Haute Route Alpe d’Huez stage 3

By John Thomas July 14th 2019

Individual Time Trial   15kms    Bourg d’Oisans – Alpe d’Huez

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The final stage of this 3 day event was the tough but uncomplicated task of climbing against the clock up the famous hairpins of the Alpe d’Huez climb. After a 1km run in to the climb we would embark on the 14km of climb at an average gradient of just under 8%.

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The whole field of about 270 riders would set off individually in 20 second intervals in reverse order of where they ranked in the General Classification from the previous 2 days. So, slowest first with the top riders starting last.

After 2 challenging mountain stages with multiple climbs, it would be easy to think of the prospect of just doing one climb as almost a relief. Time trials are tough though. No hiding behind other riders, no respite, just an hour or so of sustained and carefully managed pain! Some riders would maybe relax a little and cruise up not overly concerned as to their result. For many though, including me, it was a last chance to make up time on rivals and give the mountain everything we had.

Pacing a time trial is a skill. An experienced rider, especially when armed with a power meter, will know exactly what output they can sustain for an hour. Riders refer to it as their Functional Threshold Power. The perfectly paced one hour time trial will be bang on that FTP figure all the way through with an ’emptying’ of effort at the very end with anything that’s left. FTP figures are corrupted by fatigue so the sustained effort possible after 2 big days might well be less than that with fresh, rested legs. My FTP is around the 310 watts mark so I decided to use a 300 watt benchmark to regulate my ride.

I was sitting 8th overall so one of the last riders to start. Chasing over 200 riders up the Alpe and about to be chased by 7 very strong riders behind me.

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I headed down the ramp feeling fairly relaxed and fairly confident that my legs would perform after a really good previous day. I’d got a 2.5 minute advantage over Richard Scales in the rankings who was 9th overall and knew that I ought to be able to hold that position. My best previous time up the climb was 51 minutes and I anticipated something closer to 53 minutes today.

The first kilometre of the climb is the steepest at about an 11% gradient. Easy to push too hard too early. No matter how good I might feel, too many 350 watt efforts early on would be paid for dearly later in the climb. I capped my effort on those early slopes to 300-320 watts even though I felt that I could go harder. That discipline to not go too hard at the beginning is absolutely key. I was happy, Richard, who had started 20 seconds ahead of me was in my sights. I moved past him after a couple of kilometres, catching your next man is always a big confidence boost and vice versa, a big blow to the catchee.

5kms up the climb I was going well, every time I glanced at my power it was in the 300/310w range, perfect. Cornering is an art in itself on something like the Alpe. The hairpins are generally quite flat followed by a sudden ramp into the next straight section. As you approach the corner you need to change up a gear or two and lay the power down to get some momentum into the next ramp. If you want a good time you cannot afford to relax on the flat bits, quite the contrary, you need to consciously work more on them to keep your power figures up. Good hairpin technique going up can easily save a second or two on every bend. This climb had 23 hairpins so worth getting them right.

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I had a middle section of consolidating. I felt like I was going well, overtaking people and none of the 7 chasers having caught me. The only thing that could really go wrong would be for me to ‘blow up’ having over estimated my abilities in the early part of the climb. I deliberately eased a fraction to around the 290 watt mark to play things safe. Still going hard, still the expected hurt, but knowing that a slightly lower figure would almost guarantee I go well to the top.

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With 4kms to go I was still feeling comfortable. I started to press harder. Into the 300’s again and feeling good. I love the last 1.5km of this climb. I knew if I could get to the 1.5km point I would get the rest done at a good speed whatever happened. The last part of the climb rewards the rider that knows the road and gets in the right gear and keeps the momentum going.

2kms out and still good. Doing the maths I knew I was on a decent time. I was approaching the entry into Alpe d’Huez, the ‘old Alpe’ finish and as I passed that point in about 46 minutes I knew a 51minute time was on the cards.

For the last 1.5kms I changed into the big ring on the front as a way of forcing me into pushing hard all the way to the finish. I stayed strong to the end and carried plenty of speed up through the finish. All I had left was ’emptied’ on the final ramp with a 600/700 watt effort to get me over the line.

In many ways it was a positively uneventful way to finish off the event, an efficient execution of a job. After the excitement of the previous 2 days of road racing and in the thick of lots of action this was a very different and personal experience. I paced it well and wouldn’t change a thing about how I did it. 51 minutes and 5 seconds was just a few seconds behind my best time set 4 years ago but with the 2 previous days in my legs I was super happy with that time. I’d joked with friends a few times in recent years as to whether it was do-able to get up Alpe d’Huez in under your age. At 51 years and 10 months I think I can say I’ve done it now! To put that into some perpective though, consider Ralph Sigg, also in this event. I think he’s 64 years old and he clocked a time of just over 53 minutes today! Impressive.

The best time today was posted predictably by Ruari Grant in 44 mins and 45 seconds. Brilliant effort and very much mixing it with the times that the pros record on that climb. Well done Ruari who won the overall event in style. Also big thanks to Ruari and Hannah for their encouragement this week. So good when riders of that calibre take time to encourage lesser mortals like me.

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The finish area was full of atmosphere and emotion. So much relief, pride and satisfaction from all the riders achieving their different goals in the event, for so many it’s just about finishing.

My effort this morning was the 7th best of the day and got me a couple of places up the overall ranking to finish 6th for the whole event. I ended up a clear 4 minutes ahead in my over 50’s duel with Richard Scales so very happy indeed with my 3 days of effort. So looking forward to resuming that battle with Richard in a few weeks time in the Pyrenees!

As is always the case with Haute Route it’s all about the people, the experiences on the road I had with the likes of Richard Scales, Dan Moignard, Peter Rowley and Hervé Gebel were brilliant. So good to share these experiences with like minded riders who are passionate about the sport of cycling.

So, my first 3 day Haute Route event is done. A very good experience indeed and certainly one I’d recommend highly. Exactly the same support and back up that you experience in the 7 day events but extremely easy logistics due to staying in the same place for 3 nights. This year also saw the inclusion of a ‘compact’ course each day. A shorter, easier route to make it even easier for more less experienced cyclists to enjoy the Haute Route experience and support without the pressure of the bigger course and it’s time cut off times.

For me it’s still the 7 day events that make Haute Route the thing to do, an incredible challenge and pro cyclist type experience. The 3 day events though, provide a fantastic starting point for anyone contemplating a 7 day version.

Alpine Cadence and I  will be at Haute Route Pyrenees and Alps in a few weeks time with some of our riders taking on both weeks consecutively for a mammoth challenge. We’ll also be at the 3 day event at Ventoux in early October. Full details are available at www.alpinecadence.com, drop me a line if you fancy joining the action!

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