Tackling the Tour de France hills

The Tour de France, which starts today, is a distant dream for 'middling cyclists' like Roger Thomas. But that didn't stop him and his friends taking on some of the notorious ascents

When the Tour hits the base of the Madeleine on 13 July the riders will be fresh for their first climb of the day. The col was our first and only climb of the day. While the riders will have to cycle 173km over the Madeleine, Télégraphe and Galibier, we made do with just the one, thank you very much.

The col was our introduction to the mountains on a week-long cycling trip, taking in several of the Tour's iconic climbs. It was a daunting exercise not just physically; it also told me a lot about the wildly variable quality of two-star French hotels, the need to plan for snow in summer, and - if you are, like me, a middling kind of cyclist - the Machiavellian imperative to ensure there's someone slower in your group. And you'd be daft to try it without a support car - in our case two girlfriends.

We jumped in at the deep end with the (1,993m) Madeleine. It's a stunningly scenic climb that winds through the woods before bursting into open mountainside dotted with huts and hamlets. It was here that my crafty group management kicked in. "M" (I've promised no names) cycles in his sleep as well as commuting 60 miles to work and back by bike each day, rain or shine. But his pedal-power was offset by the more pedestrian "O" (who eats too many cakes) and "N" (who never got further than a few hills during his training regime).

I cannot overemphasise the need for that morale-boosting moment when you snick the Shimano into a higher gear and pass a wheezing companion. It's cruel, it's childish - and it kept me going as M disappeared into the distance with some French cyclists.

That night was spent at St Jean-de-Maurienne in a timewarp hotel with a funereal dining room. On the menu for the day were two cols - the Croix de la Fer and Glandon. A baking climb out of St Jean soon sapped our optimism, followed by a truly biblical thunderstorm on the descent to Bourg-d'Oisans that almost washed me off the bike.

The Hotel de Milan in the middle of Bourg made up in character for what it lacked in comfort. When you gazed at the faded, art deco façade, decorative ironwork and dining room that must once have been packed with guests on motor tours of the Alps, you could almost forgive the whiff of diesel that wafted up the lift shaft from the basement.

Then there was the view from our balcony of the sheer-sided mountain up to Alpe d'Huez, a ski station separated from the valley floor by 21 hairpins, each one named after a famous Tour de France rider. Bourg-d'Oisans is a cyclist's dream. The cafés and restaurants advertise carbohydrate-loading "menu cyclistes". Every summer it hosts La Marmotte, an insane pre-Tour bike ride for amateurs (if that's the right word) involving around 5,000m of climbing and more than 170km of cycling ... all in a day.

Tennis enthusiasts never get to play at Wimbledon; football fans can only dream of scoring at Old Trafford. At Bourg, you just turn up with your bike, cycle down the road, and begin the fabled climb to Alpe-d'Huez, a 15km, 1,000m ascent that often plays a make-or-break role in the Tour de France. You have the emotional experience of following in the wheeltracks of your cycling heroes - Merckx, Hinault, Indurain, Armstrong (pictured, right)- on a relentless climb, each of those 21 hairpins cruelly numbered so you know how much more sweat and strain you have to endure before reaching the top. I did it, I think, in around an hour and a half. The record is an unbelievable 37 minutes.

It put our measly efforts into the shade as we laboured up the endless Col du Lautaret from Bourg on day four of our trip. There's a delightful Alpine Garden at the top, but we were in no mood for sightseeing. Lauteret, as any self-respecting cyclist knows, is a false summit. It leads to yet another col - the fearsome, soul-destroying Galibier another 750m higher - that, at the end of a hard day, is a head-down grind.

The find of the week lay beneath us. Swooping down off the Galibier we came to Valloire, a living mountain village with real people and real streets, and an antidote to the alien architecture of places like Alpe-d'Huez and Tignes. It's attractive without being sickly sweet chocolate-box pretty. What's more, my web searches unearthed the Hotel de la Poste, which served the best of the many tartiflettes (a hearty, cheese-based mountain dish) consumed by our calorie-starved group.

Valloire's location on a high, green shelf allowed us to let gravity do all the work, descending the Col de la Telegraph into the Maurienne valley, a scrappy, semi-industrial thoroughfare into Italy. We cycled only as far as Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis, a ski resort near the border. They might as well have opened the lifts, for the temperature suddenly plummeted and we woke up to a light covering of fresh snow on the mountains - in high summer. Not a good prospect as the highest climb of the week awaited us, up over the 2,764m Col de l'Iseran to Val d'Isère.

There were skiers on the glacier as we crested the col, our bodies blowing hot and cold at the same time. If the Hotel de la Poste was the high point of the week, then the café at the summit easily scraped the barrel. The barrel might have been the source of the tasteless pile of spaghetti bolognese that even "O" failed to consume, or the watery broth that passed for soup.

The warmth hit us like a welcoming wall as we zoomed down into the valley. Summer suddenly returned and alpine flowers passed in a whirr of colour as we cycled through high pasture to Val, the ebullient ski resort nicely subdued in its summer persona now that half of London was safely back home. The coffee cost a stinging €3.50, but what the hell. We'd survived our clutch of cols, French beds, hot sun and freezing snow. Next year, it has to be La Marmotte.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The group flew with their own bikes to Geneva on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www. easyJet. com), which has departures from several UK airports.

Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www. holidayautos. co.uk) offers one week's inclusive hire for £250.

STAYING THERE

Hotel de Milan (00 33 476 80 0123), Avenue du Gal de Gaulle, Bourg. Doubles from €49 (£35).

Hotel de la Poste (00 33 4 79 59 03 47; www. hotel delaposte. net), Rue des Grands Alps, Valloire. Doubles from €42 (£30).

FURTHER INFORMATION

La Marmotte pre-Tour cycle race (www. sport communication. com).

Bourg-d'Oisans (00 33 4 7680 0325).

St Jean-de-Maurienne (00 33 4 7983 5151; www. stjean demaurienne. com).

Valloire Tourism (00 33 4 7959 0396; www. valloire. com).

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