‘La montée mythique’ is how the Tourist Office describes the climb up to the resort of Alpe d’Huez.
It’s the stage of the Tour de France that everyone wants to watch…and win (it took Castre to victory in this year’s race). It’s not the highest, nor the longest nor even the steepest, but there’s something about those 21 hairpin bends that have captured the imagination of skiers and cyclists alike.
Never say never again...
So ‘the mythical ascent’ is something that every cyclist should try at least once. I took on the hill in 2006 when racing in the inaugural Alpe d’Huez triathlon.
A quick look at my race report confirms that I was pretty sure at the time that I would neverdo that again! But as Sean Connery once shaid (also older and heavier than in his best days) ‘Never shay never again’.
So, at the end of last month, I headed to the Southern Alps again for the third running of what is now a classic week of triathlon, with four races over different distances, plus duathlons and kids’ comps. The main event is now a shockingly challenging long-distance triathlon, of which the climb up to Alpe d’Huez is merely part of some brutal ascents over a 120km bike route. Topped off with a 21km run at altitude. Mmmm.
Our twins are still only 19 months, so ‘the long’ will have to wait for another year (another lifetime?). I had entered ‘the short’, which remained fairly similar to two years before: a 1.2km swim in the EDF reservoir at Vaujany, a 30km bike via Bourg d’Oisons, and finished off with a 7.3km trail run at altitude.
Compared to ‘standard’ short distance races, this is short in every department, but I can assure you that this is one instance where size, per se, is not everything.
Vaujany - I like it.
We stayed the night before the race in Vaujany, at Chalet FranRick, run by Kick Ski. Although I saw it in summer, it’s easy to see why the resort is becoming more popular in winter as well. Linking directly into the Alpe d’Huez lift area, you get all of the skiing, but none of the crowds (or the more brutal architecture).
The race didn’t start until 2pm. I’m not sure if this is planned like this so that there won’t be many other cyclists on the road, or simply to make it as hot as possible for competitors. At the swim start, shade was at a premium as the sun baked down. I avoided getting into my wetsuit until the last possible moment, and the water, which was apparently only just around 11C, felt cooling, rather than cold.
A bumpy swim
The swim was a bumpy one, with all 550+ competitors starting at the same time. I got whacked in the goggles at the turn buoys, but they stayed on and I pulled myself out of the water in just over 23 minutes. T1 was a quick turnaround, but slightly neater than usual, as you had to put your wetsuit and goggles into a special bag that they would later shift up to the finish area.
Packing done and I was off on the bike. Calling the first 15km to Bourg d’Oisons a warm-up seems a bit tautologous, given that it was already 33C in the shade, so few were pushing hard, knowing what was to come...
And then it started. You go over a special timing mat at the bottom of the first bend, so that you can get a separate time for your climb, and then you start going up. The average gradient is 7.9%, but the first two kilometres are all over 10%. There’s no easing yourself into it, this is it - for the next hour and more you will be cycling uphill.
The big advantage I had over 2006, when I felt like I was descending into hell, rather than rising towards the heavens, was that instead of a 39/25 combo, I was on a 34/27. If you know about bikes, you’ll immediately think ‘how very sensible’.
And if the numbers sound like gibberish, think of it as skiing deep powder on fat skis instead of skinny ones - you can still ski with the skinny ones, it's just much easier on the fat boys!
'Pain and fatigue, I ignore you'
And so I plugged away. I did my best to ignore anyone going past me; to eliminate any thoughts of pain or fatigue; and specifically not to look ahead to see when the next virage was coming up.
This is of course impossible. Every time someone went past, the flicker of negativity came back – ‘you’re not fit enough’, ‘you’re going to have to stop’, ‘you’ll never make it to the top’. The worst period came around bends 10-12, when the realisation that you are still only, or not even, half-way, dawns on you.
But I’m over-dramatising. It was long, it was tiring, but by the last few bends, which had been such a struggle in 2006, I was out of my saddle, pushing that much harder to make sure I did a better split than before. It was hard, but not so tough. I even had time to look back down the valley at the spectacular view.
The top is not the top
One small point if you ever do cycle the Alpe. The climb does not finish when you reach the town, sadly. Pay attention to the signs at the side of the road. You still have a kilometre to go if you want to emulate the riders on the Tour. And while it’s essentially flat, the clock is still ticking. I was desperate to beat my 2006 climb, so pushed it over the last long bend and the final km in town. Happily, I hit T2 over four minutes ahead of my ‘previous best’ in an official time of 1:12:59.
If the altitude doesn't take your breath away, the scenery will
After that I wasn’t too fussed about getting any particular time on the run, and simply got on with enjoying it. And it’s on the run that you really can get to take in the beauty of this area. It heads out of town straightaway and up almost 100m vertical to 1890m along rocky trails towards the Col de Sarennes.
If the altitude doesn’t take your breath away, the scenery will.
And the exciting thing is that this scenery is always there, so while a triathlon in the Alps might not necessarily be for you, summer in the Alps is something I can recommend to anyone who loves the mountains.
My conclusion? ‘La montée mythique’ est magnifique!
[Report from Iain Martin, Natives Resort Reporter on the road]