The bikes we ride everyday only have one gear. The simplicity and love of those bikes means we don’t really want to ride anything else, even up hill. You’re always in the right gear. There is no question, just whether you can convince your body to turn the cranks.
Of course the main topic of conversation was “what gear will you be running…?”
Finding the balance between being able to ascend an Alp and actually ride down it comfortably whilst carrying the minimum amount of tools was a challenge for everyone. One which was made more complicated for those needing a magic gear.
All of us settled for something in the circa 60–70 inch gear range, putting us on a somewhat level playing field (aside from the huge variation in fitness.)
- A beautiful custom bamboo fixed gear with a magic ratio of either 48x18 or 48x23.
- A Bianchi road bike turned singlespeed with a magic 45x18.
- A Genesis Flyer with 48x21 and backup 48x18 & 48x16.
- A whole backup bike with gears — Croix de Fer 931 Stainless Steel
Which Alp, When and How
With so many amazing options and a wide open agenda, we needed to narrow it down to something accessible, inexpensive and of course spectacular. Alpe D’Huez became our front runner as an iconic climb but also opening up a few Cols from the books.
There’s probably a perfect time to cycle in the Alps but even summer sportives have been abandoned due to weather so we decided to chance our luck with mid-October 2018 — the main reason being it was when we were all free.
With bikes on the car roof we set off for a weekend of riding, on a Thursday overnight from London to the Alps. The rationale:
‘Let’s not arrive on Saturday tired. Let’s drive all day Friday so we get the most out of the few days we have there…. Well, if Friday is going to be a write off, let’s travel Thursday night and get a half day riding in on Friday…. maybe Alpe d’huez..’
We arrived weary but eager to get climbing at our perfect basecamp Ferme Noemie which was perfectly equipped, ideally located for some spectacular riding and complete with impeccable local knowledge and guides.
Climbing Alpe D’Huez
With very little sleep and plenty of uncertainty we made the final tweaks to our bikes and set off for the Alp.
One by one we left the ‘Depart’ marker at the bottom with a nervous “See you at the top… enjoy it!”
The climb was as described by friends, the Col Collective and many other articles. Very tough at the beginning but rewarding once above the tree line.
The countdown markers which decrease from Bend 21 to zero were both reassuring and at times deflating, e.g. “Bend 1, summit 3km” — !How on earth can there be 3km to go?!!
The gradient profile does not tell the full story on paper, but frequent reminders that you were on an iconic climb helped to frame the scale of the task and put things into perspective.
All bikes and riders summited the mountain. Some faster than others and some by the skin of their teeth. The first climb of our trip confirmed our beliefs, that it is possible to cycle up an Alp on the bike you own, even if it only has one gear.
After a gear swap, the descent was jaw dropping as we opted for a balcony road out of Huez village half way down.
Col de la Croix de Fer
Day 2, with our party of 3 becoming 5 including 2 geared friends, our sights turned to Col de la Croix de Fer. A long climb that completely changes your perspective on what a hill actually is. At around 28km with just a few dips along the way it was an astonishing journey.
I cheated and swapped to my bike honoured with the same name as the climb. With this geared bike I ticked along feeling the mixture of self-doubt that I could have done it fixed, a desire to treat the bike to the climb it was named after and a lust for a freewheeling downhill.
The views and weather kept us all in check with it being virtually impossible to not comment on both continuously.
An incredible climb which as demonstrated by my dear friends is entirely achievable with a single gear. I will go back to prove it to myself.
Our final day included a surprise double — a local loop recommended by our excellent host at Ferme Noemie and a chunk of the Galibier. My lesson learned, I would be back with my team riding fixed.
The local loop had the makings of a perfect route for us — a quiet but amazing climb, some gravel, incredible views, a mountain hugging descent littered with pitch black tunnels and sheer drops which would be fatal given a mistake.
The summit also boasted views of Alpe D’Huez and visibility of over 103miles.
Of all the riding we did, I would ride this route again (and again, and again…)
Finally, the very chilly Galibier climb we tackled starting at 2000m high and just 8km long was an entirely different experience, one which firmly reminded us that we were in the mountains. The balmy 19C in the valley had been swapped for single digits.
The ascent and descent were achieved as quickly as possible followed by a rush into a warm car. Our accommodation host was again correct “Take all your clothes with you, it’s cold at the top.”
It was a perfect bookend to our trip and a ride which we snuck in before our long drive through the night back to London.
I wasn’t fast, but it really didn’t matter and I loved the experience. I enjoyed riding my fixed bike more than a geared bike. Our perspective on the definition of a climb has changed and a whole load of possibilities has opened up as a result.
If your main bike is a fixed gear or singlespeed, you should absolutely take it to the Alps, it’s amazing.