After climbing the two principal routes of the Alpe d’Huez area, first up the mythic 21 turns and then over the Pas de la Confession, we start looking for creative alternatives. Noting a small road that turns south from the main climb at La Garde, we soon discover the amazing Balcons d’Auris.
Words/Images: James Startt
While on a map the road, the tiny D211A, simply appears to parallel the valley road that goes from Bourg d’Oisans toward Briançon, we soon discover that it could not be more different. Narrow and winding, it is constantly climbing. And despite the relatively low altitude the road offers spectacular views, not to mention dizzying heights.
For those riding from Bourg d’Oisans, there is no alternative to first climbing up the main road around the Alpe’s first five switchbacks, including the steepest pitches, before turning right at turn 16. But after a night at the summit in the elegant Hôtel Les Grandes Rousses we enjoy the sinuous cruise down from the Alpe and then turn left as we enter La Garde. While the descent continues briefly afterward, everything we soon discover, is about to change.
The main road up to the Alpe, while littered with turns, remains large and accessible. Almost never closed to snow in the winter, the road has long guaranteed that L’Alpe d’Huez remains one of the biggest ski resorts in France. But if there is one drawback to the 21 turns, it’s that the road remains heavily trafficked and, as a cyclist, you’re never alone. Such a scenario changes instantly once you turn onto Les Balcons, as you are quickly greeted by a cascading waterfall and brightly reflecting rock faces from which the road is essentially chiseled out.
“The actual climb starts gently,” Theo, a local rider who’s showing us the roads in the region, says. “But already when you are still in the trees it gets steep quickly. And then, when you hit the little village of L’Armentier, we open into the Route de la Roche and, oh man, wow, you are in a place where you rarely ride a bike.”
Les Balcons in French is quite literally “the balconies.” And this road gets its name from its passage across the Route de la Roche, a narrow passage that is quite literally etched from the rock formations that dangle above the valley. Here, on the Route de la Roche, two oncoming cars are faced with an instant problem, as it is impossible to pass. Instead, one must pull off on one of the small rest areas, pivotally placed to negotiate such situations. So narrow is this passage over Les Balcons and so steep is the drop that even Theo hesitates to take his eye off the road in front of him, no matter how spectacular the views may be.
“Man, if you are the dizzying type, stay away!” Theo says flatly. “This road is not for the faint at heart. What’s more, the open rock face really reflects the sun and all of a sudden the temperatures really rise. It’s like an oven here in the summer.”
Theo of course is perfectly equipped for the radical temperature changes in his Pearl Izumi PRO Pursuit Speed Jersey and the heat is more than welcome on this alpine spring day. Making his way up above the valley, Theo nevertheless cannot help but steal a glimpse of La Romanche River several hundred meters below. “Yeah, but just a glimpse!” he says later. “Just a glimpse.”
It’s only after nearly 10 kilometers that the road opens up again. One road veers left and climbs toward the small ski resort of Le Freney d’Oisans. But after several ascents of the Alpe already, this morning’s ride is supposed to be more relaxed, so we opt to head down toward the main valley road.
Enjoying a more open road, not to mention an improved road surface, Theo gets into a tuck and attacks the descent as he makes his way down toward the Lac du Chambon, which sits at the foot of the climb to another famous ski resort, Les Deux-Alpes. Once in the valley we make our way back toward Bourg d’Oisans where it’s soon time for lunch. Our final afternoon ride will take us up to Villard-Notre-Dame, on the mountain face directly opposite to Alpe d’Huez. But first it’s time to savor Les Balcons.
“That was pretty epic,” Theo says, obviously enjoying his lunch from a local bakery. “But, hey, I thought that was supposed to be our easy ride!”