Haute Route Alpe d’Huez

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by John Thomas – July 12th 2019

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Stage 1

Haute Route Alpe d’Huez

I’ve been lucky enough to compete in 4 previous Haute Route events but this is my first venture into a 3 day event having done the 7 day versions previously. 3 days based in the cyclist’s version of Mecca with 2 big mountain stages followed by a time trial up the Alpe to finish on Sunday.
I really didn’t know what to expect from my performance, I’ve guided and ridden lots of Alpine Cadence trips so far this year so plenty of miles in the legs but no competition riding to this point so this would be a test of fitness. Stage one looked pretty daunting for my first race day of the year. 123km with 3700m of climbing. Col de la Croix de Fer from both sides followed by a summit finish in Alpe d’Huez via the Villard Reculas road.

I get so wound up and nervous before events and this one was no exception. It was such a relief to get the thing started and ride. We rolled out of Alpe d’Huez at 7.00am, a chilly, neutralised 18kms down to the foot of the first climb where the timing would begin. Those neutralised starts are painfully slow and controlled but a necessary part of making the day safe. I think I got more use out of my brakes in those 18kms than in all my riding put together in the previous months!
The timed section approached, I’d got myself where I wanted to be, near enough to the front. Over the timing mat and it’s game on. So good to be pressing on the pedals in competition at last. The big challenge for me would be to cap my efforts in the early stages and not get carried away with feeling too good. My power meter would prove invaluable in those early stages, helping me to limit my efforts and save energy for later. In the early stages of an event, especially with fresh legs, it’s so easy to go ‘into the red’ without realising. Big power efforts that are over your sustainable threshold seem easy in an exciting and adrenaline fuelled environment. My power meter made me behave.
Two or three of the stronger riders attacked off the front but I stayed in my little world of control and stuck to my numbers and discipline.
The first 6kms of the climb are fairly unrelenting at about 8% most of the way. My legs felt good and I crested that first 6kms feeling happy with how things were going. Another indicator for me was that I found myself in the same group as Hervé Gebel who I’ve ridden with in previous Haute Routes before. He and I have had some good battles and we ride to a similar level. I knew he’d been training hard this year from seeing all his amazing rides on Strava so I was happy to be at his level.

A short descent followed and then the climb reinstated itself with some tough double figure percentage sections. My speed and line on the short descent had given me the jump on the group behind and I found myself about 100m ahead of them. I forged ahead, still feeling good and the gap behind me grew to the best part of a minute. The problem was that I had no one to ride to. Up ahead was lots of road but no sign of any other groups to bridge to. As we climbed higher I felt the wind in my face, not good on your own. It’s far easier to ‘break away’ or stay away with a tailwind. A headwind plays into the hands of the chasing group. I was resigned to realising that I’d be better off back in that group, saving energy. I didn’t like the idea of ‘sitting up’ though and letting them absorb me, luckily one of the group started to work hard and he pulled the group towards me without me having to ease too much. For the final 6kms of the climb I was back where I belonged in the group. My 7 or 8kms off the front of them would have cost me a bit of energy but in a way it also gave me the confidence that my legs were there.
We crested the Col de la Croix de Fer after 24km of climbing. Two more climbs to come, would my legs last?

After descending 15km down the other side we took a hard left to ascend back up from the other side. I was with Hervé and a few of the group I’d been with on the first climb and I sat in and ‘enjoyed’ the ride. That second climb was perfect for me, a firm effort but I was always relatively comfortable. As we approached the top of the Croix de Fer for the second time I started to think about the long descent down the other side. We’d be racing down the same 24kms that we’d climbed earlier. A very fast descent that I knew well. I knew Hervé was a very good descender but I was unsure about the others. Just before we crested the col I came to the front so I could dictate the descent on my terms. A slight tail wind made it super fast. I saw so many bewildered faces on the slower riders in the same event who were still going in the other direction.
I can descend pretty well but it scares the hell out of me. The implications of what can go wrong are horrible. I’m always so relieved to get a descent safely done. It’s also an opportunity though. If you’re fairly competent at it you need to exploit it and in some cases drop riders who are less skilled. That’s basically how cycling works, when you know you are strong at something you need to make the most of it and exploit the weakness of the others. They will do the same to you when they get their chance!
Hervé and I got to the bottom of that 24km very swiftly. He’s great to ride with, picks a good line and I can trust him 100% at the 80km/h + speeds that I’d guess we were moving at.

One climb to go. Alpe d’Huez via Villard Reculas. About 18kms and 1100m of climbing left. Again I was really happy to be with Hervé. If I could get to the finish near him I’d be happy. I got on Hervé’s wheel and he seemed strong. I would have liked to have taken a turn on the front but his pace was just a fraction too heavy for me. I felt bad that I couldn’t help him. After climbing for about 5 kms I was close to letting him go. I’d convinced myself that he was stronger than me and for a few minutes I just felt like I’d had enough. The mental and physical effort of staying on someone’s wheel when they are going a fraction harder than you want to is tough. I was so, so close to going for the easy option, let the elastic snap, let him go, then I can cruise to the finish, albeit slowly and settle for wherever I come in the race.
Those thoughts changed though, another voice in my head was saying how well things were going. The power numbers were looking good, legs felt strong, maybe it was just a brief drop in motivation. I decided to take my turn on the front, I moved past Hervé more comfortably than expected and let him draught me. I looked back frequently and it looked like Hervé was losing touch. He was having his own battles and struggling more than I’d realised. I eased off a few times to give him a chance to get back on my wheel. Especially after I’d used his wheel so much in the previous kilometres I really wanted to return the favour and get to the finish together. He was spent though and I was still feeling reasonably ok. The gap widened and we were separate riders on the road.
After Villard Reculas the road flattened for a couple of kilometres along the spectacular balcony road that links with the classic Alpe d’Huez climb. I hit that classic climb with 4km to the top and 4 of the famous bends to negotiate. Now it was me that was spent. My power dropped off and I was starting to crack. This would be a tough 4kms. Peter Rowley, a young British rider that had been in my group earlier was steaming up the road behind me. Impressive. He’d paced himself well and was overtaking his way to a very strong finish. As he passed me I slapped him on the back and told him to finish the job off in style.
I was on my last legs, counting down the metres. Those behind me were struggling too though so I was still holding my position in the field. The last kilometre was easier and flatter, I mustered enough energy for a strong finish and I crossed the line about a minute ahead of Hervé.

I came 9th on the day which if you’d offered me beforehand I’d have bitten your hand off. Very happy to ride to a decent level after having not raced for so long. Just ahead of me in 8th was Richard Scales, another oldie like me and a very strong rider, I was delighted to be within a minute of the likes of him. Overall a great first day. Legs are sore now though! Really hope I can recover for tomorrow. A shorter but very spiky stage awaits us tomorrow culminating with the climb of the Col de Sarenne. Tough but a very beautiful place to have pain inflicted on you. Bring it on!

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