is wide, has turns made for speed, and if you push hard, you can finish it in fifteen minutes flat.  The party ends in Seyssins, a plush suburb of Grenoble.  I got to an intersection, still going more than forty, when I noticed a car rudely encroaching on my territory, apparently intent on intercepting me in full flight.  I braked, swerved, avoided the car, yelled at the driver, and heard him yell at me, all at the same time.  The next time around, I found out that it was indeed the driver who had the right of way, but I had missed the little sign at the side of the road announcing the end of my road's priority.


The Drac, a river feeding the Isère where the synchrotron now stands, has its own charms.  Riding along it is very different from suffering up Vercors and Chartreuse Cols.  Every ride I did in this direction, going south from Grenoble, started the same.  First, I would go to Champs, either directly or via the Col de Quatre Seigneurs if I felt strong, and start the long gentle climb along the river and later the reservoir up to Monteynard.  The eleven kilometers never took much more than 35 minutes.  The climb is not steep enough to hurt and looks so gentle that I could rarely help pushing the big gears.  Up in Monteynard, there are two options.  There is the direct route to La Mure, or one can drop into a hole that opens to the right.  After a scary descent on patchy surface, the road smoothens and flattens and curves around the lower slopes of the Génépi mountain and along the Corniche of the Drac, finally arriving in La Mure after 25 kilometers.  Even though this option is more than fifteen kilometers longer than the direct route and significantly more difficult because of the steady up and down, I always prefered it over going straight to La Mure because of scenic beauty and lack of traffic.

From La Mure, one can go west and then north to regain Grenoble after traversing Trièves, a delightful region with green hills, many little climbs, narrow bridges, and lovely villages, whose magic never failed to charm me.  Every one is different, obviously, but one can always recognize them as French villages by virtue of their recurring elements.  In the middle is always a church and the village square with a fountain, all surrounded by curiously trimmed plane trees.  Bordering the square is at least one cafe with a terrace and a number of elderly gentlemen drinking beer or coffee and enjoying a smoke.  There is also the inevitable bakery and the tobacco and newspaper store and usually a small grocery store.  On another side of the square is the town hall, which sometimes doubles as school.  The houses, in fact all of the buildings, are old and proudly display their walls made of quarried stone.  The sunny blue sky – I only ride when it is nice – frames the scene beautifully.  The tranquility of French villages is such a contrast to the efforts of riding into the steep mountains.  The sight alone helps me recover some of my forces.

If one rides east and then north from La Mure, one approaches the Écrins mountains and the Oisans region, and no stay in Grenoble would be complete without riding there.  L'Alpe d'Huez, one of the most mythical climbs in cycling, is in the Oisans.  Via a direct road, it is less than 50 kilometers from Grenoble, but taking that route, the busy route nationale N91, is not recommended because of rude traffic.  I did it once, and it was no fun.  The second time I took the much more scenic approach outlined above, passing through La Mure and over the Col d'Ornon.  This was very pleasant but still left me with the task of going back to Grenoble on N91 – with 130 kilometers and two large climbs in my legs and a stiff headwind in my face.  The third time up L'Alpe d'Huez, I did it right.  I drove, parked in Rochetaillée, and used the seven kilometers to Bourg d'Oisans as a warm-up.

L'Alpe d'Huez

In contrast to what one might expect, Alpe d'Huez is not a particularly difficult climb.  I am not saying that it is easy because it is not, but there are plenty of harder climbs around Grenoble, and the special atmosphere of Tour de France memories wafting in the air and famous cyclists' names painted on the pavement gives everyone who attempts this climb an extra boost.  If you start this climb, you will finish it – on the condition that you survive the first four hairpins, which clock in at a brutal 11%.  After that, it is cruising.  Near the top, in the resort village of Alpe d'Huez, the gradient levels enough for the big chain ring to share the fun, and soon after navigating a roundabout, the finish line of all Alpe d'Huez stages is crossed.  My third time up, I was brave – or overconfident and reckless – and continued climbing.  A few weeks earlier, I had talked to an older cyclist somewhere out on a ride and he had explained that the road from Alpe d'Huez to the Col de Sarenne had been freshly paved and was pure joy to ride.  Now I found myself climbing through what looked like prime mountain bike territory on this warm summer day, with singletracks crossing the road every once in a while. After half an hour, I came to a parking lot, and the road ended.  Where was the Col de Sarenne?

A map explained that I had crossed the Col de Poutran and was now at Lac Besson, 250 meters above Alpe d'Huez.  The deep hole opening straight ahead of me was the Vaujany ski area.  A stunning sight, but not what I had come for.  My legs somewhat tired, I turned around and descended back to the Tour stage finish line and then beyond, to the roundabout.  There, I found a sign to the col I was looking for, but in a direction a hundred eighty degrees from the one I had gone earlier.  After one or two kilometers through the village, the surface of the road, as black and smooth as it should be, deteriorated suddenly and gave way to a marginally paved forest road, except there was no forest around, only the high Alpine desert of grey rocks and grass burned brown by the unrelenting sun.  I was already cursing the road and my encounter with the gentleman cyclist weeks earlier when I hit the first stream crossing.  It was dry, thankfully, but constructed of large, ragged rocks that could only be traversed with great delicacy on a road bike.  My wheels and tubes stayed intact, but my morals suffered.  What had happened to smooth, freshly paved, enjoyable?

I reached the col incredibly slowly, after having spotted it a good half hour earlier, but I was still bent on finishing the ride as planned.  So I dropped into the unknown.  The first kilometer of the descent continued as the climb had ended, rough, begraveled and far from enjoyable.  Then suddenly, everything changed at once.  The ragged desert gave way to pine-studded meadows, fresh humidity took over from dust and, most importantly, smooth fresh pavement covered the road.  The next nine kilometers could not have taken me more than ten minutes.  What a joyride, what a thrill, what a riot, worth every minute of suffering.  Arrived at the base of the climb that is also the base of Les Deux Alpes, I briefly considered going up there as well, but sanity took over after only a few hundred meters.  I cycled back to Bourg d'Oisans amidst the N91 traffic and was very happy to have a car parked in Rochetaillée.  I would now be part of the crazy drivers going to Grenoble and not suffer from them.

July and December 2007