Alpe d’Huez Triathlon Race Report: 1.3 mile swim, 70 mile bike, 13.1 mile run
This was my final race in France. I have been incredibly lucky to travel the way that I have, and a huge thank you needs to go out to the following people/groups: my parents and family, who for some reason continually support me in this sport, the Santos family, who took me on as a complete stranger and allowed me to stay in their home, helping me whenever I needed it, the Rennes Triathlon Club who allowed me to train with them. The list easily goes on to include Team Every Man Jack, my coach Martin Spierings who put me in touch with the Santos family and is keeping me fit, and all of the team sponsors Gu, Roka, ENVE, Louis Garneau, Rudy Project, etc.
A little background on the race: The race is named after the final climb on the bike: Alpe d’Huez. If you know cycling, you know Alpe d’Huez. It is one of the most famous climbs in the Tour de France. It is one of the rides that many cyclists dream of doing. To get up Alpe d’Huez, there are 21 numbered switchbacks, each with a famous cyclist’s name on it. When I started planning my itinerary for France, I saw that this race was an option to do, and I immediately put it on my schedule. I didn’t have any goals for the race other than finishing it and enjoying it.
A picture of the switchbacks.
The swim takes place in a reservoir that is used to power a hydroelectric dam. The reservoir is only open to swim in once a year during the triathlon. Otherwise, swimming is forbidden. The bike is a point-to-point ride, meaning that there are two transition areas: one for your bike gear, and another for your running gear. The bike is 70 miles long (115km), with 14,000 feet of climbing, two beyond category difficulty climbs, and one category two climb. Climbs are rated from 4-HC, four being the easiest, HC meaning hors categorie (beyond category) in terms of difficulty. After finishing the climb, the run is a 3-lap course of rolling hills, with both paved and trail sections at 6,000 feet elevation.
This is the ride profile from my Strava.
After racing Sunday, July 27th, the Alpe d’Huez triathlon was on Wednesday, July 30th. That meant after getting back to Pacé around midnight Sunday, I had to pack everything up to leave Monday morning for my train at 5:15 that would take me to Grenoble, and then get on a bus that would take me up to Alpe d’Huez. It wasn’t until around 1 am that I was finished packing, and a few hours later, Virginie drove me to the train station. The train ride was uneventful, with the one exception of having to change stations in Paris. I went from Rennes to Paris Montparnasse, and my second train was from Paris Gare de Lyon, which I didn’t realize when I arrived at Montparnasse. I ended up taking a cab because the stations are several miles apart, and making my train by about 10 minutes. Upon arrival in Grenoble, the bus station is right next door to the train station, so a quick walk over and I was on the bus.
Quick side note: it is very easy to get around France (and most of Europe) by train, bus or cheap plane ticket from small regional airports. The buses are a little trickier to navigate because sometimes they don’t sell advance tickets online, something that is not announced on the website. For this particular bus service, they only sell advance tickets in the winter for people who go up to ski. When you try to buy a ticket during other times of the year, you just get an error saying that there are no buses available. With some help from Virginie and a phone call to the bus company, this was discovered.
On the bus ride from Grenoble to Alpe d’Huez, you get an appreciation of a) how beautiful the alps are, and how steep they are. As mentioned earlier, to get up the mountain, there are 21 numbered switchbacks.
Lance's name is still up there.
Upon arrival at Alpe d’Huez, it was cold and raining. I walked up to my hotel, and was greeted by the owner. The place was beautiful, and empty. When I arrived, besides myself, I think there was only one other couple and two other gentlemen there. During the winter, the town is packed with skiers and such, but during the summer, it only fills up when there are big events like the Tour or other races. I am not sure why it is so empty; it is stunningly beautiful with places to hike, bike, etc. I checked into my room, put my bike together, and wandered around the town to find groceries, restaurants, etc and went for a very quick, very cold ride.
Cold, wet and raining. Not what I was prepared for.
Tuesday morning, I woke up and had breakfast at the hotel (the hotel operates essentially as a bed and breakfast in the summer, but has a full kitchen in the winter when there are more people), picked up my packet, and found a pool to swim in. Pool rules in France are dramatically different than in the US: you must take your shoes off after you get past the gate, and you must be in a swim suit if you are on the pool deck- no clothes. I was shooed of the deck because I was wearing shorts and a shirt trying to take the picture below. At this particular pool, you had to be in a speedo-no shorts allowed for males.
The pool- you can swim outdoor here year round. I can imagine it is awesome in the winter when it is snowing.
In case you are don't have the appropriate swimwear, you can buy some from a vending machine- speedos for guys (and those weird european speedos) and one or two piece options for the gals.
As it was still raining and temperatures were in the low 50s, after swimming, I wandered through the event expo and found a relatively cheap cycling jacket. I didn’t bring any of my cold/rain gear because I figured it is the summer, why would I need it, but I was definitely going to want something for the race. I also generally have a rule of not buying anything at an expo because most items have a huge mark up. At one booth, they had a jacket for 150 euros- about $190 dollars. Even in terms of cycling dollars, that is pretty expensive. I found one for 40 euros, and then made my way back to the hotel. The rest of the day passed like this: A quick jog to stretch the legs and see how much the elevation was going to suck, dinner, a little studying for my courses, race prep and I called it a night.
Minus bike and shoes, everything you need for a race.
Race morning, I woke up and had my standard French breakfast of some baguette with butter, and added in a banana and a yogurt. I made my way down to transition 2 (from bike to run), which was near the hotel and arrived shortly after transition opened, and there was no one else there. The race allows you to give your run gear to volunteers at the swim start, but I was surprised at how few people were there setting up. More on this later.
I left my shoes and a few Gus in the bag they had given us at my spot. There was a chance of rain, and I didn’t want my shoes to be wet before I started. It would cost me a little time in transition, but in reality, I wasn’t too concerned about it.
After setting up my spot, I rode down to the swim (this is actually suggested by the race). It was about a 30-minute descent to the reservoir. I arrived around 7:50, and again, there was hardly anyone there. I set up my bike and gear, and talked with a few of the competitors near by.
Transition finally started filling up around 8:30, with the race set to go off at 9:30. At 9:00am, there was a huge line to get into transition. There apparently is not much emphasis on being early to races.
Before the race started, they went over some of the typical rules, but the rules were announced in four languages: French, English, Spanish, and Dutch. This was an international race, with competitors from all over Europe, and when I was moving through transition pre race I also heard Italian and German being spoken.
Did you say something about second breakfast? Eating a little more before the race- baguette and a banana.
With about ten minutes to go before the race started, we started filing our way down to the lake. A few brave souls got in the water and splashed around, and then quickly got out. The water temperature was announced to be 13.8 oC (about 56 oF). In other words, not warm. As with the other races I have done, the swim was a mass start, but this time it was an in water start. I got in with a few minutes to spare, made my way to the starting line, and waited.
Boom. Race started. If this was my first race in France, I would have been very confused. There was no announcement, no countdown, no nothing other than the sound of the gun signaling the start. As what happens normally with my swims, I fell into a crap rhythm for the first few minutes as I struggled with the cold. I found a swimmer’s feet to sit on for a bit while I loosened up.
The first lap of the swim was felt all right as I got used to the cold. I made my way past some of the swimmers in front of me. The water was pretty choppy because of a helicopter overhead filming the race, but by the start of the second lap, I was in a solid pace and I had about ten swimmers in front of me. As the swim progressed, I moved up to 7th, and exited the water. I got to my bike, dried off as much as I could, slipped on the jacket, gloves, helmet and shoes, and headed out.
To say I was nervous would be an understatement. The ride was 70 miles, a lengthy distance if was just a bike ride, with some huge climbs. My primary concern was running out of food. When you are working out for more than 1-2 hours, it becomes necessary to eat, or else you “bonk”- it doesn’t matter how hard you push, you are out of energy, and you suffer. For a “dad” quote, it is almost always easier to maintain something than to repair something broken. When you bonk, depending on far you have to go, it can be both mentally and physically disastrous. Bonking on the ride meant that I would suffer from that point forward on an incredibly difficult course, and then having to run. Game plan: get through ride so that I could run. Push where I could. Eat and drink. Enjoy it.
Before the race, I taped a piece of paper on my bike with the mile markers for the climbs and aid stations. It kept me going. Each one was a landmark that I could check off.
I took the beginning part of the ride conservatively. It was cold, with a light rain falling. The course starts out with ~15 miles of flat, before heading up the first climb. In those 15 miles, about 20 riders blew by me. Not eased, but blitzed. Who were these people? Some were obviously professionals, but damn! We had a ton of climbing and riding to do. These athletes were on another level.
On the opening climb, I fell into a rhythm with a pack of cyclists. I talked to some of them, we joked as some of the faster riders eased by us like they were just out for an easy ride as we suffered. As we went up the hill, I started to warm up, and tried to take my jacket off.
Boom. I was on the pavement. In France, when they do road repairs, they sometimes put a thin layer of gravel on top of the repaired segment. I hit a gravel patch, my wheel went sideways, and I was on the ground. I wasn’t going very fast, and I landed hard on my right butt cheek, but nothing else was hurt. A quick look over my bike, and everything was ok. A minute or two later, I was up and riding.
At the top of the climb was an aide station. I grabbed a new water bottle and some gels. Every ~30-45 minutes I was going through a gel and half a bottle at a minimum. The descent was smooth and fast, and it wasn’t until mile 42 that I had another climb. Athletes continued to stream by me, which was mentally tough, but with my only real goal of finishing, I focused on riding.
To say that the aid stations on the ride were awesome is an understatement. They had volunteers holding bottles of water, flat coke, and something they called “energy” (I think it was Gatorade, but I couldn’t tell) and gels that were passing them off to us as we pedaled by at 15-20 miles an hour, and food laid out for us to grab if we stopped. At every aid station at a minimum I grabbed one bottle of water and a bottle of coke or energy which I would pound before I exited the aid station. At some, I stopped quickly to grab some solid food.
Not from this race obviously, but the handoff between a volunteer and a rider is tricky. The volunteers performed this very smoothly.
This can be a lifesaver on long rides. Why? Because it is sugar and caffeine- what you need to maintain effort. Don’t believe me? Try it. When it is flat, and you are exercising and running out of energy, it is a wonderdrink.
The rest of the ride was simply beautiful. The second climb was shrouded in clouds, the parts that went through small towns had their residents out cheering, kids were banging on small drums yelling “allez”.
In the final miles before Alpe d’Huez, my legs started to tighten up. If I changed my pedaling stroke at all, different parts of my legs would tighten up. I started standing more, which would relieve the tightness, and I downed what food I had before the aid station at the base of the climb. The pain in my right butt had subsided, and with the extra calories in me, it was time to tackle Alpe d’Huez.
As a side note: some triathletes who compete in ironman races have a very detailed nutrition plan that includes eating salt tablets to replenish what is lost in their sweat. For the length of the races that I typically do, this is not necessary. Perhaps that would have fixed the tightness in my legs that I was experiencing in the later stages of the ride. It is something to consider if/when I attempt an Ironman.
Some athletes eat these or put them in their bottles during long, long workouts.
Here is a video of a shirtless guy telling you what he puts in his bottles. I have no idea where on the spectrum of insanity this is, but an example of what some people do.
At the bottom of Alpe d’Huez, I made one agreement to myself. Don’t stop. Don’t get off the bike. Stand, do whatever you need to to get up the hill. It is about 8 miles long, and with all of its switchbacks and elevation, it was going to suck. To steal a quote from a fellow triathlete, embrace the suck.
The first four switchbacks are steep and miserable. I was in a group of about 5 athletes, and we were slowly, very slowly making our way up the hill, picking off riders in front of us. I had wanted to not be in my smallest chain ring so that if I needed it, I could fall back on an easier gear, but that wasn’t an option. My cadence slowed, but I was moving up. The stream of riders going by me had slowed to only one every now and then. It gave me a little satisfaction to pull back riders on the last climb- see! This is hard, you should have paced yourself!
I mixed standing and sitting on the way up the hill. As I went up, I chopped the hill into pieces. You have done seven switchbacks! That’s a third. You only have to do that two more times, etc. Mentally, it is what I had to do to get up it. I knew that there were two aid stations on the climb, so I only slowed to grab the handoff supplies of bottles and gels.
When I reached the final four switchbacks, a new challenge: wind. The wind was coming down the mountain, making it cold and slow. This close to the top, it was going to take a lot more than wind to get me to stop. I knew that I was going to make it. A huge sense of relief came over me. The race so far didn’t matter, the rest of the race didn’t matter. I was going to finish the climb.
At the top, I felt terrible. My legs were in bad shape (hmm, I wonder why?) and I slow pedaled into transition. After staying in a flat part of France for the past several weeks, I had not done a significantly climb in almost two months. My bike split was slow(5:07, the 245th fastest time on the day...) but I did it. I slipped on my socks and shoes, shoved the two Gus I had placed with them into my pockets (on runs in races that are longer than 10km, I wear socks to reduce the risk of blisters).
My mantra on runs during races is “anyone can run”. I repeat it to myself when I am struggling. Why aren’t you running faster John? Anyone can run! So RUN.
Richard Simmons believes that everyone can be fit. Having this guy in your head should always bring a smile to your face. And if you are really feeling down, watch this.
The one thing that races in France can do a considerably better job of doing is posting the course profile and segments online. All that was listed on the website was the shape of the run loop, but nothing about the hills. The first loop was like a first date: let’s exchange questions to see if we are a good fit as we do some activity together. In this case, it was discovering where the hills were, the aid stations, and how my body felt.
This is the run profile from my Strava. You can clearly see the three laps.
To use the most appropriate verb to describe the beginning part of the run would be “shuffle”. My core was tight, my legs hurt. I left transition with a couple of other athletes, and with the course being loops, there were already a lot of other athletes out on the course.
On the run, I talked with the other athletes as we ran, which helped. We talked about the run, our jobs, family, etc. Those moments took our mind off of the discomfort. Some exchanges lasted only a few seconds- “keep it up”, “this sucks”, “yes we make poor life decisions”, others lasted a few minutes if our paces overlapped. Sometimes I would slow my pace a touch to match someone. I spent about four minutes talking with a gentleman from Germany, discussing our travel plans for the summer.
On the second and third lap, I picked up the pace a bit. I had stopped on the first lap to water the plants, and my legs were feeling pretty solid. Downing some combination of water/coke/energy, a piece of banana, or energy bar at each aid station helped considerably to both my physical and mental state. There were sections of the run where there was a light rain falling, which made it a little chilly, but then the sun would break through. The looped course also helped because it meant that I always had a crowd in front of me to chase. I wasn’t being passed with any frequency like I had been on the bike, and I was moving by others regularly.
At the end of the run, a huge smile busted across my face. I finished. My run split: 1:40:03, 70th fastest. It was honestly the most physically demanding race I had done. I finished 115th out of 900 finishers and about 1000 racers (a fair number quit on the course), but to be honest, I was just happy. After the race I took advantage of the post race food, and they had ice water baths and hot water baths that you could sit in.
After about an hour, I collected my gear, headed to the hotel, and skyped with my mom and sister. My stomach started to remind me that I just raced, so I headed out to the town and grabbed some food at a small restaurant. A lot of the restaurants are designed for tourists and are rather pricy, but I found a place that serves traditional French food for a reasonable sum.
This is called a galette. Essentially it is a crepe filled with whatever you want. Mine: egg, ham, bacon, tomato, onion. Paired with a glass of wine, delicious.
And two scoops of ice cream. Toffee and coconut. One reason to return to France? The ice cream IS AMAZING.
After dinner, I headed back to the hotel, had a beer at the bar with the staff, and packed up my gear. The next morning, I took the bus to the train station, made the same switch between stations in Paris, and then back to maison Santos.
This was my view on the way down. Stunningly beautiful.
I am glad to have done it, and if I have the opportunity to come back to do it again, I will absolutely do so. From the race, to the travel, to the accommodations (if you have a chance to go to the Alpes, stay at Hotel Beausoleil- I don't have a single complaint about the place), everything was perfect. If you have the opportunity to do the race, do it. It was amazing.