After two days of power-packed climbing we know that the afternoon’s alpine light is no longer on our side. But before the sun goes down there’s still time for one last climb. After crossing the Galibier we’re on the edge of the Hautes Alpes region and its mythic climbs: the Col d’Izoard to the east beyond Briançon and L’Alpe d’Huez to the west above Bourg d’Oisans. But today our two riders, Jérôme and Julien, have something else in mind.
[Words/Images: James Startt]
“Let’s go up the Montée de La Bérarde,” says Jérôme. “Nobody knows that climb and it’s really special. It’s one of my absolute favorites.” Descending from the Galibier toward Bourg d’Oisans, countless cyclists have pedaled past the D530 which turns left before the flat 3-kilometer straightaway that leads to the foot of L’Alpe d’Huez and its formidable 21 turns. But while the Alpe is a must for any cyclist, both Julien and Jérôme have climbed it countless times, so today they want to complete their alpine weekend with something completely different. After turning off the road to Bourg d’Oisans, it’s immediately clear that we’re in a remote corner of the Alps. According to the map we’re rolling up the Vénéon Valley. But in reality we’re in a no-man’s-land, free from any traffic.
“This climb is amazing!” Jérôme, an experienced alpine guide, says with excitement. “The village of La Bérarde is just a pure mountain village. You know, from November until February, few people even live here because it just doesn’t get any light. It’s an amazing place.”
Indeed one look at the map shows us that the road up to La Bérarde takes us into the heart of the Parc des Écrins, one of France’s major national parks. Indeed, there are few inhabitants here. After all, the road leads to nowhere. “You know, it’s just amazing to find a road so remote in the Alps,” adds Julien.
On passing through the village Vénosc, after 7 kilometers along the valley, the road starts to really climb with an impressive series of hairpin turns, followed by some double-digit ramps. And then, after another steep section, we reach Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans, the last village before La Bérarde, where the road narrows even more.
“These tight, winding roads are just spectacular,” Julien says midway through the climb. “While we get glimpses of mountain peaks as we approach each turn, we have no idea where the next turn will take us. It’s a bit destabilizing. But it’s magical!”
And the surprises continue as we climb higher up the valley. Although we haven’t seen a car for miles, at one point we become distinctly aware that we’re not alone. Moments later we understand why, when a herd of goats and sheep suddenly descends from the hillside, spilling onto the roadside ahead of us. “Wow!” says Julien, somewhat stunned. “I think they are as surprised to see us as we are to see them!”
“Yeah, this road is just amazing,” adds Jérôme. “You never know what you’re going to find. Just look around at the rich array of rocks and minerals found in these mountains. It’s a visual goldmine. And nobody ever rides here!”
Once we’re allowed to pass our furry friends we soon sense that the La Bérarde is close. And the surrounding mountain peaks, some almost 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) high, become increasingly clear. Only a momentary flat tire—common on such roads where rocks often spill over—slows our progress. But soon enough we’re on our way.
On arriving in La Bérarde, we’re instantly greeted by a handful of locals in the town’s only shop. “It’s been awhile since we’ve seen any of you,” one resident jokes as we approach. Clearly, while the Alps offer a common playground for cyclists, this road is one of those that’s less traveled.
“Well that’s it!” says Julien as he sits down. “We’ve run out of road! I guess that is okay though, as we’ve just about run out of light too! What a climb, though! A complete unknown.”