Grimpee de l’Alpe – Saving grace


In 2008 I attempted the La Marmotte sportive and failed due to inclement weather. Man vs Mountain and the mountain won. It was 1-0 to the Alps. The day after, I awoke with my pride smarting. I needed to get something out of my Marmotte trip. Luckily I had decided to pre-enter the Grimpee de L’Alpe, a mass-start time trial up L’Alpe d’Huez. The weather was back to its best. Read my attempt at this amateur race up 1100m of one of the most iconic Tour de France climbs.

I woke up the day after La Marmotte a bit groggy. Nothing mega-early. I recall the event started at 8 or 9am so we had plenty of time to get up, have breakfast and sort the bikes out. My legs were complaining a bit. Although I had bailed out of the Marmotte, I’d still climbed a couple of mountains, froze myself to the bone and ridden about 80km in total which would take something out of anyone. To be honest, I don’t really think I was ‘up’ for the Grimpee. I had entered it on a whim, just because it was relatively cheap and something to do the day after. It was Deja Vu. Get dressed, breakfast, sort the bikes and roll down to the start. We were staying in Venosc which is essentially up a dead end valley road off the main road to Briancon. As you climb the Col du Lautaret (the main road), Les Deux Alpes is to your right (look up!). Venosc, is right over the top, the other side and actually has a cable car available to the Deux Alpes glacier all year round for skiing. So the roll out was simple enough, a nice steady downhill to the main road then a an flat couple of km’s to the turn off to Alpe d’Huez and where the race was to start. In 2008, the road was a bit different at the foot of the climb. A simple T-junction has now given way to a roundabout as they have constructed a mini-bypass around Bourg d’Oisans.

Signing on was a simple affair. No big tents, no crowds. Just a table, a signing on sheet and a number to pop on your bike and a timing chip. 7500 riders lined up yesterday, today probably a couple of hundred. I attached my number to my bars and scooted forward to the group on the road ready for the off. The weather was cool and clear. A glance up the mountain to the right showed it was clear too. Arguably perfect conditions. Standing around relaxed as an official began to shout in French. Suddenly the peloton woke up and took notice. The group compacted as riders at the back surged forward. One leg clipped in, foot on the floor, arse on my top tube I was ready. You can’t help looking around at other riders. Their bikes, their kit. You can never predict how good they are. Riders dripping in the best kit doesn’t guarantee a fit rider. I’ve seen riders in sandals pass me on mountain climbs but then I was snapped out of it by the french official shouting again and we were off. No neutralised or rolling start. Just clip in and go.

The start was in parts frantic. Some sprinted off the front and round me from the back. The road from the junction to the foot of the Alpe is flat. Some were there to win. They had gone, others were taking it as a serious challenge. I was happy to roll along and enjoy it for now. The road bears round to the right and you get a slight rise over a small bridge before the kick up left appears in front of you which is THE start. I was still in the main peloton but you could see riders way off in front up the climb already. I hit the base of the climb, the 10%+ gradient bit and I immediately changed down and settled in on my 39×25 1st gear. My legs complained as soon as I applied a bit of torque to fight the slope but I knew it was because I really hadn’t warmed up yet.

The climb to the first hairpin is arguably the hardest km of the climb. Quite long and steep at 10%+ average. The road very slightly bends round to the right so its out of view for a long time which adds to eternity it seems to take to get there. On a positive note, its pretty straight and steady so finding your rhythm and warming the legs up happens very quickly. In 2008, 39×25 was the perfect gear for me for this climb. I was able to pedal fast enough to maintain a good tempo.

The first hairpin gives you a brief respite. Pan flat for a few seconds, it allows you to ease off enough before you begin the next ramp. This one is probably steeper than the first km but by now you have rhythm and you are warmed up which makes it a bit easier than the first if you stick to the plan and continue at the right tempo. This is no time to push. You have to keep something in the tank.

By now the peloton was decimated all over the first few km. Hundreds of metres in front and behind and smaller groups were forming as some who started too hard were falling back and the fitter were beginning to make inroads on the foolhardy and passing them one by one. I was surrounded by 2 or 3 riders which became clear were at a similar level to me. These were going to be my race.

As I rounded the 2nd hairpin my legs felt great. I could feel no effects from the day before. My mind switched into race mode. I was aware I had a couple of riders on my wheel so I pushed on a bit harder. This was a time trial now and I was concentrating on my effort, the discomfort in my legs and my breathing. Focused, I only looked back when I went round a hairpin. As you leave La Garde, the first village after about 4km, the gradient eases and there is a great straight section at about 7 or 8%. This is where either the riders I had been towing either offered their turn on the front, out of courtesy, or they were turning the screw on me. I thought the latter. Not quite a surge but enough to take the tempo up a notch, even when I dropped onto their wheel. If you’ve ever raced, this is where you can bluff and psyche out an opponent, even if they are clearly fitter and stronger. Don’t show any sign of effort, smile when they look back, control your breathing so its not too obvious. I decided to quickly go back to the front. Even more effort and discomfort but I didn’t let on. They stayed on my wheel a bit longer this time. The bluff worked.

As the climb gained height, I backed off very gradually. My bluff was unsustainable but it had the effect of keeping the tempo steady rather than having to deal with surges from the others. A french guy on my wheel came up level with me. He mumbled something in french which I decoded as something to do with the speed. He indicated we should ride together, taking it in turns using that universally understood make a horizontal circle  sign with your fore finger. I nodded and I let him take the front and sat on him for a while just focusing on his rear axle. The guy behind me just sat on, he was clearly on his limit. We continued riding hard, taking it in turns. I was feeling good.

When you get out of Huez, the next village on the climb, the road opens up onto grassy slopes and you can see much further ahead. You can see the top or at least the buildings at the top. I recall its about 3km to go. Now I was thinking of emptying the tank. Could I drop my group? The race was spread out. Completely decimated. A sprinkling of riders ahead and behind. The right hander as you leave the village is really tight. I took it on the front and upped the tempo. Almost a surge off the flattish hairpin and I tried to keep it going now. The road creeps up to the next left hander and then a long stretch where the road widens. The gradient is even. Its simply a gauge of effort. On the limit without blowing up. I pushed harder and my breathing dipped into the red. I glanced back and my group were slipping away. 3 metres, 4 metres and then it stopped. The elastic was there still. I hadn’t broken them. I had to ease off a touch and they came back to my wheel. Next bend I tried a bigger gear. Another bluff but that lost its impetus as the gradient steepened and the torque became too much. I was getting touches of cramp now. My quads were smarting so I had to ease up a bit and let the french guy pass and then he began to go away from me. The last ramp before you hit the town of Alpe d’Huez is straight and steep. I gave it one last dig and got back on his wheel but I had hardly anything left in the tank. As we hit the top of the climb, the last few hundred metres are actually flat so we rolled in to the finish together and shook hands. I was pretty spent but happy with my sub-hour 58-30 something effort.

My weekend in the Alps had been redeemed.

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