Race report below, be warned: its a long one!
Alpe d’Huez long course triathlon (2.2km/118km/20km)
Autumn 2016. I’m looking at my race stats for the last two seasons and come to the conclusion that my cycling is pretty rubbish. What I need is a triathlon with a tough cycle course that will force me to do bike specific training and become technically more proficient (i.e. not scream when going downhill or round corners!).
A few days later I’ve sold the family on the summer holidays for 2017 – a quick trip to the alps followed by a week at nearby Lake Annecy. Alpe d’Huez long course is on!
Fast forward 9 months and a very cold winter, a wet spring, an aversion to turbo training, no training plan and life getting in the way mean that I haven’t managed to achieve any of my training targets and have actually done less than previous years. I did, however, buy a new lightweight road bike so I reasoned that I didn’t need the training anyway 😬. I’d been up box hill a few times, everything was going to be just fine.
After a quick stopover in Geneva we drive to Alpe d’Huez the day before the race with the climb up the 21 bends a taste of what’s to come. Registration is quick and easy and I take a few moments to watch the kids triathlons taking place (duathlon races are the day before).
Race day has a relatively relaxed beginning as the swim starts at 9:30 – luxury compared to the normal dawn starts in England. I’m up at 6am for breakfast, and out the door before 7. I have all my kit in a bag and ride to T2 where I drop my run kit and post race gear.
Now I just have to get to T1 and the swim start. This involves a 20km ride with 1000m descent, a rude start for someone who finds going down pebble hill challenging!
There at 1200 entrants for the long course, which isn’t massive compared to some of the bigger Ironman or Challenge events, so the transition area has quite an intimate feel. It seems like most of the brits have been lumped together so we’re able to chat before the start.
The 2.2km swim is in a hydro electric reservoir surrounded by the mountains, with crystal clear water at a fresh feeling 15 degrees. The klaxon sounds and all 1200 of us turn the water into a froth. This is a proper melée! Usually you find space after the first 20-50m of the swim but this seemed to last the whole of the first of 2 laps before spreading out, with the turning buoys being a rugby scrum of whirling arms and legs. On the second lap I’m happy to discover that you can pee and swim at the same time, particularly pleasing whilst going round a buoy and everyone has clumped together. 😉
Out of the water and onto the 120km bike course. The first 25km is pretty much all downhill and I’m struggling to understand how you can not have all the lumps & bumps and changes in gradient that we have in the UK, just smooth downhill going on and on and on…..but what goes down must go up and in this case the up happens to be 14km of Col de l’Alpe du Grande Serre at an average 7.5%. This is ok though, I’m not in granny gear, I’m not out of the saddle and I’m going past those who whizzed past me on the downhill section. Nice and steady, don’t overcook on the first ascent.
A short descent and the the Col du Mallisol seems like a blip with only a few hundred metres climb. Another 15 km of descent before we hit the base of Col d’Ornon. Each kilometre of the 10km climb is marked with distance to the top and average gradient for the next 1000m. This is starting to feel hard now. The sun has been out all day, it’s 2pm and I’ve still got another 3km of going up. Legs are getting slower, I’m definitely in granny gear now (36/32) and it’s so bloody hot! I make the top and this I time stop at the feed station (of which there are 9) rather than just drop & swap my bottle.
Another 15km of downhill through sweeping turns that just hang off the side of the mountain both astound and terrify me at the same time. The smell of melting carbon remind me to ease off the brakes, look around the corners and stop being such a pussycat. I hit the bottom of Alpe d’Huez feeling good and ready for the final climb.
Ok, so I’m straight into granny gear, no mucking around there. Alpe d’Huez is made up of 21 hairpin bends wiggling up 1000m over 14km. The first few bends are pretty tough but not steep in the way that we are used to around the north downs, they are long though! However, I get from 21 (at the bottom) to bend 15 in fairly good time. At this point I discover that if I stand up out of the saddle all the muscles in my legs start to spasm like a crazed South American bongo band – I’m going to have to do the rest sitting down with no opportunity to change position for a rest.
Approaching bend 13 both my legs lock solid with cramp. I just manage to unclip before toppling sideways into the road and stand in absolute bloody agony waiting for the cramp to pass. Looking up I can see the chalets at the top of the climb – it’s a long, long way up. I resolve to take each bend in turn with a rest at each, sometimes I make it, often I don’t before cramp strikes again. Around bend 5 is a feed station and I stick my head under a tap to cool off, absolute bliss! Then I’m off again.
Grinding out the last few bends my mind turns to the run and I wonder if I should even bother starting. I didn’t finish redhill triathlon 5 days previously and didn’t want the shame of 2 DNFs in a week but my legs are a complete mess, I’ve clearly had too much sun, and I can’t see how I can complete the course. Rolling into T2 I pass the finish line and see all the athletes that have already crossed it with their feet up, drinking and smiling; a few choice curses go through my head.
Racking my bike I’m ready to quit when I look around and see others that others are still coming in and heading out for the run so what the hell is wrong with me? I join the others into a chute with finishers turning right and laps 1,2 & 3 turning left. To the left I go and begin the mixed terrain course out into the hills beyond the town. It’s a lumpy course with 3 feed stations and enough climb to have you swearing again about just how unfair life is!
I’m shuffling along with a run/walk technique to just keep me moving. This is becoming a bad habit for me: Hever Gauntlet 2015, Challenge Roth 2016, and now Alpe d’Huez. On the second lap the sun dips below the ridge of the mountains and the temperature drops to something bearable. The 3rd lap comes round and I know I’ll make it but it’s still slow, stop/start progress.
Turning right to the finish line is the most wonderful feeling. 10 hours 36 minutes, a couple of hours over what I was hoping for but finished none the less.
So, finally, if you’ve you made it this far without falling asleep, a summary:
👉Alpe d’Huez triathlon has one of the most fantastically beautiful courses with stunning scenery and I would happily recommend it as a must do triathlon.
👉 I think this course is achievable for anyone that has a really good level of base fitness. You don’t need to be a hill climber expert (though that would help!) just to have put the training hours in.
👉 It’s amazing what you can achieve if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
👉 I’m going to stick to cold weather triathlons from now on. Norseman anyone?