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Pearl Izumi

Pearl Izumi Part 4: A Day of Surprises

Words/Images: James Startt

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As we climbed up and around the mythic Alpe d’Huez over the past few days, we could not ignore what appeared to be a mountain road that skirts the face of the mountain across the Romanche River valley below. “What was that climb?” we kept wondering. “Is that really a road?” And so, on our last afternoon at L’Alpe d’Huez, we decide to find out. The climb, we discover, leads to the alpine villages of Villard-Notre-Dame and Villard-Reymond, but the road up there remains questionable.

Simply finding the obscure D219 in the back streets of Bourg d’Oisans proves challenging. But as soon as we begin climbing through the forest out of town, we find ourselves in another world altogether. Built in the 1930s on a mountain ledge, the climb to Villard-Notre-Dame makes even the spectacular Balcons d’Auris seem tame in comparison, as we climb for nearly 10 kilometers on a single-lane road that dangles over the dramatic valley. Once out of the forest we quickly gain significant altitude offering spectacular views.

But the views do not come without a price tag, as the road is treacherous. With spring turning to summer, the melting snows create spectacular cascades of water—and frequent rockslides as well. Theo, a regional triathlete who serves as our guide, has little time to look around. “Oh no,” he says, “I was too busy trying to avoid fallen rocks on the road besides getting simply drenched from the cascades.” As we soon learn, Theo is better at avoiding the rock falls than the waterfalls, which frequently cross this narrow, dizzying road.

Spicing up the climb even more are numerous tunnels chiseled through the rock. Because the D219 is considered such a minor road, none of the tunnels are lit, and the sudden shift from glaring light to total darkness can easily hide further traps. Theo nevertheless loves the challenge. “Climbing in the Alps at this time of year is always special,” he says. “You see things at this time of year that you don’t see again. There are just so many surprises!”

The richness of the rock formations here holds a unique beauty as they often boast rich grains and colors. And while the climb harbors its own dangers, its beauty simply inspires awe.

After nearly 10 kilometers of riding through what can only be described as a cycling sanctuary, we finally turn right where another series of turns take us off the cliff face and onto the mountain. Soon enough we pass through Villard-Notre-Dame, our first destination. Essentially a hamlet of farmhouses, the village does announce the presence of a bar, but where it is exactly is not immediately evident. And, besides, we still have plenty of road to discover—or at least we think that.

Exiting Villard-Notre-Dame the road continues to climb, although the pavement soon deteriorates. Passing a lone farmhouse, there’s suddenly more gravel than pavement. But what makes our journey even more difficult is the increasing presence of snow on the road. Obviously no snowplow can navigate up such a technical climb in the winter months. And as we soon discover, on this May day, the winter’s blanket of snow has yet to melt away.

At first we manage to navigate around the spots of snow, but we soon learn that the first occurrence of snow on the road is no exception but, instead, a sign of what lies ahead. First we struggle with the car, and it’s only with Theo’s help that we manage to continue. But soon enough it becomes clear that our journey is coming to an abrupt end. Theo manages to pedal on, but only for several hundred meters. According to our GPS, our final destination of Villard-Reymond is less than 3 kilometers away…but we have simply run out of road.

“Amazing,” says Theo. “On a day full of surprises, this is the ultimate one. Waterfalls and avalanches I can navigate, but not 2 feet of snow! Now, I would need cross-country skis for that.” Aware that our final ride has come to a premature end, Theo admires his unlikely surroundings for a moment. “Oh well,” he says. “I guess I’ll just have to return when the snow melts!”