2015 Alpe d’Huez

It is rare on a short holiday to go back to the same place again but Alpe d’Huez is one destination that is well worth visiting twice. I left it too late the previous day to climb the Alpe so was determined today to give it a second shot. In 1992, I had tried climb Alpe d’Huez but only made it as far as Turn 2 about 3 km from the finish. Yesterday, I had tried descending to the bottom of the climb before the Tour de France arrived but only made it as far as the village of Huez and instead climbed to the top from there. So, today, would be my third attempt to climb Alpe d’Huez and I was hoping for third time lucky.

Source: Cycling-challenge.com
Source: Cycling-challenge.com

All 21 hairpins on climb up to the summit of Alpe d’Huez. There had been signs on the road up to Alpe d’Huez saying that the road was to be closed between 9 and 12 on Sunday morning for maintenance crews to lift all the barriers. So we were in no hurry this morning as we weren’t sure if cyclists were being stopped as well as vehicles. So it was after 10 when we left the hotel to drive back to Alpe d’Huez. There was a lot fewer cyclists on the road and most of the campervans alongside the D1091 between Rochetaille and Bourg d’Oisans were gone. Noel parked the Peugeot on the approach road to Alpe d’Huez and I was able to assemble the bike ready for an assault on the Alpe. You could see that the D211 up to Alpe d’Huez was only after being re-opened as there was a line of cars trying to get down the hill. I would have liked to have a warm-up before starting the climb but it was now nearly 12 and as we planned to leave the hire-car back about 5, it meant I only had 2 hours to climb Alpe d’Huez and come back down.

Source: Climbbybike.com
Source: Climbbybike.com

Profile of Alpe d’Huez. Once the climb started, I was determined to not stop so did not take any photos on the way up. It was really tough at the bottom and my heart rate shot up right away to close to my max. The gradient just hits you like a blast of hot air from a jet engine. I knew I was in trouble when I needed the lowest gear on my bike (34×28) right from the start off the climb. I had to ease off to let my heart rate calm down so took it gently for about 5 km until I got to Turn 10 or Irish corner.

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Irish corner at Turn 10. After Irish corner, I tried lifting my pace and moving up the gears but it was no good. My legs were fine and I had bags of endurance after cycling 2,000 km the last 3 weeks but I just had no power, no zip. My heart was still recovering from the heat stroke I had suffered a few days before and when my mind said go, my heart and lungs said no.

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Screenshot from Strava showing both the climb and the downhill sections of Alpe d’Huez. When I got to the village of Huez, I was hoping the gradient would ease slightly but it stayed more or less the same though the hairpins were flatter. At Turn 2, there was a photographer taking photos of all the cyclists going past. This is where I climbed off in 1992 so I was determined not to stop again. So, the photographer had to run after me to give me his card with a link to his website. To download the photos costs €19 or you can order a print for €12. I might order a print as Turn 2 is as far as I got in 1992 (no photographer that day) so the place where this photo was taken means a lot more to me than maybe any other cyclist climbing Alpe d’Huez.

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Watermarked photo at Turn 2 about 3 km from the summit. Noel at this time was enjoying a creme brulee in a cafe in Bourg d’Oisans and tweeted that I was going through hell on Alpe d’Huez. But actually, it wasn’t too bad as I felt fresh but just had no zip. Had I the same form I had in the Pyrenees, I would have climbed maybe 10 mins faster but my heart and lungs felt smaller and just didn’t have the same power. It was as if they had shrunk after my heat stroke a few days beforehand and had still not recovered back to their previous size.

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Noel’s tweet from a cafe in Bourg d’Oisans. About an hour and half after leaving Bourg d’Oisans, I made it top the top of Alpe d’Huez. The barriers and all the banners from the Tour de France had been removed so it was impossible to tell where the actual finish-line was as even the Skoda markings had been lifted. So I kept going to the ski lift at the Ski Republic shop and to where the path up to Lac Besson starts. According to Strava, it had taken me 1 hour and 18 mins to climb Alpe d’Huez, which was exactly twice the time taken by Nairo Quintana the day before. Neither Nairo nor Chris Froome is on Strava so Romain Bardet actually has the honour of being fastest so far this year up Alpe d’Huez on Strava with a time of 42.37, 17 seconds faster than yesterday’s winner Thibaut Pinot.

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1 hr and 18 mins to climb Alpe d’Huez. You can see from the screengrab above that Strava estimated that  I averaged 199W up the climb. 2 weeks before I had climbed a hill with the trailer on the way to Lourdes at 153W, according to Strava. Of course, Strava didn’t know I was hauling a heavy trailer up that hill. 153W power for my standard setting of 70kg (10kg bike + 60kg my weight) is roughly the equivalent of 220W for 100kg (30kg trailer + 10kg bike + 60kg my weight). Had I averaged 220W on Alpe d’Huez, I would have climbed to the TDF finish in under 1 hour and 10 mins which was my target. So while I was relieved to make it to the top, I was also a little disappointed to not even get near my target.

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Screenshot from Strava from climb in the Pyrenees. I might never get a chance to climb the Alpe again for real but at least I can tackle it anytime on my Tacx trainer. The trainer I have is called the Tacx Vortex, which comes with a software package called TTS, which allows you to virtually recreate any climb on a computer screen. I have 3 videos of the climb up to Alpe d’Huez filmed by Tacx in 2006, 2007 and 2014. The quality of the ’06 video is terrible, the ’07 video is OK but the detail on the 2014 video is just incredible. Of course, it is much easier to climb the Alpe on the trainer as the Vortex is limited to re-creating slopes of up to 6% whereas in places, the gradient on Alpe d’Huez is over 11%. Above 6%, the software reduces the speed depending on the gradient but it still means you can spin the pedals much easier and quicker than I found possible when I tackled the Alpe for real.

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Tacx Vortex. I think the problem why the Tacx software over-estimates my speed on steep slopes is due to what CyclingTips calls momentum. In short, momentum is why track riders some of whom can produce 600W for an hour on a level track cannot produce the same power on a climb. It is partly down to your leg muscles but also down to your cadence or the speed you spin the pedals. On most hills, I can maintain a cadence of about 80 but on Alpe d’Huez, I found it difficult to achieve a good rhythm. On steep slopes, your normal position on the bike changes and the weight of your legs also becomes a factor due to gravity. It is something that can be ironed out with practice but I simply didn’t have time to train on any other steep climbs in France this year before tackling Alpe d’Huez..

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My record is 57 mins to climb Alpe d’Huez on the trainer. As you can see from the above screenshot, I can climb Alpe d’Huez roughly 20 mins faster on the trainer than in real life. Other people have commented that their time on the trainer is similar to real life and Tacx have spent over 10 years on their TTS software trying to get it as accurate as possible. A minute or 2 difference I could understand but 20 mins is a lot. Part of the discrepancy may be down to the weight of my bike. Tacx allow for a bike weight of 7.5 kg but I had roughly a litre of water and a set of tubes and tools in case I punctured. All together my bike, clothes and shoes probably weighed about 12 kg or 5 kg more than what Tacx allow for. Every kg on the Alpe is an extra minute so the extra weight cost me 5 mins. I believe my lack of practice on steep slopes cost me another 5 mins and my lack of power after the heat stroke cost me 10 mins, so in all, a total of 20 mins. Of course, the only way to see if the trainer time and real-life time matches is to ride the trainer and then do the climb after resting for a day or 2. Maybe the next time I visit Alpe d’Huez, I will bring the trainer with me and try that.

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Screenshot from Alpine Classic 2007 video at summit of Alpe d’Huez. In hindsight, I should have gone to a cafe with Noel for an expresso to calm my heart and then warmed up for half an hour before attempting to climb the Alpe. But because we didn’t have much time, I tackled Alpe d’Huez cold and certainly suffered at the start of the climb. But no matter how good my form and preparation was, I would never have got close to my trainer time, not in a month of Sundays.

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Herd of sheep underneath the ski-lifts at top of Alpe d’Huez. I didn’t expect to come across a herd of sheep at the summit of Alpe d’Huez but there they were munching away on the hillside. After 10 minutes taking photos, I headed back down to Bourg d’Oisans. It was so much easier going back downhill than coming up but also more dangerous. I nearly crashed into another cyclist in the tunnel near the tourist office. He was on the wrong side of the road cutting the bend and ‘cos it is very dark in the tunnel, I didn’t see him until the last second. Somehow, I managed to miss him but it would have been a bad smash as I was doing about 50 km/hr at the time. When I got to Bourg d’Oisans, I was a bit like poor Tom Domoulin at the Vuelta and found myself locked out of the car. Noel was still busy shopping trying to get some presents for the folks back home so I had to text him to let him know I was at the car. He soon arrived back to let me into the car and shortly afterwards, we set off for Grenoble.