Cycling in France: Of legs, lungs and lunacy

In the wake of the Tour de France, it's time to climbs in the saddle.

Our group of cyclists hits the first of the 21 hairpins at the bottom of the legendary Alpe d'Huez. The tension becomes almost palpable. Up above, the road seems to wind on and on forever. How are we going to get up this monster?

It's massively steeper and longer than any of us ever imagined.

We're completely intimidated - and that's before we even get on our bikes. We're still in the bus from the airport, grinding our way to our accommodation at the top of the mountain. Tomorrow we'll be in the saddle and the suffering will start for real.

To explain how I, not really a cyclist, came to be spending a week riding up notorious mountain passes in the French Alps it's necessary to go back a year or so.

The scene is dinner with a couple of keen cycling friends and their wives. The pair are talking about their upcoming holiday combining five days' brutal cycling with the chance to watch a stage of the Tour de France.

"You should go, too. Chance of a lifetime!" announces my wife in a chardonnay-induced attack of enthusiasm. And, in an equally wine-charged fit of exuberance (how hard could it be?) that same night I book my spot on the trip.

The Alpe d'Huez, about 150 kilometres east of Lyon, is the most famous and historic of all the Tour de France mountain stages, attracting hundreds of thousands of manic fans who for days before the race line the precipitous road in their camper vans, slowly working themselves up into a frenzy of drunken anticipation.

Imagine Mount Panorama but with Lycra and better food.

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Our group of 20 or so cyclists is staying in the old part of the village in what is evidently a ski chalet during the winter months - basic but cosy, with a large lounge/dining room. We're looked after by a young husband and wife team from Britain, whose main task is to serve huge, carbohydrate-heavy meals to endlessly hungry cyclists.

The pleasure of getting back to the chalet after a shattering day's cycling to find a massive afternoon tea laid out, complete with freshly baked cakes, is hard to overstate.

After dinner there is a briefing on the following day's riding, including details of where the support vans will be, the shorter options for the faint of heart and, crucially, how high and how steep that day's mountains will be.

Each day begins with the heart-stopping descent down Alpe d'Huez, daring ourselves to stay off the brakes later and later into each corner. It's hard not to think of the massive drops beyond the insubstantial barriers on each turn, although the more fearless riders evidently manage it as they plunge past me at speeds of up to 70km/h.

Once safely at the bottom, the hard work begins. Until you experience the big Alpine passes they are just so many famous names that flash by on the TV coverage of the tour - the Col du Glandon, the Col de Sarenne, Les Deux Alpes ... Ride them, however, and every turn and pinch of the mountain becomes seared in your memory, and none more so than the fearsome Col du Galibier.

We tackle it on day four. Before the base of the 8-kilometre climb to the top of the 2600-metre Galibier there is the small matter of ascending the 39-kilometre long Col du Lauteret.

The final push to the Galibier summit features ridiculously spectacular alpine scenery with plunging waterfalls and snow-capped peaks all around. It's almost possible to lose yourself in the stunning views and ignore the screaming legs and aching lungs. Almost.

The top of the Galibier is a mad tangle of triumphant cyclists handing iPhones back and forth for photos in front of the summit sign.

The sense of achievement is something I can't imagine ever forgetting. After the massive effort of the Galibier we have a day off from the bikes because it is day 18 of Le Tour. The riders are to complete a historic double ascent of Alpe d'Huez in a route that takes them, literally, past the front door of our chalet.

Hundreds of thousands of cycling fans descend on the village, lining the road three and four deep.

The build-up is long, noisy and boozy and then the leaders are upon us and suddenly gone, followed by the chasing group and then the peloton. It's gratifying to note that most of them look completely knackered, too.

Although, to be fair, they climb at least three times more quickly than any of us managed.

Next day sees us back at the foot of Alpe d'Huez for the "Grand Depart" - the beginning of Stage 19 - in the town of Bourg d'Oisans. It's chaos: a mad melange of the tour team buses, traffic, bikes and cyclists, all looking for a possie to see the start of the race.

It's as if the town realised only that morning that a few people might turn up to watch the cycling. And just as quickly, the tour riders are gone, off on another day of unfathomable suffering on the French roads.

All that's left for us is to climb Alpe d'Huez for the final time, grinding up the 21 bends for more than 90 minutes past a 6-kilometre tailback of camper vans leaving the mountain. Adrian Hill is a veteran cyclist and owner of Alpcycles, the company who have been looking after us. I ask if anyone could do it.

He ponders a while and says of course, but you need a pretty solid base of fitness.

"But in the end it's not even so much the fitness," he adds. "It's the willpower to survive and get to the top. The wanting to do it and just keep on pedalling. As an accomplishment I don't think it can be beaten."

The writer travelled as a guest of Alpcycles.com.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Emirates has a fare to Paris for about $2000 return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. You fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Paris (7hr 30min); see emirates.com, 1300 303 777. This fare category allows you to fly to and from Dubai via other Asian cities and back from other European cities including Lyon (taxes and actual fare will vary slightly).

TOURING THERE

The writer hired top-end road bikes via French Alps cycling specialists, Alpcycles.com costing $380 for the week. The bikes were set up to make you as comfortable as possible during the long - and steep - days in the saddle.

MORE INFORMATION

alpcycles.com.

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