Anyone with even a passing interest in pro cycling know about the famous 21 virages of the ascent to Alpe d’Huez in France, the scene of many classic Tour de France moments. Since getting involved in cycling I’ve wanted to tackle them myself, and what better way to do so than in the Alpe d’Huez triathlon. The race organizers offer two distances but since it’s quite a way to travel you might as well get your money’s worth and do the Long course – 2.2km swim, 115km bike finishing up the Alpe, 22km run.
Logistically Alpe d’Huez is actually quite hard to get to from the UK in the summer and after mulling over the options for a while Rich and I decided to fly to Geneva then hire a car and drive to Alpe d’Huez. This option worked out pretty well for us and we arrived at about 8:30pm on Monday evening in our rather swish Alfa Romeo Giullietta hire car. Thanks to Viv, Jerry, Harsh and James (who had arrived in time for the Tour the previous Friday) dinner was on the table as soon as we arrived, then it was out for a beer or two (in a bar with a slide to access the toilets!)
Tuesday was a bright and sunny day, which was a nice surprise as the forecast had been for rain. Maybe the forecast the rain on Wednesday (race day) would be wrong too? A pretty standard T-1 day involving bike building, registration, sleeping, eating etc. We went for a quick spin down a couple of turns on the climb and back up again, feeling slightly fraudulent easily overtaking people who had clearly done the whole climb! Around tea time the clouds rolled in and it started raining – I think we were all hoping that this would get the rain out of the way and tomorrow would be a nice day.
The first problem to tackle on race day is actually getting to the start, as it’s about 1000m lower than Alpe d’Huez down in the valley. This means a 30-40 minute bike ride with race kit on your back, mainly downhill of course. The weather was dry but overcast and dry tarmac allowed us to get some cornering practice in on the way down. The entrance to transition was a typical French queue (i.e. a total free for all!) and whilst we were waiting Rich noticed that his inner tube was bulging through the sidewall of his tyre. On the plus side he had found what had been causing the tic-tic-tic noise from his bike on the way down! We just about managed to patch it up before the start, but in the slight panic none of us really paid too much attention to the race briefing, especially the swim start procedure. A nice touch was that they had racked people together in their clubs so we got to meet all the other Man Tri guys, rob Arnold and crew and Spencer.
We were amongst the last to get into the blue blue water of the Lac du Verney and were making our way towards the start line – in not too much of a rush as there were many people not even in the water on either side – when suddenly everyone ahead started swimming. Guess that was the swim start then! The swim was two laps with little sailing boats as the turn points rather than buoys. I had an OK swim I think, held a pretty tight line on the inside of the pack and managed to avoid getting too smashed up at the turns. Came out of the water in 41:43 for the 2.2km and pretty much the first think I noticed was that it had started raining. This caused quite a lot of faff in transition as I wanted to take my waterproof with me on the bike, but my waterproof was in my rucsac, which was in a plastic bag, which was in my T1 bag (and in the end I didn’t even use it anyway!). On top of this socks, shoes, arm-warmers, bike jersey, gilet and track mitts were donned – a speedy transition it was not (6:39!!).
A short climb out of transition then the first 15 miles of the bike is basically all downhill and very fast. Of course it’s only a warm up for the first climb of the day up to Alpe du Grand Serre, 9 miles at an average gradient of 7%. A nice steady climb but it was taking quite a while so I decided to throw a few more coals on the fire at halfway (you can see this on the power plot above). It was quite warm at the bottom but as we climbed it got colder (say it ain’t so!) and the rain started to come down with a bit more enthusiasm too. Managed to break the zip on my bike jersey when I tried to do it back up which necessitated a lot of no-hands riding and fiddling to sort out. Passed Viv about 3/4 of the way up and we had a quick chat.
Over the top and grabbed a new bottle of water from the aid station before starting the long descent, roads very wet now so taking a lot of care on the corners. Halfway down there is a short climb and the first sighting of our support crew of Harsh, Jerry and James. The next section of the bike was probably my least favourite, a long slog up the valley on false flats towards the climb of the Col d’Ornon. The scenery looked spectacular, what I could see of it anyway as the weather had really closed in now, very wet and murky. Grabbed a bottle on the move at the top and overtook Rich in the process as he was stopped at the aid station eating bananas and chatting to Harsh and the guys. Didn’t take him long to notice me though then chase and drop me on the descent. This one was very wet and had some sharp hairpins. Also a section with a BIG drop to the right which you were only separated from by a foot high concrete wall – not a place to take any risks! This descent was the only section of the bike where I started to feel cold, but I wasn’t too worried about this as I was sure I would soon warm up on the Alpe which was now just minutes away.
One of the special things about Alpe d’Huez is that there is no run in to it, you can’t even really see it until you take a left turn and the road just rears up in front of you. I had caught up with Rich again after the descent and we hit the Alpe together which was kinda cool. The first 6 or so corners are the steepest and it’s just a case of getting your head down and and grinding up it. The corners themselves are slightly curious as rather than being very steep through the apex they actually ease off which gives an opportunity to go up a few gears and get some momentum for the next steep section. Or to have a bit of a rest! I was slightly over-enthusiastic on this lower section with predictable consequences later on. There’s not too much more to say really, it was just a case of sticking to the task and counting down the corners. Towards the top I started to feel on the verge of a bonk, and also that it would be really nice to stick your arms in the air at the top, get off and not have a run to do! Getting enough food in is probably one of the main challenges of this bike course. In duration it’s only slightly less than an IM bike but it’s very hard to have a regular eating strategy as you are either working hard uphill or flying downhill on wet tarmac where taking a hand off the bars is not top of your list of priorities.
Anyway, eventually bend 1 is reached and then you ride into town past a few hardy spectators who have not been put off by the rain and murk (in fact, given the shitty weather there were an impressive number of supporters out, and thanks to anyone who gave me an “Allez Robert” along the way). Overall the bike took me 5hrs 10, with a 1hr 10 ascent of the Alpe.
Into T2 and found my spot and run bag without too much trouble. In the background I could hear the post-race interviews with the leading men which was slightly demoralising! Another tardy transition with a change of socks as well as shoes, took off my bike jersey but left arm warmers on and put gilet back on too – it really was wet and pretty bloody cold now we were up high.
The run is 3 laps of a mixed trail and tarmac course with a few ups and downs and one longer climb towards the end which leads to a lovely descent on the road back past our appartment to the start finish area. The start of each lap takes you past the finish chute and then away again which was a bit of a tease! It was fairly quickly apparent that whilst my legs were OK I was really really low on fuel. Fortunately there were frequent aid stations serving Coke and bananas (and other stuff I’m sure but that’s all I paid attention to) which kept me going. So the tactic was run to the aid station, grab a cup of Coke and a hunk of banana, bit of a stroll whilst eating these then off and running again. Very cold on the course and I was glad I had stayed well wrapped up. Traded places a few times with Amy Marsh of Team TBB as whilst I couldn’t go uphill anywhere near as quick as her, she could do with a bit of fell running practice (oh, she was a lap ahead of me I suppose I should add!). Hammered the final downhill back into town and finally I could use the finish chute that I’d already had to run past 3 times!
Did the run in 1hr 48 for a total time of 7hrs 53. A great event and I would recommend it to anyone. I’d even be tempted to do it again myself so long as you could promise me some decent weather!
Waited in the finish area for Rich who had a strong race with 8hrs 27. Sadly Viv had pulled out on the run which was a shame. Back to the ranch to get properly warm and dry, chill out for a bit then back into town for a well earned steak and frites (at Smithy’s Tavern, recommended).
The next day dawned… bright, warm and dry of course! Our flight home wasn’t until late so we had plenty of time to chill out, strip bikes, pack, have lunch, have a second lunch and watch the leaders of the short distance race reach the top of the climb, with our very own Tim Don out front. Then it was time to leave for a long but relatively uneventful journey home.