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Haute Route Alpe d'Huez: Swept up before the summit

Reviews
6 Jan 2020
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This multi-day event, centred around the classic climb of Alpe d’Huez, proves to be a serious test of both body and spirit 

Words Jack Elton-Walters Photography David Azia

I leave my bike propped up against the gazebo of the feed station and stagger over to the open door of a van. Sitting inside is a young French assistant for the Haute Route Alpe d’Huez.

‘Ça va?’ he asks as I approach. ‘Non,’ I reply wearily. ‘J’ai fini.’

At this point I am struggling to remember my own name, let alone my A-level French from over a decade ago. With a frown and a cutthroat signal to reiterate that this is probably the end of the ride for me, I sit down on the step of the van.

I’m glad of the shade but not of the prospect of a DNF on a sportive.

In fact, I’m gutted that I will not be able to finish the event. For a moment I entertain the notion of continuing after all, but the truth is this isn’t the first time today that I’ve considered stopping. It’s the third, and the second at this very feed station.

Perhaps I made a mess of my nutrition and hydration strategy. Maybe it’s the altitude or the temperature, which has been creeping upwards all day.

Or maybe it’s just the sheer distance and the leg-sapping ascents that have beaten me. Whatever the reason, my body (not to mention the race doctor) is telling me it’s time to quit before I do myself some serious damage. 

To think, it was all going so well after the first stage yesterday… 

Welcome to the Alpe

The Haute Route events are perhaps as close as most amateur cyclists will get to experiencing what it feels like to ride a stage race.

While they are essentially sportives, the Haute Routes are different to your average sportive in that they are held over several days, and the distances involved are truly brutal.

The Haute Route Alps, for example, is run over seven days, covers around 800km and takes in more than 20,000m of climbing.

It was the original Haute Route event, first staged in 2010, and since then it has spawned similarly will-crushing seven-day editions in the Pyrenees and the American Rockies.

For those without the time (or money) to spare for a week-long trip, the Haute Route series also now includes a selection of three-day events, featuring just as much pain but concentrated into a smaller package.

These include three separate editions in the United States, one in Norway, one in the Dolomites, one based on the Stelvio climb in Italy, one at Mont Ventoux, and this one, centred around perhaps the most famous climb in the Tour de France: Alpe d’Huez.

The format for the Haute Route Alpe d’Huez is simple but savage. Day one is a 15.4km individual time-trial from the bottom of Alpe d’Huez to the top, taking in its famous 21 hairpin bends and 1,135m of ascent.

Day two is the 'Queen Stage', a 151.3km loop that starts and finishes in the town of Alpe d’Huez and includes 4,600m of climbing, including the HC climbs of the Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer.

Day three is a 'mere' 78.7km in length, yet somehow still manages to pack in a further 3,300m of climbing, including visits to the summits of Les Deux Alpes and the Col de la Sarenne.

By the end of it all, the participants (or those who finish, at any rate) will have covered a distance of 245.4km and ascended more than 9,000m, including climbing Alpe d’Huez itself by three different routes.

The numbers may be frightening, but before the event starts I am more excited than intimidated.

In my enthusiasm to get going I arrive far too early for my time-trial slot on the opening day, so much so that I have time to write and send some postcards before I’m finally called onto the ramp for my departure.

When I set off, I force myself not to rush at the climb, aware that my training rides on my local leg-tester are no real preparation for the 8% average gradients of the Alpe.

I am expecting to quickly reach my physical limit, but as the climb continues I find I’m enjoying myself more and more.

Ticking off the numbered hairpins one by one helps break the time-trial up into manageable sections, and the sight of riders up ahead gives me something to chase.

By the top I have overtaken 14 and been overtaken by only four, which I notch up as a personal victory – even if I am still way off Marco Pantani’s record of 36 minutes, 40 seconds set in 1995 (though he may have had some extra help). 

The harder they come...

After an ascent of Alpe d’Huez that went better than expected, I am feeling confident about day two.

However, at the ride briefing that evening, any thoughts of an easy ride tomorrow are shattered when event ambassador and retired pro Emma Pooley is invited to tell the assembled crowd what to expect.

She recalls a training ride back in late July 2010 – when she was at the peak of her climbing powers. As part of her race training she took on the same three-mountain route that we would be tackling the next morning.

Nearing exhaustion, she came to a halt near to where an unsuspecting French family were enjoying a nice quiet picnic, and was forced to beg for some food to give her enough of a boost to make it home.

'On that day I’d ridden the Col de la Croix de Fer a little too hard, descended the other side and totally blew up on the Glandon trying to get back over,' she says.

It paid off for her though, as her results for the latter part of that season show.

'About a month later I won the GP Plouay World Cup,' Pooley says, 'and in September that year I won the TT at the World Championships in Geelong.'

When the dawn breaks, and with Pooley’s words still in my mind, it is with a hint of trepidation that I begin the descent from Alpe d’Huez that marks the beginning of Stage 2.

The sun is not yet shining and the air is chilly, and as we turn right through the village of Villard-Reculas my legs are still refusing to wake up to the task in hand.

I try not to think of the daunting distance lying ahead, and instead just focus on getting down the mountain safely.

Sensibly, the opening descent is neutralised, so there is no rush. The official start line is down in the valley, and before I get there I peel off my kneewarmers in readiness for the imminent increase in pace.

As I’m stuffing them in my pocket, the event’s Lanterne Rouge glides alongside and we have a brief chat.

He’s a ride guide dressed head-to-toe in red kit to let riders know that he’s the last man, and as we part ways I tell him I hope our paths don’t cross again until dinner. 

Call me a doctor

Despite the difficulty of the course, the first time I think I might not complete the stage comes after 121km – just 31km from the finish.

I pull up at the corner of a hairpin where the Haute Route’s official videographer is parked up, controlling a drone whose buzzing noise has been an increasing irritation for the previous 10 minutes or so.

He enquires how I am getting on, and I admit that I’m not feeling too great but that I intend to continue.

My face must have told a more compelling story, however, because within 500m of setting off again an official pulls alongside in his car and tells me to stop and wait for the event doctor.

I comply, and spend 15 minutes sitting in the welcome shade of a tree, as the intensity of the sun’s heat continues to build.

When the doctor arrives, she takes my blood pressure and points out the salty tidemarks on my shorts and the dried sweat on the sleeves of my black jersey.

She then hands me half a beef baguette and a banana, and tops up my water bottles. The feed stations of the event were few and spread widely apart: this is the third impromptu water top-up I've had - the others were from the window of an event car and another from a moto rider who disappeared into a Post Office, of all places, to fill my bottles.

Without this extra hydration, which ultimately proved to be insufficient anyway, and a lack of shops seen while riding where I might have purchased additional water, I probably wouldn't even have got as far as I did.

The salt-packed baguette that I'm handed me is just the boost I need and a short time later I’m on my way again, but not without a warning that if the doctor is called to me again there’s only one place I’m going, and that is into the broom wagon.

The next 10km or so pass with relative ease. The road ahead is largely flat, but my legs are heavy with the twin ascents of the Col de la Croix de Fer and Col du Glandon already behind me.

The summits of those two climbs are only a couple of kilometres apart, but today’s route took us all the way back down to the valley after it crested the Glandon so that the ascent of the Croix de Fer was the full monty – all 30km and 1,500 vertical metres of it.

The only climbing still left is the return to the summit of Alpe d’Huez. I remind myself how much I enjoyed riding up its slopes yesterday, and try to convince myself that I am heading for a satisfactory, if slow, conclusion.

I am to be proved wrong.

Power cut

Just before the turn-off next to the Lac du Verney that marks the start of the climb proper, the road shoots upwards and with the change in gradient all remaining power evaporates from my legs.

The beef baguette bounce I’d experienced after my roadside chat with the doctor has faded away and there’s no more fooling my body into feeling alright.

I’m going so slowly that it’s an effort not to topple over, and a quick bit of mental arithmetic tells me I’m still over an hour from the finish line despite being almost next to it when viewed as two dots on the screen of my bike computer.

I keep riding, on and on, the gradient of the road offering no respite. Eventually the final feed station of the day comes into view and with it a feeling of relief, almost happiness.

There aren’t many events that would place a feed station just 8km from the finish line, but then few finish at above 1,800m.

I wobble to a halt, find a spot in the shade and sip down a few glasses of cola and some water but can’t bring myself to eat anything.

My body is begging me to stop riding; my mind is engaged in a muddled cost-benefit analysis, weighing the humiliation of not finishing a sportive against just how truly awful I’m feeling.

Oliver, a fellow British rider who has been my shadow for large parts of the ride, catches up and we start to chat.

He’s having a torrid time of it himself but has resolved that he’ll make the finish whatever it takes. He mentions that, according to one of the event staff he’d spoken to a short while before, we are some of the last riders still left on the road, and that almost half the field has climbed off over the course of the day.

The knowledge that I have survived longer than some perks me up slightly, and inspired by Oliver’s determination I decide to follow him down the brief descent that follows the feed station and tackle the final few kilometres of climbing to the finish line.

The descent is over all too quickly, however, and the moment we start climbing again, Oliver pulls a little further away from me with every turn of the pedals. This time I know I am finished.

I turn back and find a marshal in the dip we’ve just ridden through and tell him I am done. His advice is to ride back up to the feed station.

I look at him incredulously, but with no alternative, I climb back on my bike and struggle wearily back to the feed station for a second time. I lean my bike against the gazebo and make my way towards the open door of a van.

Forgiving, not forgetting

Looking back on the inaugural Haute Route Alpe d’Huez, I can say without hesitation that Stage 2 was one of my hardest ever days on a bike.

But that simply gave me a new respect for the seriousness of the challenge, and despite the disappointment of a DNF, I actually really enjoyed the entire event.

There are few more dramatic places to ride than the mythical cols of the Alps, and it was made all the more special thanks to the camaraderie of my fellow riders and the professional support of the Haute Route team.

The after-effects of my efforts on the Alpe meant that I required a chest x-ray and a few days off work on my return to Britain, but I have since been declared fully fit again.

The details

What: Haute Route Alpe d’Huez
Where: Alpe d’Huez, France
How far: Day one 15.4km TT; day two 151.3km; day three 78.7km
Next one: 13th-15th July 2018
Price: €695-€745 (approx £600-£650)
More info: hauteroute.org

The rider’s ride

Ridley Helium SLX, £2,700 frameset, sportline.co.uk

Despite my difficulties on day two of the Haute Route Alpe d’Huez, I can’t lay any of the blame at the door of the Ridley Helium SLX, which proved to be a true and faithful partner throughout the ride.

It’s not the lightest bike out there, but at around 7.2kg (claimed 750g for the frame) it was certainly light enough to aid my efforts on back-to-back HC climbs, and its stiffness was welcome both on the climbs and the descents, where it was exceptionally easy to handle in the hairpins.

Its solidity didn’t detract from its comfort, however, and even when my legs couldn’t turn the pedals from exhaustion, my backside and arms were remarkably unaffected by a long day in the saddle.

I have unfinished business with the Haute Route Alpe d’Huez, and I won’t hesitate to invite the Helium SLX to join me again for a second crack at the event.

Full review: Ridley Helium SLX

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew to Geneva and hired a car for the three-to-four-hour drive down to Alpe d’Huez. On leaving the airport, be sure to go to the French side, not the Swiss, and exit the correct way to avoid the toll road. 

Accommodation

We stayed in the Hotel de Pic Blanc (hotel-picblanc-alpes.com) in the village of Alpe d’Huez at the top of the famous climb.

It’s a big ski-resort hotel, so don’t expect an intimate welcome, but it is clean and friendly, and more importantly it’s just a short walk from the event’s HQ and the finish line of all three stages.

If you are not planning to bring your own bike, the village has numerous bike hire options.

Thanks

Thanks to event organiser OC Sport, which sorted all the logistics and entry to the sportive, and also to Mavic neutral service, which kindly reassembled my bike when I arrived in Huez.