Saturday, July 18, 2009

Col de l’Iseran

Today’s ride was at once one of the best and worst rides I have ever been on. The weather was not at all cooperative, but having come thousands of miles to tackle this climb, we wanted to at least give it a go. We started right around noon from the ski village of Lanslebourg. The temperature was about 45 degrees and it looked like the clouds were sitting pretty low in the direction we were headed. As you can see from the elevation profile (I'll add it soon) the ride starts with a bit of a climb and then levels off for several miles before ultimately climbing straight up the side of the mountain for the last 8 miles.

The first hour of the ride was perfect. Cool, but not cold. That would change all too soon. The valley was absolutely spectacular. We crossed an impressive glacial river on a couple of occasions, and you couldn’t go too far without seeing a waterfall coming down the side of the mountain. It’s really difficult to put into words how impressive it all was.
Once we got to the end of the valley and the tiny village of Bonneval-sur-Arc (which was also amazing), things started to change. From here the climb kicked up to an average of over 8% with several sections of 12-15%. That wasn’t too concerning. The real problem was the rain and the temperature. A few miles into the climb, it was dipping into the 30s and it had rained enough that I was pretty well soaked. I really, really wanted to turn around but I also didn’t want to miss out on getting to the top of the col. The last few miles were ridiculous, with 40+mph wind gusts and sleet and snow blowing straight across the road. The ice was starting to build up on my bike and the road just kept pointing up. I knew I could make it to the top, but I had no idea how I would get down. Once I stopped pedaling it was going to get very, very cold.
We made it to the summit and stopped just long enough for the obligatory photo before starting the descent. I don’t think it was even a mile before my body began to completely shutdown. I was shaking uncontrollably and it was getting to be unsafe. I got off the bike and started walking. At that point I knew my only option was to flag down a car and hope someone would be kind enough to give me a lift to Bonneval-sur-Arc. It took a while (there aren’t that many cars on this road), but before too long a very nice couple stopped and let us pile into the back of their van. By now, Brett (who was previously doing OK) was also shivering uncontrollably. They cranked up the heat, and by the time we got down to the village I could once again feel my fingers and toes.
We dove into the café/restaurant and ordered four bowls (yes, bowls) of hot chocolate. By now it was almost 4:00, so we ordered food as well and took our time eating. By the time we were done, my core temperature felt like it was about back to normal and I felt pretty good about finishing the ride.

From Bonneval back to Lanslebourg the ride was comparatively uneventful. The sun came back out and the scenery was indescribable. By the time we finished the ride we both felt pretty good. We packed up the bikes and headed for home.


  1. Wow. What a ride. Glad you were safe. I love the picture of you with the hot chocolate.

  2. Justin here-- Am I permitted to diagnose you with hypothermia? I experienced that one time in the White Mtns where my body was shaking out of control and my mind got numb. At least you had enough clarity of mind stop and warm up. Sounds like an epic day, though--way to go. Keep the posts coming.

  3. Thanks for giving me something else to worry about! I'm grateful to the kind people who brought you down, and hope you don't need them again.