Alpe d’Huez

In May 2011, I’d blogged:

Originally, the plan was to go for a holiday in the French Alps. You know, that place with all the big mountains. Like Alpe D’huez. The one the Tour de France goes up, the one where Lance Armstrong gave that look before crushing everyone else.

That got me thinking. Is it possible for mortals to cycle up that mountain?

Now it was nearing September. My trip to France was booked. I’d spent the last few months cycling up every hill I could find.

For the first time, it occured to me that I might need to book a hire bike. I emailed Au Cadre Rouge and tried my schoolboy french:

Bonjour, Je vais en vacances à Bourg d’Oisans. Je voudrais louer un vélo, le 5 Septembre pour la demi-journée (apres-midi). Cadre full carbone, taille 60cm. S’il vous plaît dites-moi si vous avez un vélo pour moi le 5 Septembre. Merci beaucoup, Andrew

Désolé mais pour le 5 septembre, tous nos vélos taille 59 full carbone sont réservés. Nous avons des vélos taille 59 mais en alu / carbone à 25 € la journée. Cela vous convient t-il ?

Bonjour,Oui, c’est bon, merci! :-) (un vélo taille 59 en alu/carbone à 25 EUR la journée)Il faut laisser une caution?

Bonjour, votre vélo est réservé pour le 5 septembre l’après midi ( de 14H à 19H ). Le prix sera de 20 euros. Il n’y a pas de caution à faire avant de récupérer le vélo.

At the start of September, we flew out for our Alpine holiday. We stayed just along the road from Bourg d’Oisan at a caravan site. (protip: don’t book through eurocamp, contact the camp site directly for a much better price!).

My ride day didn’t have the best of beginnings. This was the view out of our caravan window - pouring with rain and blowing a gale. By lunchtime, the rain had eased up but the wind was still strong. Fortunately, I was lucky. The weather continued to improve during the day, and there was only a stiff breeze left to contend with.

This was my hire bike - a KTM Strada Alu/Carbon. I brought my own (eggbeater) pedals with me, so I could be sure of a cleat-match. The hire bike came with a pump and spare inner tube, and was all quick-release’d so most of my toolkit stayed in the car.

For fuel, I’d planned to rely on energy drinks - they’d worked pretty well on my LEJOG ride. But, in my stressed pre-ride state, I couldn’t find any in the supermarket. I decided just to grab some cheap supermarket-brand muslei bars and make do with plain old water. Before leaving the car, I downed a botle of water and I carried another in my backpack. I was pretty sure I’d read on the internet that you could refill your bottle somewhere on the climb.

I cycled out towards the base of the climb. I wanted to get a GPS track of my climb, but my phone had real trouble getting a gps lock. The sun was getting hot, and I had to leave my phone on the ground for a while until it got a GPS lock whilst I hid in a bus shelter.

Then it was time to go! I cycled across the french flag, up toward the left turn which I’d watched on TV a few weeks early when Cadel and co were there.

With a surge of excitment, I rounded the corner and the road shot upwards - a gradient of over 10%.

I changed down through the gears, figuring that second bottom was probably okay. There was a large group ahead of me on the first straight climbing very slowly. I caught and passed them easily, but it made me think it would be wise to slow down a bit. My heartrate was at my ‘safe’ target (150bpm) but I remembered that it was a marathon, not a sprint, and the sun was now getting pretty hot. I flipped down to bottom gear and settled into spinning.

The first hairpin came more quickly that I expected. I knew that the first few turns were the steepest part of the climb, and so I was focused on getting up them without blowing up - reasoning that the rest would be easier. In practise, I didn’t notice any notable variation in gradient. It was all just pretty steep.

On each hairpin bend, there’s a sign commemorating a famous cyclist and counting down the turns. I intended to use them as a bit of mind-distraction, but it turns out they’re pretty small and hard to read as you go past.

I passed another rider after turn 17. The whole time I was focusing on keeping to my own rhythm. If my heartrate dropped below 150bpm, I’d pedal harder. If it went above 160bpm, I’d slow down. I knew from my training rides that I could sustain that level for a long time. After each hairpin, the road flattens out for a wee bit, enough to change up 2 or 3 gears. But then inevitably, I’d burn up my heartrate, and soon be back to bottom gear and spinning.

Things were going prety good at this point, and I started doing the maths to figure out where the half-way point would be. The gradient felt okay, but I was sweating a lot in the heat and so drinking regularly. I started thinking strategically - and realised that running out of fuel might be a problem.

Turn 16 is the church at La Gaurde, with a few building to look at. Approaching turn 15, I saw another cyclist stopped, but they resumed their efforts as I approached. I took this as a cue to pause for a few seconds and dug out a muslei bar from my backpack. I ate half of it, chewing carefully and drinking lots of water. I quickly caught and passed the cyclist on the way towards turn 13, but I could feel my stomach being a bit unhappy about the food. Still, the feeling passed quickly and it was good to know I could take fuel onboard, albeit slowly, whilst working flat out.

At turn 14, I thought “I’m going to manage this” for first time. But I was also wise to the psychology of hard cycling, and knew there’d be hard moments yet to come.

I kept drinking regularly, believing that there was a water tap near turn 8. As it happens, I finished my bottle just a shade before turn 8 - perfect timing. A quick toilet trip and a refill from the tap and I was back on the bike, passing two walkers who shouted ‘good luck’!

Turn 7 takes you up to into Huez village, and here I saw Alpe d’Huez village way up high. It looked high, but I knew I’d already climbed more than that and the hill would be no steeper. Still, it was a hard slog on the last 5 corners.

On turn 4, I saw another group far ahead, clearly in a worse state than I was - some are standing up and weaving. I chug along at my same pace, briefly pausing at a bus stop (after passing the “fake turnoff” to lower Alpe d’Huez) to pull another half muslei bar from my bag.

Once I get going again, the group are out of sight around turn 3. I’m feeling pretty exhausted by now. My heartrate is still okay but I think I’m soaked with sweat and the temperature is dropping dramatically with altitude. Or maybe I’m running out of sugar, or maybe the air is thin.

Or maybe I’m nearing the end of the Alpe d’huez.

My right shoulder is getting strangely numb, probably from the road-bike riding position. I can definitely feel the effects of the 1860m altitude.

Seeing the sign for turn 1, and looking at the final straight into Alpe d’Huez itself gives me a huge adrenaline surge - the end is in sight! I change up three gears and catch and pass most of the group. But the the surge ends and I realise it’s still quite a way to go. I spin up behind the lead of the group, and stay on his wheel for a while. But as we enter the village I have a second wind and manage to sprint past up to a giddy 15mph as the road levels into the village. Just inside the village is the ‘tourist’ finish line and the end of the climb.

My ride time was 1h 20m, which I’m pretty pleased about!

Alpe d’Huez itself is a strange place. A ski village in winter time, but a gathering point for tired cyclists in the summer. The end points of all my big rides seem to be like this!

After a few minutes of celebration, I cycled on up through the village to the Tour de France finish line, up past the final “turn zero”. I collected my certificate from the tourist office, had another muslei bar and then put my jacket on for the descent.

The descent was awesomely good fun. My max speed was about 45 mph, towards the bottom of the descent. I actually overtook a camper van which was driving down, and could corner much faster than the cars. The brakes on my french bike were the opposite way round from what I’m used to, which was a bit unsettling. I stopped regulary to take photos, and survived a dicy moment at turn 19 when a tour bus came round a hairpin bend three-quarters of the way across my lane.

And that was Alpe d’Huez!

Looking back, my training was spot on. I knew I could sustain 150-160bpm heart rate for an hour, doing loops around Arthurs Seat. I knew I could climb 10% slopes for a while, thanks to Kaimes Road. And the bathgate alps and Edinburgh city centre were a good mix of steady climbs and mentally-steep bursts. Using a heartrate monitor was a good idea, both during training and on the ride. It meant I was able to calibrate my efforts.

I’m secretly pleased that I did the ride without any sports drinks, gels, lotions or potions. Just a bottle of water and some cheap supermarket muslei bars. It was a pretty sunny day in the end, and the sweat was pouring off me from the start - important to keep drinking.

The standard gears on the hire bike were fine. I was almost always in bottom gear, spinning around easily and never ‘pushing’ the pedals. That’s just how I ride normally. Occasionally I stood up and danced on the pedals to keep blood circulating, but I’m not really used to riding road bike with their funny geometry and so it wasn’t very stable. The road-bike handlebars were pretty comforable though - lots of different hand positinos to choose from.

Prior to Alpe d’Huez, I hired a full-carbon bike to cycle up the Col des Aravis. This was a good warm up for the main event, although I nearly damaged my leg on the descent because I didn’t take the time to adjust the saddle height and overstretched my leg. Lesson learned! My Alpe d’Huez bike had an aluminium frame but carbon forks. It was noticably heavier that the full carbon had been, but was still way lighter than the 14kg city/commuter bike I’d done my training on.

Here’s the GPS trail I made during the ride: