*** many thanks to Neil Hayward for this race report ***
The Alpe D'Huez Long Course Triathlon is a point to point triathlon starting at Lac du Vernay and ending at the top of the Alpe D'Huez. Slightly longer than your typical Half ironman distance event with a 2.2km swim, 115km bike and a 21km run. All relatively straightforward, except that the lake is fed from glacial waters and has a normal summer temperature of between 13 to 15 degrees Celsius. The cycle covers three mountains (Alpe du Grande Serre (elevation 1,375m ) Col d'Ornon (elevation 1,371m) and Alpe D'Huez (1,850m)) with total climbing of 42.6km distance and 2,644m ascent and a net elevation gain of 1,100m.
I was doing it with Douglas Pickles, and both of us were doing it to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society. We based ourselves in Vaujany, a small town just above the start at Lac du Vernay and a perfect place to be located for the event. We could cycle down from our chalet on the morning of the event and be at the start at 8.30am with more than enough time to rack the bike, hand in our bike transition bags, put on the wetsuit, enjoy a few moments of sun whilst the commentator ran through the race instructions (in French, English and Dutch, something for everyone). All ready for a relatively relaxing and late 9.30am start.
Then on with the neoprene cap and standard issue race cap and off to enter the water. Along with 1,000 plus others. The combination of over 1,000 entrants, a narrow entrance to the water and everyone adjusting to the 15.5 degrees of the water meant that when the gun went, quite a few were left on the bank to hurriedly dive in and swim the 150m to the start line. Just before that you had the amusing sight of the organisers trying to push back the competitors in the water, as those competitors kept inching forward to try to get a quick start. Finally the organisers realised the athletes were winning and set off the gun.
The combination of the mass start and getting used to the cold water meant I was happy to wait at the back for the melee to disperse before heading off. It still took over half a lap before the swim became comfortable, but when it did, it became a beautiful swim. Clear, cloudy turquoise blue water, mountains all around and the sun just rising above the top of the mountains made it one of the more scenic swims I have done. The three turns of the triangle were pretty rough but after two laps of a 1.1km loop almost too soon and I was being hauled out of the water by volunteers who must have been even colder than I was. Douglas was shortly behind and we stayed within a few minutes of each other throughout the race.
A quick and fumbling change into my Alzheimer's Society cycling gear and I was off up the steep exit ramp (remember to put your bike in its lowest gear) and it was off on around 25km of downhill to the bottom of Alpe du Grande Serre for a pretty tough and steep introduction to the mountains. With the number of competitors, it was hard not to draft on this first section and the race referees were pretty sensible as there wasn't too much to be gained in any case. Alpe du Grande Serre is a steep, tough start to the uphill element of the ride. Pretty much straight into the lowest gear and that was where it stayed for the next hour and a half to the top. I was consistently passed all the way, including by Douglas, and kept holding onto the thought that they would blow up eventually. I'm not sure they did but it kept me sane.
Another nice descent through the stunning mountains to an easier, if longer ascent up Col d'Ornon, where with 2km to go to the top, my spoke broke with a big clang and brought me to an almost immediate stop. Douglas stopped to help me review the situation and come to the only solution possible. To loosen the brakes to stop the bendy wheel rubbing and hope for help at the rest station at the top.
But no help was to be found. And this was one of the good and bad things about the Alpe D'Huez Tri. It isn't one of the big Ironman or Challenge races, it is locally organised, slightly disorganised but makes it to the end with good humour and uniqueness. But is also means that there isn't a mechanic at each stop, nor motorbikes going round with spare wheels. Just a Gallic shrug, a "non peutetre a la prochain" and off to serve someone else their banana and water.
So after tightening the brakes and a very slow and careful ascent down a narrow but probably very enjoyable descent if doing it properly, I arrived in Bourg D'Oisans for the start of Alpe D'Huez. And of course, no mechanic. Surprisingly, I met Douglas who had been enjoying the scenery a little too much and took a small wrong turn before Bourg D'Oisans and allowed us to start the climb together. The triathlon gets its name from this famously brutal climb which has featured in the Tour de France 27 times, most recently only 6 days before when Chris Froome held off all challengers to retain the yellow jersey and win for a second time. It’s such a notorious climb that bends are named after stage winners and supporters crowd the road leaving only a small gap for the cyclists. My own approach was to keep it slow but steady through the 21 turns, listening to the support of the remaining spectators and just as I reached turn 17 the shouting of the Pickles and Hayward families as they shouted their lungs off supporting Douglas at turn 19.
I was lucky enough to receive the same reception, and after making time for a few high fives with the kids and the obligatory smile and "I'm feeling great thanks" I completed the last couple of turns and it was into transition. Where a lot of bikes were waiting.
A slow and stiff transition followed. Fortunately a lot of spectators shouting forced everyone into a run and I was off. The first 3.5km of the run felt all uphill. It was on a mixture of gravel roads and off road which was different and very scenic. As it was at the top of Alpe D'Huez there were superb views to the valleys below and surrounding mountains withe the setting sun (I hadn't been quick). There was a bit of running a fair bit of walking and then the turnaround and the second half of the lap was mainly downhill where I actually overtook people as 95kgs can get a good momentum if you let it. More high fives (and a rugby tackle) to the families at the end of lap 1 and beginning of lap two and I wasn't feeling too bad.
Somewhere along lap 2 Douglas and I met again and continued closely for the next lap or so as we collected coloured hair bands and mixed our walking and running.
After 10 hours and 19 minutes I finally crossed the finish line just as the prizes were being given to Emma Pooley, the winner of the womens event, which at least meant there were plenty of people to cheer me over the line (on top of my fantastic team of family supporters). Most of the finishers refreshments and food had already gone which wasn't ideal but I didn't feel like much anyway. Douglas finished shortly after for an Alzheimer’s Society team reunion at the finish. Job done.
Overall it was a great event. Good, no thrills organisation that did a friendly and very satisfactory job in organising an excellent event with the most stunning event scenery I have participated in. To cope with the bike leg, you almost need to train as though it is an ironman distance event. As it is point to point, the logistics are a bit painful. We had to register at Alpe D'Huez but start at Lac Du Verney and then finish at the top of Alpe D'Huez which meant leaving a car the night before. You can deposit a car in the morning and then cycle a back way to the start but that seemed like a lot of effort with what we had to do later. It isn't that easy for spectators to follow as there wasn't a huge amount of parking at Lac Du Verney and then you need a car to get round and see a few different places. Having said that, three laps for the run, and a number of cross over points meant our families saw us six times on the run which was hugely helpful for morale. I would definitely do it again and would recommend anyone else to do so too.
A very special thank you must go to our families. From my side, a big thank you to Sam who has been a wonderful support throughout the six plus months as I trained for this event plus another similar event the week before. Sam picked up the pieces when I was training, put up with my constant "I just need to go for a 2 hour run" etc, supporting me when I needed a bit of encouragement and generally holding the family together. And thank you to both the Pickles and Hayward families (Amy, Cecily, Roddy, Sam, Eliza, Rosa, Thea, Tim and Sally) for all the support in the week leading up to the event and the tremendously loud support on the day itself.
Also a huge shout out to Neil Flanagan who got be ready superbly for the event, with a great training plan into Challenge Roth three weeks earlier, and then a recovery plan to allow me to start, and finish this one as well. That race report will be with your shortly. Also to Seth and Neil at DMSC who turned my swim from slow and rubbish, to good enough to get round comfortably and love the occasion. Thank you.
So final stats for me:
Total time 10 hours 19 minutes 49 seconds
Swim: 49 minutes 15 seconds
Transition 1: 3 minutes 42 seconds
Bike: 6 hours 48 minutes 5 seconds
Transition 2: 3 minutes 36 seconds
Run: 2 hours 35 minutes and 9 seconds