I woke late this morning feeling very tired. My lower back and quads ached, so after a breakfast of coffee, porridge, pastries and more coffee I spent a fair bit of time stretching and rolling in an effort to ease my pains. Finally I set off to climb Alpe d’Huez properly – after two previous days of shying away from the famous 21 hairpins, I’d left no other option than to tackle it on my third and final day.
It was another cold and wet start which made it difficult to dress appropriately for a long climb. In a futile attempt to keep my feet dry I stuck electrical tape over the air vents in my shoes.
For a little while I’ve been looking for a decent cycling gilet, so in the end I decided to ride up in the lightest possible clothing and buy a gilet at the top. I also left with one of my two water bottles empty, intending to fill it at the café at the top. However, my efforts to lighten the load were quickly countered by the persistent drizzle which soaked and clung to me.
I last rode Alpe d’Huez three years ago, completing the TT section in just under the hour. This time around I was a little bit older, a little bit more responsible an adult … and clearly a little bit better at making excuses for being slow. I had no real idea how I would compare this time around, but decided to just maintain a heart rate of 160bpm and try to forget all other distractions like average speed and counting down the corners.
The first four bends are notoriously difficult so I stuck to the plan and tried to ignore what laid ahead. The scenery was breath-taking, as was the climbing – evidenced by several burned out riders recovering on some of the lower corners. I’d ridden Alpe d’Huez twice before, both experiences being a prolonged endurance of the pain-cave where normality seemed to collapse inwards on my suffering. This time around, by staying somewhere between 155 – 165bpm I stayed on top of the climb and my gears all the way to the top. In hindsight, I could have pushed it a little harder, but after two previous days of climbing it was definitely sensible to play it a little safe.
In the end I completed the TT course just 6 minutes slower than my previous best, and then continued another kilometre to the official Tour de France finish in a total time of 1 hour and 12 minutes. I was very pleased with that.
After a coffee and croque-monsieur, I purchased my gilet – how continental am I?! I then embarked on the descent. Despite the added layer, the cold weather and my rain-soaked clothing combined to make it quite a challenging descent. I stopped regularly to take photos and to defrost.
At Bend 16 (5 from the bottom) I left the road and headed off along le Balcon d’Auris – the balcony; basically a shelf of a road that clung to the side of the mountain for several miles (another bit of fantastic local knowledge). It was impossible not to keep stopping to take photos and to spare a thought for the brave workmen that built the road. Incredible.
From here I descended down to the foot of Les Deux-Alps for my final big climb of these three days. Having pushed myself quite hard on Alpe d’Huez I decided to take it easy up this one – a twisting climb of 2000ft to a deserted ski resort at the top.
After a quick circuit around town I raced halfway down the hairpinned climb before shooting off along another hair-raising balcony that weaved its way back down to the B&B. Today’s ride was a modest 45 miles, but without a single flat section and encompassing almost 8000ft of climbing it was enough to call it a day. After cleaning and dismantling the bike, I showered and decided to head into Bourg d’Oisans for a well earned beer with a sense of satisfaction for having properly trained and enjoyed some of the best climbs in this area.
Before heading off to meet my wife and daughter for a more conventional, relaxing-type holiday in Provence, I’d like to thank Shawn and Martin at Le Velo Jaune in Bourg d’Oisans, for not only providing fantastic breakfasts and local knowledge … but also going well beyond the call of duty for a chambre d’hotes and laying on three course French-cuisine dinners specifically aimed at recharging hungry cyclists. Last nights tartiflette was probably the sole reason I made it up these climbs today. When I come back to the Alps I know where I’ll be trying to stay …