VAlpe d’Huez. The iconic cycling destination in the French Alps. Who doesn’t get exited by those scenes at the Tour De France. The climb snakes up the mountain via 21 switch backs, climbing over 1,050m in the 13k of the ascent. Once the climb starts, there is little respite other than a few seconds each time you turn one of the 21 s-bends when the road flattens. In local terms, its the equivalent of climbing Farlington Avenue 13 times.
There are two distances (on consecutive days). The ‘L’ is a little more than a middle distance triathlon in distance terms, but with over 3,000m of climbing. My race was the ‘M’ which had 1,200m swim, 28km cycle (with 1,160m elevation), followed by a 6.7km run at the top of the alp.
We arrived on the Wednesday, and the first drive up the hill was a real OMG moment. Turning the first S bend had me staring open mouthed at how steep it was. Even though it was late in the afternoon, there was still a steady stream of cyclists on the hill (there are an estimated 1,000 cyclists a day climb the hill in the summer) including kids!
Once checked in to the hotel, we went for a bit of a walk and even this seemed hard work at 1,800m altitude.
Thursday was the L distance race. We spent the morning riding the cable cars up to Pic Blanc (3,300m) and then down to the Lake to see where I would be swimming. Later we went to cheer on the L distance triathletes as they finished the ascent. They looked tired!
We had been basking in 32C temperatures, but come Friday morning (race day) there was grey sky and rain (seemed like a right result at first but that would not last).
After setting my shoes up in Transition 2, I got ready to cycle the 21km downhill to the start. The rain was getting silly now. It didn’t help that I watched someone slide off their bike outside the hotel. So I set off earlier than planned for the start. 21km steep downhill with multiple s-bends and water running off the road was pretty scary. 21km with the brakes on expecting to the wheels to slide out from under me at any time. Obviously, I had no wet weather gear - why would I there was a heat wave. I did see one person cycling in their wetsuit (missed a trick there). I took it slow, and 55 minutes later, soaked, and shivering with cold, I reached the start.
My race did not start well. It was a pretty messy start (never done a mass start before), but I soon found myself hyperventilating and unable to swim. I never recovered from this, I ended up doing most of the distance as Brest stroke (and I don’t do breast stroke). I finally climbed out of the water after 39 minutes, sealed my wetsuit into the transition bag (for them to bring back to the finish) and jumped on the bike.
The bike section is always my strongest, but I now had indigestion and bloating (from gasping air in the swim). I assumed but would settle down during the 14km cycle to the base of the Alp but it never did.
The sun came out as I reached the start of the climb and it was getting hot. The first ramp was fine. I had fitted lower gearing on the bike (34T and medium cage) to increase cadence on climbs. I was struggling to drink so I just kept going at a steady grind. I had taped some gels onto bike but they come unstuck in the rain and I lost them before exiting T1. The first 4 ramps are the steepest, so as I rounded turn 4 I breathed a sigh of relief and started to think I could do it. There is great support on the hill (the French have a particularly sexy way of saying Daveeeed). Allez Allez Allez. I started to overtake a few people on the hill. The corners come and go and you just keep grinding away. As you exit turn 7, you get a great view the the road snaking up the mountain. 1h 52m after I started the climb, I rounded the final turn and gave my wife a beaming smile. I had done it. I had climbed Alpe d’Huez. The Run turned out to be a ‘walk’ as legs were feeling the nearly two hours of grinding, but who cares - I had climbed Alpe d’Huez.
I eventually made it to the finish chute to soak up the cheering some 4h 6m after the start.
The winner - well he finished in 1h 49 - unbelievable.
Other than my performance, the race was everything I wanted it to be. The feeling of elation at getting to the top is massive. Its a big event with circa 1,500 entries so there is a great atmosphere, particularly around T2 and the finish chute. It’s well organised. Not officially closed road but they have a huge marshal team that stops traffic at the roundabouts. The hill is closed to down traffic (and I don’t recall seeing any up traffic).
UK triathletes form a huge part of the race, so much so that when we were banned from travel last year, they gave all UK entries an option to defer (They didn’t have to do that as the race took place as planned).
The East Sussex Triathlon Club were there en-mass with a large support team as well. They were everywhere and they cheered and supported everyone.
If anyone is thinking about this race, registration opens in October. The ‘L’ will sell out really quickly. The M will probably not sell out early in 2023.
I am already think about going back next year.
Dcrainmaker has a good write up of the alp triathlon https://www.dcrainmaker.com/2014/08/dhuez-triathlon-report.html