33Fuel co-founder Warren raced the long-course event, here’s his Alpe d'Huez triathlon race report
Fourteen kilometres long and climbing to 1,850m, Alpe d’Huez is daunting, especially when you’re staring down its barrel from the seat of a bicycle. But the French love pushing the envelope and in 2005 three-time world long distance triathlon champ Cyrille Neveu decided it would be a great place for a triathlon. One year later he’d made the race a reality and ever since the event’s been on the ‘must-do’ list for endurance junkies everywhere. There are two versions, long and short, and I chose the long. If I was travelling that far I wanted my money’s worth.
After cruising to the top of the mountain on arrival in a hired Fiat 500, taking in its famous 21 hairpins along the way, I was already amped for the challenge and retired to my hotel balcony to soak up the Alpine scenery while going over the race day plan and building up my bike.
- Proof you can indeed fit a full-size bike box in a Fiat 500. Just make sure you don't have more than one passenger or someone will be walking...
Being French, this race demands more from its competitors than the average tri. For example, to get to the start, way below Alpe d’Huez in the lake at the bottom of the valley, the recommended means of arrival was by bicycle. That’s right, just before a 2.2km swim, a 115km bike over three mountains and the small matter of a half marathon on the summit, the organisers wanted competitors to pedal 20km to the start line…
Then I read the route was “95 per cent downhill”, and relaxed. Gear checked, bike assembled, and large dinner devoured, I hit the hay for some zeds and delusional dreams of Alpe d’Huez grandeur.
Race day reality proved different as I awoke to filthy grey clouds, freezing temperatures, and heavy rain. Thanking my lucky stars I’d packed a cycle shirt to wear over my tri suit if the weather turned foul, I stashed both this and my cycling jacket into my kit bag.
The ride to the start was indeed almost all downhill, although so badly marked a few poor souls missed the turning altogether and would have to cycle back up Alpe d’Huez before the race had even started. Fortunately I spotted the postcard-size route markers in the nick of time.
The tantalisingly turquoise waters of the gorgeous Lac du Verney where we would be swimming turned out to be rather less tantalising than they looked – leaping in I quickly learned 15.2 degrees translates as ‘seriously bloody cold’.
- Lac du Verney - best open water swim in the world? It's got to be up there, despite being seriously chilly
After spending the first ten minutes of the 2.2km swim with an ice cream headache I was relieved when it started to ease although less pleased when it gave way to numb arms from the elbows down. Fortunately as my swimming is only marginally better than a five-year-old chasing their first 20-metre badge, I was nowhere near the front so had an otherwise peaceful swim. The misty mountain views every time I turned my head to breathe were a particular treat.
Stumbling from the lake I was relieved to find my legs still worked. This could not be said of my still-numb arms and frozen, non-gripping hands however. Transition onto the bike took an age as I fumbled every zip and buckle going.
After almost riding the wrong way out of transition (course markers and marshals here were obviously from the same school as those ‘marking’ the route to the start) it was into the bike section, which was what we were all here for.
The first 25kms were flat or downhill, giving riders a chance to warm up after the frigid swim but the weather had other plans with the rain that had been on and off all morning really breaking cover and staying for the rest of the day.
- Enjoy the rare flat parts of the course, once the climbing starts they are few and far between
Still, climb one, up the winding, wooded, 1375m Col de l’Alpe du Grand Serre, provided ample opportunity to warm up although the descent on the other side required some serious tucking in to avoid the worst of the freezing windblast.
Being forced into such an extreme tuck was an enlightening lesson as I sailed past a few un-tucked riders who were pedaling, yet travelling slower. If you’re descending and every second counts getting your arse back over the seat and your chest virtually on the top tube pays handsome dividends – with gravity doing the hard work this is almost free speed. Very handy, especially with two more mountains ahead.
The 1371m Col d’Ornon was a pussycat, its ascent remaining relatively gentle. So it was with a wide smile that I devoured another of our legendary Chia Energy Gels on its summit before haring down through yet another hideous downpour to face Alpe d’Huez itself.
- The money shot - this is what everyone's here for, the big climb up Alpe d'Huez itself. It rocks although those with TT bikes may by now be wishing they'd chosen something else
‘Insignificant’ doesn’t even come close to the way this mountain makes you feel as you approach, but the only option was to dig in and enjoy it. Within seconds of I was down to first gear where I would be staying for the next hour or so. But having kept my powder dry so far, there was a little spare gas in the tank meaning I was able to attack the mountain. To onlookers my ‘attack’ may have looked more like ‘barely surviving’, but for me it felt great and I ducked into the transition for the run feeling pretty pleased with myself.
This wasn’t to last. Being held at 1850m-plus, the 22km course was shrouded in mist and with the heavy rain still doing its thing I was soaked and frozen in no time. At least this provided plenty of motivation to keep moving – stopping would probably have lead to hypothermia – and although the run was significantly less inspiring than both the swim and the bike thanks to being a rather tedious series of out and back loops, it was at least peppered with plenty of cheery supporters who kept me going.
- Don't be fooled by the pretty trail pics in the official race blurb - most of the run looks like this. Trail running heaven it is not. The only things keeping Warren going here are the ace supporters, and the promise of an epic All-in-One Shake after the finish
And despite the weather, the frozen limbs and the sheer bloody exhaustion, it was with a very large grin on my face that I staggered back to the hotel for a massive All-in-One Shake as the perfect recovery treat, followed by a huge dinner and a large beer. Honestly one of the best races I’ve ever done and hugely recommended.
Fancy more mountain racing? Check out this tasty trio...
1 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc: AKA the UTMB, this is the Big Daddy of mountain ultras. Starting and finishing in Chamonix, it’s a 103-mile off-road loop over the Alps into Italy, Switzerland and finally back into France. Along the way runners climb a total of 9,400 metres, and descend the same. As a reference Mount Everest is 8848 metres. www.ultratrailmb.com
2 Mega Avalanche: For those who prefer their mountain endurance gravity-assisted, the Mega Avalanche is an epic downhill mountain bike race starting on the 3,300 metre snow-capped peak of Pic Blanc above Alpe d’Huez, rocketing down to the green valleys of Allemont at 720m. Don’t forget your fitness – at 30km from start to finish this is still a lung-buster. www.avalanchecup.com
3 Tour Divide: A wholly self-sufficient 2,500-mile mountain bike ride following the Great Divide route right across America from the border with Canada in the North, to the border with Mexico in the South. You make your own itinerary, carry everything you need, and then settle in for three weeks of pedal punishment along the world’s longest off-road cycle route. By journey’s end you’ll have climbed over 60,000 vertical metres. 17 days is the record to beat… www.tourdivide.org