New for the 2015 Tour, this is Hairpin Heaven. Alpe d’Huez might be famous for its 21 bends but here’s a road with 18 hairpins in short formation. One bend follows another, a helter-skelter for the road cyclist and just a short spin away from some of the famous climbs of the Tour de France. But is it as good as it looks?
The Route: the D77B starts in Pontamafrey-Montpascal in the Savoie department of France. The road heads north to Montvernier. The climb is 3.8km long and averages 8%.
The Feel: the sign at the start says Montvernier is 8km away and you should turn the right. Ignore it. Take the road with the small cyclotouriste sign for the Lacets de Montvernier. Lacet is French a loop or hairpin bend and it’s not like you need signs, maps or GPS to spot the tarmac garland winding down the mountainside.
The road climbs past a few houses and then heads straight for the hairpins. Listed as four kilometres long, the bendy section is concentrated within a 2.5km stretch meaning a bend every 150 metres. This is the steepest part.
Alpe d’Huez’s hairpins are wide and gentle and engineered so that tourist coaches can pass each other. Here large vehicles are banned and if a cyclist and car meet each must check their line. The road is narrower and cut into the rock face – it’s south-facing and in summer the rock walls radiate heat.
You’ll lose count of the corners, there are no numbered bends, but you can sense the end is coming as you get higher and then the road passes below a small chapel and then heads in to a plateau. The mistake is to think the climb is done. Once the bends are done but it rises through pastures and this section is a bit deflating, hard work without the views. Press on for a kilometre and you reach Montvernier where there’s a fountain to top up your bottles.
The Verdict: for all the seductive images and curves, this is a road that looks better from afar. It’s like looking at a Rembrant, by all means enjoy the detail but you need to stand back to appreciate the full picture. When climbing you’re so close to the cliff face that you lose the perspective. But you gain in other ways, notably the feel of the road. At four kilometres this can’t be sprinted up but it’s worth scaling as fast as you can in order to feel mild G-force on the bends as your arms tighten on the bars and it does feel faster than it should. Unlike the nearby Alpe d’Huez you can do one bend and then aim straight to the next; unlike Alpe d’Huez the bends offer no respite, the road climbs upwards through the corner.
Downhill: to descend is different, the corners come so fast that it becomes very technical. Unlike other Alpine descents a high speed is impossible, this is all about braking and cornering. It’s more reminiscent of the Poggio with the brake-corner-sprint reps, only longer and the surface is rougher.
History: the road dates from 1934. The Col du Ventour to the south-east allows traffic reach to the plateau and the construction of this winding route seems absurd but visitors are all the better for it. Over the years it’s gained a reputation amongst cyclotouristes as a road to tackle but I can’t find a trace of a major race using the road.
Travel and Access: this isn’t a remote climb, it sits next to famous Tour climbs like the Col de Madeleine, the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Glandon, all within a short spin and a little further up the valley is the mighty Col du Galibier via the Télégraphe. In other words if you’re in the area for one of these big cols, here’s an ideal rest day spin, a thrill instead of an epic ride.
The town of St Jean de Maurienne is a good enough place – FDJ have a deal with the town as their Alpine base – but remember the main valley road is busy and at times industrial so climb to get away from it all. It can all be reached by train and autoroute and the end of the valley marks the border with Italy via either the Fréjus tunnel or the Col du Mont Cenis meaning it’s within reach if you’re visiting the Val di Susa and Sestriere too.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads