Trail of the unexpected: Cycling in the French Alps

How to tackle the Alpe d'Huez stage of the Tour de France? In a low gear, says Simon Calder

Energy drinks? Strong coffee? Performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals? No, the best way to guarantee the surge of power you need to complete the Tour de France's toughest climb is for a 12-year-old, riding an even worse bike than yours, to overtake you with a friendly wave.

On Friday, the Tour de France returns to Alpe d'Huez, after an absence of three years. The étape (stage) from Modane tackles some of the toughest mountain riding in the Alps, culminating in the 21 hairpin bends of the climb to the ski resort at 6,070ft. "The stage everyone is afraid of," is how the official Tour website describes it.

Yet if you miss out the first 60 miles or so, and start at the pretty town of Bourg d'Oisans, there is no need for Stage fright. Indeed, you might just find that you surprise yourself – and enjoy some spectacular Alpine views into the bargain.

On a chilling April morning I collected a VTT (as the French call mountain bikes) from the centre of Bourg d'Oisans, a tidy little town with a butcher, a baker and bicycle shop, which does brisk business in renting out bikes. But like rental bicycles everywhere, in my experience, they are not the best in show.

An ill-tempered, battle-scarred and slovenly brute – and my bike was little better. But I set off anyway, with the essential supplies (three bananas and a bottle of water) in a carrier bag dangling from the handlebars in a non-Tour de France fashion. My garb would hardly cut la moutarde in the peloton (the pack of cyclists that moves like a high-speed, supercharged organism), either.

On the grounds that anyone over 40 wearing Lycra should, like the people responsible for French pop music, be locked up, I opted for a long-sleeved T-shirt, baggy old shorts and a pair of old M&S shoes.

The first half-mile was along an unnervingly flat road that leads across to what appeared to be a sheer cliff with a zig-zag notch carved in it. To avoid having to look the enemy in the face, my gaze instead wandered up and down the stunning Romanche Valley – one of the most beautiful connections between France and Italy. A very fine prospect, it is too: a vein running deep into the Alps, getting increasingly constricted the closer it gets to the international frontier.

In a taunt no doubt aimed at amateur cyclists like me, the local council makes sure the next town up the valley is well-signposted: La Grave.

Then the business of tackling the impasse began – and, with it, the enlightment that this was just a good old slog, using the second-lowest of 21 gears (the lowest being saved for emergencies). The mountainside was steep, but the D211 is a well-engineered road that has a fairly constant gradient of about one in 10. And so long as you're not from Norfolk, you'll know that the average road-fit cyclist can manage that without getting off and walking. "Use low gear" urged the road signs; thanks, I will, even though these are aimed at descending motorists rather than ascending cyclists.

So you start to enjoy the view: the mountain panorama becoming enriched with every turn, and the density of flora declining at the same rate. But human settlement endures. Long before the 20th century arrived and the French decided every commune needed a proper road connection, the valleys of the Savoy comprised an essential part of the food chain. La Garde has survived as a real village, though these days its winter occupation is providing board for skiers. And further up the mountain, the Church of St-Ferreol remains as a mighty testament to devotion.

Unlike any other road I have cycled along, each bend has a name – belonging to one of the previous touristes who had won this stage. This makes for useful distraction as you are hauling yourself past hairpin 15 (Peter Winnen, Holland, 1981). But bearing in mind the cruel toll of Le Tour over the years, I was alarmed to see a white roadside cross draw near. Thankfully, it was merely a reminder of the church services that awaited at Notre-Dame des Neiges in Huez village, ahead.

Divine intervention took the form of the young lad and his cheery "Allez!" as he overtook me. Galvanised, I accelerated past a sign advising me, in 200 metres, to apply chains to my tyres, and began to pass the scruffy side-industries to do with skiing. I threaded through the village, beneath gleaming chrome cable-car cabins, to a car park adjacent to an apartment block. Is this it? "Itineraire du Tour de France – Arrivée," announced the sign.

The climb had taken about 75 minutes; on Friday, the professionals will do it in less than 20. I shall watch to see if they spruce up the finish line – and if that irritating 12-year-old makes an appearance.

Travel essentials: Alpe d'Huez

* Bourg d'Oisans is accessible from Grenoble, which is also the location for the nearest airport, however it is only served by winter flights. Instaed, either fly to Lyon, or take a train via Paris.

* You can rent a VTT bike from Au Cadre Rouge at 20 rue du Général de Gaulle (00 33 4 76 80 13 81; aucadrerouge.fr) for €22 per half-day.

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