Alpe d'Huez, France

If you're a skier, which I'm not, the ski resort of Alpe d'Huez in the French Alps might ring a bell. Why? It boasts the world's longest ski run (almost 10 miles long). If you're a bicyclist then Alpe d'Huez might be familiar because the ascent up the mountain to the resort has been the finish to more than 20 stages of the Tour de France. Cycling is a BIG, BIG deal here in the summer. Let me explain. The Tour de France generally lasts about three weeks and usually involves 20 races (or stages). Many of the stages are longer than 100 miles. From the valley floor village of Bourg d'Oisans it's nine very steep miles to Alpe d'Huez. The fastest time up the mountain was 37 minutes, 35 seconds by Italian Marco Pantani in the 1997 Tour de France. What you also need to remember is that the stage race that day was 120 miles so; Pantani had already ridden 111 miles when he arrived at the bottom of the mountain to start the nine mile ascent. Somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 spectators usually line the mountain road to watch the riders.

In the summer months about a THOUSAND cyclists per day (recreational and expert) pedal up the mountain to Alpe d'Huez. Cyclists come from all over the world to do the climb-it's sort of a rite of passage or like visiting Mecca. The route zig-zags with 21 switchbacks/bends/hairpins. How do I know the number? There's a sign at each switchback listing the elevation, the number of the switchback your passing and a name of former winner of the stage. Enterprising photographers are raking in money from the onslaught of cyclists. On the way up I passed four photographers stationed at different switchbacks who stand in the middle of the road snapping shots of passing cyclists. They then shove a business card at you. Later, you go to their websites and can purchase photos.

The Dutch take over Alpe d'Huez in the summer. Bus tours from the Netherlands bring Dutch cyclists here by the hundreds for a week or two of cycling in these magnificent mountains. Why do the Dutch love this place so much? Hey, if you have ever been to flat-as-a-pancake Holland you'd understand.

So, what was my time getting up the mountain? Did I beat the 37 minute record set by Pantani in 1997? Not quite. Did I mention doing it with fully loaded front and rear panniers (saddlebags)? Did I mention being passed by over 200 cyclists including around 50 women? My time: One hour and 50 minutes. Were there downsides to doing it with fully loaded front and rear panniers? Well, besides the obvious weight factor there was another big problem: flies. I was swarmed non-stop! I'm convinced the flies communicated to others that I was on the way up! The message sent was probably as follows: "Hey, easy pickings is heading your way, it's a shirtless, slow moving dimwit who's sweating like a pig". Hmm, why doesn't someone put together a race up the mountain with fully loaded front and rear panniers?

Alpe d'Huez isn't a high-end resort like Megeve, France or Gstaad, Switzerland so you won't find fancy clothes and watch boutiques. It doesn't seem to be on the route for tour bus operators either judging by the few shops hawking touristy wares. The long tobaggan ride down the hill looks like fun and one can hop on the adjacent chair lift to return to the beginning to do it again. Ski lifts abound here with several whisking hikers and mountain bikers up the mountain.

Is this place hopping or is it dead in the summer?
Absolutely swarming with road cyclists and mountain bikers.

Is there a lake and/or golf course in town?

Arriving by car the only option?
No train service but, buses make regular runs up the mountain from the valley floor village of Bourg d'Oisans.

Does the place feel claustrophobic?
You feel like you're on top of the world.

Lots of choices for acccomodations (hotels/ chalets) and do I have recommendations?
There are 18 hotels of varying degrees and a slew of furnished holiday accomodations.

Could I spend a whole summer here or would I get bored?
A week would be my limit.