Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Alpe d' Huez and the French Alps

I got back last week from a quick European holiday; just under a week and a half in the French Alps. The main impetus to go there was a heinously difficult triathlon at Alpe d' Huez, site of decades of cycling lore from the Tour de France. I traveled alone for the first few days, met up with some other doods from Reno and SF halfway through, then traveled home alone. Ethel couldn't come with as she's spending all of September in Ireland, as we're fully on the separate holiday track this year! Here's the story and lots of photos.

The Setup:
The seed for this trip was planted nearly 3 years ago when a fellow named Scott Molina who runs Epic Camp suggested it to me as he thought the course would suit me. Checked it out, and sure enough, it looked both stupidly hard and beautiful, my top two requirements for selecting races. It took until this year to be in a position where I could consider traveling to France for a race, mostly from a cash standpoint, as Mexican Black Tar Heroin has gotten wildly expensive as of late. I mentally committed myself to it in about January and started picking up my preparation as winter wound down. I spent the last few months being super excited for the trip and the challenge that the race would present.

The Trip, pre-race:
Unfortunately, the only way I can afford the trip is to fly standby on a friend's employee ticket. While this is great in principle, it adds a lot of uncertainty to one's travel plans, especially as there's no guarantee of arrival or departure dates. I make it from Reno to Paris with a couple hiccups (the worst is yet to come...) and successfully employ the chaos theory of travel to work my way from CDG to Lyon to Grenoble to Bourg d' Oisans over the course of Wednesday without any plans ahead of time. Find a charming hotel (Hotel Oberland) in Bourg d' Oisans, eat dinner, pour a pitcher of wine down my gullet, and pass out. Build the bike the next day and start exploring. I'm rocking the TT bike (my only bike) with deep dish carbon wheels (my lightest wheelset) and normal road gear ratios (eh, I'll be fine). My standard procedure for the next few days of rides will be to throw a messenger bag with a 5DMkII and a couple extra lenses over my shoulder and go find steep roads to lug it up. Training weight, right?

The view across the street from my hotel

Thursday brings my first trip up Alpe d' Huez. Treat it like a recon ride and go easy, spotting photo opportunities for the way down as I prefer not to stop on the way up. I pass under the banner in town in 58 minutes, a good sign for the week to come. This is a difficult climb on its own by any metric, not to mention how it'll feel at the end of a race. It's got a sustained grade WAY steeper than anything I'm used to riding, but the hairpins themselves are nearly flat and make good opportunities to recover (or attack). This is also my first taste of the town of Alpe d' Huez where I'll be staying when the crew shows up in a few days. Seems like a cool town! It's time for the descent, and it's a new world of descending for me. I'm used to sweeping descents where aerobars are du jour, but this is a lot of braking hard into a hairpin, letting go of the brakes, and immediately being accelerated past 40mph before starting all over again. I finally understand what people mean when they say TT bikes are not good descenders... I cruise through Oisans and back to the hotel. Rain threatens so I spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing and watching Le Tour, and make a foray into town late at night for some photos when it's not raining.

Halfway down Alpe d' Huez, maniacal hairpins beckon

Bourg d' Oisans at night

Mmm, sausage

Pointy thing in Bourg d' Oisans

Friday, I'm awakened by simultaneous thunder and lightning (differentiated from almost-simultaneous and damn-near-simultaneous), three times. Time for a lazy morning and an extended breakfast! The weather clears and I reload the messenger bag (more Oreos) for a tour of the remainder of the bike course. I ride from Oisans to Sechilienne, then up the Col d' Alpe du Grand Serre, which is heavily fogged and quite eerie and beautiful. This climb takes me nearly an hour before I drop into the valley between La Morte and the Col d' Ornon climb. This valley in between is gorgeous and will prove to be fast during the race. I pass through Valbonnais and pretty much shatter myself as this is a deceptive stretch of road that doubles as the world's toughest false flat. I crawl over the top of Col d' Ornon after passing the Chantelouve and begin the screaming descent back into Oisans. I have stopped for lots of photos, but this is still a four and a half hour ride, which makes my goal of 4:30 for the bike in the race a bit of a stretch as there'll still Alpe d' Huez to ride on race day... I round off the day with a nice run along the river in Oisans before dinner and relaxation.

The lake we're swimming in is attached to this liquid glacier...

Easy livin'!

Saturday, I meet up with 5 Brits who are staying in the same hotel and we go past Lac du Chambon to climb Lautaret and Galibier. These guys are a good hoot and good riding pals, and we enjoy good weather (except for the top of Galibier) and put another four and a half hour ride in the books. Seems like I can't go anywhere without putting in 4+'s that taper going, tough guy?!? Galibier is a monster, especially with that pesky camera on my back, but what the hell; ya only live once, right? The rest of the West Coast crew had arrived in Alpe d' Huez from Lugano that day, so I move up the hill to crash in their rented apartment, which ends up costing me 150USD for four nights: win!

Lac du Chambon

Partway up Col du Lautaret

Sculpted rock with a backdrop of the stuff that sculpted it

Galibier's my bitch...riiiight

View from Galibier towards Lautaret and Briancon

Ridiculous creperie in La Grave

Sunday, they're aching to go put some big kms in, so we ride past the race swim location, Lac du Verney, and tackle Glandon. Good lord, this makes Galibier seem easy, as it's an endless climb with very steep sections, and needless 12% down-and-up bits that chisel away at one's dignity. We do the easy double of Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer as they practically share a summit. I split from the boys at the top of Croix de Fer as they want to tack on another big 3-hour loop with some other climbs (even though we're racing in 3 days), and I'd prefer to just limp home and climb Alpe d' Huez as I'm feeling the vertical meters from the previous days pile up in my poor legs. After we split, their plans change twice and we end up riding the same route home, even though I'm stopping every 200m at times for a photo, so they beat me back by an hour. This time, the Alpe d' Huez climb takes me 1:05...easy there, big fella...I'm starting to feel shattered.

Doin' their thing at the top of Glandon

Role model for all things canine

From the top of Col de la Croix de Fer towards Col du Glandon

Dear California: your "happy" cows don't know what they're missin'

On the descent from Glandon

Looking back towards Glandon (center) and Croix de Fer (out of frame right)

This list compares climbing in the Alps to everywhere else I've ridden, on a scale from 1 to Being Drawn and Quartered:
Climbs near Reno/Tahoe (Mt. Rose, Kingsbury, Geiger, all part of Greg Lemond and Bobby Julich's stomping ground) - 3
Climbs in New Zealand (Crown Range, Coronet Peak) - 6
The hill from Pink Floyd's "Fearless" - 8
Every fucking shred of asphalt in the Alps - 10

The climbs at home are still mostly aerobic in nature, but these involve constant muscular agony, after which the road turns up some more. Kind of starting to re-evaluate whether I've prepared properly for the bike...

After my slow return to Alpe d' Huez, I spend the evening making photos of the dusk, rather enjoying feeling my legs recover instead of getting more tired.

The proper kind of luggage to bring to the Alps in summer

The church in Alpe d' Huez

View south at dusk from Alpe d' Huez

Last light over the Alps

Monday, I'm committed to resting a bit, so I do exactly that while two of the guys head off to ride Lautaret and Galibier before I pick them up in Briancon for some sightseeing. I kinda want to swim, so I go to the awesome outdoor pool in Alpe d' Huez, only to find it full of triathletes bouncing off of each other like those molecules in a container in that high school chemistry video. Deciding to save my 3 Euro and my skull, I head towards Briancon in their car and enjoy wandering around the walled city for a few hours with them.

Start your day right...

Jaffa pours water in a charming "I'll make anything you ask for" creperie in Briancon

Teetering row houses in Briancon

Landmark inside the walled city

Inside the walls at Briancon

Glacier at Col du Lautaret

Tuesday brings rest, registration, a swim in the outdoor pool (less crowded, thankfully), and race prep for the bikes. By now, we're well into the swing of walking 50m in the morning to pick up an armful of fresh baguettes for breakfast...this is good living. We take the bikes on a check ride through town, eat an early dinner, and pass out. No need to go to bed too early as the race doesn't start 'til 9:30am.

Euro steeze

Rad rock wall across the valley from Alpe d' Huez

Bourg d' Oisans and the cliffs from La Garde

Across the valley

My future home, bottom left corner of the frame, accessible only by railway

We wake up at a normal time Wednesday, eat breakfast, and ride 40 minutes, nearly all downhill, to the race start with our wetsuits on our back. I briefly entertain the thought of riding while wearing my wetsuit as it's quite cold. We've already dropped our run gear in T2 in town, so that's less stuff to ride with down to the start.

The Race:
I have to apologize in advance that my crack team of race photographers was unable to travel with me, so it's all words for the race itself.

After riding 40 minutes to the start from our apartment in Alpe d' Huez, we're greeted with a massive transition area and loads of skinny and fast-looking euros going through the motions. I'm #806 and there are a couple more rows of bikes after mine, so it's got every indication of being a 1000+ starting field. Stoked! There are racers from 40+ countries; this race's reputation is starting to get around.

We get set up, listen to the race briefing, and hop in the 15C (59F) water with a few minutes to warm up before the gun goes off. I settle in from a few rows back, avoid conflict, and enjoy the cold water. It seems like we swim a long ways out before we finally make two quick left turns to head back home. At no point do I push the pace as I know I can't hang anywhere near the front, and I've got lots of time to reel people back in later in the day. I'm done with 2.2k in 37 minutes and get through T1 without wasting any time. I'm in something like 140th after the, I'm used to it.

Aside from the little hill out of the lake, the bike starts downhill, flat, and then slightly downhill for the first 25k. It's super fast, not many spots are exchanged, and I roll through Sechilienne ready for the first climb up Col d' Alpe du Grand Serre. As soon as the road turns up, everybody near me starts riding hard, and I go backwards fast. My strategy for the race is to conserve heavily ('s still a race!) on the first two climbs and let my race begin with Alpe d' Huez. I stick to my strategy and let them all go up the road, trusting that I'll see most if not all of them later on. I make it up to the top of Grand Serre about 5 minutes faster than when I pre-rode the course, and some of those early speed demons already start coming back. Most of this climb is ridden in the 27 and the 24 for me. It's already hot out and humid for this desert kid, so my top is fully unzipped for most of this climb and will remain that way til the finish. Reminding myself to conserve, I take as much free speed as I can in the valley between there and Col d' Ornon. I'm exceedingly glad that I pre-rode, as there are several deceptively sharp downhill corners that are sure to be day-enders if taken carelessly. There is one in particular in the town of Oris en Rattier (I think) that would have put us directly through someone's front door and into their living room as the road dives sharp left without any warning!

Through special needs in Valbonnais (Red Bull and ibuprofen, mmm), I am again thankful for my pre-ride as I can see the false flat damaging other riders badly. I finally start to pick up the pace near the top and pull more people back in. I've been dumping lots of water over myself as it's now hot even up in the mountains. I top out Col d' Ornon at about 3:10 ride time, so my goal of riding 4:30 is still achievable. The descent into Bourg d' Oisans is fast and rather exposed, and I let a couple people past in the interest of safety. The short flat in the valley is downwind, so I fly through Oisans and to the base of Alpe d' Huez. I make a tactical error at the aid station in town, as I toss my bottle before finding out that they've not got plain water at this aid station. It's hot out and I'm thirsty, but the next aid station is only a few hairpins up at La Garde and I'll do without the weight!

As I start up Alpe d' Huez at 3:31 ride time, I'm nearly through my 1200cal bottle of Infinit, so I'm feeling good about my nutrition and have no reason to second-guess it. This is where the race starts for me, so I drop the hammer and start watching a steady stream of shattered dudes go backwards. I grab one or two gears at every hairpin and slingshot my way up. I resort to the 27 for the steeper bits, but mostly ride the 24 and use 21 or 19 around the hairpins. I take on water at that aid station, which I really need by now, and keep pushing hard. I pass somewhere around 40-60 racers on Alpe d' Huez...thanks for riding hard early, guys! Loads and loads of cheering spectators all the way up the climb. Awesome! I make it up the Alpe in about 55 minutes, which I'm exceedingly happy about, and roll into T2 with a 4:29 ride and absolutely itching to go run. I'll note that this is the hardest 115k/71mi I've ever ridden in a race situation...beast course... And Pantani's record of 37 minutes up Alpe d' Huez: oh my god.

I'm out of T2 in under a minute and my legs feel great. I've got no worries about riding hard for an hour and being fine to run, making me triply glad now that I conserved on the first two climbs. This run is supposed to be 3 laps for 22k/14mi, but it feels short, even though I'm technically hallucinating and probably shouldn't be trusting my feelings. I start finding targets, which is easy on the first lap as there aren't too many people on the course (yay, only 30-something bikes in T2!). I see my mates Jaffa and Nenad, and they both look like they're doing well. This run is a mix of trail and road, and there's a deceptive bugger of an uphill just before the turnaround on the out-and-back section. This section is followed by a decent climb up a road before dropping steeply downhill back to T2 where the subsequent laps begin. I catch Jaffa near the end of the first lap and his gut hurts, so I encourage him to keep moving forward before I push ahead. I had been a bit wobbly at the start of the first lap, but I'm in full swing now and really want to be done. I keep the effort somewhere between Uncomfortable and Damaging, catch a few more people, and finally run down Nenad at the start of the third lap. I'm chugging gels and water, and dumping whatever I have left over my head and chest. That uphill before the turnaround hurt pretty bad on the second lap, and I'm really looking forward to tackling it again, but I want to catch a few more people and decide not to let the hill bother me. The effort pays off, I catch a handful more (including a guy in the last 400m), and finish with a 1:22 run, 10th in the field!

My best guess for what I could do this race in was 6:30, and I managed 6:33, so I'm super happy about that. I feel as though I executed it as well as I could have hoped for, as holding back until Alpe d' Huez, then smashing the climb and the run was both satisfying and also paid off in the standings. The guy who won, from the TBB Death Squad, rode in 3:46, which is just SICK. For that matter, any ride under 4:00 is pretty off-the-hook, and requires really attacking the climbs. The winner set a course record by about 20 minutes. The word has gotten out about this race and some really strong athletes are showing up.

From a recovery standpoint, really not too bad...that pesky extra half-marathon sure takes a lot out of a guy, and not running that far is a welcome respite. This is actually a pretty cool distance, as it's a good swim, an epic ride, and a just-right run. I felt utterly annihilated right after finishing, but was pretty good to go by later on that day.

Time for a massage, lots of food, and a night out on the town with Jaffa and a Kiwi I meet who's done Epic Camp twice and with whom I share a mutual friend in NZ. Small world!

Jaffa contemplates life, Leffe Tripel in-hand

The Trip, post-race:
Pack the bike and the rest of my gear, and submit myself to the gods of standby destination for the day change from Paris to Zurich to London, and by the time I'm cleared to point myself toward London, the buses that would have connected me to the train in time are long gone, the rest of the crew is out for the day, and I'm all alone with a bike box, a huge duffel, and a messenger bag. Gulp. My thumb goes out at the top of Alpe d' Huez and I wait for nearly an hour. The first guy who stops, a young Frenchman named Christopher, agrees to take me down the hill to Oisans, where I'm still liable to miss connecting buses and have to hitchhike again. It turns out that he's going to Lyon, which is my destination, as I had just booked an EasyJet ticket from Lyon to London Gatwick. Pure luck. He delivers me to the airport in Lyon, and I count my lucky stars and praise his good karma.

My flight from Lyon is 2 hours late, which delivers me to Gatwick after the easy ways to Heathrow are done for the night. I take a 2am bus to Heathrow, wait 'til check-in opens at 5:30, and promptly wait for 30 hours to get on a flight. The AA flights are an utter mess, and there are 150+ standbys waiting to get out. The 10th flight I'm listed on finally comes through after sleeping on a bare metal row of chairs (with armrests), and I connect through Dallas by the skin of my teeth (last seat on the plane both times). I make Reno after 65 hours of continuous travel, and as of the writing of the first draft of this 4 days later, neither my bike box nor my duffel bag had arrived. Complete and unmitigated travel disaster, but can't let it put a damper on the rest of the glorious trip!

Deserted Heathrow at 3:30am...last time I saw my gear for quite some time

Liars! That's soaked-through wax paper

Misery in Heathrow: how to do laundry in an airport

And that's all, folks. Moral of the story? Les Alpes are Le Awesome.


Past Detritus