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Fri 19th Apr 2019
Race report: Alpe d'Huez Triathlon
Posted by: Albert
Posted on: Sunday 7th August 2011

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“That was brutal! The most brutal thing I have ever done.” Not my words, but those I overheard someone saying on their mobile when leaving the bike park at the end of the race. I may not have spoken them, but the words certainly reflect my feelings! But back to the start...

The Alpe d’Huez climb is iconic, having a central role to the story of the Tour de France. Although the climb is open to the public, and is visited by hundreds of cyclists each day, to climb the Alpe as part of a race is a challenge and pleasure that cannot be ignored – and the Alpe d’Huez triathlon provides just such an opportunity. But, even before the race begins, the competitors are faced with the challenge of getting to the start. The event HQ and T2 are at the top of the Alpe. The start of the race and T1 are located some miles away, and significantly lower, so competitors are recommended to cycle from the top of the Alpe down a dedicated route to the start. An alternative for those staying in hotels in the valley at the bottom of the Alpe is to drive the 10-15 mile circuitous route along the main road to the same point.

The start is in Lake Verney, with a swim of 2.2 kilometres, over two laps with no exit from the water. The lake was (as we were warned) cold, and some comments on its capabilities of shifting the male form were somewhat graphic, involving retraction of key male attributes within the body. But in all honesty, it was no colder than the swim at the 70.3 UK this year – perhaps even warmer.

The bike stage is where the fun starts. This year, within a few minutes of starting this leg, the rain which was going to be a semi-constant companion of the day began. The first 26 kilometres of this leg are actually gently downhill and largely on main roads, but at my end of the race (sadly, towards the back) the trend was to conserve energy and prepare for the challenge ahead rather than head down flat out. At kilometre 26, the road turns to the right, and the first of the three major climbs on the course begins. The climb up the Col d’Alpe de Grande Serre (1,375 metres) is 14 kilometres long. Its steeper than the second climb, but still presents a fairly benign challenge due to its early location in the stage. Then there is a long generally downhill phase, steep at first, then gentle and easy to over halfway round the course.

The second climb, the Col d’Ornon (1,371 metres) remains pretty easy. In a car recce the day before, it seemed steeper and the straightness of the road presents long views of the climb to come. But the reality of the day was that the climb was relatively easy – in fact, surprisingly easy. The descent is a different story. It is 15 kilometres long and is frequently technical and steep with some shear drops at the edge of the road, and there was some concern about descending on wet slippery roads. Most people were more cautious than usual and despite my trepidation (the result of two recent crashes including a collision with a car and a KO), few overtook me, and I even overtook some riders.

The end of the descent takes the riders into the valley and the village of Bourg d’Oisons, with a ride of around 2-3 kilometres before the 14 kilometre ascent we all came for – the Alpe itself. At 1,850 metres, with the famous 21 bends each of which celebrates a winner of a Tour stage completed at the Alpe, climbing was actually a strange sensation, and felt pretty comfortable. Heart rate was pretty modest throughout - but attempts at speeding up were difficult, and no great cheer at the end, mainly because the cost of the climb is to be found at the top of the mountain, when with no flat road to recuperate, competitors are faced with transition and the final 22 kilometre run.

Still raining, and pretty dark and cloudy, the run is a definite challenge. It takes competitors well beyond the safety of tarmac, and most is on rough paths. Personally I do much of my training off road, and enjoyed this type of running, but not all did, and the paths are quite narrow at times so I can imagine at the more competitive end of the race overtaking would be difficult at times. The run comprises three roughly 6.5 kilometre loops. One on lap, clay pigeon shooters were firing, with massive echoes down two valleys. Impressive noise, which kept me amused for at least a few minutes. The end is wonderful! No medal, but a cool t-shirt.

Overall impressions were good. The race has about 850 starters, and does not have the magnitude or razzamataz of an Ironman race – and is all the better for it. I am not very fit at present, so comparisons with other races should be made with caution. However, the usual trend is that I finish the swim pretty far down the field, and then make up often hundreds of places on the bike. No such story this time – I may even have lost places on the bike. It is a race that clearly attracts serious and fast cyclists. And you need to be to survive.

There is a large British contingent, and despite the fact that many of the organisers speak pretty basic English, they are helpful, and it has a friendly and supportive atmosphere. On the bike and run, the support is fantastic. The race numbers have names and national flags on them, and this allows support to feel a bit more personal. See the same people enough times as they drive along the bike course and you circulate on the run, people begin to feel like old friends – if any of you read this, thanks.. your support was greatly supported! There are cheap flights from the UK to either Geneva or Grenoble (closer) so logistically it is very ‘doable’. Would I do it again. Oh yes... but only if I am a lot fitter!