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Alpe D'Huez Challenge - Hairpin by hairpin account

Be warned - this is longer than the climb itself...

Race day began early, when elder daughter woke me up with a very strange message.

“Daddy! My nose feels all funny!” she said.

I was half way into my race kit before I realised it was still dark. In fact it was 2am, and a flash of the torch revealed a scene straight from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Elder daughter had had a fairly substantial nosebleed and needed a little TLC.

As I wielded one of the DS’s Clinique face wipes – with some aplomb, given the hour, I’d have to say – it struck me that young Bertie was complaining a tad excessively about missing team cars and the like during the Tour. At least he’d not had to hack dried blood off an immediate family member and remake a bed in a gloomy, freezing tent in the small hours of the morning on the day of a key MTF!

Anyway, as any psychologist will tell you, you can only control the controllables, so I gaffer taped both daughters (although I did feel a bit sorry for the one who’d snored through the whole event!) into their beds and slid back into my own, where the DS had thoughtfully kept my side warm!

I expected a long and sleepless night from here on in, but before I knew it, it was 7:30am, and this time it was into my kit for real. It takes a lot to put me off my food, and Alpe D’Huez was not enough to disrupt my enjoyment of Weetabix, fresh baguette, pastries and black coffee. If not the diet of champions then certainly most pleasant in the early morning sunshine.

At 8:45am, my rival (let’s call him Tim, for that is his name), his DS and offspring arrived bang on schedule in their team car. Once out of the car, his elder daughter started throwing up, and was clearly unfit to take up supporting duties. A revised plan was devised – Tim’s DS would stay behind with sick daughter, with my DS taking our kids and Tim’s son in our team car, obviously now reclassified as a neutral service vehicle.

Tim hadn’t even had chance to deal with his first bout of “pre-race nerves” before I struck the first psychological blow. I reminded Tim to leave his wallet with his DS for the day, so that even if he did b*gger off into the distance off the start, he’d be reliant on me to pay for an ice cream at the top.

A further blow was struck by Tim’s son as we prepared to leave the campsite. Father and son had had “words” on the journey over, and young Eddie threw his support behind me!

It got even better when, on the ride into Bourg D’Oisans, Tim announced he’d forgotten his pump. So, not only had I stitched up control of financial matters and secured full support of all the spectators but Tim was carrying a worthless 100g or so of unusable puncture repair kit. The planets were favourably aligned, for sure. Or maybe not. Tim let slip a few anecdotes relating to climbs of Rosedale Chimney Bank in training, which somewhat trumped my hill work on speed humps and railway bridges. “25% gradient and power to spare” he announced confidently.

We soon reached the official start of the climb. After nearly 8 months, 2700km on the bike, 400km running and 550 words in this post, this was it! This was pure sport, serving no purpose other than to see who would win. To the winner, the Yellow Jersey. To the loser, the Lanterne Rouge. More importantly, to the winner, bragging rights and to the loser, eternal shame. In addition, the loser would have to play the role of “Lance” at the planned evening barbie, meekly submitting to all requests made by the victorious “Bertie”.

We shook hands and hit our respective start buttons. By a quirk of Polar technology vs Garmin, my Polar timer started timing first, so I was off, establishing a lead of two bike lengths before Tim’s Garmin started and he embarked on a frenzied pursuit. After ten pedal strokes, he was past me and b*ggering off into the distance, like a bat out of a particularly unpleasant part of hell.

My first thought was that it was lucky I had the money, or the ice cream scenario previously envisaged would come to pass. My second thought was that the road was steep and my heart rate was soaring alarmingly. The first half mile was very tough mentally. Although my legs felt good, my heart rate would not stop rising. Eventually, it stabilised at 157, just below my anaerobic threshold. I was out of the saddle before the first hairpin, which was not in the plan, but I eventually hit a good rhythm, albeit at around only 5.5mph, and stopped panicking.

After the first couple of hairpins, the gradient slackened, and I was now up to the dizzy heights of up to 7mph on the speed front, with the heart rate steady in the high 150s. I overtook a lady on a triple-ringed Cannondale and then a bloke on a knobble-tyred MTB. He immediately got off. A guy in full Rabobank replica kit shot past on a sexy looking carbon steed, looking for all the world like Michael Rasmussen “on a promise”. A couple of other people edged past, but I was pleasantly surprised with my lack of un-competitiveness.

I started enjoying myself. The scenery was admittedly limited to the tarmac immediately in front and my heart rate monitor with the odd glance down the valley for views and up the road to assess the imminence of the next hairpin. I planned to stay below the anaerobic threshold for the first half and then see what was left in the tank. It was pretty warm, but not excessively so, and I was drinking like a fish. With 2 litres of finest local water in my Camelbak, I’d probably over-catered on the fluid front, but better safe than sorry, I thought.

After turn 4 or so, I had company. A young French lad, let’s call him “Pierre Wheelsucker” pulled alongside. We exchanged a few pleasantries, my usually crap French apparently enhanced by the altitude and I established that he too was an ADH virgin, he was racing his elder brother and doing worse than me. He then dropped behind and resolutely sucked my wheel, except for odd forays alongside for further chit chat, which exhausted my spoken French capabilities. Notwithstanding the difficulties of speaking when undertaking vigorous exercise, Pierre had plenty of time to wheelsuck. I took it as a compliment that he’d clearly identified me as an experienced ex-elite athlete, whose wheel would guide him to the top of the climb.

The middle phase of the climb passed in a blur of steep tarmac, bends (there’s a damned sight more than 21, I’d say!) and the sounds of Pierre’s heavy breathing. I amused myself by estimating finishing times from the altitudes marked on the hairpin markers and trying to invent excuses for never having heard of Peter Winnens of 1981 and 1983 fame.

Halfway up, the DS drove past and there were excited cries of encouragement from the three youngsters in the back. Even in my semi-hypoxic state, it struck me that the DS was up there with the local drivers in terms of aggressive cornering. As luck would have it, she chose a relatively gentle gradient for a photo stop, and was treated to the sight of Pierre and me duelling side by side in a style reminiscent of Anquetil and Poulidour up the Ventoux.

As planned, I upped my efforts in the second half, and it was noticeable that the bikes ahead were no longer pulling away. Indeed, some were getting closer. Sadly, Tim was not on one of these slower bikes, but this had long since ceased to be “mano a mano” challenge and it was simply a case of how quickly I could get to the top.

I passed 6 miles in 55 and a half minutes and started overtaking the odd bike and dodging the lensmen who appeared to have long since identified the best place to stand to obstruct slow riders. I nearly fell off at one point, as Pierre had pulled alongside to take the racing line and I was stuck in the gutter of a tight bend, with some daft b*gger waving a fancy Nikon in one hand and an reference card for the photo in the other. It says a lot about my bike-handling skills that I pocketed the card, dodged the lenseman, stayed upright and still maintained a good rhythm for Pierre to wheelsuck, as he immediately slipped behind once the photo call was over. Guiseppe Guerini could learn a lot from me!

I passed a sing saying 3.9km to the finish, did some sums and decided it was now time to just give it some welly. Pierre clearly thought this was my attempt to drop him, as some time later he came past. I thought he was finally going to do some work, but it was the Froggy wheelsucker’s bid for victory. I’m glad he did what he did, as I clearly remember trying to follow him and there being absolutely no response in my legs. Without this, I’d be deluding myself that I could have gone much faster, given the brain’s inability to remember pain.

I rounded another bend, looked up and saw the lower reaches of ADH. As the locals doubtless say, I knew “il etait dans le sac”. Not only that, the slope slackened off, so I knocked it up a few gears and gave it some stick to catch the riders in front. A few were slowing down for arty pictures as they crossed the Weekend Warrior finish line and they duly paid the price as I overtook them just before the banner. You’ve got to race through the line, not just to it!

My goal was the real finish, and this final stretch was quite hard, as the route was not clearly signed (at least not to my feeble navigational brain.) I overtook Mr Rabobank, who was labouring quite badly, and another couple of members of the Carbon Armada. A wrong turn at a roundabout cost me my road position against Mr Rabobank and derision from some local schoolkids!

Back on track, I saw the “Arrivé 300m” sign, and rounded the final roundabout with excitement levels rising. Mr Rabobank was just ahead, so I went for the big ring and launched my sprint with 200m to go. Next time I’d go with 50m to go, as 200m is a long way in such circumstances! None the less, I re-took Mr Rabobank and had time for a Bertie pistol salvo, the Armstrong Texan longhorn salute and the Usain Bolt archer pose as I crossed the line! The watched stopped at 77:15, 3:30 in arrears of Tim.

The finish was something of an anti-climax, as it is flanked on one side by shut up hotels and on the other by a bus park, a public toilet and barren ski-pistes.

My offspring were phlegmatic in my defeat. “You’ll just have to practice harder, Daddy!” observed elder daughter. Eddie had switched sides and was delightedly chanting “My Daddy won! My Daddy won!” My younger daughter was mainly concerned with when we could have an ice-cream. My DS seemed most relieved that I hadn’t re-kn*ckered my back, which was no small matter of relief to me either.

In summary, although I lost the Challenge, I had overcome a massive brute of a climb and done so with some style in the latter stages, finishing strongly. Most importantly, we’d both beaten Sheryl Crowe’s time for the climb.

For the technically minded, according to, I spewed out a whopping 227 watts for the 77 minutes of the climb and if you adjust for the fact that my bike was 3kg heavier than Tim’s, the margin of defeat was a mere 45 seconds.

Later in the week, I climbed the Col D’Ornon and the Croix de Fer. This latter ascent was a much more enjoyable climb, as the scenery was better and the overtaking count was 11-0 in my favour! The climb out of the valley-bottom after the mid-climb descent was an evil brute, though, and almost worthy of a write-up in its own right!

Well done .... good write up too!

Which did you finfd harder - Adh or Coix de Fer ?


CDF was harder, largely due to the climb out of the valley. (The Defile de Maupas, I think.) It was baking hot and even more f-ing steep for what seemed like an eternity. I was well into the red-zone for 20 minutes just to avoid stalling Sad

The 6% / 7% pitches at the beginning and end of the climb were bordering on the genuinely enjoyable, as I could go at a good rhythm and actually see my heart rate go down!
Slapshot 3

Nice report SR, glad you enjoyed it.

Chapeau SR!

I had a look at the Croix de Fer profile. Sheeesh, whichever one.

My feelings exactly SR.  Each time I do La Marmotte everyone discounts the CdF but it is one hell of a climb ... beautiful too!

So ... are you back next year for a rematch?

Bartali wrote:
So ... are you back next year for a rematch?

A re-match may well be on the cards...

My DS has already planned next year's hols, with a week near Luz St Saveur on the itinerary. Some more "col-bagging" beckons!

The holiday plans for Tim (or "Alberto" as he now insists on being addressed Smile) and his crew are as yet unknown, but I suspect the lure of the Tourmalet will prove too much for him to resist!

If you are in that part of the world I'd suggest the Aubisque - prettier and not quite as severe - think it would suit you better if you didn't like the bottom of AdH.  

For what its worth, you were quicker than I was this year!

Bartali wrote:
For what its worth, you were quicker than I was this year!

Thanks - you just need to cut back on your warm up to around 10k rather than 150k!!

Bartali wrote:
...I'd suggest the Aubisque - prettier and not quite as severe - think it would suit you better if you didn't like the bottom of AdH.

I hope you're not suggesting I'm a flat-track bully...Smile

The actual climb could be determined simply by which offers the best catering facilities at the top.

Not at all .... but you sound like me.  Up to 8% is great but over 10% is hard work.
Slapshot 3

Bartali wrote:
Not at all .... but you sound like me.  Up to 8% is great but over 10% is hard work.

With the exception of real superstars 10% is hard work for everybody... Rolling Eyes  Go for the Tourmalet; from Luz St Saveur feels a little more straightforward than the La Mongie side.... now that does look tough especially the first 5 Km

Bartali wrote:
Up to 8% is great but over 10% is hard work.

"Great" is perhaps overdoing things as a description for me, but you're pretty much spot-on!

Great job SR!

What was the total length and elevation gain for those 77+ minutes?

Berck - The official route is 14.0k for 1060m ascent.

Chapeau SR, anyone who can say they've climbed AdH has my respect.

Great write up too.

Chapeau. Good read, too.

Thanks to Kathy's technical advice, here are some piccies...

Your correspondent and some of the Froggy Wheelsucker
He was good at pulling into shot for the photos, though...


Tired, but happy
I even forgave Tim his black socks

At the CdF

My secret weapon for next year's challenges

cardinal guzman

nice one SR!

A highly enjoyable read. I imagine the organisers employ wheelsuckers just to add to the pain and therefore the 'enjoyment'. Forum Index -> Around the World
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