Home » Uncategorized » Race report: Alpe D’Huez Triathlon July 2018 by Shaun Dowling

Race report: Alpe D’Huez Triathlon July 2018 by Shaun Dowling

Apologies to those of you who follow me on twitter who will be fed up of hearing about this event. However, as a club we do try to send in race reports so that other club members can decide if these races/events are for them or not in the future. Therefore that is the purpose of this brief piece, as I have lost count of the number of people who have said online and to my face: “that’s on my bucket list”.

With IM70.3 in Zell am See at the end of August already booked in I had registered for the ‘middle’ or short course for Alpe D’Huez. I also knew it to be a cold swim in the EDF dam so I wasn’t sure how my asthma would cope for a longer swim. Either way, I was content to give the short route a go. However, the day before departure I watched a brief film of the bike route for the long course and spent the next two days debating whether to ‘upgrade’ or not. Wisely, I chose not to in the end, especially with Austria in mind.

To test out my hire bike I cycled most of the long route two days before I was going to race. We avoided Col de Mort (yes, “Col of Death”!) and Alpe D’Huez itself to save something for Friday’s race, but it was still a tough ride with two 10km+ climbs in relentless heat. Watching the guys battle up Alpe D’Huez on Thursday’s long distance race brought a new meaning to the word “sadist”. The athletes were boiling in the afternoon heat and suffering from the 100km and 3 mountains already in their legs. They also knew they had a hilly 1/2 marathon to finish at altitude. It was brutal. So, safe to say I made my way down the mountain counting my blessings and looking forward to the madness of the final race of the week-long festival of triathlon and multi-sport.

The organisers do expect you to be staying in Alpe D’Huez itself rather than down in Bourg D’Oisans in the valley below. The logistics are a bit of a faff and would be really complicated without a car (I was down in Bourg). The guy who runs the B+B I was staying in was also competing, so I lucked out and had some logistical support from his family. So if you fancy doing this race, either stay up in Alpe or ensure you have access to a car. T2 gear could be left overnight 1,200m or so above T1, but many participants left their bag there in the morning and cycled down to the dam with their wetsuit etc.

The temperature was in the 30s by the time we arrived in T1 in readiness for the 2pm start. Yes, 2pm! I’ve never had to work out a nutrition strategy for that sort of start time before, but think I got it about right. In the heat, though, everyone left putting their wetsuit on until the last second. As soon as I was zipped in sweating streaked down my face. All of my nervousness about the cold water evaporated – I couldn’t wait to get in!

So, the swim. Bonkers! Just bonkers. Females off first with a 15 minute gap before the men. About 800-1,000 of us I guess? All from one start flag, with the elites and a bunch speedsters out front, a few less experienced waiting out the back, and what seemed like 700 blokes with the same CSS all fighting for the same line. And me. Yep, me taking the outside route and trying to avoid the madness – I still failed, but my reflection was that I would do the same again. The extra 118 metres that I swam might have taken a couple of minutes more, but the complete melee that were the acute turn round the second buoy and the narrow funnelling into the out ramp convinced me that I did the sensible thing. They really need to consider more waves in my view – but the decent swimmers amongst you might thrive in those conditions. The water, by the way, was fine. It is fresh from the mountain every day so will always be ‘chilly’, but nothing near the 13 degrees I started this years’ open water training in. Psychologically, those early May swim more than paid off! Also, the water is really clear – and tastes OK too as I can vouch for far more than I would like! I left the swim in just over 700th place! My time/100m was really good for me, but I had plenty of catching up to do.

Out of T1 is a short climb before a lovely 8-10km ride into Bourg. They stressed no drafting, but with a long string of 600 guys there was nothing that anyone could do. If you do the long course, however, they are very strict on drafting. Within half an hour of leaving the water you are at the foot of the iconic, daunting climb that is Alpe D’Huez. You all know the climb – several of you have done it. It isn’t as long as others; it isn’t as steep as others; but the combination of the steepness, length and 21 hairpins gives it its legendary status. The first 5-6 are the steepest, but there are a couple of others further up which bring you back down to your lowest gear. Without my power data I was trying to manage my effort by using my heart rate zones, but the heat added a couple of bpm for sure. It was intense and unforgiving. It took me a relentless hour and 17 minutes, but loads of people were getting off and seeking shade, water or just respite. The hundreds of spectators on the route were showering us with much needed water and encouraging athletes of all nations. Where there were no people, it was an eerie silence as we battled our own personal demons and used whatever energy and mind games we could to get to “one more hairpin”.

Coming into T2 is, I imagine, like an IM or Challenge event. Thousands of people cheering and banging those inflatable beaters. Amazing! Behind them the mountain peaks and to the side the most astonishing views over the valley. It had all been worthwhile – just the 7km run to go!

Having hired a bike, I quickly learned that a combination of a slightly different saddle width and, perhaps, slightly thinning out chamois, meant that I could not engage my gluteus at all for the first km or so. Knowing the run is my relative strength, I was prepared for my usual cramping but had never had this bizarre feeling before. Running just felt weird, but after the gentle first 2km of climbing/flat I began to get into my stride. There’s a slight downhill before the big climb. In my head I was telling myself about all of the specific trail running I’d done; all of the Chi Runners Wednesday’s routes in bogs or stifling heat; and all of the hill reps up to the windmill or trundle. I knew I was going to be strong and I kept passing more and more people. By the end of the bike/run I have made up over 200 places overall and managed to finish 20/67 in my age group and 400 and something overall (really should remember these things!). Beware – if you are not a strong cyclist, there is a cut-off. Loads of people struggled like mad to ride up Alpe D’Huez only to miss the cut – some by hours!

The finish chute is fantastic and there is a stack of food and drinks, massages, whirlpools and other stuff at the finish. Decent medal and a T-shirt are your tangible rewards, but of far more significance is the intrinsic reward of having conquered one of cycling’s iconic climbs in the middle of a crazy triathlon. I loved it! Not the swim, maybe, but the whole experience is one that will live long in the memory bank. If you have the time to take a couple of days either side to explore the other famous and less-so-but-still-bloomin’-tough climbs in the area you will be rewarded with stunning views and gorgeous rides. It is a mecca for cyclists!

All in all, then, definitely one for the bucket lists. Takes some planning and logistics, but it is well worth the effort.

Hope that’s helpful.

Shaun