Thursday, June 24, 2010

Climbing THE Alpe (d'Huez)

Today was the first day of riding for me here in the french Alpes. It started slow, but built momentum throughout the day. After a great breakfast @ Le Velo Jaune, Alan dropped me, Thijs (pronounced like nice with a T) and Adam (new friends I met here at the B&B) into town to pick up our bikes. I picked up an aluminum frame bike and brought it back to get it outfitted and ready to ride. The most important part was to tie my little polka dot ribbon on the bike so Perry could ride along.

As I was preparing the bike, Thijs and Adam came rolling up and we chatted about the ride plan. Turns out, they were planning on doing the same ride I was planning. Along with Jamie who had brought her own bike.

We finally got away from the B&B just before noon. Our destination – Alpe d’Huez. I was very excited about doing this climb – mostly because it is so famous from the Tour. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was as ready as I could get considering I had not been on a bicycle in a little less than two weeks.

As we rode from the B&B to the base of l’Alpe, we enjoyed a slight downhill. One right turn and the fun began! Of course, the fun I’m talking about is the climb. Jamie, Thijs and Adam made a quick stop, but I had checked my time at the sign and decided to keep going. I thought all of them might catch me anyway, so I thought no harm.

The climb starts pretty steep. My rental bike has a triple on the front, but initially I wanted to be stubborn and stay in the middle ring. HA! It only took me until the first switchback (number 21 – they are numbered from the top starting with number 1) before I realized the futility of that stubbornness. As I rounded that first switchback, I dropped it down to the small ring and got my cadence up where I like it.

The climb is relentless for the first several kilometers. Of course, when it finally lets up, it is still a tough climb. The distance is 12km (just under 8 miles) and the elevation gain is 1100meters (just over 3600ft). There is absolutely NOTHING in the Greenville area that I have ridden with this much elevation gain in such a distance. IT WAS INCREDIBLE!!!

One of the things I love about climbing is how I find myself in a zone – it becomes nothing but me, my bike and the mountain (and of course Hotel California rocking in my head). I approach climbing with a very specific focus – to maintain my rhythm with my cadence and my breathing such that I make solid steady progress. Not always the fastest guy up the mountain, but just very steady and usually with a respectable pace.

I found this zone today – in fact, at some points I had to drag myself out of this zone to take a look at the incredible mountains surrounding us.

Somewhere along the way, I saw a rider coming from behind and pulling a pretty good pace. It took a few switchbacks before she caught me, but sure enough it was Jamie. Based on the brief conversations I had with her, I knew she was a strong rider. When she came past me, I picked it up a little to match her pace. She happens to be riding a full size crankset – amazing!

We rode together and at times, I picked up the pace a little here and there. I was hoping I could help her with her time up the mountain (because she caught me, I knew she had several minutes on me already). Lynne and Alan have a board where they list all of the people who have timed themselves up the climb. The fastest woman this year came in at just over 1 hour (1:00:28) and the fastest man has come in at 49ish minutes. Alan himself has completed the climb in 52ish minutes.

As we cleared maybe switchback number 3, Jamie started to pick up the pace further. I couldn’t match it, but I did my best to stay as close as I could. It seems the last two switchbacks are about as steep as the first, so I was feeling it for sure. As the finish banner came into sight, I tried for one last burst to finish strong. 1:07:38. I was hoping for better, but I didn’t count on how truly difficult the climb really is.

Jamie finished in front of me with a time near 1:02. Her computer didn’t show her the seconds, so that is the most accurate she could get. What’s even more incredible, she got up this morning and ran 6 miles.

We descended back to check on Thijs and Adam. I missed Thijs as I descended, but found Adam riding alongside Jamie who had also descended. We rode along with Adam for a while before Thijs came down and joined us. We stopped for a ‘team photo’ at a large Alpe d’Huez sign.

We made our way to the top and decided to have lunch. A great sandwich at a little bar and a little shopping at the bike shop – of course I had to have a jersey that said ‘Alpe d’Huez’ on it!

After that, the ride continued with a descent down to switchback 16 where we took a left turn and rode up another climb (maybe 500m (~1640ft) and Adam continued his descent for the direct route back to the B&B (to catch the US in the world cup). This road took us along a shear cliff – It is amazing how they cut this road into the cliff side.

Here’s a few shots from that road.

From there, a great descent to the town of Freney d’Oisans then another climb of about 1000 meters (3280ft) up to les duex alpes. This was a tough climb and I didn’t really take care of my nutrition properly. Jamie and Thijs stayed together, while I let them go. About 6k from the top, I had to stop and eat one of my energy bars. Too little, too late, but it did give me enough boost to finsh the climb. At the top I met back up with them and had my second bar.

From here it was all downhill to the B&B. The route we took sent us along another incredible road cut directly into the cliff face. Look closely at this photo – the cliff overhangs the road!

We finally arrived at the B&B shortly after 6pm. Just over 6 hours of total time with ride time somewhere in the 4:40 range. The distance – 49 miles and the total approximate climbing was 2600m (8500ft).

Tomorrow – the Marmot route but not including Alpe d’Huez. I estimate the distance at just around 100 miles. The climbing - Croix de fer, Telegraph, Galibier and Lauteret. Have I bitten off more than I can chew?


  1. JD,

    Great job on the climb and the blog. From all I've researched, that's a very impressive time for that climb!

    We'll be there in 2 weeks. Good luck on the rest of the Marmotte tomorrow. I'd love to do that ride, but I'll be with a group and it's not part of the plan.

  2. Sounds like some great riding, JD! That smile on your face says it all. :) I am so happy that you're having a good time! -- Jess

  3. Great ride JD! Thanks for letting us go with you. Love the pictures.


Don't be shy! I'm interested to hear your comments or experiences.
NOTE: I have switched on the comment moderation because I have been getting a number of spam comments lately. Be patient, I'll post it up as soon as I can! Thx JD